To Waterboard a Metaphor

July 29, 2011

It’s fun to use a credit card because you get your dinner or haircut or iPod now, but your bill doesn’t come until later.  Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere.  You can put most of your monthly expenses like utility bills on them and even make arrangements to be billed automatically.  But the best part is that you can even choose not to pay your bill in full!  Sure, it costs something to carry a balance on your credit card, but it’s so much less fun to pay bills than it is to buy things.

The best way to maximize your ratio of fun to not-fun is therefore to pay the minimum on your credit card every month.  Eventually, though, you hit your credit limit and the fun threatens to stop.  At that point, there are a few options.  One option is just to keep using another credit card, but let’s assume that’s not possible.  The next option is to pay down some of the balance (or go back to making purchases in cash), but that isn’t fun, because we’ve already established that it isn’t fun to pay bills.  Another option is not to pay the bill at all, but that would be even less fun – not only would you be cut off anyway from buying more things, you’d also start getting visits at home from guys with thick necks and questionable taste in jewelry… 

But my Readers are clever enough to have spotted the most fun option: request a credit limit increase!

The credit card company might balk a little bit at how much debt you have already accumulated, not to mention your other debt (like your huge mortgage!). But, frankly, your payment history is pristine, and the credit card company likes to earn its little bit of interest and transaction fees every time you make a charge.  After all, the credit card company needs to put its money to work somewhere.  Some shareholders have trouble understanding why the company keeps lending to customers like you.  They wonder, shouldn’t the company be supporting some local small businesses instead?  The company’s decision definitely would be likely to weigh on its stock price.  Fortunately, though, you happen to know that the company actually thinks it’s a competitive advantage to have a cheap stock price.  So the company hasn’t given you any indication that they’re going to deny a request from you anytime soon.

As long as the credit card company keeps increasing your credit limit, you can have basically as much fun as you want.  That is, unless some JERK comes along and hides your cell phone and locks you in your apartment to try to prevent you from actually calling the credit card company to request that increase.  Not fun!

That jerk would probably think he’s being pretty clever, since you’d have to finally start paying more of your bills every month in order not to run out of cash.  That would totally not be fun for you, but the worst part would be watching his smug reaction as you scrambled to keep the electricity on, while trying not to disappoint your hairstylist and the others who have enjoyed the benefit of your spending.  You just know he’s going to call up your hairstylist at the end of the month and have a good chat with her about how disappointed in you they both are.

But, wait a minute.  If my Readers were in this position, they would have spotted something fishy about the whole scenario long ago.  How on Earth did that jerk know where you live, never mind where you keep your phone? 

The most likely explanation is that he’s your embittered ex who is, for some reason, still a co-signer on the credit card. 

It’s not like that jerk hasn’t also been having a grand old time running up the charges every month!  In fact, half the charges that you have to pay for every month are for things like his multiple gym memberships and church dues and all those other bills that he put on auto-pay years and years ago.  Sure, it’s not fun for YOU to be paying HIS bills, but you’d always had a kind of understanding that everyone would have more fun if the credit limit just kept on being increased whenever necessary.  Who does he think he is, trying to stop your fun unilaterally?

Nevertheless, suppose you found yourself locked in the apartment just as the monthly bill was coming due.  You and the jerk could have a good shouting match; but although that might be fun for you, the neighbors would probably be scandalized by the whole tacky spectacle.  (You probably will do it anyway, though.)  You are NOT going to give him the satisfaction of begging for the phone back; that’s even less fun than not being able to buy things anymore.

So, you have two options.  The first option is to climb out the fire escape and call your buddy Ben, who seems to be able to create cash out of thin air.  (You’re always surprised that he doesn’t seem to be having any fun, with that kind of magical power.)  He’s a bit of an eccentric fellow with an artistic bent, so you know you can count on him to buy whatever doodle you put on paper for him.  You can then run that cash over to the credit card company in the nick of time.  It’s not fun to pay a bill, but it is fun to make doodles; so it’s sort of a wash.  And then you get to give a big raspberry to the jerk until the next time either of you needs to use the credit card.

The other option is to hold your breath until the jerk gives you the phone or you pass out.  You may risk some permanent brain damage that way… but, hey, some people get off on that sort of thing.

Addendum: Karl Smith has something serious to say about this metaphor.  For what it’s worth, I agree with his conclusion.

On Being Wrong (whether or not for justifiable reasons)

July 5, 2011

I’ve been eager to revisit my earlier thoughts on l’affaire DSK as the case against him began to unravel during the past few days.  As it turns out, we’ll probably never know for sure what happened in that hotel room.  It’s hard to imagine how a case can proceed in the face of questions about the alleged victim’s credibility.  This outcome would be understandable even though it may fall short of the ideal of justice (in the sense of objectively determining what happened and either punishing or vindicating the accused).  A witness’ credibility matters, but in theory it doesn’t map directly to truth or falsehood.  On the one hand, people may lie if they sense there could be something in it for them, no matter what the consequences for themselves or those accused – the Duke lacrosse case is one particularly salient example.  On the other hand, it’s also possible for people with questionable judgment or even bad intentions to be the victims of crime.  But as Citizens and Jurors, often the best we can do is handicap the likelihood that a given account is true, false, or somewhere in between, and questions of consistency and motivation matter in that calculus.

Given that my initial intuition about the case now appears much more likely to have been wrong, What have I learned?  The four heuristics that formed the basis of my intuition all still seem reasonable to me.  However, I think there were two probable sources of error that I underestimated at the time.  The first, which I think is the dominant source of error, is that the DA’s office was compelled to act on an accelerated timeline because DSK was in imminent danger of leaving the country.  I took the facts of an arrest and indictment as indications of the probability of the truth of the allegations (given the risks to various parties of “getting it wrong”) when in reality they may not have been more than a necessity to give the alleged victim a fair hearing.  The second is that I did not give sufficient consideration to the possibility that the alleged victim would act irrationally.  I had assumed that she would view her downside risk as being very high (in fact, it is – she may be headed for deportation or jail!) and would only take action if she were very sure she would prevail.  In reality, she may have either not been aware of the downside risks, or may have had unwarranted confidence in her likelihood of success.

My sense is that the DA’s office has acted properly throughout and has had the unenviable task of trying to balance the protection of a seemingly vulnerable accuser with fairness to a powerful international figure.  If they end up dropping this case due to the inconsistencies that have come to light, I don’t think it would be to their discredit.

Perhaps the DA’s next balancing act will be between the need to do justice to DSK to the extent that he has been wrongfully accused, and the desire to avoid chilling the powerless from speaking out against the powerful when they have truly been victimized.