Pain, a Marginal Analysis

Pain is a very funny thing, and by ‘funny’ I mean complex, confusing, expressed in spectacularly heterogeneous ways, not in a slapstick, clown-journalist-gets-tasered kind of way. But what is pain, really? A method of compulsion or retribution? An unavoidable byproduct of the Newtonian “for every action” equation? Simply a bio-physiological warning system?  Is it a positive catalyst? Is it any combination of these? Should it always be avoided? Lets see what the invisible hand of free-market ideology has to say.

If we economize ‘pain’, then pain becomes a cost, which is a critical piece of cost-benefit or risk analysis. Costs can be both intrinsic or extrinsic, and an important distinction exists because intrinsic costs affect parties involved directly in whatever transaction is occurring; extrinsic costs however, pose no immediate consequences for participants, they are transactional side effects felt by parties completely independent of the exchange. Cost then has subsets of its own; total, or real cost (R) = E + I. So for example: Tiger Woods sleeps with a few dozen hookers. Intrinsic cost of exposure: car wreck, some broken glass, a few tens of millions of sponsorship revenue dollars gone. Extrinsic cost: all a few hundred million people throughout the world hear about for the next two months is the “shocking story” of a male billionaire superstar athlete (interchangeable with businessman, politician, celebrity, public figure) turning out to be a philanderer, yep, shocking, if ‘shocking’ refers to someone actually being surprised.

So far it is argued that: P = real cost, real cost = intrinsic costs + extrinsic costs. How does that inform decision making? Economically, it is logical to proceed if perceived benefits > perceived real cost. In terms of options evaluation then, if we perceive the potential benefits as exceeding the sum of all potential costs, we are more likely to act positively, to say ‘yes’. Critical here is the word ‘potential,’ which is interpretational rather than solely analytical or empirical. Data must be assessed. Management of risk in our day-to-day lives then is directly contingent upon our ability to accurately estimate potentialities, things not currently existing that could possibly result from our actions at an unspecified later time.

As humans, we are notoriously bad at assessment: Vietnam, DDT,, cod fish populations, “I’ll be fine on this test,” any communication on a Friday after 2 am, the list is long. What is so problematic for us, at least in my opinion, is the temporal framework in which all the constellation of human activities takes place. We make risk/reward predictions and modify behavior if, within a certain time-frame, the potential benefits appear likely to outweigh associated costs. As mentioned however, our ability to judge potential cost is marginal at best.

Pain can also be valuable, as both an in- and extrinsic consequence of action. Coal company X needs vehicle access to Butterfly Mountain, so it donates a portion of its real-estate holdings, Chipmunk Forest, to Y governmental body which then approves bond measure Z for road to public land. Coal company X externalized the cost of paved access by internalizing the cost of donated land, deeding the land also increases public acreage which can now be utilized and appreciated by those so inclined. Again, in any hypothetical like this there is bound to be huge room for debate, my point is not to get lost in environmental science, public trust theory, or value judgments about the coal industry, it is merely to demonstrate how cost (pain) can be commodified and redistributed. How it might work for a person or people: Person A gets burned out by the widget industry and decides to start substitute teaching, which introduces him to Person B, C, and D. Person A replaced person E who was let go. Person A and C are both interested in (arbitrary thing) and start an (arbitrary thing) (arbitrary activity).

The economic allegory for pain as it currently stands: pain = potential gain – potential cost for a given time period. Beyond the temporal limits of the analysis,  Pain, discomfort, jarring change is not necessarily a negative process, it is cathartic as the hypermasculine Army advertising campaign tells us, it is “weakness leaving the body.” Or, if you want to take it down a few milligrams of HGH, it is a method used in dealing with vulnerability, a part of the process by which anything anathema to a current state of existence is handled.

What is the point in all this? I don’t know, but it does offer some insights about our often wildly erratic behavior, and it also suggests important things about big decisions in our lives. How hard is it to say “I love you”? How many times have you opened yourself to that level of vulnerability? While the ease or difficulty of making that statement is contingent upon the individual, it is an incredibly loaded admission, both the rewards and the risks are potentially huge: it works out and you spend the foreseeable future with someone, or it doesn’t and you get to spend some time in emotional devastation land, or the whole spectrum between. What about saying fuck it on a Tuesday night and going out with the dorm mates for two dollar import draft even though you are 100% aware that you probably won’t even make a 60% percent on your American lit quiz in the morning? Potential rewards: getting laid, meeting people, the exaggerated stories you’ll tell about it, laughing about how terrible you did on the quiz, even something as simple as getting dressed up and being seen is a kind of reward. Potential risks: pissing off your professor, half-hearted guilt due mostly to your hangover, 2% of your final grade, maybe?

The kinds of calculations that we make and however errant the math our lives proceed along courses determined by risk vs. reward formulations, even if we make those decisions unconsciously and even when those equations are almost impossible to untangle from a maze of individualistic variables. I don’t know, just a few thoughts.


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