Ask not what the economy can do for you

I.

When I was a kid, I asked why the government didn’t just print enough money to make everyone rich.  I got some answer about how that would reduce the worth of money itself, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  So I spent some time thinking about it and realized the answer depended on understanding what the economy itself was.

As a society, we all need a whole bunch of things.  We need people to make food, people to build housing, people to treat us when we are sick, people to keep us safe, people to teach us things, people to produce entertainment, people to manage this whole system, and so on.

Capitalism then was a somewhat fair and useful system to get us all of this.  Anyone is free to take on any of these roles, and do it as well or as poorly as they want.  But the better job you do, the more you will be rewarded, as more people will come to you for your goods or services.  Similarly, if a lot of people can do what you do, you will be rewarded less than if only a few people can do what you do.  And then we have the concept of money to greatly simplify all these interpersonal transactions.

This made me realize roughly what my role in life needed to be.  I was in school at this time so I was in a training phase.  Society was basically giving me “a free 18 years”: until I was 18, no one expected me to contribute anything.  I was getting good food, clean water, shelter, security, and loads of entertainment without having to lift a finger.  All the adults were taking 40 or so hours of their time every week to provide me with all of this.

So my role when I became an adult was to figure out how I wanted to contribute back.  My choice wasn’t fixed: I could always change it.  But I had to contribute somehow.  And if I felt lazy and decided not to, society would say okay and give me enough to keep me alive but not enough to give me a great standard of living (i.e. welfare) – after all, I needed to be motivated somehow.

The answer to why the government doesn’t just print more money then became obvious: it just wasn’t an act that allowed people to produce more value to each other.

II.

All of this is fairly straightforward.  And yet few seem to ever think along these lines.

When we’re in school, the things we’re told most often are “Do what you love” and “Follow your passions”.  I don’t want to admonish this advice per se – if you’re trying to decide how to contribute, finding something enjoyable is best both for yourself and for those who benefit from your profession.

But just because you love doing something doesn’t mean it’s useful to anyone.  You could love painting, but there could be more than enough painters already, most of them better than you will ever be.  Here, at least, the market self-corrects – unable to compete, you’ll find something else to do.  But you could also love something like day trading, where you just buy and sell stocks within the same trading day, making a profit for yourself by timing small rises and dips in the market.  Here, you’re not providing value to anyone’s lives, and yet you can make a fine living for yourself.

Finding a career that can make you the most money is the other popular sentiment.  In an ideal economic system where salary correlates perfectly with positive impact to society, this would be fine.  But this is obviously not the case and no one pretends it is.  Lobbyists, lawyers, tax accountants, executives – it’s obviously wrong to say that all of these highly paid people don’t have positive impact, yet most wouldn’t argue that a lot of these highly paid people have large negative impacts on society and the world.

No one ever told me in school to look for where I could contribute to the world the most.  In fact, when I Google “Why should I get a job?”, I see page after page listing reason after reason, none of which acknowledge “Well, maybe you should be finding your place to give back to the society that is giving you so much.”

On one hand I get it – most people don’t have the luxury of choosing these things, they just take whatever jobs they can get to survive, and they shouldn’t feel the slightest bit bad about it.  But the fact that we don’t talk about this as the actual purpose of jobs is worrisome and leads to a whole lot of confusion.

 

III.

One popular talking point in politics is job creation.  It’s one of the few things regarded as a good thing on both sides of the aisle because in capitalism a strong economy is one where everyone is working and buying.

This really is a failure of capitalism though to model the ideal situation.  In an ideal economic system, jobs exist purely for the sake of solving problems and as we solve more of our problems, jobs will disappear and everyone can work less while simultaneously increasing our standard of living.  Clearly we haven’t figured out how to do that so we’re stuck with capitalism and now “more problems to solve” is uncontested as a positive.

But I do wish more people (and not just anti-capitalists) would acknowledge this.

When job opportunities disappear in some sector, people fight ferociously to get them back.  But another way to think this is there isn’t much to contribute in this sector anymore, and people should be trying to find one that can actually make use of their skills and talents.

People pride themselves in their ability to work hard, again giving less consideration to what that work actually produces.  The phrase “Earning your keep” has more to do with working hard and working well than about actually contributing positively.  Being exhausted is somewhat considered a status symbol.  I don’t know any criminals personally but a lot of criminals in crime shows and movies praise the virtues of hard work, despite the fact that their hard work brings down the fabric of society instead of elevating it.

People also take great pride in the money they make without caring about the damage they do to the world – whether it’s profiting off ruining the economy, the environment, or other people’s lives.  Part of the reason is simple greed for materialism: the luxury life is nice after all.  But the other part is that our society prizes wealth with considerably less consideration for what means were used to acquire that wealth.

“I’m just doing my job” is often considered a valid excuse for bad behavior.  Same with “I do what I can to put food on the table.”

 

IV.

The first popular piece of reading I’ve seen really talk about this is Cracked’s 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person, which is one of their most popular articles ever and many seem to view it as speaking some mind-blowing truths.

Then there’s 80,000 Hours which goes in the complete opposite direction of all other career advice I’ve encountered and focusses on optimizing your career almost purely for positive impact onto the world.  I have complete admiration for people that have this as their focus, but I think it’s so diametrically opposed to the current mode of thinking that most people would just roll their eyes at it.

But we should reshape our cultural attitude towards work.  It’s not just about making a living for yourself, it’s about doing your part to help everyone else thrive.

The Japanese have a concept called Ikigai, which means “A reason for being”.  It says there’s four things to aim for in a job: enjoying it, being good at it, being able to get paid for it, and giving the world what it needs.

Ikigai

Now we can see what traditional North American career advice lacks.  “Follow your passions” makes it seem like what you love is all that matters.  “Earning your keep” makes it seem like what you can be paid for is all that matters.  “You’re good at X, why not do X?” makes it seem like what you’re good at is what matters.  All these are starting points but the fourth circle there of “What the world needs” is just as important, and is just as good a starting point.

And it’s not just about doing it for the world for morality’s sake.  Doing something useful and knowing you are making a positive impact feels different.  Living selfishly to satisfy yourself feels hollow; trying to make the world even a little better feels meaningful.

I want to re-iterate that for a good portion of the population, the options they need are simply not there.  No one who’s trying to make ends meet should read this post and feel the least bit bad about it – you can’t help the world if you’re struggling to survive, and there’s no shame in struggling to survive if that’s the situation you’re in today.

But if you’re lucky enough to be a person who has options, consider that your job isn’t just a way to give yourself and your family a nice standard of living.  Consider what kinds of jobs would make you feel more complete and help others out.  Consider not just asking what the economy can do for you but what you can do for the economy.

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Let’s move past democracy

I.

Sometimes an idea can be so entrenched in society, you never think to question it till you see someone else do it first.  You’re taught that it’s one of the greatest things ever when you’re in school, politicians and the media always refer to it in an overwhelmingly positive way, and it’s far superior to the alternatives that immediately come to my mind.  Then you realize that not only is the idea a mediocre idea, very few have made a serious attempt at improving on it for god knows how long.  This is how I’ve been feeling about democracy for the past few months.

This isn’t a “People are too stupid to make good decisions” rant.  It’s not a critique on corrupt politicians, Gerrymandering, voter apathy, voter ignorance, money in politics, prevailing voting systems, or any of those things.  All of those are, more or less, problems with the implementation of democracy.  I want to make a stronger statement: the very idea of having the public vote on what policies should be passed is fundamentally ridiculous and stupid.

Again, this is not an anti-populist rant.  No one should read this and think, “Yeah, there’s a ton of people who don’t agree with me and keep voting for the wrong people into office”.  I’m saying you and I, as voters, have been given tasks that we are simply not suited for.

Let’s take an issue like Syria.  During 2016 presidential debates and campaigns, candidates kept talking about whether they supported or opposed a no-fly zone over Syria.  And I kept wondering… HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW IF THIS IS A GOOD IDEA OR NOT?  How am I, or the average citizen, supposed to truly understand and weigh the military and diplomatic consequences of this decision better than the actual military strategists and foreign diplomats who are actively engaged in this?  US foreign policy is incredibly complicated.  Even if I were to read through all the news and op-ed pieces and expert opinions to weigh the arguments for and against, no ambassador or military commander or foreign policy expert would think I had any input worth listening to.  And yet our democracies essentially ask that this decision be crowdsourced.

How about raising the minimum wage – is that a good idea?  I don’t know and despite what you may have read, you don’t eitherStudy after study and meta-analysis after meta-analysis have yielded conflicting reports and hundreds of economists have both supported and opposed increases.  If even the most learned people in the field can’t make up their minds, why do so many everyday people enthusiastically support or oppose minimum wage increases?

These are just two of a thousand policy proposals that candidates make and no one reads.  Instead, we have skim arguments from trusted sources, weigh these decisions to ourselves, and then head to the ballot boxes as if we have a clue.

Decisions like this have real consequences and should be made by the people who understand and have expertise in the fields.  Can you imagine a doctor who chooses which medication to prescribe patients based on crowdsourcing?  An engineer who decides on how to build a bridge by polling people?  A lawyer who decides what the best defense for his client would be by setting up a ballot box?  The reason these don’t happen isn’t just impracticality, but because these are awful ideas.

 

II.

The obvious solution of giving more power to the experts is called epistocracy, which means government of the knowledgeable.  It’s also got an obvious counterpoint: if you give some “experts” the power to make the decisions they want, they will just make decisions that benefit themselves.  Power corrupts, after all.  This is a fundamental pitfall of epistocracy that essentially removes it from any serious consideration.  So how do we do better?  How do we incentivize the experts and the learned to do what’s best for everyone instead of what’s best for them?

A problem with democracy is that when we vote for a party, we are effectively voting on a large number of issues, indicating both what we want as well as how to get what we want.  And I think democracy has survived and done so well because it lets the people voice what they want, not because it let them voice how to get what they want.  In fact, I would say it has survived despite conflating the two and crowdsourcing the decision on how to get people what they want.

If you take the Syria example from above, for instance, people by in large want the same thing: we want our lives unaffected by international war, we want our tax dollars to not be wasted, and we want oppressive regimes removed.  How we would prioritize these might be different but I don’t think anyone from either party wants to get attacked by ISIS, have their taxes be wasted, or see an increase in oppressive regimes in the world.

The same goes for the minimum wage question.  Everyone wants a strong economy that will allow them a comfortable standard of living while doing what they like and not having to work themselves to death.  Again, different people would prioritize things like job satisfaction, standard of living, and free time differently – and we should be able to vote on that.  But the minimum wage itself is ultimately an implementation detail, one the average person is not qualified to answer.

This tends to be less true for social policy.  Advocates and opponents of gay marriage literally want different things, as do advocates and opponents of abortion rights.  Some “field experts” may be able to provide some information that may change your mind, but there are no experts who are better qualified to answer this question than individual voters, in the way there are in economic or international policy.

So how do we separate out the two?  The key is that social policy depends on values.  Are so-called traditional family values important to you, or is egalitarianism important for you?  Economic and foreign policy depends more on beliefs.  Will establishing a no-fly zone in Syria put us in a better military and diplomatic position or a worse one?  Will raising the minimum wage lead to a stronger economy or a weaker one?

In essence, we always want the people to be able to voice their values.  But we want just the experts to voice their beliefs.  And we need to do this in a way so that no one can accuse the experts of bias or personal interest.

 

III.

Futarchy is an untested form of government that is the brainchild of economist Robin Hanson.  Its motto is “Vote values, but bet beliefs”.  It tries to address the problem through betting markets.  Betting markets, despite having orthogonal purposes, have been shown to be great aggregators of information that yield large degrees of predictive accuracy.

Here’s an (overly simplified) explanation of how such betting markets would work.  Feel free to skip down to Section IV if you don’t want the gnarly details.

Let’s say the American government wants to know if raising the minimum wage would result in some sort of success metric as defined by the American people, let’s say reduced income inequality.  A bank could offer the following assets:

  • Asset D: Pay $1 if income inequality is decreased, conditional on minimum wage being raised
  • Asset I: Pay $1 if income inequality is increased, conditional on minimum wage being raised

The price of these assets would be determined by what bettors are willing to pay.  If bettors would pay $0.70 for Asset D but only $0.30 for Asset I, this implies a consensus that if the minimum wage is increased, there is a 70% chance that income inequality will decrease.  (Think in terms of expected value if this isn’t immediately obvious: if both assets were equally priced, someone who thinks there is a 70% chance that inequality will decrease has reason to keep buying asset D until its price reaches $0.70, because that’s when E = 70%*$1 – 100%*$0.70 = 0.)

The more money people are willing to pay for Asset D than Asset I, the more confidence we have that raising the minimum wage will decrease inequality.  If the measure is passed, the investors will be appropriately rewarded; if not, all bets are cancelled and no one will have made or lost money.  And we can do this to evaluate policies individually to see what the prediction consensus is.

 

IV.

Under futarchy, voters will vote for what they want and the government will use betting markets to determine what the best policy would be.  The reason betting markets work and are hard to corrupt is that everyone can be a part of it but only knowledgeable people can expect to make money out of it.  This will lead to a world where people are truly incentivized to understand policy proposals and consequences because their own money is on the line.  The overconfident will lose their money and learn not to bet; and when the majority or self-interested corporations are on the wrong side of an issue, experts can identify this and can make even more money by correcting for this.  It ceases to matter whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re loud about your opinions or quiet about them – what matters is your correctness. I could keep writing about why this idea is so promising, despite how weird it sounds at first, but Scott Alexander has already done that here.

Because futarchy is untested, whether it ends up being far superior to modern democracy, somewhat superior, or even worse, is unknown.  But if you know what a status quo bias is, you will agree that it’s worth a shot.

How would we do a trial run?  Perhaps someone could run prediction markets for all the main government policy proposals and record what a futarchial government would have done, what the actual government did, and what the outcomes were. After a decade of this, we could compare the outcomes that resulted when the real government and futarchial governments’ decisions were the same, with the outcomes that resulted when they were different.

After a decade of this, if this futarchial government was shown to be consistently better, maybe someone in a largely techy left-leaning libertarian city could run for office on the promise that they would base non-social policy decisions on what betting markets say to do.  Then perhaps state governments would start looking into it and eventually it could make its way to the federal level.  In the meantime, as this form of government gets more exposure, more people could bet in these markets and the process could be improved upon.

All of this sounds strange and inconceivable, I’m sure.  But if there’s a lesson to be learned from 2016, it’s that what’s strange and inconceivable is still possible.

I don’t want to criticize democracy too much here.  There’s no question that it’s a far superior alternative to fascism and monarchies.  But I think it’s far too early to call it quits in coming up with even better political systems.  Futarchy is just a solution I’ve heard of that seems promising, far more promising than epistocracy.  But I’m hoping there will be others.  Let’s move past democracy.

It’s not free speech vs social justice, it’s free speech vs everything

There seems to have emerged an unfortunate and increasing tension between advocates of free speech and advocates of social justice. Once a core liberal value, many leftists have begun associating free speech with right-wingers seeking to attack institutions, spread misinformation, and tread on the less privileged in society. Over 40% of Americans believe that free speech does more to protect the opinions of the majority than it does minority viewpoints.

To those who believe in leftist values such as equality, it’s not clear why concerns over free speech should be made a priority. What benefit is there to allowing bigots to spread their hateful ideas? Why shouldn’t we be working towards a culture where racists and sexists face consequences for voicing their views? Why not ban at least the most obviously offensive speech legally?

Take even an extreme case like Lindsay Shephard and the Laurier debacle. While it’s laughable that a student got in trouble for showing a debate that aired on public television, there’s no quick and easy answer to someone who genuinely asks: “Lindsay could have shown any debate as part of her communications class. There are trans students who face a lot of transphobia in the community and they should feel as safe in a university as any cis person. By showing a video that questioned their identity, Lindsay made it not so. Doesn’t it make sense to reprimand her and ask her to show videos that are more inclusive next time?”

If even such a far-out case can be defended as such, it’s no surprise that it can be hard to clearly and effectively lay out the case against political correctness norms and free speech bans. It’s obvious that a well-written law which prohibits advocation of the genocide or enslavement of a group of people or race would be a good thing. Social norms that prevent people from saying obviously bigoted things are similarly good things. And if these are good things, why would anyone be a free speech absolutist? Anyone who believes in the social justice cause must agree that a world in which certain restrictions on speech are placed would be better than a world in which no restrictions are placed.

The problem is that free speech is an abstract concept with abstract and harder to articulate benefits. When presented with the concrete benefits of banning hate speech, any concerns about slippery slopes appear to be overblown and outweighed. It’s not easy to present the case of why the abstract concerns can be ultimately more important, but one way is to use a form of reductio ad absurdum: show someone that if the abstract loses against the concrete in one specific case, it is equally viable to lose against the concrete in many other cases, diminishing its value altogether.

Let’s say you meet a social justice advocate who says, “Bigotry is the largest societal problem facing America today. The country has an obvious history of racism and sexism, and while things have gotten better, there is a long road ahead before true equality can be achieved. The median household income of white Americans is 70% higher than that of black Americans and the average woman makes only 80% of what the average man does. Implicit association tests reveal the biases and prejudices ordinary people have, and with the rise of Donald Trump, an increasing number of people have been empowered to express their hateful views. A look at the FBI hate crimes database reveals just how rampant anti-black, anti-women, anti-gay and anti-transgender offenses are. We need the government to pass hate crime laws and affirmative action measures, and people to be on alert for bigotry of all sizes. Anyone who opposes this, at best simply does not care about the less privileged, and at worst is a bigot seeking to protect their own privilege. It’s justifiable to not engage with these opponents: we can simply label them as bigots, shame and de-platform them, and make the world a better place.”

And on the surface, this seems like a convincing argument.

But then you meet a social worker who says, “Homelessness is the biggest societal problem in America today. There are currently hundreds of thousands of people in our well-to-do country who’ve had to spend nights on the street because they have no place to go. They endure cold, hunger, and a variety of mental illnesses, while the privileged go about their day. We need the government to raise the minimum wage, pass policies that subsidize housing, fight drug addiction, and increase funding for shelters. Anyone who would oppose this must, at best simply not care enough about the homeless, and at worst hate homeless people. It’s justifiable to not engage with these opponents: we can simply label them as evil capitalists, shame and de-platform them, and make the world a better place.”

Then an anti-abortion activist comes along and says, “Abortion is the most awful thing our society permits today. There are half a million to a million babies that are legally murdered in the US every single year. We need the government to pass legislation that bans this. Anyone who opposes this must, at best simply not care about murder of babies, and at worst actually support murder. It’s justifiable to engage with these ideological “pro-choice” people: we can simply label them as baby killers, shame and de-platform them, and make the world a better place.”

And before long you meet an animal rights activist who says, “Our society’s treatment of animals in factory farms is the worst form of active cruelty being practiced. Animals are tightly packed together and crammed over their own waste. Chickens are debeaked while cows and pigs have their tails removed with no painkillers. Anyone who’s watched a video of factory farms knows that the magnitude of suffering imposed on these animals by people is overwhelming and unconscionable. We need the government to ban any meat that comes from these farms, and shame anyone who is willing to eat such meat in the interim. Anyone who opposes this, at best believes that animal suffering does not matter, and at worst is a sadist. It’s justifiable to not engage with these opponents: we can simply label them as inhumane, shame and de-platform them, and make the world a better place.”

Then comes along the Evangelical Christian who wants blasphemy laws, given how making God happy is clearly the highest priority. Followed by the cardiologist who wants to ban advertisements for fast food restaurants, given the ongoing obesity and heart disease epidemics. Followed by the capitalist who wants to ban any promotion of socialist or communist ideas, given the damage caused by such regimes. Followed by so on and so on and so on.

And there’s the rub.

To try and find the optimal balance between free speech concerns and social justice concerns is to try and find a false compromise. Sam Harris describes free speech as not just another value but a master value, as “It’s the only value that allows us to reliably correct our errors – both intellectually and morally. It’s the only mechanism we have as a species to keep aligning ourselves with reality as we’ve come to understand it”. Despite its importance, social justice advocacy should not be allowed to place restrictions on free speech, any more than any of the other advocacies above. Everyone has their own ideas on what concerns should be made a priority and protecting free speech will always seem secondary to whatever that concern is. But promoting free speech norms levels the playing field as much as it can be levelled, allowing conversation to flow and maximizing our chances of creating better societies.

You may agree with some of the hypothetical arguments above and disagree with others. But if restrictions are placed on free speech, they won’t be based on the merits of the argument: they will be based on the power dynamics in society at that moment in time. The conversation on how concepts of free speech and social justice intersect would have looked very different 60 years ago. As Ken White says, “Exceptions to free speech don’t get used to help the powerless. They get used to help the powerful.”

Jordan Peterson, who has studied authoritarian regimes extensively, has said “I regard free speech as a prerequisite to a civilized society, because freedom of speech means that you can have combat with words. That’s what it means. It doesn’t mean that people can happily and gently exchange opinions. It means that we can engage in combat with words. In the battleground of ideas. And the reason that that’s acceptable, and why it’s acceptable that people’s feelings get hurt during that combat, is that the combat of ideas is far preferable to actual combat.”

When restrictions are placed on free speech, we’ve lost our non-violent self-correcting mechanism. That means when things get bad enough – and they will, because different points of view and interest are inevitable – society will have to resort to violent self-correcting mechanisms. And to a liberal, that is beyond scary because it’s no longer the good ideas that will win, but the ideas of those in power.

When in anger, quit

The culture wars will likely doom us all, but they can also be good fun.  There is one important rule to partaking in the culture wars though: if you find yourself being angry, get the hell out!

If someone is angry, they are irrational.  This is the basis behind the “Cooler heads prevail” motto.  When you’re angry, you can’t reason about things as well.  And if you can’t reason about things well, you shouldn’t be asking others to live according to your reasoning.

Take a break.  Get your life together.  Do something challenging.  Have some fun.  And after some time has passed, if you’re feeling up to it, get yourself back in.

Do I expect all the folks burning and seething with righteous anger to follow this?  No, of course not.  They’ll respond that they “know” what’s right, that their passion is a substitute for rationality.

But if you know better, you can follow this personally.  Once you’re calm, you’ll remember how irrational you were being when you were seething with rage.  Then you’ll learn to dismiss the clatter of braying asses because you know they’re in that very state you left behind.  This doesn’t mean disengaging with everyone who holds an opposing view, it means engaging only with the calm minds of those who hold an opposing view.  (If you can’t find any, it may say something about the view, but it may also just say something about you.)

I’ve thought a lot about when to apply the principle of charity and when not to.  I thought it was the greatest rule ever when I first heard it, and I assumed everyone who wasn’t following it simply hadn’t heard of it.  Being a little wiser now, I understand that not only was that not true, applying the principle in the wrong places can be an unproductive waste of time.  The question arises: how do you decide whether someone is worth engaging with?

The simple answer is to only engage with those who seem reasonable to you.  The problem is that this heuristic doesn’t universalize.  If you ask a libertarian who seems reasonable to them, you’ll get a very different answer from what a socialist would give.

A universalizable heuristic would be “Only engage with people who are calm and open to dialogue”.  Now you have an objective measure.  Now you have a valid reason to shut out certain people from discourse, not because they don’t have any good ideas, but because they’re not providing a valid way for you to interface with those ideas.

Criticizing the left

I live and work in very leftist areas and have very leftist friends, so when political discussions come up, I tend to encounter distasteful leftist ideas far more than I do distasteful rightist ideas.  So I’m writing this up as a summary of what I think are the two main issues of the left.

Before I begin, any criticism I make of the left needs to be prefaced with acknowledgment that the right probably deserves more.  On balance, I would take a liberal government over a conservative one today – but I worry that leaving the left uncriticized will result in future liberal choices to be as bad as the conservative ones.  I also want to note that I agree 100% with what I think is the fundamental value of the left, which is equality and the betterment of everyone.

My first problem with the left is a lack of concern for understanding or caring about conservatives or conservative ideas.  Take the abortion issue: while 59% of American women believe that abortion is morally wrong and only 23% believe it should be legal after the first trimester, the pro-life position is often framed as one rooted in misogyny, where men simply want to control women’s bodies.  This is such an obvious strawman and displays a total lack of charity for their opponents’ obvious concerns of not legalizing a form of murder.

Similarly, concerns about terrorism are caricaturized as pure Islamophobia, concerns about immigration are caricaturized as pure xenophobia, and concerns about gun control are caricaturized as pure gun nuttery.

To take a step back, any observer of American politics needs to understand that there are essentially two distinct worlds that are both culturally and geographically separate.  The two have different values and put their trust in different institutions and groups.

The American right is extremely distrustful of government and mainstream media: I don’t think this is warranted but it’s obvious why a reasonable person could believe this.  Both the government and the for-profit media companies are highly influenced by money and the elite, so a claim that they should be distrusted is not shocking.  It’s totally plausible to imagine a country like America where half the population is being hoodwinked by the power-hungry elites, and it is up to independent media to report the real truth.  Once you accept this premise, much of the right’s concerns make total sense: of course we should be worried about Hillary Clinton’s uranium deals and her connections to Seth Rich and Pizzagate and all the rest; and once these stories break out, of course the elites are going to use their media to deny that all of this is true and it’s all pure conspiracy theorizing.

To be clear, I don’t think any of these are true: I’m simply making the point that from the point of view of any individual, it’s non-obvious who is trustworthy and who is not, and most people just fall back to who the people around them trust or who they were raised to trust.  For the left, this is the mainstream media; for the right, it is organizations like Fox News and people like Rush Limbaugh.  Any leftist who shakes their head at a rightist for their crazy beliefs without understanding this is lying to themselves that they wouldn’t be the exact same way in their shoes.

My second problem with the left is an appeal to authoritarianism, and an unwillingness to engage with complex ideas by attacking free speech.  On college campuses, it feels the need to erupt in violence to stop trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking, rises to make Charles Murray and his ideas unintentionally famous again, attacks principled progressives like Bret Weinstein and Nicholas Christakis, and charges a teaching assistant who shows a debate that aired on public television with sexual violence.  In Silicon Valley, it labels someone who repeatedly states they are in favor of diversity  as anti-diversity and falsely claims they said women are unfit to work in tech in order to fire them. Furthermore, all who disagree are tarred as far right or alt-right.

All of this unwarranted aggression is not only destructive, it’s self-defeating.  If everyone is called a racist or a sexist or a right wing nut, suddenly those groups don’t look as bad as people’s in eyes.

The lack of nuance damages the conversation for unpopular groups.  Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) are a group that provide support for those who are trying to leave the faith.  They are a minority within a minority, a group with heightened security concerns as apostasy is punishable by death.  Yet with the idea that criticism of an ideology can be equated with racism, EXMNA find themselves with few political allies on the left.

All of this criticism of the left can be, ironically, summarized as stop being like conservatives.  Conservatives often like simplicity: terrorism stems from the Middle East because of Islam; poor people just need to work hard and they can lead decent lives too; if black people stopped committing so many crimes, they would be in much better situations.  And liberals provide a much needed nuance: America’s foreign policy has been destructive in the Middle East; the capitalistic system isn’t entirely fair and neither is life; and historical racism has placed the black community in a terrible situation that is still being reinforced by modern day racism.  So why does the left simplify all flaws with conservatives and conservative policies as “They’re bad and not worth engaging”?

Civility and Political Correctness

A number of people have been posting popular tweets about how the “civility” being asked for centrists and conservatives (and many liberals) is the same as the “political correctness” pushed for by the left.

Civility vs PC 1

Civility vs PC 2

Civility vs PC 3

I don’t entirely blame people for thinking the two are one and the same.  On the surface, both terms are about showing respect.  But dig a little deeper, and we find that not only are the two not the same, they are opposites.

The best way to show this is to go through some examples.  Even proponents of political correctness should be able to agree that sometimes it can go too far and lead to bad results.  Take the Rotterham child sexual exploitation scandal, where a sex abuse ring wasn’t addressed due to concerns of alleged racism and damaged community relations.  Or the fact that we are encouraging gender dysphoric kids to transition before they hit puberty, despite evidence that these dysphoric feelings desist upon puberty in 60-90% of those who don’t transition, because presentation of such evidence is equivocated with transphobic bigotry.  Or the encouraged minimization of sex differences in medical drug testing, which results in a deficit of testing in female subjects and thereby poses a real danger to women’s health.

A request for civility, then, is a request that we are able to debate such issues, issues that shape the world we live in and affect the core of many people’s lives.  A request for political correctness (which usually comes in the form of more of a demand) is a request that we don’t engage with these complex topics because it’s deemed offensive to marginalized communities.

(As a personal gripe, it’s also done on behalf of members of marginalized communities, without consideration their individual opinions on the matter.  That last tweet above by Matthew Chapman is one I find particularly annoying because I’m being told, by a white person, that the silencing effect I feel from political correctness is for my own benefit.)

In other words, when someone says “You ask for civility and yet you complain about political correctness, you hypocrite?”, I hear “You ask to be heard in conversations and yet you complain about being silenced in conversations, you hypocrite?”.

Contra Mutz on Trump Voters

The New York Times ran a piece talking about how a new study was disproving the narrative that Trump supporters were driven by economic anxiety.  The study in question was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was written by Diana C. Mutz.

The article mentions 5 findings in the study:

  1. You can’t predict Trump support by determining if a person lost their job recently, if trade directly affects their financial status, or by unemployment and density of manufacturing jobs in their area.
  2. You can’t predict Trump support by anxieties about retirement, education, and medical bills.
  3. A fear that American global dominance was in danger benefited Trump and the Republican party.
  4. People’s beliefs in hierarchy as necessary and inherent to a society were more likely to vote for Trump.
  5. Trump support is predicted by a belief that whites, Christians, or men face more discrimination than minorities, Muslims or women.

#1 and #2 nicely disprove the notion “No one has anxiety about the economy except Trump supporters” (which of course no one is making).  It provides some counter-evidence to the statement “Trump supporters are more anxious about the economy than non-Trump supporters” (though I imagine the two are anxious in different ways, so not sure what this proves).  It provides no support to the statement “Trump supporters aren’t anxious about the economy”.

#3 is making the shocking observation that conservatives believe in America First.

#4 is making the shocking observation that conservatives were more likely to vote for Trump.

#5 is making the shocking observation that Trump supporters feel attacked by social justice warriors.

From all this we draw: “White, Christian and male voters turned to Mr. Trump because they felt their status was at risk.”  Come on, be better.