The Podcast for Social Research: Episode 11: “The Gambler”

This is the eleventh episode of the Podcast for Social Research. (We have a new numbering system!) In this episode, Heather, Raphaele, and I (Ajay), along with special guest Charles Pratt of the NYU Game Center, get together and have a conversation about “gambling” as a concept, its practice and experience, and in its role in social and economic structures. We’re using a slightly different format for our “notations” section this time around since both Heather and Raphaële sent me such fantastic after-show notes that I wanted to include them.

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The Podcast for Social Research: Episode 11, “The Gambler”


From Heather:

From Pascal’s Pensées:
§418, Infini-rien, “The Wager”

“Give [a man who gambles a small sum every day] every morning the money he might win that day, but on the condition that he does not gamble, and you will make him unhappy. It might be argued that what he wants is the entertainment of gaming and not the winnings. Make him play then for nothing; his interest will not be fired and he will become bored, so it is not just entertainment he wants” (Pascal, Pensées, §136).

[Cf. §773, “Only the contest appeals to us, not the victory.”]
And the story about Colin Powell’s family’s “Numbers” fortune: p. 88,Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Issues, and Society
From Raphaële:
So the piece Charles and I were referring to is “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”  by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The reference to the impossibility of democracy is “Arrow’s impossibility theorem,” first established in this paper by Kenneth J. Arrow: “A Difficulty in the Concept of Social Welfare,”  The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 58, No. 4. (Aug., 1950), pp. 328-346 (for a pdf: He also expanded on this in his book Social Choice and Individual Values (1951, 2nd ed., 1963).It is now a well established result in social welfare economics, which basically establishes that any social choice rule (which assigns a social preference based upon individuals’ preferences regarding different social states of affairs) is either irrational (generates intransitive results – think of “Condorcet’s paradox,” where majority voting can give you results such as A is preferred to B, B is preferred to C, but C is preferred to A) or dictatorial in nature! Lots of time and energy is spent in political science analyzing the implications of this result (democracy seems to be doomed, as any voting process will generate intransitive results). I have a blog entry coming up on the INET website that will discuss this result (hint – it does not establish the impossibility of democracy, but rather the need to base social decisions on an expanded informational landscape that is broader than just people’s preference).
Jon Elster’s Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality. This is somewhat of an older book, here is something from him more recent on the topic: Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and Constraints 

“Hari Seldon”‘s theory of “psychohistory” is in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.

Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Oh, and I think I also referenced the CAPM (Capital Asset Pricing Model). It is outlined in any textbook of finance, originally developed by William Sharpe: “Capital asset prices: A theory of market equilibrium under conditions of risk,” Journal of Finance, 19 (1964), pp. 425–442. See also Robert C. Merton (1973) “An intertemporal capital asset pricing model” Econometrica, 41 (1973), pp. 867–887


From Ajay:
I did a fairly poor job of explaining Benjamin’s use of “the Gambler” and Adorno’s discussion of Ulysses and the Sirens. But the figure of the gambler features prominently in the Arcades material (alongside the more famous flaneur, for example) and Benjamin does think that (as with all such figures) there is a reality (the mimicking of work-life during leisure or the transformation of leisure into work-time) and also a dialectical possibility (the gambler may in some sense be one of the best examples of the way in which a set of “correspondences” in modern, everyday life can be a “monad” that can unfold into understanding of the material relations of modern systems as a whole – but only for a moment, for a flash). I’ll get more sleep before the next podcast! Special thanks, again, to Charles Pratt for being our guest!
Technical Details: Recorded on a Samson CO1U into an msi PC running the beta version of the freeware program Audacity 1.3.13 while consuming enjoyable, yet moderate, amounts of Caol Isla 10 year old scotch, Sixpoint Sweet Action beer, and good old-fashioned New York City tap water.
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(Intro Music: “Stillwell Ave.” by El Diablo Robotico)

(Break Music: “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers)

“Are Casinos Too Much of a Gamble,” New York Times, Room for Debate.

“No Armed Bandit,” 99 Percent Podcast

Kathryn Tanner’s “Grace and Gambling”

Caitlin Zaloom’s article “The Derivative World”

Jon Elster’s Getting Hooked: Rationality and Addiction 

Pascal’s Pensées 

Jackson Lears’s amazing Something for Nothing: A History of Luck in America, reviewed here.
Dostoevsky’s The Gambler