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.

Link: The Most Controversial Tree in the World

Tending an ecosystem is hard. With all the interconnections it’s impossible to do just one thing. We should absolutely be skeptical of calls to engineer the environment from the top down, but we should also recognize that we’ve already been unintentionally doing so.

To me, the linked article raises interesting questions about the sort of common law restrictions on GMO that seem reasonable. Default infertility seems like an efficient Coasian compromise for industrial GMO. But the case of the American chestnut seems like an exciting opportunity to reverse an ecological tragedy.

This case seems like a good polar opposite to Jurassic Park on the spectrum of GMO threat/promise.

RE: Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends

I just got an email asking me to sign on to an open letter arguing for some carbon tax policies. I’m seeing some push back from (smart, economically literate) Facebook friends, but I think it’s a viable step in the right direction.

Here’s the statement paraphrased:

We think global warming is an important and urgent issue and we recommend these five things:

1. A carbon tax is the best, most cost-efficient way to do as much about carbon as needs to be done. [For a given level of carbon reduction, I agree. How much carbon reduction should happen (and how much at government behest) I am deeply agnostic about.]

2. We think this should be phased in over time and should be revenue neutral. [Yes on both points, but the rest of the statement makes it seem like they’re talking about a pretty short time horizon. I’m not sure how fast is too fast, but I’m sure there’s such thing.]

3. A carbon tax is more efficient than a set of specific regulations. [Certainly!] It’s also less likely to be subject to changing political winds. [Is it though?]

4. We should also apply a carbon tax to imported goods. This would reward energy-efficient American firms and prod other countries to follow suit. [Hmmmm… I can’t really disagree with the general principle, but this sounds like it will require bureaucratic oversight that will be subject to regulatory capture. On the other hand, we’ve already got that.]

5. We should give the revenue collected back to U.S. citizens, to offset increases in energy prices. [Okay, but if it’s going to be revenue neutral and come with a transfer scheme, that’s going to take some detangling!]

I buy into the notion that carbon emissions create large scale externalities that will probably be more bad than good on balance. Not universally bad, mind you. And not something that humanity won’t ultimately adapt to. But I think the people who will face the brunt of the bad outcomes will be the world’s poor (who we should help migrate to better climates!).

I don’t think we can just impose “the right” carbon tax and have everything come out just right. Even though I routinely draw out the case with a supply and demand graph in class, the truth is that nobody has access to those curves in real life. But a small tax can serve to reduce the inefficiency of pollution even if we don’t get it exactly right.

The revenue neutral part is important–we’re currently taxing lots of things we actually want more of (like investment). So if we can cut those taxes by taxing things we want less of (pollution), we’re reducing two sources of inefficiency in the current setup. Of course you and I have bolder views about what policy should look like in 100 years, but restricted to a 10 year window, a revenue neutral carbon tax looks pretty good to me.

The letter dramatically over-simplifies things. Climate change is probably a problem, but probably not as big a problem as proffered by proponents of proposals to prepare for apocalypse. It’s not clear to me that we have a good idea of a) all of the effects (good and bad), b) how people will adapt, and c) how people will adapt to a changing policy regimen.

Figuring out how to handle the tax on imports will be difficult and rife with rent seeking. Unmentioned is the impact on exports. If all our trading partners follow a similar policy, there’s no problem, but in the mean time there’s a tension that will probably be resolved with some unfortunate bit of rent seeking.

I’m sure most reasonable people would agree that instantaneous change would probably be unduly costly, but it’s not clear what the right speed of implementation is.

There are some miscellaneous rhetorical points I have issue with, but I suspect those are in there to throw a bone to people who aren’t me.

I hope that 10 years from now this open letter looks a bit silly. But I also hope that 10 years from now pollution taxes start to replace more inefficient taxes. On balance, I’m happy to see the letter prodding us in that direction.

Angry? Learn economics!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now get to it! Start making things better!

California’s Environmental Mal-Litigation

The worst intervention by governments, aside from aggressive war, is excessive litigation. Taxes are burdensome, but they are predictable. The reason that enterprises are not entirely crushed by taxation is that much of the tax burden is at the expense of land rent, so it ends up destroying the economy’s surplus, but not totally wreaking the economy. Regulations act as a tax to impose costs on enterprise, and much of the cost is passed on to workers and the public, so they make us poorer but don’t totally stifle the economy. Subsidies create distortions that generate inequality and the boom-bust cycle, but subsidies is what politics is all about. The worst intervention, that does the most to crush enterprise and employment, is vicious litigation.

A prime example of litigative intervention is the California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA is codified at the Public Resources Code Section 21000 et seq. As California’s web site for CEQA states, “Most proposals for physical development in California are subject to the provisions of CEQA.” The “frequently asked questions” web section explains that “CEQA is a self-executing statute.” That means that “its provisions are enforced, as necessary, by the public through litigation and the threat thereof.” Past court cases can be seen on the web site of the California Natural Resources Agency.

As described by a “Schumpeter” blog article in the 25 January 2014 Economist, “The not so Golden State,” this law “has mutated into a monster.” Anybody in California may file a CEQA lawsuit against any project using environmental protection as an excuse. The plaintiffs win half the cases. If someone sues a company and loses, the defendant still has to cover his legal expenses. Many of the lawsuits under CEQA are also against governmental development projects and against permits by local governments to enable private development.

Suppose a developer seeks to build an industrial park. If he hires non-union workers, the union attacks with a CEQA lawsuit. So the builder hires expensive union labor. Suppose someone owns a gasoline station, and a competitor wants to set up a station nearby. The station owner stops the potential competitor by filing a CEQA case. In 2011, there were 254 “California disinvestment events,” in which companies employing more than one hundred workers either left the state or expanded in another state rather than in California. This is estimated to have gotten worse in 2012 and 2013.

The litigations and regulations of California fall hardest on manufacturing. California’s high sales tax and low property tax also induces cities to favor retail stores over manufacturing. Hostile policies in California are largely responsible for the flight of manufacturing to other states and to foreign countries. As noted by the Economist article, electronic devices are designed in “Silicon Valley,” the region from San Francisco to San Jose, but manufactured in Asia. Some environmentalists realize that CEQA does little to protect the environment, but attempts to reform the law have stalled. The frivolous lawsuits reward lawyers, unions, companies seeking to stifle competition, and “not in my backyard” opponents of development.

Litigation is the worst way to handle social problems. Lawsuits impose unpredictable and expensive costs on enterprise. Such laws let opportunists exploit legitimate job-creating industries. Excessive litigation is further rewarded by making the winning defendants of lawsuits have to pay their legal costs. We then get excessive malpractice suits that force doctors to buy expensive insurance. Federal and state laws that enable litigation for job and housing discrimination and environmental protection end up enriching lawyers who get much of the gains.

The best ways to handle environmental destruction is with covenants and easements, along with a liability rule for damages. If some development harms the natural environment, then the government assesses the damage, and the polluter pays for the damage, either as a one-time charge or as periodic payments for on-going pollution. Developers know in advance that they are liable for damage, and so they would have the incentive to prevent the payment by doing their own environmental assessment. The issue would be between the developer and the state, without involving attorneys and court costs.

Economic theory has recognized for the past hundred years that the optimal policy for pollution is a charge paid by the polluters, passed on to the customers, fully compensating society for the damage. That can be done by a pollution tax.

English common law traditionally provided law-suit protection against potential negative effects and damages to one’s property. Litigation can be a useful enforcement and restitution tool, but it has to be within a sensible legal system. In the English tort system, if a plaintiff loses a law suit, the loser has to pay the legal costs of the winner. So if a company sues another firm just to stifle competition, using the environment as an excuse, and that company loses the lawsuit, then that company has to pay the legal costs of the winning competitor. That would stop frivolous or phony law suits. And that is why the lawyer lobby will stop such a legal reform in the USA.