Why Russia is in trouble (and we’re all getting there)

An angry young man on a Friday night may want a bottle of whiskey. But does it maximize public happiness to give him one with maximum efficiency?

From a New York Times article today on technology to track shoppers’ movements in stores through their cell phones:

Synqera, a start-up in St. Petersburg, Russia, is selling software for checkout devices or computers that tailors marketing messages to a customer’s gender, age and mood, measured by facial recognition.

“If you are an angry man of 30, and it is Friday evening, it may offer you a bottle of whiskey,” said Ekaterina Savchenko, the company’s head of marketing.

Can someone say “negative externality”?

[As a preemptive answer to libertarian commenters: no, I don’t think the law should prevent this man from buying whiskey. But I do think there’s a moral case to be made for retailers not tripping over themselves to offer him some at maximum speed before he’s even asked for it. And I believe contemporary capitalists to be very bad at thinking about things like this.]

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

15 thoughts on “Why Russia is in trouble (and we’re all getting there)”

  1. …measured by facial recognition….

    The commercial surveillance state….
    The citizens surveillance state…
    The big media surveillance state…
    The government surveillance state…

    The one that pisses you off the most measures your character, your politics, and your wrong-headedness.

    Why just this morning I drew up plans for what I call my Peeping Tom drone. Gonna do a kick-starter on them:
    A small silent copter that hovers silently outside a window with a camera that can filter out glare and reveal the inside of a room with alacrity. Cool idea to cloak the copter: A second camera that points away from the window, and pipes captured video data to a vidscreen on the copter’s side facing the window. A glance from inside will thus not reveal the Peeping Tom copter as it mimics what would have been there anyways.

    Figure I will see a ton of them to:

    The commercial surveillance state.
    The citizens surveillance state.
    The big media surveillance state.

    But not the the government surveillance state.
    As I don’t want to cause anybody to “fly” into a self-indulgent rage….

    1. I see nothing in libertarian doctrine that precludes blackmail as a business model.

          1. Well, it does represent a rather weird exception to the First amendment, where you’ve got a right to say something, but can be criminally charged for offering to NOT say it for renumeration. I tend to think that the only reason this exception came about is that enough powerful people had things to hide, including some judges, that the clear language of the 1st amendment couldn’t stand against their self interest.

            I’d rather just have a very bright line rule: If it’s speech, and you believed it true, you can’t be punished for it. I like bright line rules where violations can get you punished by the State.

            OTOH, I’m not adamant about it, I can see where being able to pay people to not reveal the truth about you is contrary to the public interest, because it’s in the public interest that we SHOULD know the truth about other people, particularly powerful people.

            But, from that perspective, shouldn’t paying blackmail also be a crime, just like the prostitute AND the John are criminals? But it isn’t; Legally, the guy who pays to have the dirty truth hidden is regarded as a victim, even though he’s paying for something contrary to the public interest.

            Which comes back to why I think the blackmail exception is just a result of the self-interest of the powerful winning out over the Bill of Rights. If it were an exception in the public interest, paying blackmail would be a crime, too. Maybe the worse one…

  2. Andrew, how can you say this with a straight face? “I believe contemporary capitalists to be very bad at thinking about things like this.” They are absolutely brilliant when thinking about things like this. That’s why Synqera exists and will, I expect, prosper.

    1. Brilliant at the short term, not so great at figuring out the longer-term downside. Lenin said capitalists were delighted at making a profit by selling you the rope you were going to use to hang them.

    1. I’m no lawyers, but so long as the clerk didn’t process the sale to an already-intoxicated customer, there’s no conceivable liability. Even if a clerk did so, I don’t know whether or not there’s a legal liability (especially as the clerk will undoubtedly have signed a piece of paper saying they’ve been trained not to do so). In any case, I suspect this has already been legislated, almost certainly with respect to liquor stores if not to general stores. Every flyer for my local downmarket supermarkets pushes their booze deals pretty effectively – but note that (1) the clerk has to process those sales with extra care, to remove the anti-theft devices; and (2) is a personalized advertisement really morally different from prominent placement in the flyer and in the store?

  3. Whisky? These are very upmarket stores. Most Russian alcoholics stick to vodka, or if fairly prosperous Armenian brandy (incidentally pretty good).

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