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.

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.

Wiener Moderne and Austrian Economics – A product of times of turmoil

There are some certain incredibly rare constellations of time and space which result in one of a kind decades. The peak of Greek civilization from 5th to 4th century BC, the Californian Gold Rush from 1848–1855 and the Fin de Siecle from 1890-1920. The latter one is of specific interest to me for a long time. Some of the most worlds most famous painters (Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka), philosophers (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl) or authors (Georg Trakl, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler) coined the decade. Even more intriguing for me is that the Viennese intellectual live happened in very close circles. All intellectuals being witnesses of the downfall of one of the greatest empires of the 19th century, each discipline coped with this fate in their very own way. Especially if one compares the movements of that time in literature and economics, it becomes clear that the self-imposed demands of the authors and scientists on their science differ considerably.

The Wiener Moderne:  Flight into the irrational

Driven by the predictable crumbling of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the anticipated increasing tensions in the multi-ethnic empire and the threating of financial recession, the civil society was teetering on an abyssal edge. Furthermore, the Halleyscher comet was predicted to “destroy” the world in 1910, the titanic sunk in 1912, a European war was lingering just around the corner. Concerning the breakdown of stable order, people sought a way out of ruins of what once has been a stable authoritarian order. When existential threats become more and more realistic, one would expect cultural life to totally drain or at least decrease sufficiently. However, the complete opposite was the case.

At first, art merely revolted against the prevailing naturalism. Why would anybody need a detailed, accurate depiction of reality if reality itself is flawed with incomprehension, irrationality and impenetrability? Missing a stable external framework, many writers turned the back against their environment and focused on the Ego. To express the inner tensions of most contemporary people, many authors sought to dive deep into the human consciousness. Inspired by the psychoanalytical insights provided by Sigmund Freund, who had vivid relationships with many important authors such as Arthur Schnitzler, human behaviour and especially human decision making became a topic of increasing interest. Therefore, news ways of narrating such as interior monologue were founded.

Many writers such as Albert Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Georg Trakl found in transcendence a necessary counterbalance to supra-rational society. Reality and dream blurred into a foggy haze; rational preferences gave way to impulsive needs; time horizons shortened, emotions overcame facts. The individual was portrayed without any responsibility towards society, their family or other institutions. In the Dream Story (By far my favourite book) by Arthur Schnitzler, the successful doctor Ferdinand risks his marriage and his family to pursue subconscious, mysterious sexual needs. If you have the time, check out the movie based on the novel “Eyes Wide Shut” by Stanley Kubrick, truly a cinematic masterpiece.

Karl Kraus, on the other hand, founded the satirical newspaper “The Torch” in 1899 and offered often frequented point of contact for aspiring young talented writers. The content was mostly dominated by craggy, harsh satirical observations of the everyday life which sought to convince the public of the predictable mayhem caused by currents politics. Franz Wedekind, Adolf Loos and Else Lasker-Schüler could use the torch as a stepping stone for their further careers.

What they have in common is their understanding of their craftmanship: It is not of the concern of art to save civilization or to convince us to be better humans, but to describe, document and in a way aestheticize human behaviour. This does by no way means that the Viennese authors of the early 20th century were not politically or socially involved: Antisemitism (Karl Kraus & Arthur Schnitzler), Free Press (Karl Kraus), Sexuality (Franz Wedekind and Arthur Schnitzler) were, for example, reoccurring themes. However, in most works, the protagonist struggles with these problems on an individual level, without addressing the problem as a social problem. Also, the authors seemed to lack the entire puzzle picture: Although many individual pieces were criticized, the obvious final picture was rarely recognized (Especially Schnitzler).

Economics – Role of the scientist in society

Meanwhile in economics another exciting clash of ideas took place: The second wave of the Historical School economist, mainly Gustav Schmoller, Karl Büchner and Adolph Wagner, were waging a war against Austrian School of Economics, mainly Carl Menger. The Historical School sought to identify the patterns in history through which one could deduce certain principles of economics. Individual preferences are not the result of personal desires, but rather the sum of social forces acting on the individual depending on space and time, they asserted. Thus, instead of methodological individualism, methodological collectivism must be used to conduct economic research. To determine the historical-temporal circumstances, one must first collect an enormous amount of empirical material, based on which one could formulate a theory. Austrian Economists, in turn, claim that individual preferences stem from personal desires. Although the Austrian emphasize the constraints emerging from interpersonal interactions, they rejected the idea, that free individuals are confined in their will through culture and norms. Thus, economics is a science of aggregated individual preferences and must be studied through the lens of methodological individualism.

As Erwin Dekker (Dekker 2016) has argued, the works of Austrian Economists must be seen as an endeavour to understand society and civilization in the first place. One must carefully study human interaction and acknowledge the ridiculously small amount of knowledge we actually possess about the mechanism of a complex society before one can “cure” the many ills of humankind. With the socialist calculation debate, Austrian Economist tried to convince other academics of the impossibility of economic calculation in the absence of prices.

Apart from their academic debates, they were very much concerned with the development of common society: Authoritarian proposal, the constant erosion of norms as a foundation for civil society, the increasing overall hostility lead them to the decision to leave the ivory tower of economics and argue for their ideas in public discourse. “The road to serfdom” is THE peak of this development. Hayek impressively explains to the general public the fragility of liberal democratic order and how far-reaching even well-intended governmental interferences can eventually be. Joined by Karl Popper’s masterpiece “The open society and its enemies”, Austrian Economist were now defending the achievements of liberal democracy more vigorously than ever.

Conclusion

It would be exaggerated to claim that the literary-historical “flight into the irrational” had excessive influence on the economic debate between the historical school and the Austrian school. Nevertheless, it has already been proven that intellectual Viennese life took place in a few closely networked interdisciplinary circles. There is no direct connection between the Viennese literary circles and famous contemporary economic circles such as the Mises-Kreis. However, the intellectual breadth of contributions and the interwoven relationships of many contributors became an important point of study in recent years (See: Dekker 2014). Especially Sigmund Freud could have been a “middle man” between Austrians (especially Hayek) and the authors of the Wiener Moderne (especially Schnitzler).

What definitely is remarkable is how different the various scientists and artist reacted to the existential threats of the early 20th century.
Resignation? Internal Exile? Counterattack? There were many options on the table.

The “flight into the irrational” pursued by many, by far not all, authors of Wiener Moderne was a return to surreality, irrationality and individualism. Austrian Economist, however, went from individualism to social responsibility. According to them, scientists had an obligation to preserve that kind of liberal democratic system, which fosters peaceful human cooperation. To achieve this shared goal, many Austrian Economists left the ivory tower of academic debates, where they also fought for the same purpose, and temporarily became public intellectuals; starting a much more active defence of liberal democracy.

Ok, Americans – here is your Eurovision Guide

“Euro-what?” I hear you ask. Great! Set your coffee aside for a few minutes and indulge in a much-required and long-overdue cultural enlightenment.

Eurovision Mania is on, so you better get with it!

Eurovision Song Contest, or “Eurovision”, is an annual music competition that’s been running since 1956 and every year sees some 40 countries participating. And it’s massive. Every participating country selects an original song – usually through some kind of nationally televised show – with an associated live performance and all those entries get to perform in front of tens of thousands of ecstatic Eurovision fans from across the globe.

In short, it’s basically American’s Got Talent merged with The Voice – but structured a bit like Miss U.S.A – with tons more glitter, spex, showtime and glamour and with twice(!) the audience of SuperBowl. Beat that, ‘Murica.

Yes, that’s some 200 million people lining up their Saturday nights (and the preceeding Tuesday and Thursday too, for semi-finals) for this:

The winner is lavished in eternal fame and glory, and their country’s broadcasting company gets the honor of splashing out on next year’s event. As Israel’s Netta and her song ‘Toy’ won last year’s competition in Libson, Portugal, the 64th version of Eurovision is held in Tel Aviv, Israel, beginning today!

Is Israel European?

Perhaps not, but that’s never stopped Eurovision before. Actually, the event is organized by European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an alliance of public service media companies – and includes associate members such as Australian, Algerian, Jordanian and Lebanon organizations. Thus, the geographical boundaries for entries into Eurovision is somewhat flexible – which is why Australia has competed in the competition since 2015!

That’s also the reason Brexit won’t affect the UK’s participation in Eurovision, thank god!

So, what is this thing – and why have I never heard of it?

Depending on who you ask, Eurovision could be anything between a fabulous celebration of European unity through culture and music, or a dull, wasteful affair of pretty freaky performances. No doubt among the competition’s 1500 entries, it has seen its fair share of strange, quirky, silly and outrageous performances (just google some of them). But it also contains the fanciest, most extravagant dresses and costumes imaginable,  friendly rivalry, great music and an outburst of colors. Indeed, a bit like the SuperBowl, the half-time entertainment has been at least as interesting as most of the performances. This year it is even rumored that Madonna is making an appearance!

In other words, across the Atlantic, Eurovision mania has descended and will be this week’s Big Thing. Indeed, at 10 pm local time (3 p.m ET), the first semi-final begins, and the winner usually emerges after a rather complicated voting procedure sometime Saturday night (6 p.m ET).

As for American’s (un)surprising ignorance of the event, it’s even become somewhat of a Youtube phenomena of introducing this long-standing pan-European institution to shockingly unaware Americans and recording their reactions. Some of them are pretty spot-on (“this is the cheesiest of music shows!”). Without passing judgment on the worldy outlooks of Americans, y’all aren’t exactly – erm let’s say – well-versed in the going-ons of places beyond your coasts.

In the Eurovision case, not for lack of trying: in the last few years, Logo actually broadcasted the event, but couldn’t muster more than 50,000-75,000 viewers and so the greatest of European non-sports events won’t be on American TV this year. Hardcore fans (list of international broadcasters) are probably best served by a youtube live-stream.

Of course, the skimpy American coverage by outlets like the New York Times isn’t exactly helping either; their angle of the “Israel-Palestine dispute” compleeeeetely miss the point of Eurovision. The event’s apolitical nature is another thing that makes Eurovision so great: politics is strictly, explicitly, unavoidably relegated to the sidelines. As in political messages and even song lyrics with too definitive political flavors are censured or expelled. For instance, Iceland’s participants this year, the controversial band Hatari, is already challenging this sacred line of No Politics Beyond This Point by their frequent pro-Palestine stunts. Allegedly, they have already been issued a final warning by the organizers; one more political stunt and they’re disqualified.

In sum: Eurovision is the biggest, fanciest, most extravagant and entertaining music event you’ve never heard of. Get on the train. A great start is by watching the recap of this year’s 41 entries.

What should universities do?

The new semester is here so it’s time for me to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing in the weird world of modern American university life. Roughly speaking, the answer is going to be “do the stuff that professors do to help universities do what universities do.” So what do universities do? What are they supposed to do?

Universities occupy a few different niches in society. I’m usually tempted to think of universities like a business. And in that framework, I justify my salary by providing something of value to those students. At my school, something like 90% of the operating budget comes out of students’ pockets.

But that’s an overly narrow view. Students pay to go to school because they expect they’ll get value from it, but they also go to school because them’s the rules–if you want to enter adult society, university is the front gate. In this framework, I justify my salary by serving as a gatekeeper. Even though it’s students paying, the (nebulous) principal I’m obliged to is the collection of people already inside the walls.

But wait! There’s more! Universities are (in no particular order):

  • A repository of knowledge,
  • A generator of new knowledge,
  • A place people go to learn,
  • A place people go to prove themselves,
  • A place people make friends and have fun (in a way that may be hard to replicate),
  • A business (engaging in mutually beneficial exchange),
  • A special interest group,
  • An institution that holds a particular (privileged) position in a wider cultural landscape.

Any one of these functions is a can of worms in its own right. When we start to consider tradeoffs between each function (and the many less visible functions I’ve surely missed), it gets downright intractable. I’m going to focus on the student-focused aspects of university life.

The mainstream view:

University is a place students get educated. This education helps them get jobs because employers value it. Students might also learn things that help them be better citizens.

The mainstream view doesn’t seem far off from what I’ve got in mind until you get your hands dirty and start disentangling what that view says. Here are three big problems inherent in that mainstream view:

  1. The education-for-job myth.
  2. The definition problem.
  3. The one-size-fits-all problem.

The Job-training myth

We’re told that students go to school to learn valuable skills. I think that’s true, but not in the usual way. Any specific skills students learn in school are a) incredibly general, or b) out of date. My students might learn some interesting ways of looking at the world (general knowledge), but a lot of what I teach is completely useless in the workforce (“Johnson, draw me a demand curve, stat!”). But students do learn valuable skills incidentally. They learn to manage their time (ideally), how to be conscientious, and in general they’re socialized so that they can fit in with adult society.

Lately I’ve been thinking of college as a form of upfront consulting. Instead of going to school when you’ve got a specific problem to solve, go when you’re young and have nothing better to do. Since you’re getting the consulting before you know what sort of problems you’ll face in the future, we couldn’t possibly give you exactly the right bundle of knowledge.

College exposes students to lots of different ideas that might combine in unexpected ways. Your class in underwater basket weaving might seem like a waste of time until some day 30 years later you are trying to solve some problem that turns out to make a lot more sense if you think of it like wet wicker (I’m looking at you civil engineers!).

Some of what I (and my colleagues) do helps prepare students for their careers, but mostly I’m trying to help them be better–better thinkers, better able to understand and appreciate, better able to enjoy life.

The definition problem

The word “Education” means a lot of things to a lot of people. More often than not, people use the word without being clear about what they mean. Often it means “job training.” Sometimes it means “enlightening.” Other times it means “making you agree with me.” In practice, it means surviving enough classes that you get a piece of paper indicating as much.

It should be recognized as a vague and nebulous word instead of being pigeonholed. It isn’t a binary state (I was ignorant, now I’m educated). It’s helpful to think of people as being more or less educated, but the state of your education isn’t something we can really objectively compare to my state of education.

There are lots of important but nebulous things in our lives: health, happiness, moral worth. Their vagueness makes them difficult, but it isn’t going away.

It isn’t hard to convince people that education is nebulous, but it is hard to get people to behave as though they really understand that.

Homogenization and commodification

Once people start thinking of education as some objective thing we can pull off a shelf and give to someone, we run into the real problems. This unexamined view leads to bureaucracies that attempt to standardize and commodify education.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why people would try to do this. We want everyone to get education (and moral training, and good health, and…). And as long as we’re worried about that, we’re going to worry about making sure everyone gets the best education possible. But “the best” gives the false impression that there’s one right answer.

A top-down approach isn’t the right way to achieve the goal of widespread education. Attempting to systematically scale up education provision kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. We should fight against attempts to commodify university (which currently happens via accreditation-as-gateway-to-subsidy and the general expansion of bureaucracy through administration).

So what should universities do?

There are different margins on which we can justify our existence, but it’s not obvious how to balance our tasks: teaching, researching, advocating, etc.. Given the high degree of uncertainty, I’d argue for pluralism… different schools (and professors) should be trying different things. As universities adapt to the future, it’s important that they don’t all try to adapt in the same way at the same time.

I think a big part of the problem is that we’ve been too successful at rent seeking. All money/privilege/goodies comes with strings attached, and more money comes with more strings. We’re always going to get a little tangled up in those strings, but in the last couple generations we’ve hamstrung ourselves. Accreditation and assessment have become the most important things a modern university does, which distracts from our more fundamental goals.

A bottom up approach doesn’t mean less education, just different education. A more modest education system would change the mix of costs and benefits faced by stakeholders. Employers might rely less on degree signalling, which means hiring managers and potential employees exercising more judgement in sending and evaluating quality signals. I don’t know exactly what would happen, but flexibility is valuable for the nebulous goals universities are supposed to be pursuing.

But at the moment we seem to be in an equilibrium. Students are expected to go to school, schools are expected to deliver on promises they can’t really fulfill, and we go through the motions of keeping schools accountable in a way that basically misses the point.

So what will I do this semester? I’m going to keep talking about interesting stuff to students. I’m going to keep working towards getting tenure. But I’m also going to quietly subvert attempts to commodify university.

 

Minarchism, Anarchism, and Democracy: A Shared Challenge

Minarchism–basically as small a government as we can get away with–is probably the most economically efficient possible way to organize society. A night watchman state providing courts of last resort and just enough military to keep someone worse from taking over.

The trouble (argues my inner anarchist) is that if we’ve got a government–an organization allowed to force/forbid behaviors–we’re already on the slippery slope to abuse of powers through political trading. Without an entrenched culture that takes minarchism seriously it’s only a matter of time before a) the state grows out of control and you’re no longer in a minarchist Utopia, or b) a populace unwilling to do their part allows violent gangs to fill the power vacuum.

Having a government at all is a risky proposition from the perspective of someone worried about the abuse of that power. Better not to risk it at all.

Anarchism relies on the right culture in a similar way. This is clear to critics of anarchism (basically it’s just the minarchists who are willing to take anarchists seriously at all) and is the crux of an important argument against anarchism. Without the right culture, what’s to stop people from just creating some new government? Nothing at all.

In fact, we face the same problem in the military-industrial-nanny-state complex of our imperfect real world. For any government–or lack of government–to work, the ideological framework of the people living in that society has to line up properly. To the extent people are ignorant, distracted, short-sighted, biased, or mean-spirited, we get governance that reflects those flaws.

If we want to live in a better world, we can argue all day about what sort of government we do or don’t want. But ultimately we have to work on improving the culture, because the median voter is still in charge.

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.