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.

Free lunch: college edition

Andrew Cuomo recently proposed making college free taxpayer funded for middle class New Yorkers. He argues that college is a “mandatory step if you really want to be a success.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that he’s making adequate adjustments for vocational training.

As a SUNY employee, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, it means an increased demand for my services. On the other hand, it means increased pressure to keep costs down, which could mean a fall in my future earnings potential. Increased admissions pressure means I might have easier to teach students, but also probably means less chances for the low-income students coming from the worst public schools.

At best, we’re looking at a middle-class to middle-class transfer that will trade off the benefits of market pressure against the benefits (to families paying for school) of not having to think too hard about how to manage a large expense.

I won’t go into the issue of signaling (see Bryan Caplan), or the sheer wastefulness of having people get bachelor’s degrees for jobs that don’t need them (see Dick Vedder… esp. table 1). These are important points, because they get at the root problem Cuomo is misdiagnosing. College is mandatory because of subsidies and subsidies will only make it worse. But we don’t even need to be that sophisticated to understand why this plan is a problem.

Here’s my basic problem with “free” college tuition: it’s too good to be true. I get the desire to help out poor people, but the average household in NY makes just under $60K/year and this plan is for all households making less than $125K. That’s “free” tuition to a lot of households that would be sending their kids to school anyways. That money has to come from somewhere. The people paying for this program will largely overlap with the people benefiting from it.

If everyone thinks their kids should go to school, then what’s the point in taking away their money to send their kids to school?! We all like burritos, so give me your money and I’ll buy us all the burritos we want. Doesn’t make sense! Giving up control of your spending can only make you worse off, so this will ultimately be a bad thing for the middle class. And that lack of control from middle class helicopter parents will likely be a bad thing for the working poor people who could have been net beneficiaries (hopefully… I’m not certain this won’t back fire on net). Even if subsidizing higher-ed were a good idea, this is almost certainly a terrible way to go about it.

We can’t engineer our way out of this

Folks on the left have been getting more interested in science lately (though history tells us that might be something to worry about). They’re right to celebrate the incredible results of scientific progress–but scientific victory isn’t uniform across disciplines.

In some areas (including just about all areas on the cutting edge), scientists disagree with one another.It’s a big, complex world we live in, and we don’t understand it fully. That disagreement doesn’t mean we should discount science entirely, but it does mean we should be careful with it.

Imagine a world where engineers disagreed about the capabilities of their techniques and the strength of the materials they use. Some might be beholden to special interests (which gives me an idea for a public choice version of the Three Little Pigs), others might be dogmatic/superstitious. But even without concerns of systemic issues, we should be hesitant to try to get to the moon. That disagreement should tell us that we aren’t certain enough in our knowledge to make anyone but volunteers put their lives in the hands of those engineers.

Social scientist in particular frequently disagree with each other. Most are trying earnestly to apply the scientific way of thinking to understanding the social world, and it’s worth considering their view points. But applying that knowledge should only be done in a decentralized way. Applying the incredible insights of behavioral economics from the top down is appealing, but it’s probably best to do it piecemeal.

Social engineering and social science are harder than physical engineering and the physical sciences. Part of the problem Western governments face is that they’re trying to engage in social engineering. And politicians are promising them greater degrees of social engineering to improve the well-being of their constituents.

The trouble is two-fold: 1) those social engineering techniques aren’t good enough, even if they’re sometimes appealing. 2) The cost to decision makers of buying snake oil is too low in voting booths.

To my friends who are looking to the government to make things better: whether your hope is for government to help people be better versions of themselves, or to stop bad guys, we should push as much of that policy to the local level as possible. It might be nice if the whole country were more like Berkeley or Salt Lake City, but trying to make it happen at the national level is a recipe for conflict, disorder, and doing more harm than good. Keep policy local.

Summing up: the year of irrationality

Brandon says I’ve got one last chance to write his favorite post of the year. But it’s the end of a long semester and I’m brain dead, so I’m just going to free ride on his idea: a year end review. If I were to sum up the theme of this year in a word, that word would be irrational.

After 21 months of god awful presidential campaigning, we were finally left with a classic Kodos vs Kang election. The Democrats were certain that they could put forward any turd sandwich and beat Trump, but they ultimately lost out to populist outrage. Similar themes played out with Brexit, but I don’t know enough to comment.

Irrationality explains the Democrats, the Republicans, and the country as a whole. The world is complex, but big decisions have been made by simple people.

We aren’t equipped to manage the world’s complexity.

We aren’t made to have direct access to The Truth; we’re built to survive, so we get a filtered version of the truth that has tended to keep our ancestors out of trouble long enough to get laid. In other words, what seems sensible to each of us, may or may not be the truth. What we see with our own eyes may not be worth believing. We need more than simple observation to actually ferret out The Truth.

Our imperfect perceptions build on imperfect reasoning faculties to make imperfect folk economics. But what sounds sensible often overlooks important moving parts.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Only a small minority of the population will ever have a strong grasp on any particularly complex thing. As surely as my mechanic will never become an expert in economics, I will never be able to do any real work on my car. The trouble arises when we expect me or my mechanic to try to run the country. The same logic applies to politicians, whose job (contrary to what your civics teacher thinks) is to get re-elected, not to be a master applied social scientist. (And as awful as democracy is, the alternative is just some other form of political competition… there is no philosopher king.)

But, of course, our imperfect perception and reasoning have gotten us this far. They’ve pulled us out of caves and onto the 100th floor of a skyscraper*. Because in many cases we get good enough feedback to learn a lot about how to accomplish things in our mysterious universe.

We’re limited in what we can do, but sometimes it’s worth trying something. The trouble is, I can do things that benefit me at your expense. And this is especially true in politics (also pollution–what they have in common is hot air!). But it’s not just the politicians who create externalities, it’s the electorate. The costs of my voting to outlaw gravity (the simplest way for me to lose a few pounds) are nil. But when too many of us share the same hare-brained idea, we can do some real harm. And many people share bad ideas that have real consequences.

Voting isn’t the only way to be politically engaged, and we face a similar problem in political discourse in general. A lot of Democrats are being sore losers about this election rather than learning and adapting. Trump promised he would have done the same had he lost. We’re basically doomed to have low-quality political discourse. It’s easy and feels (relatively) good to bemoan that the whole world is going to hell.

We’re facing rational irrationality. Everyone is simply counting on someone else to get their shit together, because each of us individually is more comfortable with our heads firmly up our asses.

It’s a classic tragedy of the commons and it should prompt us to find some way to minimize the harm of our lousy politics. We’ve been getting better at this over the centuries. Democracy means the levers of power can change hands peacefully. Liberalization has entailed extending civil and economic rights to a wider range of people. We need to continue in this vein. More freedom has allowed more peace and prosperity.


So what do we do? I’d argue that we should focus on general rules rather than trying to have flawed voters pick flawed politicians and hope for the best. I don’t mean “make all X following specifications a, b, and c.” I mean, if you’re mad, try and sue someone. We don’t need dense and exploitable regulations. We don’t need new commissions. We just need a way for people to deal with problems as they arise. Mind you, our court system (like the rest of our government) isn’t quite ready for a more sensible world. But we can’t be afraid to be a little Utopian when we’re planning for the long run. But let’s get back to my main point…

We live in an irrational world. And it makes sense that it’s that way; rationality is hard. We can see irrationality all around us, but we see it most where it’s cheapest: politics and Facebook. The trouble is, sometimes little harmless irrational acts add up to cause real harm. Let’s admit we’ve got a problem with irrationality in politics so we can get better.

*Although that’s only literally true in 17 cases.

Come back Jon Stewart!

By the way, I’m enjoying the crap out of John Oliver’s righteous indignation, but the truth is he’s probably doing more harm than good. Oliver panders to his dedicated fan base. Jon Stewart held his audience to a higher standard. He was biased, but he didn’t let his side get away with sloppy thinking.

Also by the way, Malcolm Gladwell had a nice episode that (if I’m remembering this right) nicely reflected the sort of ideological pluralism that Jonathan Haidt promotes. A recent video of Haidt has prompted a lot of my recent thinking on this issue.

Two points that bear repeating

  1. We could have elected Hitler and it wouldn’t have turned out significantly worse than if Clinton had won.
  2. The left and right aren’t speaking the same language, and whoever fails to take the first step (which is to not blame the other side) shares the larger share of the blame.

I just listened to the post election episode of the excellent series, The United States of Anxiety. Two interviews stand out: the Trump supporter who fails (I think) to understand the genuine (albeit overblown) fear of a black teenager, and the Trump opponent who fails to understand that trump supporter. (There was also a notably boring interview with another Trump opponent, some hand wringing by the hosts, and some genuinely insightful commentary from Chris Arnade stuffed into the back corner of the episode.)

Maybe I’m in a privileged position because I used to see myself as part of the right and now see myself as part of the left (what’s left of it). Many people on the left are being sore losers about this election and they’re making things worse. I’m talking about humans, not (necessarily) politicians. That’s what’s really disappointing.

To be fair, it’s a common pool problem. We each get social capital brownie points for being angry (“10 reasons you should be angry” gets more Internet points than “difficult social science that requires you to do things you don’t like“), and we don’t get the same rewards for sober reflection (or maybe NOL is a sensible echo chamber? Agree with me in the comments.).

The fact remains that in-group signalling trumps ideological inclusion. The result could mean wild swings of power between the right and the left with due process (and the blessings of civilization… like tolerance, economic growth, freedom, and social mobility) being steamrolled in the process.

It’s fun to blame Facebook, the media, politicians, or anyone else but ourselves. The truth is, consumer sovereignty is far stronger a force than is commonly accepted. We aren’t the victims, we’re the perpetrators. It feels good to have an ideologically tight-knit Internet cocoon and so we spend more time listening to our podcasts (talk radio) while driving our Priuses (pickups) past the coast (vast ocean of farms).

And we’ll always have some of that, but we’ve got important disagreements that we have to resolve… not permanently, but for the next generation or so. All sides (libertarians have to participate too; I don’t think we’re to blame, but some people do) have to eat some humble pie and try to genuinely understand what the others are talking about. They aren’t all morons (and we aren’t all geniuses).

What really struck me in those interviews (mostly the second, longer, better quality one by the well spoken liberal academic) was that they weren’t speaking as though they were really trying to convince their intellectual opponents. Patty (Trump supporter) was happy and felt like she was finally part of the decision making process in DC (whether that’s true is another issue). He was speaking to a liberal

Both sides need to try to adopt the language of the other side. You should be trying to convince them! Why should you expect any degree of success when you say shit like “just look at the evidence [you big dummy!]” as though they don’t think they’ve been looking at legitimate evidence. You’re both falling for confirmation bias.

The way forward is intellectual humility. Will that happen? Not a chance, but that’s all the more reason for me to shout into the void. Culture changes slowly.

People will always disagree, and always should. Ideologies have blind spots and need to depend on critics from the other ideologies to account for them. The policy we get reflects the desires of those who might do something about it. Even dictators have to walk a thin line to stay in power. What seems to be at issue here is meta-policy (Buchananian constitutional issues… not the literal constitution, but informal shared understandings about how government wields power). Right now the position from the two big camps is “to the victor go the spoils.” That’s happening because each camp has closed themselves off to the other. It’s similar to what Bastiat said; when we don’t get gains from ideological trade and cooperation, we get political strife.

Everything will be fine

Eight years ago I identified more with the right. Obama represented a charismatic leader with scary ideologies and an uncertain background. (McCain represented a very old man who didn’t seem to care much about freedom.) Obama had a cult of personality and looked ready to dismantle society.

What do I think now? I think he’s handled his position gracefully (though I haven’t been following too closely… gov’t is ~1/5 of the economy and I intend to keep it <1/5 of my life), and he’s done a good deal of harm (further entrenching the role of insurance in health care finance, drone strikes, etc.). But I don’t think he did any more harm than a Republican candidate in his position. The world didn’t end, and despite a big recession, freedom ultimately proved to be a hearty weed rather than a delicate flower.

I think Trump will follow a similar trajectory. He’ll make things worse, but the outcome won’t be dramatically different (overall) than if Clinton had won. Different special interests will be rewarded, and different special interest groups will suffer. But overall, four years from now we’ll be a little less free, a bit more rich (though probably going through a recession… that would have happened under either candidate), and ready for some more political change.

Bill Burr’s got it right: nothing’s going to change. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Lifehacks: How to use Facebook better

Despite disagreeing with many (most?) of my friends on political issues I don’t think I’ve lost any Facebook friends this election. Let me share my secrets.

Step 1: Empathize. Life is hard, and few of us are trained for political life.

Step 2: Listen. We all have the same goal… getting other people to agree with us. You’re not going to be successful by telling people their stupid. You’ll get lots of Internet points… but only from people who already agree with you. You’re actually making things worse because fewer people will listen to people who are apparently incapable of treating them like a decent human being (and most people outside the Beltway are, in fact, decent and human).

Step 3: Filter. (This is the big one.) You’re not going to convince everyone. For good or ill, morality isn’t about rationality for most people. So click that little “V” in the top right of your idiot friend’s post and tell Facebook to hide it.

Step 4: Relax. This stuff works by osmosis. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind over night (certainly not anyone over the age of 25). Be like the Colorado river. You don’t get a Grand Canyon of tolerance by refusing to trickle over land that doesn’t already agree with you.

Step 5: Step back. The government is about 20% of the economy. Try not to let it be more than 20% of your life. Your attention is scarce. Political life matters, but don’t let it get out of proportion. The Internet isn’t just for getting angry, it’s also for adorable gifs and pictures of pigs wearing boots.

Meta-intolerance doesn’t work. Take the worst case scenario: you’re Facebook friends with actual Hitler. You’ve got three options: A) Argue with him constantly. B) Unfriend him. C) Ignore his hateful posts and like his posts about his art. Which will do the most good for the world? Alright, potential employers and friends would probably prefer to avoid Hitler’s friends. But they’ll be more tolerant of your crazy uncle Rudy and you’ll do more good by being an occasional voice of reason in his feed than by stepping out of his Internet bubble entirely.

Most people are basically good even if they’ve got silly opinions about how to be good. And communication is hard. We speak different languages when we talk about politics and few of us have the tools to properly express ourselves. When people support politicians or policies you dislike, it might just be that they think that’s the lesser of two evils. (I’ve got opinions on why it’s sad that people think they’re “wasting” their vote by voting with their conscience, but I can hardly be mad at them for learning the fallacious reasoning that’s been foisted on them since high school civics. Let me add that if Vermonters had voted Stein and New Hampshirtonians had voted Johnson, then maybe next cycle we’ll get better options and we might push out of this two party system so many people dislike.)

I promised you Facebook lifehacks. They all boil down to this: tend your Internet bubble. You can do this with three easy steps:

  1. Like more non-controversial stuff than controversial stuff.
  2. Ignore and hide infuriating posts from people you’d rather respect (and imagine that you live in a world of respectable but flawed people instead of a world of evil charlatans).
  3. excellent