Human Capital Diversification vs Pancake Mix

I went to the grocery store yesterday (late morning) expecting either business-as-usual or empty shelves. I was surprised to see both. I’m currently regretting not taking photos because it probably will be business-as-usual by the time I go back.

Some shelves were empty, and others were full. What I saw was a direct visualization of what my neighbors don’t know how to cook.

Going through my store I could see that my neighbors know how to put jarred sauce on pasta. But I saw the opportunity to blend some canned whole tomatoes and make my own sauce. “International” foods were largely untouched, but anything in the local culinary lexicon was sparse.

The whole Baking Needs aisle was basically fine, except for the pancake mix which was all gone. This is really the whole story. Who buys pancake mix? Culinary illiterates.

(Disclaimer: I’m a biased source when it comes to pancakes. I take pancakes as seriously as 75th percentile Bostonian takes the fact that the Yankees suck.)

It takes a modest amount of skill to make pancakes, but the ingredients are cheap and YouTube wants to help you. Now is a great time to up your pancake game. But even if you just follow the directions on any random pancake recipe you’re stirring together flour, salt, baking powder, sugar, eggs, oil, and milk.

The mix will either give you a crappy shelf-stable replacement for the eggs and/or milk (yuck!) or hold your hand as you stir together some powder with eggs, oil, and milk.

Thinking back to my career as an omnivore, I can recall a time when I’ve bought ingredients I really should have made. I’m not judging people who don’t know how to cook, because I’ve been there.

What I’m pointing out is that those people are always going to have the hardest time when it comes to food shortages. I’d be in the same boat if I was shopping at a store that didn’t sell the limited set of ingredients I know how to use.

There’s a tension in economics that we don’t pay enough attention to: gains from specialization vs. gains from diversification. At a system level (and in a Principles class) the two go together. But at the level of individual there is a lot to be said for diversification–you’re more robust to change, resilient in the face of problems, and perspectives gained in one domain may have lessons to apply to others.

I’m grateful I haven’t taken my own human capital specialization so far that I can’t make my own pancakes.

“There’s Nothing Morally Wrong With Not Wanting to Work Hard at School”

That’s a point I agree with in an opinion piece I recently stumbled across.

And it relates to a larger point that’s been brewing in my head the longer I hang around campus. Most of these kids simply shouldn’t be here. They don’t want it enough, and they really don’t need it. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they don’t want to work hard enough to make school a valuable experience. College is a distraction for most kids who really should be getting work experience instead.

I’d love to live in a world where people valued education and pursued it for its own sake. I’d love to find out my garbage man is a lover of classic Russian literature. But I actually live in a world where people value schooling which they pursue for credentials. And any education they get along the way is an accidental byproduct. The one things students seem to learn is how to flatter their professors. Sure, they learn while they’re at school (how can you be 18 and not learn something?!), but I’m far from convinced that they learn because of school.

The trouble is that the one thing schools have been effective at teaching students is how important school is. Is it so important that nearly a quarter of “amusement and recreation attendants” should have bachelor’s degree or higher? I won’t argue that carnies should be high school drop-outs like in the good old days. But if I had the choice between one who passed my class (with a C+) and one who spent an extra couple years learning how to make sure a bolt is tightened properly, I know who I want operating my teacups.

As a society, we’re fooling ourselves. We’ve set up a system where we convince kids that they need a degree to live a good life, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as college graduates go on to uncritically hire college graduates. That leaves an unsustainable tension: most students (rightly) don’t want to work hard at school, but they want to go to school. “Society” wants them to work hard at school, but doesn’t want to deny anyone a degree. At best we end up wasting everyone’s time. At worst, we set kids up for failure then leave them with student loans. In either case we erode standards and diminish the signalling value of school along with the educational value. We need someone to go into high schools to tell kids that there’s nothing morally wrong with opting out of college entirely.

Brazil, the country of Carnival (?)

Maybe for most English speakers it isn’t even known, but we are in the Carnival week. Carnival is a festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March. It typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments. I’m unashamedly taking some elements from Wikipedia here to try to explain it. It is basically equivalent to Mardi Gras. Carnival (or Carnaval, as we say it in Portuguese) is a big thing in Brazil. Or maybe not. That’s what this post is about.

Carnival is a Christian feast, at least in its origin. It occurs right before lent. Lent is the forty days that antecede the Passover. The idea was that people would fast (at least to some degree) during the forty days of lent. Therefore, Carnival was the last opportunity for forty days to indulge in some pleasures of the flesh. Carnival literally means “remove meat”, from the Late Latin expression carne levare. “Farewell to meat” is another possible translation. However, carne is not solely meat in Latin; it also refers to the flesh, especially in the Christian association between sin and flesh. Carnaval, therefore, is the feast of the flesh – taken literally or not. At least in Brazil, to my knowledge, the relationship between Carnival, Lent and Passover is little known. I believe that most people just take it to be a major party that happens sometime between February and March.

Brazil is popularly known as the country of Carnival, Samba and Soccer. Of these three, I kind of like the last one. Not so much the first two. To my knowledge, Carnival has always been very popular in Rio de Janeiro, at least since the early 19th century. At that time, it was known as Entrudo, a celebration in which mostly people throw water on one another, like in a water balloon fight. However, there were some improvements: people started throwing some liquids other than water if you know what I mean and that even at strangers. The party was also an opportunity for slaves to poke on their masters. Carnaval eventually became associated with the slaves’ African culture, and I suppose that’s how the Christian origins were somewhat lost. Today, Carnaval in Rio is strongly associated with Samba music.

I haven’t done a very scientific research for this, but to my knowledge, most people in Rio actually don’t like Carnaval. Carnaval is a street party, with all that comes with it: people leave tons of trash behind; people get drunk, and often violent; the music can get really loud and sometimes going on for hours, even into the night. Given the specific nature of the festival, there are people having sex on the street and other things happening as well. It is hard to say this without sounding moralistic, but the thing is that Carnaval ends up being the most anti-libertarian thing one can imagine. If “don’t do onto others what you don’t want to be done onto you” is the golden rule we’re trying to put into practice, Carnaval is the undoing of this.

In the late 19th century, some authorities already realized that the festival was getting out of control and tried to organize it somehow, mostly to no avail. But things really got out of control in the early 20th century. Coming out of the monarchy, Brazilian intellectuals were dedicated to the task of identifying the Brazilian identity. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda made a huge contribution to this with is Roots of Brazil (Raízes do Brasil), in which he said that Brazilians had a hard time understanding and applying the impersonal relationships necessary for a modern capitalistic society. Another major contribution in this conversation was done in 1933 by anthropologist/sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his book Casa-Grande e Senzala (English: The Masters and the Slaves). In this book, Freyre argued that the Brazilian national identity was the result of miscegenation (both biological and cultural) between masters and slaves.

On the one hand, I want to say that Freyre’s argument was revolutionary because he was saying that Brazilians were not an “inferior race” because of race-mixing. Just the opposite: Brazilian culture was permeated by highly positive elements exactly because of miscegenation. Consider that Freyre was saying that in the 1930s, when race-mixing was still a major taboo in the US, not to mention Nazi Germany. But on the other hand, I believe that Freyre contributed to a movement that gave up trying to “civilize” Brazil.

The topic of civilization is always a polemic one because it implies that some cultures are superior to others. I don’t want to go that way. But I also don’t want to be a cultural relativistic. Some cultures are superior to others in some aspects. There is nothing culturally superior in leaving tons of trash in the streets after a street party. There is nothing culturally superior in imposing your music taste on others. There is nothing superior in imposing your take on sexuality on others.

In the late 19th century, some authorities were trying to organize Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro because things were getting out of control. In the early 20th century, most authorities gave up that enterprise because they decided that Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil) is that “mess”. Instead of trying to correct the bad aspects of Carnaval, they decided to celebrate it as the very essence of Brazilian culture. Eventually, into the 20th century, Carnaval became a great example of panem et circenses policy.

I understand that in the early 21st century more and more people in Brazil are getting sick and tired of Carnaval, and that has some connections with politics. Typically (though definitely not always) people on the left want to celebrate Carnaval. People on the right typically (though definitely not always) don’t want to. Some people on the left are already saying that Bolsonaro’s government represents the taking over of government by Christian fundamentalists. I doubt. They may be right at a very low degree. But for the most part, what is happening is that Brazil is too diverse for a single project of nation to work for everybody. Ironically Gilberto Freyre was right: we are the result of this mixture, and this is not a bad thing. People only need to learn to respect the opinions, tastes and preferences of the other elements in this mix.

Generic Thanksgiving Post

Addendum: I wrote this post this morning, hit post, and returned to my oven. The apple pie was pretty good, the pecan was better. The stuffing and gravy were great.

While my oven pre-heats, let me give my top(ish) three things I’m thankful for:

  1. My dog Lola. This sweet little pooch entered my life this January and she’s absolutely melted my heart. Here we are on her first camping trip:

2. Capitalism. Yeah, you knew what you were signing up for when you came to this URL. For all the problems with giving any humans any authority at all, even our half-assed American capitalism does a pretty decent job of allowing me the opportunity to have a literal feast every Thanksgiving.

3. The little Internet. Not all that’s online is Google, Facebook, or Amazon. There are still cool little pockets of the Internet where a few dozen weirdos get together and make something beautiful.

I recently learned about the tildeverse a community of communities of people sharing a common web-connected computer like in ye olden days of pre-Google internet. Back before it was the Information Super Highway. Back before it ruined democracy by allowing humans to act like humans at scale. Playing around on an under-powered server is a pretty niche hobby, but there are tons of these long tail groups out there.

The friendly communities that create forums, the weird projects, the sync-tubes; the beautiful bubbles: these are the places that keep that old spirit of the Internet alive. The Internet giants are scary, but they’re not the only game in town; I’m deeply thankful for that.

Also stuffing. And gravy.

Happy Thanksgiving! Be excellent to each other!

You’re Not Worth My Time

In our polarized and politically intolerant times, intellectuals worry about the divisions in our societies. You might call it inequality or absence of social mobility, racism or rigid social structures but all pundits seem to agree that despite our apparent cosmopolitanism, many people’s opinions on lifestyles, politics, or economics are diverging. More so, their opinions about others’ opinions is less accepting. We disapprove of people that believe the wrong things, and we shun them in favor of like-minded people.

Economists like Paul Collier (The Future of Capitalism), Raghuram Rajan (The Third Pillar), and Branko Milanovic (Capitalism, Alone) are producing well-publicized books about how the social world of our current societies are collapsing – “coming apart at the seams”, as Collier phrases it. A recent book on technology and the environment by MIT researcher Andrew McAfee, states the following:

more and more people are choosing to have fewer ties to people with dissimilar values and beliefs, opting instead to spend more time among the like-minded. The journalist Bill Bishop calls this phenomenon ‘the big sort’. (2019:227)

The observation could have come straight out Jonathan Haidt, a scholar I greatly admire. Why do we do this Bishop-style sorting? A common assessment is that having people challenging my beliefs hurts my identity and I don’t like it. We rather go for echo chambers.

Let me be contrarian and obnoxious for a minute and defend this Big Sort: is it really that bad to distance oneself from those with different views and opt for like-minded people?

The Irrelevance of Political Opinion

It’s long been recognized by social scientists that politics drive people apart (together with ‘Economics’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Abortion’, forming the acronym R.A.P.E, the avoidance of which is key to successful social conversations). From being friendly customers in a decentralized marketplace, politics urges us to become enemies and opponents, demands that we confiscate one another’s stuff rather than cooperate in creating value for each other. Bringing up your position on some labor market reform or the taxation of the rich (of which your familiarity is probably quite limited) is likely to deteriorate a relation rather than improve it.

Here’s the thing: Life is much more important than politics. Life is the experiences we’ve had, the sunrises we’ve seen, the friends and relationships we’ve had and lost and the stories that came with them. Not to mention the food we ate and the things we did. What your stance is on the environment or what you think the long-term consequences of QE is going to be are all very secondary issues. They might be much more interesting to those of us who care about such things, but for the majority of people, they remain pretty immaterial.

What happens when you trumpet these R.A.P.E. topics in your indecent search for like-minded people – or even an experience-widening tolerant search for opponents? Consider the typical, loud liberty-minded American; within five minutes in his (yes, his) presence, you know what his views are and he throws them in people’s faces whether they like it or not. Your group of acquaintances, likely consisting of people who couldn’t care less, get annoyed. While some people may engage in serious conversations about politics or economics (or religion or abortion) once in a while, their lives are generally concerned with more worthwhile topics. Having some loud-mouthed libertarian invade their everyday life with provocative statements and logical argument is not just annoying, it is bad manners.

I can lecture anyone and everyone I meet on the brilliancy or markets or how Scottish banks operated in the 18th century, with the sole outcome that I will have no friends or even acquaintances. Sharing your political and economic views rarely endear you to other people; it merely makes you a nuisance.

In short: Don’t be an arse. Stop ruining our great time with mindless, hurtful, harmful politics.

What about the perspectives and knowledge of others?

If you must invade others’ lives with your pesky politics, speaking to people with diverging opinions and different background might be interesting and fruitful. Key words “might be”. More accurate words: “is rarely”.

It is true that you might learn some exciting things from random strangers, but it’s unlikely. Most people are less informed about the world than I am (if you doubt that, ask your conversation partners to take Rosling’s Gapminder test) – what are they going to “teach” me but inaccuracies and misinformation…?

Sure, my car-loving friends can teach me something *fascinating* about some new car, a topic a could care less about. My baseball-crazy friends could recount the latest Sox game or why Tom Brady is the greatest – oh, ye, that’s a different sport. Soz. But is an environmentalist really going to teach me anything worth knowing about the impacts of climate change? (No, how could they – they don’t understand markets or even capitalism). Is an Occupy Wall Streeter going to lecture me about how financial markets work and what banks really do? How is my mother contributing to my perspectives on monetary policy when the sheer extent of her monetary wisdom comes from a novel where the ostensibly private Federal Reserve was purchased and controlled by some millionaire?

Don’t get me wrong: these are all amazing people that I highly cherish. I enjoy spending time with them and sharing stories about life. Point is: I’m under no illusion that they offer intellectually valuable perspectives that I could benefit from.

If I wanted to get such perspectives, I’d much rather spend time around two kinds of people: smart or curious. The majority of people you meet are neither:

Smart People are those who actually know things about the world, and I don’t meant boring things like why Israel celebrates this or that holiday, why the sky is blue (OK, that could be cool) or how one assembles a roof out of palm leaves. I mean a fair and favorable view of markets and a data-driven optimism. I mean a basic grasp of statistics. I mean a big picture understanding of what matters and the intellectual capabilities to explore them.

Curious people are those of whatever political persuasion that have thick enough skin to have their positions questioned and willing to reason to reach mutual understanding. One does not have to be smart or well-informed to be interesting – it’s enough to be sceptical and hungry for knowledge.

They rarely make ’em like that no more. So I take my probability-informed chances and avoid politically-minded people.

Elitist and Snobby?

Probably. But consider this: I have 24 hours a day, of which I sleep maybe 8. For maybe another 8 a day, I need to produce value, and so can’t be interrupted by loud and obnoxious libertarians (or environmentalists, or anthropologists or…). The last third of my days contain a lot of tasks: washing, workout, food, reading, wonders of the world. At best, it leaves a couple of hours a day for curious intellectual disputes. Statistically, I have another 56 years to live, for little over 60,000 hours worth of intellectual endeavors. There is an almost an endless supply of materials from interesting people out there – actually smart people: authors of books and journal articles, podcast interviews, lectures etc, all on topics that interest me. And more is produced every day. For every hour you take away from me with your “enriching perspectives” and uninformed opinion, I lose an hour of engaging with the treasure trove of actually smart people. Besides, the depth of their knowledge, the clarity of their formulation, the well-researched (and sourced!) material and examples they bring are almost certainly better than whatever you’re about to bring me. Consider the opportunity cost for me of having to listen to you “bumble-f**k your way through it“, as my beloved Samantha (Lily Collins) says in Stuck in Love. Even if you only take 10 minutes of my time, is whatever you’re about to say better than 1/360,000 of the sum of humanity’s current (and future) literary, statistic and economic treasure?

I don’t think so either. It’s simply not worth it.

This is a good reason to stick to people of similar mindset – people who are curious and open to having every argument re-examined, every proposition questioned. People with thick enough skin and sharp enough intellect not to mistake your objection for insult.

It’s not really the content of someone’s ideas that we’re shunning; it’s the intolerance and ignorance that we’re avoiding, carefully taking the opportunity cost into account. Talking to people who don’t share those views – the meta-views of intellectual discourse if you wish – is mostly a waste of time. The book on my desk is almost certainly more valuable.

With all due respect, you’re simply not worth my time.

Musings on opinions: de gustibus non est disputandum

A well-known Latin adage reads “de gustibus non est disputandum”, roughly translated as “about tastes it should not be disputed”. In English, we usually refer to the maxim as “over tastes there is no argument”, indicating the economist’s fundamental creed that tastes and preferences may very well come from somewhere but are useless to argue over. We can’t prove them. We can’t disavow them. Ultimately, they just are and we have to live with that.

In November last year, ridiculing a prominent Swedish politician, I used the example of ice-cream flavours to illustrate the point:

“I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.

Over tastes there is no dispute. You like what you like. We can theorize all we want over sociological or cultural impacts, or perhaps attempt to trace biological reasons that may explain why some people like what they like – but ultimately we must act in the world (Proposition #1) and so we shrug our shoulders and get on with life. We accept that people believe, like, and prefer different things and that’s that.

Being strange rationalising creatures, you don’t have to scratch humans very deeply before you encounter convictions or beliefs that make no sense whatsoever. Most of the time we’re talking plainly irrational or internally inconsistent beliefs, but, like most tastes and political opinions, they are very cheap to hold – you are generally not taxed or suffer noticeable disadvantages from holding erroneous or contradictory beliefs. Sometimes, by giving the speaker social kudos for believing it, the cost of holding an erroneous belief might even be negative – portraying openly it gives us benefits with our in-group. (yes, we’re all Caplanites now).

Let’s continue the “what to eat” comparison since, apparently, the personal is political and recently what I eat seems to be everybody else’s business too.

When I make a decision in the world (as I must to stay alive, Proposition #1), I occasionally feel the urge to explain that choice to others – because they ask or because I submit to the internalised pressure. I might say “eating ice-cream is good for me” (Proposition #2a).

Now, most people would probably consider that statement obviously incorrect (ice-cream is a sweet, a dessert; desserts make you fat and unhealthy, i.e. not good for you). The trouble is, of course, that I didn’t specify what I meant by “good for me”.  It’s really unclear what that exactly means, since we don’t know what I have in mind and what I value as “good” (taste? Longevity? Complete vitamins? How it makes me feel? Social considerations?).

This version of Proposition 2a therefore essentially reverts back to a Proposition 1 claim; you can like whatever you want and you happen to like what ice-cream does to you in that dimension (taste, feeling, social consideration). Anything still goes.

I might also offer a slightly different version (Proposition #2b) where I say “eating ice-cream is good for me because it cures cancer”.

Aha! Now I’ve not only given you a clear metric of what I mean by ‘good’ (curing cancer), I’ve also established a causal mechanism about the world: ice-cream cures cancer.

By now, we’ve completely left the domain of “everything goes” and “over tastes there is no argument”. I’m making a statement about the world, and this statement is ludicrous. Admittedly, there might be some revolutionary science that shows the beneficial impacts of ice-cream on cancer, but I seriously doubt it – let’s say the causal claim here is as incorrect and refuted as a claim can possibly be.

Am I still justified in staying with my conviction and eating ice-cream? No, of course not! I gave a measure of what I meant by ‘good’ and clear causal criteria (“cure cancer”) for how ice-cream fits into that – and it’s completely wrong! I must change my beliefs, accordingly – I am no longer free to merely believe whatever I want.

If I don’t change my behaviour and maintain enjoying my delicious chocolate-flavoured ice-cream, two things happen: First, I can surrender my outrageous claim and revert back to Proposition 1. That’s fine. Or I can amend Proposition 2b into something more believable – like “eating ice-cream makes me happy, and I like being happy”.

What’s the story here?

If we substitute ice-cream for – I posit with zero evidence – the vast majority of people’s beliefs (about causality in the world, about health and nutrition, about politics, about economics and religion), we’re in essentially the same position. All those convictions, ranging from what food is good for you, to how that spiritual omnipotent power you revere helps your life, to what the government should do with taxes or regulations to reduce poverty, are most likely completely wrong.

Sharing my own experiences or telling stories about how I solved some problem is how we socially interact as humans – that’s fine and wonderful, and essentially amounts to Proposition 1-style statements. If you and I are sufficiently alike, you might benefit from those experiences.

Making statements about the world, however, particularly causal relations about the world, subjects me to a much higher level of proof. Now my experiences or beliefs or tastes are not enough. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter if I invoke the subjective and anecdotal stories of a few friends or this or that family member. I’m still doing sh*t science, making claims about the world on seriously fragile grounds. It’s not quite Frankfurt’s “Bullshit” yet, since we haven’t presumed that I don’t care about the truth, but as a statement of the world, what I’m saying is at least garbage.

I am entitled to my own beliefs and tastes and political “opinions“, whatever that means. I am not, however, entitled to my own facts and my own causal mechanisms of the world.

Keeping these spheres separate – or at least being clear about moving from one to the other – ought to rank among the highest virtues of peaceful human co-existence. We should be more humble and realise that on most topics, most of the time, we really don’t know. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Introducing “Be Our Guest,” a new component of NOL

Check out NOL‘s newest feature, a place where you can have your thoughts and arguments published in a house of decency and legitimacy. The first guest essay comes from Ben Sharvy, a teacher in Portland, on, among other things, vaccines and the lack thereof:

What’s the damage done? Cancer patients who forego conventional treatment and exclusively choose alternative medicine are 2.5 times more likely to die. Women with breast cancer fare the worst — with a 5.7 times higher death rate among those who choose only alternative therapies. Multiple studies agree, including a 2017 report from the National Cancer Institute: Alternative medicine kills.

Read the rest, and by all means, submit your own thoughts to us. Tell your friends about this project, too.

Why this feature? Mostly because of the rather high volume of submissions I have been getting lately. Many of these pieces don’t really fit in with NOL‘s overall vibe, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading or putting out into the world. So, be our guest.