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« Untimely Meditations | Main | An Inconvenient Truth »

June 25, 2006

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roger

It is interesting that Dawkins, whose whole selfish gene idea is based on applying a method of costs and benefits to the reproduction of the gene, gives us an idea of a floating freebie -- the meme that operates in an economic vacuum. Too bad he is way too british to read Mauss, or even Karl Polyani on exchange, reciprocity, and sacrifice.

However, the ad you describe seems so disgusting that it is perfectly appropriate to an era when all sacrifices are occluded -- from the blind spot of pics of dead American soldiers returning home, boxed, from Iraq to the class occlusion of the effects of tilting the economic system violently to the advantage of the top 5 percent income bracket. And of course there is the ghost of credit card debt that has replaced the spectre that is haunting Europe with the spectre that is haunting the internal American market.

The unconscious is political, however, and what better time to inculcate kindness among the suckers who are being ruthlessly stripped of their future wealth? As we know, when people start pushing, shoving, and in general acting against the norm of kindness, the idea of accepting, say, a motivational speech instead of a pay raise might not be treated too kindly. In Joanne Ciulla's the working life, she quotes a poll taken of executives in which they are asked about motivation:

"The researchers found that most senior managers believed that celebrations and ceremonies and non-cash recognition were the best incentives for non-managers... But for senior managers, they responded that the best incentive was cash rewards tied to quality performance."

Kindness is for other people.

Said Shirazi

Great post. You ask why they titled the commercial "What Goes Around"? Well, if they called it "Pay It Forward" they'd get sued.

Also, in the "Fallen" trailer, the serial killer tells the cop, "Remember this, what goes around, REALLY goes around." Maybe they've seen it, or maybe it's just a cliche.

(By the way, there's another song allusion in the trailer. Before they throw the switch, the killer shouts from the chair, "Go ahead, light up my life!")

crojas

Roger and Said,
Many thanks for your comments.
Roger, your comments about Dawkins' memes are, I think, right on. I also very much liked your mention of gift theory. As Mauss, Derrida, and others have noted, gift-giving involves a denial or supension, at the moment of exchange itself, of the underlying symbolic economy within which the gift is embedded. A gift, by definition, must be given freely, with no expectation of explicit return (or otherwise it would not be a gift), but at the same time it creates an implicit "debt" which must then be repaid. Does not this dynamics of erasure and pernicious reinscription of the economic describe the logic of the "What goes around" commercial?

Said, thanks for pointing out the parallels between the commercial title and the Fallen trailer. Indeed, Fallen's use of the "what goes around..." line (together with its evil connotations) underscores the inherent weirdness that Liberty Mutual is borrowing that line for its fuzzy, feel-good commercial.

Finally, one more interesting point which ties into both of your remarks is the fact that the commercial is structured as a closed circle: the last recipiant in the chain of good-will gestures, we realize, is the precisely the same man who retrieves the rag doll in the first sequence. The entire thing is one hermetic loop, with no point of egress.

6.28

As an actuary I had to laugh at "the transition from the inherent amorality of Liberty Mutual’s underlying actuarial business model..." You'll be surprised to learn that actuaries actually spend time thinking about and discussing the issue of fairness, and don't believe everything is subject to reification.

And I don't know the details of how the commercial was created, but the use of "What goes around" seems to obviously tie to crojas' last point about the (apparently nefarious) closed circle. Of course, if the circle isn't closed, then it degrades into a scene from [i]Fallen[/i], and ends with us all turning evil while running off in the shape of cats. There's no escaping!

As a last thought, corporations (and commercials) are no more inherently wicked than blogs are inherently vain. Try approaching your cultural readings with an open mind!

crojas

"6.28,"

Thank you for your comments. To clarify, I do not claim here that either corporations or commercials are "inherently wicked" (though I would not necessarily disagree with the claim that most blogs are inherently vain!), but I would stand by my claim that actuarial practice is essentially and necessarily amoral (though certainly not necessarily immoral, and there is a difference).

Regardless of how much time actuaries spend thinking about and discussing issues of fairness, the fact remains that the inherent objective of an insurance actuary is to insure that the insurance company takes in more money, on average, than they have to pay out to their customers (much like a casino). I do not dispute that insurance companies play a very useful social function, but am not clear on the precise moral dimension of gambling against other people's misfortune.

To take an example that is close at hand, there are countless outstanding lawsuits against insurance companies (including Liberty Mutual) covering the tri-state area devastated by Katrina, and specifically contested the insurance companies's attempt to exclude damage from Katrina's storm surge (for clients who did not have flood protection). The specifics of these cases vary widely (including some cases where the insurers refused coverage because they couldn't even establish what precisely (water or wind) had demolished the home, and I won't get into those details here. I will simply ask, if it were a question of basic morality, as opposed to contractual obligation, would not the correct course of action be to help clients rebuild their homes and their lives irrespective of what precise force of nature destroyed their homes?

Lucy

I am also an actuary. I don't contest your claim that insurance, like every other business in a capitalist society, has a basically amoral business model. I do disagree with your contention that the moral thing to do would be to pay all Katrina damage to customers, regardless of the actual terms of the contract.

Like any other real-world entity, an insurance company has limited resources, and must use them first and foremost to fulfill its actual obligations. It would be no more moral for an insurance company to pay claims for which it didn't sell coverage than for a family breadwinner to give all his money to hungry people on the street. He has a moral obligation to feed his family, first, and an insurance company has a moral obligation to pay insured claims, first.

If either entity has extra money, there are many moral choices of how to give it away. Extending extra money to Katrina victims might be one, but it might not be, as it risks setting a bad precedent in which the company might be expected in the future to give away money it needs in the wake of a catastrophe, possibly hindering its ability to pay claims it has a strong moral obligation to pay. Insurers do go belly-up with depressing frequency, you know.

crojas

Lucy,
You make a very good point. Certainly, few moral codes would dictate that an individual (or family, group, corporation, etc.) drive itself into financial ruin in order to help others, and I also don't necessarily contest the wisdom of the business model on which insurance companies are based (and finally, as I mentioned earlier, I recognize that insurance companies serve a very useful social function).

However, to address your response to my rhetorical question, I would note that the financial considerations which come into play in deciding whether or not to make good on compelling claims which an insurer might not be contractually obligated to pay are complicated by the fact the implicit financial bottom line is not simply the ability to support oneself and one's family (the "family breadwinner" model you cite), but rather a business model predicated on making considerable profits for the company itself.

That is to say, to stick with the Liberty Mutual--Hurricane Katrina example, the claim that LM (which only had a relatively small [3.9%] market share in the affected areas of LA) was financially unable to cover water-and-wind damage claims is compromised by the fact that, in the first 6 months of 2005 (immediately preceding Katrina) it earned nearly $1 billion in profits (a record for the nearly century-old company).

You conclude by suggesting that making good on these sorts of claims might hinder the insurer's ability to pay future claims "it has a strong moral obligation to pay." If there is no moral obligation for a company sitting on $1 billion in profits to help a relatively small number of families rebuild their homes, I am not certain what other, more compelling, "moral" obligations (as opposed to contractual ones) a company might have.

My basic point here, however, is one in which I believe we are in a agreement. I am simply suggesting here that an insurance company's actuarial practice is inherently, and necessarily, amoral--insofar as it is, by necessity, predicated on rising above considerations of individual compassion and instead focusing on the statistical laws which will insure that the company brings in, on average, more money than it pays out. The end result is undeniably, as you suggest, a benefit for society, but the means to that end necessarily look beyond the morality of individual cases.

Unlike you and the previous commentator, I am not an actuary, and I would very much appreciate hearing more of your views on this issue.

stephanie

what is the name of the song that is used in your commerical?

JUNEMoody

The home loans seem to be very useful for guys, which are willing to organize their career. By the way, it is not very hard to get a consolidation loan.

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