Sunday, 26 May 2013

Would You Get Rid Of Discrimination If You Could?

Have you ever stopped to consider why it is that an Irish bar owner can be hauled before the authorities for refusing to serve Germans in his bar due to his being anti-German, but a German customer can’t be hauled before the authorities for refusing to drink in a bar run by an Irishman due to his being anti-Irish (you can substitute ‘Irish’ and ‘German’ for any nationalities you like)?. Or to use a real life example in the UK in 2010, have you ever stopped to consider why it is that a Christian couple running a Bed and Breakfast can be hauled before the authorities for refusing to rent a room to a homosexual couple, but a couple refusing to stay in a Bed and Breakfast because it is run by two homosexuals can’t be hauled before the authorities?  I think on first inspection you’re going to think the answer is obvious, but on closer inspection it won’t be so obvious. 

I find it is something that doesn't get enough attention in the world; An Irish man running a bar can get in trouble for refusing to serve a German on grounds of being anti-German; yet a German man won't get in trouble for refusing to drink in an Irish man's pub on grounds of being anti-Irish.  Both men are guilty of exactly the same level of discrimination, but the authorities are only interested in, or capable of, punishing one of the offenders.  We can say the discrimination is equally bad on both sides, but circumstances force us to respond to them differently.  I wonder how much we want to do things differently, or whether easy options are better, as we so often lack the courage to be better versions of ourselves.  Consider how absurd it would be if two thefts occurred on Saturday afternoon, and the Police declared that only one of the offences was a theft because they had no hope of catching the other offender.  Or consider the indignation if two men, Joseph the paid accountant and Tommy the voluntary youth worker, each committed a theft independently, but the State declared that only Joseph’s act was a theft because he is the only one in paid employment.  The reason our reaction would be one of shock is that we don’t think the crime of theft depends on the police’s chances of catching the offender or on what kind of job the offender has. 

But notice this is precisely what the State does with discrimination.  An Irish man running a bar can get in trouble for refusing to serve a German on grounds of being anti-German because in running a business he is forced to comply with anti-discrimination laws, and because the authorities know that any policy he adopted that precluded Germans from his bar would be easily scrutinised by the authorities.  Conversely, when a German man refuses to drink in an Irish man's pub on grounds of being anti-Irish, he operates under a different radar – one in which he is free as a customer to be as discriminatory as he likes, with virtually no chance of being found out.  Clearly, just like the theft examples, I don’t think anyone is saying that they endorse a different feeling for the two kinds of discrimination, only that they are forced to view them differently in the eyes of the law because they only have a hope of catching one kind of discriminator – the one who runs a business.  

Let’s turn for a moment to the real life event that occurred in 2010 when a Christian couple running a Bed and Breakfast were hauled before the authorities for refusing to rent a room to a homosexual couple.  The problem we have in trying to answer the ‘Bed and Breakfast proprietors/homosexual customers’ problem is that there is no general assertion that we can make to cover all the nuanced particulars attached to this situation (and others like it).  We want to say that anyone who runs a Bed and Breakfast is morally compelled to rent out to everyone without unfair discrimination – but I can see no general grounds on which that kind of particularity can hold.  Is there a general moral compulsion for everyone in the country to rent out rooms to paying customers?  Clearly not, and most of us are not providing this service to anyone, so there is no general rule here.  And equally there is no general rule that says all discrimination is wrong, because humans discriminate in a number of ways – many of which are healthy and beneficial.  So given the foregoing, I don’t see how the homophobic Christian couple running a Bed and Breakfast can be indicted from any general principle – because to do so would require a general moral compulsion either to rent out rooms to people, or to never discriminate, and there are no grounds on which these apply.

Of course, despite our not having a general aversion to all kinds of discrimination, no one needs telling that there are many instances of discrimination that we do find unfair.  I think in spite of what we’ve said above, most of us are appalled when we read about the Bed and Breakfast proprietors’ conduct. So given that some discrimination is good, and some is bad, it might help if we consider some examples of how discrimination occurs in everyday life.

On how we discriminate
Here’s a good kind of discrimination.  Suppose you live on an island consisting of two tribes of people – Tribe A and Tribe B.  Statistics show that on an annual basis, 97% of the crime on the island is committed by people in Tribe A.  If you were thinking clearly, I don’t think you would want the police to focus their attention evenly by targeting 50% of people from Tribe A and 50% from Tribe B.  If you did you would be grossly ignorant of prudent police procedures – which is to say that it is much better that police target people who are statistically more likely to be criminals.  Clearly, it is better to target people in Tribe A, so it is necessary to discriminate (see this Blog post of mine for more of an elaboration on this point).

There are other examples of discrimination. Sellers in business raise prices to target customers that have less price-sensitivity, and slash prices to target bargain hunters that are more price-sensitive.  Also, you can say that student and pensioner discounts are targeted special offers, but you could also say that technically speaking those offers discriminate against people that are not students or pensioners.  Lastly, prospective employers discriminate against prospective employees for all kinds of reasons, such as having the wrong sounding name, the length of unemployment, and physical (un)attractiveness, to name but three. 

There are plenty of surreptitious kinds of discrimination too that occur largely unnoticed.  I have a friend who went on The Weakest Link (a quiz show in which contestants have to vote of the perceived weakest player), and he explained how much more intense it is in front of live cameras.  Given the intensity of the pressure, I suggested that contestants relied more on instincts, and that groups like ethnic minorities or the elderly might find themselves discriminated against (albeit, on many occasions, subliminally) on a show like that, if contestants felt them to be less competent.  My guess is that if you analysed the show's history, recording the exit stages of ethnic minorities and the elderly, you'd find that the Gaussian bell curve is at its steepest in the early rounds.  The point is, discrimination isn’t all bad or unfair – it is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly (and the surreptitious).   

What’s been shown is that there is no general rule that offers a sound blanket condemnation of discrimination – because some of those examples show how necessary discrimination is.  I think if the truth be known, what most of us really object to is unfair discrimination based on personal things beyond one’s control; things like age, gender, skin colour, nationality, ethnicity and sexual orientation.  Hence we think we can offer a good general moral compulsion from which we could derive the particulars - “There is a particular imperative not to unfairly discriminate against age, gender, skin colour, nationality, ethnicity and sexual orientation” – so if you run a Bed and Breakfast or a bar, one can derive from that general maxim that any particular act of unfair discrimination is wrong.  

But the trouble is, even that doesn’t help as much as we’d like.  Who is to say what constitutes fair and unfair discrimination in the case of, say, age?  Is it discrimination if a supermarket refuses to sell a 17 year old a bottle of beer?  You may say it is not discrimination because such a transaction is against the law, but that then leads to the question – is the law an unfair discriminatory law in itself?  Does the law unfairly discriminate against 17 year olds, when the legal drinking age could be lowered to 17 or 16? 

Let’s take gender too.  Some nightclubs have a tacit policy that if there are already too many men in the club doormen outside discriminate based on gender when they refuse men entry because the club owners want more women in the club.  But I don’t think there are many doormen being hauled before the authorities.  Club owners know that too many men in a club will on average return less profit than a club with a good mix of males and females – so they discriminate by asking the doormen to artificially catalyse the right balance to maximise profit.  Is that unfair discrimination? Perhaps – but it might be a form of discrimination that benefits the clubbing experience for both the men and women. 

Let’s also take geographical discrimination.  Almost all countries put in place a restriction on immigrants entering the country, and most people support a limit on immigration (they just disagree on what the limit should be).  Restrictions on immigration are worse for the economy (in terms of wage loss) than racial and sexual discrimination.  Migrants from poorer parts of the world are looking to work in more prosperous countries to bolster their earnings – that much is self-evident.  By endorsing a cap, people in relatively prosperous places like the UK and USA willingly disregard these gains by wishing to restrict the number of people allowed to take advantage of this prosperity.  As I've said repeatedly in other Blogs, there really is no justification for unfairly discriminating against someone based on nationality, just as there are no grounds for unfairly discriminating against someone based on skin colour, gender or ethnicity.  

Yet we discriminate on nationality and impose huge costs on those who happen to be on the much poorer sides of the border. When the foolish Government ministers encouraged us in the UK to 'Buy British' they did something that was not only morally questionable, but also economically incompetent.  It is morally questionable because when you encourage Brits to 'Buy British' you are at the same time encouraging them to discriminate against others based on nationality.  In case it’s not clear why, history shows us that when a large or powerful group discriminates against a small or powerless group then in terms of suffering it is usually markedly worse than when a small or powerless group discriminates against a large or powerful group.  A case in point; all the non-Brits in the world could more easily do without British products and services than Brits could do without products and services from non-Brits, which also rather proves the point about the self-harming effect of nationalistic discrimination.

Given the foregoing, the upshot is this; suppose we pretend for the sake of argument that we could all agree on what constitutes fair and unfair discrimination - we still would find it near-impossible to punish all kinds of discrimination, because there is so much of it at the heart of who we are, and because in many cases it is practically difficult to employ any punitive measures.  Take the Bed and Breakfast case as a fine example; having agreed (I hope) that unfair discrimination against prospective homosexual customers is to be frowned upon, and that anti-homosexual clients refusing to stay in a Bed and Breakfast run by a homosexual couple is also to be frowned upon – we’re happy that the Bed & Breakfast proprietors are told that they are not free to refuse customers whose views, sexuality or lifestyle they dislike.  But if we have a homosexual couple running a Bed and Breakfast, and homophobes who don’t want to stay there, it would be a lot harder to prosecute the homophobic proprietors than it would be the homophobic prospective customer(s).  If potential customers disapprove of the Bed & Breakfast proprietors’ views, sexuality or lifestyle they are perfectly free to go to other Bed & Breakfast establishments, whereas if the Bed & Breakfast proprietors’ disapprove of the customers’ views, sexuality or lifestyle, they are not free to refuse them a room without expecting to face charges from the authorities.  Quite simply, one kind of discrimination is being punished, whereas an equally bad discrimination from the other side of the counter is not. 

You may say this is absurd on the grounds that if a couple decides to be Bed & Breakfast proprietors then they have an obligation to adhere to a set of laws exclusive to people who rent out rooms.  But why should one’s occupation make any difference?  Discrimination is discrimination, irrespective of whether you’re a Bed & Breakfast proprietor, a barman, a postman or head of a department in the Treasury.  The real difference, I think, is not in how we feel about discrimination – it’s that we can easily set up laws that stop business owners discriminating against customers, but we can’t easily set up laws that stop customers discriminating against business owners by shopping somewhere else.

A la carte discrimination
While just about everyone dislikes unfair discrimination, the State can only legislate against unfair discrimination in a very limited way - so it prohibits only that which it has the power to do so, and it leaves the rest in the hands of humans, by way of a tacit appeal to human decency.  In other words, not only is it the case that the authorities would find it practically impossible to bring to justice everyone who unfairly discriminates – the very existence of our laws of the land are there because without an incentive people won’t assent to the behaviour we’d like.  The compulsion is a healthy one, but it is healthy because it's a good way to be, not necessarily because people should be forced to do it by the State (although, in the obvious case of rape and theft, I think it is good that it is enforced by law, of course).  What the State does is enforce something that we wish people would do willingly, but don't.  We want everyone to not murder, rape, thieve, and so forth, but not everybody pays attention to our wants, so laws are enforced that prohibit such behaviour.  But the reason human decency comes into it is that law can only deal with an offender after the event.  The law won’t stop you going out and raping someone (I hope your conscience will stop you) – but it will prosecute you afterwards.  What we’re saying here in relation to the above is that the difference between rape and unfair discrimination is that the authorities will seek to prosecute all offenders of rape, but they won’t look to prosecute all offenders of unfair discrimination.  It’s not simply the case that the State thinks rape is more serious than unfair discrimination, because it does look to prosecute some who unfairly discriminate.  It’s more the case that it has no hope of prosecuting a man who refused to stay at a Bed and Breakfast due to the proprietor being homosexual – so a lot of unfair discrimination goes unpunished.  

One last thing to consider, when it comes to the discrimination related to the couple in the Bed and Breakfast or Irish John running a bar – things get more involved when we realise that the supposed costs on society aren’t in economic terms costs at all.  At the beginning I asked you to suppose that Irish John opens a bar and puts up a sign saying he won't serve German people. I also asked you to suppose that a German (let’s call him Peter) walks into the bar and upon hearing John's voice, leaves the premises complaining that he doesn't like the Irish and has no wish to be served by an Irishman.  German Peter has employed the same level of discrimination as Irish John, but Peter gets away without any punitive measures simply because John owns a bar and Peter is only a customer in a bar.  Irish John is being held to a different standard because his discrimination is from the vantage point of a bar owner, whereas Peter’s discrimination is from the vantage point of a bar customer.  The argument to hold John to higher accountability is that John is imposing a cost on society by opening a bar and not serving German people.  While that is true, a broader perspective tells us that not only is anti-German John the bar owner imposing a cost on society, German Pete is imposing a cost on society by not drinking in bars run by people he doesn't like.  Most people realise this, but here’s the economic principle that I’ll wager most people miss; thinking in terms of economics, anyone who doesn't open a bar is imposing a cost on society too.  That’s how you must look at the situation if you are going to consider this properly.  In both cases, the customers do not get served - it's just that at least in John's case many people do get served, whereas in the case of you and me no one is getting served, because neither of us has opened a bar and sold drinks at all. 

If Irish John is imposing a cost on society by opening a bar and serving everyone but Germans, then each of us must be imposing a greater cost on society by not opening a bar and not serving anyone. At the very least, if there's no general moral compulsion to serve people in bars then if not serving Germans is a cost on society, then you, me and Irish John are all equally guilty. It might sound absurd to think in these terms, particularly as your particular occupation confers benefits on society that Irish John's bar does not, but this kind of analysis would be quite natural at a lunch table full of economists. To understand how economics inform us in these everyday matters, one must understand the externalities linked to all actions and events.  For example, on a street full of expensive terraced houses, the actions of one house owner can have subtle effect on the rest of the street.  If Frank in number 34 is the first to have a burglar alarm installed he immediately increases the chances that someone else’s house will be burgled (that’s a negative externality).  If he is the first to have a smoke detector and fireproof walls installed then he decreases the chances that house fires will spread to other houses (that’s a positive externality).

So going back to the bar and Irish John’s discrimination; John's cost to society in the bar world is that he serves every pub customer except German people.  Our cost to society in the bar world is that we don't serve anyone at all.  As well as that, John is actually doing extra good to pub drinkers by supplying pub drinks and thereby bidding down prices at competing pubs (including all the pubs in which German people can get served). 

We want to live in a world in which if you run a business you operate from within the purlieus of anti-discrimination laws.  But we also have seen that there is no justifiable denial of the right to discriminate if you’re a customer.  Some might claim that there ought to be no grounds on which business owners can discriminate against customers because businesses have greater commercial power than customers, and are, as potential employers, operating a stricter standard than those not in businesses.  But that doesn’t really tell us much – it still leaves the question of whether the distinction between employer and employer is significant enough to warrant this difference in discrimination capabilities. 

And even if we say the difference is significant enough, that still needs justifying, along the lines of explaining how one justifiably identifies what qualifies as significant.  Perhaps we feel deep down that the more power, influence or capabilities a person has the more responsibility falls on their shoulders.  But while that might be justified in some cases, that does not seem to help here either.  Tall, good looking men have more power and influence in the dating world, but we wouldn’t wish to impose on them a law that says they must only date German or Irish women.  Equally, employers get to discriminate all the time without any recourse to punitive measures.  For example, the poor could be classed as being discriminated against when clothes shops sell expensive shirts that are way beyond the price range of low earners.  So there is not much mileage here.  I have a feeling that although Governments would like to punish anyone discriminating on grounds of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, they face different situations between those in the employment or selling market and those that are not.  If Peter chooses to drink in another bar because he doesn’t like the Irish then no one need be any the wiser, and he could easily think up another excuse for not drinking.  But a bar owner who refuses to serve Germans would have a more difficult time explaining that policy to the authorities.  

Due to this asymmetry I still don’t think we have satisfactorily resolved the inconsistency of our dealings with discrimination, except to say that we do view the discriminations as equally bad, it's just that the law only enables certain restricted courses of action.  Because of this, I will offer a thought experiment.  Suppose if it were possible - and this possibility remained only in the sphere of our unfair discrimination - a supercomputer could read all our unfair discriminations thanks to a tiny microchip inside our cranium, and remove £25 from our bank account every time we were consciously racist, xenophobic, homophobic, etc, and acted upon those thoughts - would you support it? I'm undecided on this microchip option myself - it would be a more extreme version of what we already have - incentives not to commit crimes, except in this case the measure is extreme enough to match the difficulty in conviction.  It sounds restrictive, but don't forget, once upon a time in certain parts of the world a law against racism would have struck some people as restrictive, and absurd and repressive too.

As a friend of mine gave an honest admission that I think we all share - "At times I am consciously all three - racist, xenophobic and homophobic – but I don't choose to feel that way, and after thinking about it, I realise how irrational my thoughts have been.”

Yes this is a problem, and my friend raises a good point, because despite our efforts not to be racist, xenophobic and homophobic, psychologists have shown that evolution has dealt us a hand that contains some racist, xenophobic and homophobic propensities - so the microchip might be too much.  That said, if £25 keeps disappearing from our savings every time we are racist, xenophobic and homophobic, we'd soon master the art of controlling it and perhaps exchanging it for tolerance and kindness. While this sounds like a violation of civil liberties, it is important to remember that the microchip is not interfering with your free choice, at least no more than a law is - it is merely punishing a bad action after the decision has been made (just like a law does). The only difference is that this microchip is getting to the parts that other laws can't reach. Remember too the monitoring system only removes £25 when it has measured a conscious, deliberate discriminatory thought and clocked that you acted on those thoughts. So if you think about the German anti-Irish pub customer - if he suppresses his discrimination and instead chooses tolerance and kindness he's ok, but if we walks out due to his discrimination he is £25 poorer.  Clearly here, the fines would have to be relative to wealth and earnings – a £25 fine for a man worth £25 million wouldn’t be much of an incentive.

Clearly this would throw up all sorts of corollary questions; what about people with split personalities, or people on medication, or people with emotional damage due to war?  But for this thought experiment we must assume that the supercomputer can pick up all these nuanced distinctions and distribute maximal leniency when required.  Remember a thought experiment like this is designed hypothetically to ask a fairly specific question - would we benefit from stronger incentives not to be racist, xenophobic, homophobic? It is this on which we should base our judgement.

I suppose the best solution when such a technology is readily available and easy to implement would be to act according to our democratic framework and ask the citizens of the country to vote on whether or not they support microchips that respond to discrimination by way of a fine. If they support it then we can at least be assured that they value the gradual diminution of unfair discrimination over the lessening of our abilities to be privately discriminatory.  My guess is that most will be overwhelmingly against it.

* Photos courtesy of 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Why I Support Something I Think Is Unfair

The big problem I have with taxation is that I don’t think it is intrinsically fair that the rich should be taxed at a higher rate than the poor.  But yet at the same time I think it is good for society if they are, and for that reason, I do support the State policy that the rich are taxed at a higher rate, even though I think it is unfair on rich people.  Why is it good for society if the rich are taxed at what is ostensibly an unfair rate?  First, I must explain why I think it is intrinsically unfair. 

I’ll offer a fable to show the absurdity of the assumptions that anyone should automatically assume that the rich should be taxed at a higher rate.  I didn't invent this; it's based on one of Aesop's Fables about assiduousness, but I've developed it for what is going to be a Tom, Dick and Harry consideration in relation to taxation. A long time ago, in a more primitive pre-parliamentary society, Tom, Dick and Harry find themselves washed up on an island with turbulent weather seasons.  Tom decides to be diligent and spends his time mastering tool-sharpening, carpentry and the ability to obtain and store large quantities of food.  Tom spends the first few months building himself a robust wooden house supported by skilfully crafted foundations, and works hard to collect and store plenty of food for the duration of the turbulent season   Dick and Harry, on the other hand, decide to take it easy; they laze about in the sun for weeks on end, eating only the low-hanging fruit and the berries within easy reach. 

When the turbulent season comes, Tom is safely tucked up in his robust wooden house with all the food he needs.  Dick and Harry badly need somewhere to shelter for the season, as they are going to be exposed to the storms and locked in a struggle to acquire enough food to eat.    Now here’s the rub; I don't think anyone would mind if Tom decided to be graceful and generous and offered Dick and Harry a place to stay and a share of the food.  But I don't think it would be good if Dick and Harry insisted it was their right to stay at Tom's and have some of his food - after all, at the start of play Tom, Dick and Harry each had the same opportunities - they just decided to take different paths.  The moral of the story is there is no general imperative for rich Tom to support poor Dick and Harry, but he would be kind and decent if he did so, so long as he did so without encouraging them to be workshy or parasitic.   

That's a pretty good template for society in the UK as a rule; while not everyone has the same abilities and state of health, we mostly choose our own academic and career paths, with the marketplace rewarding those who work hard to obtain high levels of learning and mental acuity, specialised skills, and durably beneficial and enriching training.  Hence, we’d expect to see exactly what we do see; a diverse society comprising of high, middle and low earners, with some on welfare, and a broad variety of talents, abilities, skills and qualifications right across the societal spectrum.  Now, although I’ve shown why I think it is not good to naturally assume the rich should pay a higher tax rate than the poor (for further analysis of this, see my Blog post here)– I can, I think, show why despite this unfairness, the system of higher tax rates for the rich is one we should support.  The key, I think, is supporting it for the right reasons. 

To make the point clearer, let’s pretend for a moment that all taxes go towards making the world a better place.  There is more than enough money and food to go around the entire world – enough to see that no one is desperately hungry, thirsty and economically impoverished.  The problem is that the vast majority of that money is sitting in rich people’s banks.  Suppose through a magic spell everyone suddenly became super decent and generous with their money, with a sudden mindfulness to help those worse off than themselves – what you’d see is a mass emptying of bank accounts so that the money supply was distributed a bit more equitably, putting an end to this great chasm of wealth, and alleviating so many of the world’s impoverishment problems.  Through compulsory taxation the Government takes a portion of what ideally, in a perfect world, we’d all give according to others’ needs.  Most people don’t do this voluntarily, so they do it involuntarily through taxation, where the rich are taxed at a higher percentage rate than the poor – except of course that the State cannot just take everything it needs from the rich to sort out the world’s problems, because it would create a mass disincentive to earners, which is why we have such a wealth gap. 

So even though I can’t find any justifiable assumption that the rich should automatically pay a higher rate of tax, I think it would be much nicer if all the higher earners were glad and happy to give money to those less fortunate – so I do support the higher rate for the rich, solely on the grounds that I think the world would be a much better place if they gave away their money voluntarily – and that it is no bad thing if the State can help engender through compulsory taxation the actions we should be doing voluntarily out of human kindness and decency. 

In the real world, not all taxes go towards making the world a better place – but some of it does go towards foreign aid, and much of it is spent on making our country a better place, with funds provided for necessary services, such as health, education, social services, welfare, and environment, planning and transportation.  So even though the tax isn’t all going towards alleviating the world’s problems, it is at least spent on some useful things – and that is why I support a higher rate of tax for the rich, despite thinking it is unfair.  The same principle as above applies here; it’s just that it is being considered on a smaller scale.  In order to provide the citizens of this country with what they need, the Government takes through compulsory taxation a portion of what ideally, in an ideal world, we’d all give according to others’ needs. 

* Photo courtesy of Slimeball Comics

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Best Sitcom In The World?

Of all the genres, comedy is perhaps the hardest thing to write.  What I mean is, as much skill as it takes to write dramas, tragedies, thrillers, romances and so forth (and it takes a lot), the one advantage the writer has in choosing those genres over comedy is that those genres more easily express their quality with the intrinsic nature of the story.  For example, if you're writing a tragedy about the death of a child in a family, one thing in your favour is that the occurrence of death naturally devastates those engaged in the plot, so at least some of your work is done for you, because child death is a tragic thing, and most of us can elicit evocation of empathy as we share in each other's suffering.  Similarly, strong love between two beloveds is a wonderful thing, and a woman being stalked by a serial killer is a chilling thing, so, again, some of your work is done for you if you're writing a romance or thriller. 

Needless to say, it is easy to write a really bad tragedy, romance or thriller - and given the incommensurable number of unsuccessful efforts, and the number of industrial-scale production line paperbacks, compared with the number of critical successes, it's probable that the majority of efforts veer more towards being 'bad' than they do 'good'.

No doubt the same is true of comedy - except when it comes to the writing of comedy, we have a slightly different situation to the aforementioned tragedies, romances or thrillers - because when setting out to write a comedy almost every scene or plot won't naturally be funny or witty - the writer must construct the right setting, plot and (in particular) the right dialogue to make things funny, as well as choose the right actors to deliver those lines.  Even a brilliant script and a cracking plot can suffer if the performers are not suited to the material.  We all know how discomforting it is to be in a room or a theatre or a comedy club in the presence of someone trying desperately hard but failing to be funny.

So in my view, of all the genres, the hardest thing to write is comedy, and I think the best comedy has been produced by the team that gave us Seinfeld (Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld) - and who, to an arguably slightly lesser extent, also mirrored that brilliance with Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David solo).  Seinfeld takes us on a journey over 9 seasons, which centrally focuses on the adventures of four friends; Jerry Seinfeld playing himself, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and the irrepressible Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). 

What puts Seinfeld above all other sitcoms, for me, is that it raised the bar of situation comedy to a new level, with its acute observations of human idiosyncrasies, its aphoristic considerations of social intercourse, and the variety of the subject matters explored - all delivered at a consistently brilliant level by a selection of some of the finest writers in the business. The main brilliance of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm is that each episode is littered with punchy phrases about people and social situations that you've felt all along are accurate, but have always been too courteous or reticent to say out loud.  In short, these guys say what most of us are thinking, and what most of us would say if ordinary social protocols were suspended for a time.

With sitcoms like Seinfeld, and the nearly equally brilliant Frasier, we have comedies that don't compare easily to the brilliant sitcoms Britain has produced, because with the great British sitcoms like Yes Minister, Porridge, The Office, and so forth, there are usually only one or two writers throughout, producing six or so episodes per series.  In contrast, the teams behind Seinfeld and Frasier had numerous scripts from which to choose, from a multitude of talented writers, meaning that each season usually consists of over 20 episodes, with just about every episode as sharp, fresh, witty and fast-paced as the rest.  For that reason, and because I think in George, Kramer and Elaine, Seinfeld gave us three of the best characters in sitcom history, Seinfeld stands as the best of all. 

Furthermore, with the subsequent brilliance of Curb Your Enthusiasm after Seinfeld went off the air, I'd put Larry David up there as being one of the most talented observers of comedic situations we have ever seen.  In fact, I'd say Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld and to situation comedy as William Shakespeare is to playwriting, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder and Woody Allen are to comedy filmmaking, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse are to literary comedy, Adam Smith is to economics, Newton, Darwin and Einstein are to science, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach are to classical music, The Beatles are to pop music, and Jimi Hendrix is to guitar playing.   

* Photos courtesy of

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Economics of an 'All You Can Eat' Buffet

Last Sunday I went with some friends to a Chinese ‘all you can eat’ buffet.  Once upon a time few, if any, thought such a concept could work, due to the problem of asymmetrical information (bear with me, I’ll explain).  But not only do Chinese ‘all you can eat’ buffets work, they are very successful.  About ten years ago I suggested to some friends that we should invest in Norwich’s first ‘all you can eat’ Indian buffet, because we’d make a healthy profit from it.  I knew with near-certainty that if we introduced one it would be a huge success.  Guess what?  My friends didn’t go for it, and later someone else did, and it’s now one of the most successful Indian restaurants in Norwich (if not the most successful). 

The problem of asymmetrical information is basically that the seller does not have enough information about the buyer to obtain an optimum price.  Car insurance is a good example; your car insurance company doesn’t know enough about you and your driving habits to obtain the optimal premium, so they assign a probability estimate based on a model that risk aversion is often commensurably correlated with low risk.  In other words, profits and losses are balanced out by the fact that the safest drivers happen to be those who have the most favourable cars, age, driving history, and hence, the lowest expected costs.

The problem of asymmetrical information for the Chinese ‘all you can eat’ buffet owner is that he doesn’t know whether his next customer is going to be a 25 stone man who can eat food twice the value of the dining price, or whether his next customer is going to be a 7 stone lady who can only eat food two-thirds of the value of the dining price.  Obviously, for ‘all you can eat’ buffets to be successful for the owners, the average amount of food consumed by all the customers must remain below the dining price, otherwise the restaurant will operate at a loss, and soon go out of business.  If the dining price is £8 per person, then those who can eat £10 worth of food would find it very worthwhile, but those who can only eat £6 worth of food would find it less worthwhile.

Purely on economic grounds, what should happen is that those who can only eat £6 worth of food would no longer dine there, leaving only those for whom the dining experience is a net gain.  But that couldn’t carry on, because the restaurant would then have to raise their prices up again to return a profit.  Then the smaller eaters would drop off (because the new prices are no longer a net gain for them), leaving only those even bigger eaters for whom the dining experience is a net gain.  And we repeat the process – the prices go up, more drop out, again and again, until the logical outcome is that the restaurant charges £30 (or something like that) and is only frequented by huge eaters consuming exactly £30 worth of food. 

That’s the prediction on paper, but of course, it suffers from a fatal flaw – there is more to the dining experience than consideration of consumption vs. price – particularly considering that all restaurants operate on a policy that the customers pay more for the meal than the value of consumption to the restaurant.  This is why I like Chinese buffets – we have a situation where just about everyone wins; for the restaurant, the average amount of food consumed by all the customers remains below the dining price, there is a good deal for the customers who can consume more than the value of the dining price, and even those who consume under the dining price have benefits that make the experience worth their while.  Those small consumers (this also applies to the big consumers) do not have to wait for the order to be taken and the food to be cooked, they get to eat a larger variety of food than a single dish served in a standard restaurant, and they have the option of consuming more than usual if they had underestimated their hunger.

All you can eat buffets are great little ventures, because society is full of people who love quantity over quality eating; it is full of people for whom an all-you-can-eat dining price of £8 seems like a better deal than £8 for a single dish at a standard restaurant; and it ideally caters for the numerous people who once in a while prefer the good value quantity over quality option.  All of the above is enough to see to it that the restaurant will consistently make a profit on its average customer, as they far outweigh (not literally of course) the huge eaters. 

Damn, if only we’d have started that Indian ‘all you can eat’ buffet ten years ago!