Where is the line between sympathy and paternalism?

In higher-ed news two types of terrifying stories come up pretty frequently: free speech stories, and Title IX stories. You’d think these stories would only be relevant to academics and students, but they’re not. These issues are certainly very important for those of us who hang out in ivory towers. But those towers shape the debate–and unquestioned assumptions–that determine real world policy in board rooms and capitols. This is especially true in a world where a bachelor’s degree is the new GED.

The free speech stories have gotten boring because they all take the following form: group A doesn’t want to let group B talk about opinion b so they act like a bunch of jackasses. Usually this takes place at a school for rich kids. Usually those kids are majoring in something that will give them no marketable skills.

The Title IX stories are Kafkaesque tales where a well-intentioned policy (create a system to protect people in colleges from sexism and sexual aggression) turns into a kangaroo court that allows terrible people to ruin other people’s lives. (I hasten to add, I’m sure Title IX offices do plenty of legitimately great work.)

A great article in the Chronicle gives an inside look at one of these tribunals. For the most part it’s chilling. Peter Ludlow had been accused of sexual assault, but the claims weren’t terribly credible. As far as I can tell (based only on this article) he did some things that should raise some eyebrows, but nothing genuinely against any rules. Nonetheless, the accusations were a potential PR and liability problem for the school so he had to go, regardless of justice.

The glimmer of hope comes with the testimony of Jessica Wilson. She managed to shake them out of their foregone conclusion and got them to consider that women above the age of consent can be active participants in their own lives instead of victims waiting to happen. Yes, bad things happen to women, but that’s not enough to jump to the conclusion that all women are victims and all men are aggressors.

The big question at the root of these types of stories is how much responsibility we ought to take for our lives.

Free speech: Should I be held responsible for saying insensitive (or unpatriotic) things? Who would enforce that obligations? Should I be held responsible for dealing with the insensitive things other people might say? Or should I even be allowed to hear what other people might say because I can’t take responsibility for evaluating it “critically” and coming to the right conclusion.

Title IX: Should women be responsible for their own protection, or is that akin to blaming the victim? We’ve gone from trying to create an environment where everyone can contribute to taking away agency. In doing so we’ve also created a powerful mechanism that can be abused. This is bad because of the harm it does to the falsely accused, but it also has the potential to delegitimize the claims of genuine victims and fractures society. But our forebears weren’t exactly saints when it came to treating each other justly.

Where is the line between helping a group and infantilizing them?

At either end of a spectrum I imagine caricature versions of a teenage libertarian (“your problems are your own, suck it up while I shout dumb things at you”) and a social justice warrior (“it’s everyone else’s fault! Let’s occupy!”). Let’s call those end points Atomistic Responsibility and Social Responsibility. More sarcastically, we could call them Robot and Common Pool Responsibility. Nobody is actually at these extreme ends (I hope), but some people get close.

Either one seems ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t already subscribe to that view, but both have a kernel of truth. Fair or not, you have to take responsibility for your life. But we’re all indelibly shaped by our environment.

Schools have historically adopted a policy towards the atomistic end, but have been trending in the other direction. I don’t think this is universally bad, but I think those values cannot properly coexist within a single organization.

We can imagine some hypothetical proper point on the Responsibility Spectrum, but without a way to objectively measure virtue, the position of that point–the line between sympathy and paternalism–its location is an open question. We need debate to better position and re-position that line. I would argue that Western societies have been doing a pretty good job of moving that line in the right direction over the last 100 years (although I disagree with many of the ways our predecessors have chosen to enforce that line).

But here’s the thing: we can’t move in the right direction without getting real-time feedback from our environments. Without variation in the data, we can’t draw any conclusions. What we need more than a proper split of responsibility, is a range of possibilities being constantly tinkered with and explored.

We need a diversity of approaches. This is why freedom of speech and freedom of association are so essential. In order to get this diversity, we need federalism and polycentricity–stop trying to impose order from the top down on a grand scale (“think globally, act locally“), and let order be created from the bottom up. Let our organizations–businesses, churches, civic associations, local governments and special districts–adapt to their circumstances and the wishes of their stakeholders.

Benefiting from this diversity requires open minds and epistemic humility. We stand on the shore of a vast mysterious ocean. We’ve waded a short distance into the water and learned a lot, but there’s infinitely more to learn!

(Sidenote: Looking for that Carl Sagan quote I came across this gem:

People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.

That about sums up my approach to discussing these sorts of issues. We’d all do better to occasionally give our opponents the benefit of the doubt and see what we can learn from them. Being a purist is a great way to structure your thought, but empathy for our opponents is how we make our theories strong.

Pride and Subsidies

Freakonomics had an episode on the dramatic impact of subsidies on the visual effects (VFX) industry. Long story short: 1) VFX companies operate on razor thin margins, 2) the industry chases subsidies from competing local governments–Canada and London are  currently important locations, 3) Californian politicians want to bring these jobs back to LA, but doing so would probably be a net burden.

(Let’s put aside the issue of the state of California trying to play central planner by effectively creating different tax rates for different industries. That’s a bad idea for reasons we can explore later.)

Putting yourself in the head of a Californian, something about the policy feels right (maybe not for the typical NOL reader, but probably for the median voter). I’m sure you could convince the median voter that these subsidies are a bad idea, economically. But even so, I’d be willing to bet that you’d still get significant support.

I’m confident that if you were to talk this issue over with a representative sample of California voters–or X industry in Y region for similar industry upheavals–you could convince them of the probable negative impact of such policy and still see many voters at least weakly supporting the policy. Why? Because being able to point to a movie and say “that awesome explosion was made in my backyard,” is worth some degree of sacrifice for these people.

Perhaps people want our government to give us something to be proud of (God knows they give us enough things to be ashamed of!). Perhaps people have some latent willingness to pay to be able to say that some high status industry is in their community/city/state/country.

We like pride, but it costs us. This puts us squarely in the domain of economics. How do we figure out how to make the trade off between pride, and the price we must pay for it? Some cases seem easy, at least in hindsight–the sacrifice of the civil rights movement was a small price to pay for the pride generated–but cases like the VFX industry, aren’t so obvious, but still high stakes.

I don’t think we’re likely to be able to figure out the bill. We can be proud of NASA, movies, the post office, and whatever else. But how much of the cost can we attribute to engaging in activities that make us proud? We get the same issue in markets. I have more than brand loyalty for Honda (the maker of my motorcycle); I’m also proud to associate with Honda as an innovative company with a history of liberating the world’s poor.

A clever statistician or economist could estimate some important facts about how people tend to make these trade offs. Doing so could help us make better decisions, but can’t ultimately replace our own judgment.

Given the uncertainty we face we really have to make a decision about whether to err on the side of over- or under-provision of pride goods–and this is true in a variety of settings.

I suspect that the “let 1000 flowers bloom” approach is the appropriate one here. We don’t want to have one Secretary of Pride deciding to err on the side of over-provision and the result is that a bunch of children die from preventable causes so that we can all feel proud about how cool the latest domestically produced Fast and Furious movie is going to be. On the other hand, it would be a tragedy of slavery was never ended because it would interrupt business as usual.

Markets, civil society, and government face different sorts of pros and cons with respect to how they might make these trade offs. Arguing about them could create a new academic discipline at the intersection of ethics, economics, and sociology.

In all three spheres, there will be many very bad decisions made. But if you aren’t free to be wrong, you aren’t free. The question to ask is what sort of pride goods will tend to survive, and in which spheres?

What we can say for sure is that private, voluntary exchange and cooperation (free markets and civil society) at least allow us to choose our associations. And they require us to choose, and choose again on a regular basis. Our nation is mostly based on luck. Where we live tends not to change much. Voting with your feet is costly, so we should expect it to be that much harder to dismantle big mistakes. The political process routinely results in outcomes we’re ashamed of (about half of voters are ashamed of the results every presidential election!).

There aren’t markets in pride so it’s hard to know how the benefits compare to the costs. But we can (and do) exhibit pride in markets. We should probably do more of it. And perhaps we should also be more skeptical of government, even though we normally think of them as providing pride goods. On the margin, anyways, I think this is a good direction for most people to move. Be proud of your community because the people have whatever unique traits they do. Be proud of the brands you buy from for their contributions to the state of the art. Be proud of your local sports team.

Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared?

I just came across this fantastic op-ed while listening to the author being interviewed.

The author points out that our culture teaches girls to be afraid. Girls are warned to be careful at the playground while boys are expected… to be boys. Over time we’re left with a huge plurality of our population hobbled.

It’s clear that this is a costly feature of our culture. So why do we teach girls to be scared? Is there an alternative? This cultural meme may have made sense long ago, but society wouldn’t collapse if it were to disappear.

Culture is a way of passing knowledge from generation to generation. It’s not as precise as science (another way of passing on knowledge), but it’s indispensable. Over time a cultural repertoire changes and develops in response to the conditions of the people in that group. Routines, including attitudes, that help the group succeed and that are incentive-compatible with those people will persist. When groups are competing for resources, these routines may turn out to be very important.

It’s plausible that in early societies tribes had to worry about neighboring tribes stealing their women. For the tribe to persist, there needs to be enough people, and there needs to be fertile women and men. The narrower window for women’s productivity mean that men are more replaceable in such a setting. So tribes that are protective of women (and particularly young women and girls) would have an cultural-evolutionary advantage. Maybe Brandon can tell us something about the archaeological record to shed some light on this particular hypothesis.

But culture will be slower to get rid of wasteful routines, once they catch on. For this story to work, people can’t be on the razor’s edge of survival; they have to be wealthy enough that they can afford to waste small amounts of resources on the off-chance that it actually helped. Without the ability to run randomized control trials (with many permutations of the variables at hand) we can never be truly sure which routines are productive and which aren’t. The best we can do is to try bundles of them all together and try to figure out which ones are especially good or bad.

So culture, an inherently persistent thing, will pick up all sorts of good and bad habits, but it will gradually plod on, adapting to an ever-changing, ever evolving ecosystem of competing and cooperating cultures.

So should we still teach our girls to be scared? I’d argue no.* Economics tells us that being awesome is great, but in a free society** it’s also great when other people are awesome. Those awesome people cure diseases and make art. They give you life and make life worth living.

Bringing women and minorities into the workplace has been a boon for productivity and therefore wealth (not without problems, but that’s how it goes). Empowering women in particular, will be a boon for the frontiers of economic, scientific, technical, and cultural evolution to the extent women are able to share new view points and different ways of thinking.

And therein lies the rub… treating girls like boys empowers them, but also changes them. So how do we navigate this tension? The only tool the universe has given us to explore a range of possibilities we cannot comprehend in its entirety: trial and error.

We can’t run controlled experiments, so we need to run uncontrolled experiments. And we need to try many things quickly. How quickly depends on a lot of things and few trials will be done “right.” But with a broader context of freedom and a culture of inquiry, our knowledge can grow while our culture is enriched. I think it’s worth making the bet that brave women will make that reality better.


* But also, besides what I think, if I told parents how to act… if I made all of them follow my sensible advice, I’d be denying diversity of thought to future generations. That diversity is an essential ingredient, both because it allows greater differences in comparative advantage, but also because it allows more novel combinations of ideas for greater potential innovation in the future.

** And here’s the real big question: “What does it mean for a society to be free?” In the case of culture it’s pretty easy to say we want free speech, but it runs up against boundaries when you start exploring the issue. And with billions of people and hundreds (hopefully thousands) of years we’re looking at a thousand-monkey’s scenario on steroids… and that pill from Flowers for Algernon.

There’s copyright which makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of giants, but might be justified if it helps make free speech an economically sustainable reality. There’s the issue of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and the question of how far that restriction can be stretched before political dissent is being restricted. We might not know where the line should be drawn, but given enough time we know that someone will cross it.

And the issue goes into due process and business regulation, and any area of governance at all. We can’t be free to harm others, but some harms are weird and counter-intuitive. If businesses can’t harm one another through competition then our economy would have a hard time growing at all. Efficiency would grow only slowly tying up resources and preventing innovation. Just as there’s an inherent tension in the idea of freedom between permissiveness and protection, there’s a similar tension in the interdependence of cooperation and competition for any but the very smallest groups.

The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).

Angry? Learn economics!

The election didn’t go your way (and if it did, just think about past elections… at least some of those didn’t go your way) and now you’re itching to do something about it. You’re angry and motivated, and at risk of making things worse

Economics isn’t just about money. In fact, it’s barely about money. It’s mostly about cooperation between strangers. But economists also study competition. Most importantly, we study decision making which is essential to understand if you want people to make different decisions!

More importantly, economics helps us understand how to navigate costs and benefits wisely. It turns out wise decision making isn’t as straight forward as we’d hope. So if you care enough to work hard to make the world better, economics is worth your time.

Still here? You really want to make the world a better place! Let me suggest that you study social science. Something I’ve learned during my first decade of studying economics (Jan. 2018 will by my 10 year mark) is that thinking clearly about something as complex as society requires mental tools that we aren’t born with. Our intuitions will lead us astray. The good news: economics mostly boils down to common sense rigorously applied.

Economics doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth (if we did, this post would be shorter but you’d have to pay to read it). But I think econ is the best place to start in an intellectual exploration of society. It will help you build a robust and modular framework for understanding the world. Economics is the ultimate modular social science; you can plug-and-play with insights from anywhere.

So why econ? Because at the end of the day, economics deals with the most important aspect of life: how to live life well. It boils down to this: every choice comes at the cost of a foregone alternative. Opportunity cost. All (good) economics comes down to this profound truth. Whether your goal is to reduce poverty, pollution, or parenting woes, learning to think of cost in these terms will serve you well.

Let’s take that concept for a test drive… would banning plastic bags reduce environmental harm? The benefit is that you’ll eliminate the problems associated with these bags (litter, use of oil, etc.). But we need to understand the costs before we know if we’re helping or hurting the environment. Notice that link starts with the question “paper or plastic” and goes on to say nothing about paper bags; it’s looking at the silver lining without acknowledging any possibility of a storm cloud. That lack of economic thinking opens us up to new problems: making heavy paper bags also creates pollution and could very well create more.

In other words, this simple concept showed us that it’s possible to do harm by doing something that sounds good (the road to hell is paved with good intentions!).

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees: economists specialize in researching very specific areas–foreign exchange markets, agricultural futures, political change, pirates–and it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. Studying economics in school means studying under specialists. But once you’ve got the basics of the economic way of thinking down, you’ll see that those specializations are really just applications of the same general concepts and the same basic way of thinking. It’s easier to understand once you speak our language, but there are lots of great resources. Two places I would start:

Now get to it! Start making things better!

A beautiful bit of small world mojo

The first time I went to Boston was to look for an apartment. On my last day I was hanging around Downtown crossing. Gmail confirms it was June 12th, 2010. I was having a polish sausage, and this guy approached me. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we chatted for a few minutes. Good town. That sort of thing is exactly what I’d expect in SLO (Central Coast California) or Santa Cruz… but this was in a place with a skyline! Anyways, he wasn’t in a cult and I didn’t get robbed.

Flash forward to some time that fall. I was in Inman Square and saw a chair left on the curb for anyone who needed a chair. I needed a chair. I lived in Union Square, but that was just the next neighborhood north (if I lived on Prospect Hill, there’s no way that chair would have made it, but I might have realized that before picking it up). So I pick up this chair and walk. Google Maps puts my route at 0.5 miles. I got a couple blocks short of that before I crap out. Fortunately I’ve got a place to sit down. So I’m sitting in an easy chair on the sidewalk, hauling it forward a few yards, and plopping down again.

Across the street, someone’s trying to get my attention. He comes over, and he’s the guy I’d randomly met months earlier. He lives across the street from me! And he helps me carry home my chair. We have a beer and chat.

Flash forward to Thanksgiving of that fall. I’m hanging out by myself. This is my first Thanksgiving alone. Neighbor guy knocks on my door and invites me over. Inside are a bunch of his musician friends, and this fantastic music is coming from one of the bedrooms. An impromptu jam session is playing the sort of dusty sounding blues I’m enamored with at the time. After they finish I mention that it sounds like this African blues guitarist, Ali Farka Toure. It turns out I pronounced his name right, because I’m immediately informed that his son was playing guitar just now!

Just now I was listening to Spotify, and a song reminds me of another song which led me to the song above from that album I’d bought when I lived in SLO and was trying to be worldly. Absolutely fantastic music, a mish-mash of cultural influences bouncing back and forth around the world, and I got to experience something of it first hand because of the grace and generosity of a fellow human.

But more than that, a mix of technology, globalization, and absolutely random chance created that beautiful memory and triggered it again just now. We live in a beautiful world.