A shift in the Great Conversation

I was alerted to this piece in n+1, a left-wing publication, on the decline of reading and writing in Western societies thanks to the newfound power of Twitter and the prominence this power gives to the op-ed (h/t John Holbo over at Crooked Timber).

There is one really good point in an otherwise predictable piece, but first I’d like to highlight why I continue to maintain that the Left is still the reactionary ideology of our times. The editorial’s complaints about technology (Twitter) giving a voice to radical factions (right-wingers like Andrew Sullivan and the Fox News brigade) are just the same ol’ excuses served up by the Leftists of yore to censor views they don’t like. It’s ho-hum all the way down.

At any rate, here is the part that really grabbed me:

Back then, we could not have imagined feeling nostalgic for the blogosphere, a term we mocked for years until we found it charming and utopian. Blogs felt like gatherings of the like-minded, or at least the not completely random. Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context — why else would they be spending time in the comments section of a blog that looked like 1996? Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless.

I find myself in aesthetic agreement with these reactionaries, again. I’ve always found myself more drawn to the tastes of leftists than conservatives, whose tastes are often too crass for me. (A dead animal’s head on your wall? Really?) And today, I find the internet arbitrary and charmless. Op-eds, and their charmless cousin, the jargon-laden academic paper, are everywhere.

This is part of the reason why I continue to blog. I know that blogging is becoming less and less popular. I understand that clicks and traffic and attention are more important to most people who take time out of their lives to write. I get it.

The intimacy that a blog affords, though, is too good to pass up, especially for someone like me. I like reading voices from Argentina like Federico’s. I enjoy Jacques’ posts on sex and politics. (A true Frenchman, that one, no matter how hard he tries to be otherwise.) Rick, the Canadian-turned-American living in New York, always manages to bring a smile to my face. I like being able to read Michelangelo, an authentic voice from Los Angeles, the crown jewel of the American Empire.

The conversational nature of the blog is not in vogue right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Indeed, if anything, it means that the conversations that continue to play out over what’s left of the blogosphere will be far more important to far more people in far more places than the latest Twitterstorm. Twitter is an incredibly useful place for mining knowledge, but it’s worthless for shaping that knowledge into something useful and precious for today and tomorrow. Only writing can do that.

Op-eds aren’t going anywhere. There’s no use trying to delegitimize them, or ban them. You can choose to ignore them. That’s what I do. Instead of reading an op-ed, I continue to browse the blogosphere, where conversation about ideas and events remains as boisterous, and relevant, and as ever.

PS: I hope you are enjoying my “nightcaps.” The Notewriters have all reached out to me to let me know they’ve got something in the pipeline. Life gets hectic. People get busy. But writing notes on liberty will never get old.

LARB can’t figure out why South Korea’s government is so bad at marketing campaigns

Colin Marshall is a blogger for the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), a great publication that has featured NOL‘s own Barry Stocker before. Marshall is puzzled by the fact that Seoul’s best marketing comes from independent filmmakers rather than the South Korean government. I guess I shouldn’t say “puzzled” because Marshall has a theory as to what is to blame, but I thought the piece was interesting because it highlights so well why libertarianism is so important.

Here is a link to Marshall’s piece. It is filled with lamentations about the Korean government’s inability to produce good marketing for the country. Instead of going for the jugular, though, and pointing out that incentives matter, here is where Marshall pins the blame:

I often wonder whether the problem has to do with the difficulty Koreans have in seeing Korea clearly, at least when looking for its good points; when dwelling on the negative, they suffer from no such lack of perceptual acumen. Many an acquaintance here has asked me, indeed insisted I reveal to them, what displeases me about Korea. For years I didn’t have a straight answer, but then I realized that nothing bothers me quite so much as Korea’s culture of complaint itself.

Got that? Marshall is wondering aloud (blaming) Korean culture for the bland marketing campaigns of the Korean government, even though he recognizes the brilliant marketing campaign of the independent filmmaker in the beginning of his piece. Not only does he blame Koreans for a problem that affects all governments, he attacks the “culture of complaint” that Koreans are well-known for.

Complaining, critiquing, one’s culture is a necessary component for a free and open society (Chhay Lin wrote about this at NOL awhile back, regarding Cambodia).

Am I engaging in bad faith here? Is Marshall really that ignorant of markets and alternative orders that he fails to understand why the Korean government cannot produce anything creative? Is Marshall so stupefied by the predictable failure of the Korean government to produce anything creative that he would stoop to insulting his hosts? Help me out here, folks.

We have seen the algorithm and it is us.

The core assumption of economics is that people tend to do the thing that makes sense from their own perspective. Whatever utility function people are maximizing, it’s reasonable to assume (absent compelling arguments to the contrary) that a) they’re trying to get what they want, and b) they’re trying their best given what they know.

Which is to say: what people do is a function of their preferences and priors.

Politicians (and other marketers) know this; the political battle for hearts and minds is older than history. Where it gets timely is the role algorithms play in the Facebookification of politics.

The engineering decisions made by Facebook, Google, et al. shape the digital bubbles we form for ourselves. We’ve got access to infinite content online and it has to be sorted somehow. What we’ve been learning is that these decisions aren’t neutral because they implicitly decide how our priors will be updated.

This is a problem, but it’s not the root problem. Even worse, there’s no solution.

Consider one option: put you and me in charge of regulating social media algorithms. What will be the result? First we’ll have to find a way to avoid being corrupted by this power. Then we’ll have to figure out just what it is we’re doing. Then we’ll have to stay on top of all the people trying to game the system.

If we could perfectly regulate these algorithms we might do some genuine good. But we still won’t have eliminated the fundamental issue: free will.

Let’s think of this through an evolutionary lens. The algorithms that survive are those that are most consistent with users’ preferences (out of acceptable alternatives). Clickbait will (by definition) always have an edge. Confirmation bias isn’t going away any time soon. Thinking is hard and people don’t like it.

People will continue to chose news options they find compelling and trustworthy. Their preferences and priors are not the same as ours and they never will be. Highly educated people have been trying to make everyone else highly educated for generations and they haven’t succeeded yet.

A better approach is to quit this “Rock the Vote” nonsense and encourage more people to opt for benign neglect. Our problem isn’t that the algorithms make people into political hooligans, it’s that we keep trying to get them involved under the faulty assumption that people are unnaturally Vulcan-like. Yes, regular people ought to be sensible and civically engaged, but ought does not imply can.

Philosophy of science and free speech

Here’s a link to an article I wrote just published in FEE.

I consider this part of an ongoing, gradual effort to incorporate Paul Feyerabend into the liberty canon. It’s probably a mistake, but I’m doing it anyway.

I also want to give a shoutout to the person that commented I’m “pretending that Ayn Rand didn’t exist.” Of course I know what Ayn Rand is, that’s the island next to Great Britain.

A Millennial’s New Perspective on Home Ownership

The last few years I’ve loudly protested that home ownership is overrated; it’s a bad investment plus lots of responsibility. And yet, this summer my fiance and I bought a 100 year old house on the south shore of Long Island.

Yes, I have lost my mind.

I basically stand by my earlier position, but with greater nuance. Owning a home is a complicated undertaking. But it’s given me a greater appreciation for the nuance involved in managing real estate.

Home ownership is a great big Gordian knot of inter-dependencies. It’s massive set of knowledge problems wrapped in externality problems.There’s a massive role for local knowledge which means policy makers’ attention should be less focused on things like home ownership rates, and more on guiding the right people into the right places to take advantage of that local knowledge.

With local knowledge comes local politics. I don’t know anything about local politics, but expect more posts about what’s going on in my town hall over the next few decades.

So what have I learned in this first month of home ownership?

  • There’s something to be said about pride in ownership

It’s still a real trip to turn on my lights in my kitchen so I can do my laundry in my laundry machines. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it this much. The endowment effect is real. One effect has been to increase my interest in contributing to local public goods via civic engagement and other routes.

I haven’t been to a town hall meeting yet, but I plan on going to one tomorrow. I suspect it will be awful. But I’m walking distance, so I’ll be a little bit drunk.

  • The real estate market has some serious frictions

This might be obvious, but it’s interesting. There are artificial and natural obstacles to the efficient use of real estate. Transaction costs are significant and property rights issues are hairy.

Buying a house is a complicated transaction and going through the process has really made clear to me how difficult it is to commodify land. Each piece of land has a unique location and history. Information asymmetries are substantial. The neighborhood you’re buying into is utterly out of your control. Put simply: Amazon won’t be selling real estate any time soon.

Part of the reason I’m happy with buying a house is that our rent had been increasing about $100/month/year. Land lords absolutely take advantage of real estate frictions to charge as much as they can. The alternative (which I chose) is to lock-in to a specific property.

  • The required knowledge to operate a home is significant and difficult to evaluate.

It takes a lot of knowledge to manage a house. If I were to take a wild guess (at this non-quantifiable variable), I’d say that between 5% and 50% of a homeowner’s brain is necessary to operate a house. Even if you bring in experts to do everything, evaluating those experts is a lot of work.

There are repairs and upgrades to make, and my formal education prepared me for exactly none of those projects. On the other hand, I’ve got the Internet. Without YouTube and Reddit I’d be a half dozen unlucky mistakes away from homelessness.

On the other other hand, I’ve learned a ton of stuff I’ve got no use for. Like how to grow asparagus (which it turns out it isn’t worth doing except out of boredom).

You can’t evaluate knowledge until it’s too late. And there’s more to learn than you ever will, so you have to make mistakes. It’s true of home ownership and it’s true of life more generally.

  • Gardening is a real trip.

In History of Economic Thought professor Gonzalez shared a story about two economists meeting in Switzerland during WWII. On showing his vegetable garden to the visiting economist, the visitor said “that’s not a very efficient way to grow food,” to which the gardener said, “yes, but it’s a very efficient way to grow utility.”

I’ve wanted to garden for some time, but the market for gardens is thin. So now I’m starting with almost no useful experience. My public stance has been that lawns are boring and dumb. But figuring out how to manage a little ecosystem ain’t easy. I now get why someone would just put in a lawn and be done with it.

At my old apartment complex the entire ecosystem was made of: humans, trees, lawns, cockroaches. I suspect the cockroaches did so well because all their competition was poisoned away. As an emergent order guy, I’m not really into that. But I get it now. In the same way the king wants everyone living in neat little taxable rows my life would be easier if I could just slash and burn all the complexity out of my yard.

Tl;dr: My biggest surprise as a new home owner is just how big a cognitive load owning a house is. You hear homeowners talk about how much work it can be, but I think it’s rare to hear someone talk about how much know-how is required.

Given the capacity to generate externalities, I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t more public policy devoted to issues of home ownership* (beyond subsidizing finance and increasing barriers to entry). I supposed I’ll learn a lot more about these issues as I learn about local politics.

*That isn’t to say I think it’s a good idea to get the government involved in trying to tell people how to go about the business of daily life. I think homeowners are (basically) doing fine left to their own devices.

Eye Candy: travel advice for Dutch citizens

NOL Dutch travel advice
Click here to zoom

Interesting map, for a few reasons. The United States is in green, which means there are “no special safety risks” to worry about. What I take this to mean is that as long as you stay out of, say, North Sacramento, or East Austin, when the sun goes down you’ll be safe.

The “pay attention, safety risks” label makes quite a big jump in my conceptual understanding of this map. What this warning means is that if you are particularly stupid, you won’t end up getting mugged and losing your wallet (like you would in green areas), you will instead end up losing your life or being kidnapped for ransom (or slavery).

This is quite a big jump, but it makes perfect sense, especially if you think about the jump in terms of inequality and, more abstractly, freedom.

Naipaul (RIP) and the Left

The most interesting reflection on V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner who died earlier this week, comes from Slate, a low-brow leftist publication that I sometimes peruse for book reviews. Naipaul, a Trinidadian, became loathed on the left for daring to say “what the whites want to say but dare not.”

The fact that Slate‘s author tries his hardest to piss on Naipaul’s grave is not what’s interesting about the piece, though. What’s interesting is what Naipaul’s wife, a Pakistani national and former journalist, has to say about Pakistan:

[…] she smiled and asked if I knew what Pakistan needed. I informed her that I did not. “A dictator,” she replied. At this her husband laughed.

“I think they have tried that,” I said, doing my best to stay stoic.

“No, no, a very brutal dictator,” she answered. I told her they had tried that, too. “No, no,” she answered again. Only when a real dictator came in and killed the religious people in the country, and enough of them that the streets would “run with blood,” could Pakistan be reborn. It was as if she was parodying a gross caricature of Naipaul’s worst views—and also misunderstanding his pessimism about the ability of colonial societies to reinvent themselves, even through violence—but he smiled with delight as she spoke.

“That’s so American of you,” she then blurted out, before I had said anything. My face, while she had been talking, must have taken on a look of shock or disgust. “You tell a nice young American boy like yourself that a country needs a brutal dictator and they get a moralistic or concerned look on their face, as if every country is ready for a democracy. They aren’t.”

Damn. This testy exchange highlights well what the developing world is facing, intellectually. Religious conservatives heavily populate developing countries. Liberals, on the left and on the right, in developing countries are miniscule in number, and most of them prefer, or were forced, to live in exile. Liberty is their highest priority, but the highest priority of Western elites, whose support developing world liberals’ desperately need, is democracy, which empowers a populace that cares not for freedom.

So what you get in the developing world is two kinds of autocracies: geopolitically important autocracies (like Pakistan), and geopolitically unimportant autocracies (think of sub-Saharan Africa).

That Naipaul and his wife had the balls to say this, for years, is a testament to the magnificence of human freedom; that Leftists have loathed Naipaul for years because he had pointed this out is a bitter reminder of why I left the Left in the first place.

By the way, here is Naipaul writing about the GOP for the New Yorker in 1984. And here is my actual favorite piece about Naipaul.