How to be a good writer

Oct 25 JDN 2459148

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
~ Thomas Mann

“You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

~ Red Smith

Why is it so difficult to write well? Why is it that those of us who write the most often find it the most agonizing?

My guess is that many other art forms are similar, but writing is what I know best.

I have come to realize that there are four major factors which determine the quality of someone’s writing, and the pain and challenge of writing comes from the fact that they are not very compatible with one another.

The first is talent. To a certain degree, one can be born a better or worse writer, or become so through forces not of one’s own making. This one costs nothing to get if you already have it, but if you don’t have it, you can’t really acquire it. If you do lack talent, that doesn’t mean you can’t write; but it does limit how successful you are likely to be at writing. (Then again, some very poorly-written books have made some very large sums of money!) It’s also very difficult to know whether you really have talent; people tell me I do, so I suppose I believe them.

The second is practice. You must write and keep on writing. You must write many things in many contexts, and continue to write despite various pressures and obstacles trying to stop you from writing. Reading is also part of this process, as we learn new ways to use words by seeing how others have used them. In fact, you should read more words than you write.

The third is devotion. If you are to truly write well, you must pour your heart and soul into what you write. I can tell fairly quickly whether someone is serious about writing or not by seeing how they react to the metaphor I like to use: “I carve off shards of my soul and assemble them into robots that I release into the world; and when the robots fail, I wonder whether I have assembled them incorrectly, or if there is something fundamentally wrong with my soul itself.” Most people react with confusion. Serious writers nod along in agreement.

The fourth is criticism. You must seek out criticism from a variety of sources, you must accept that criticism, and you must apply it in improving your work in the future. You must avoid becoming defensive, but you must also recognize that disagreement will always exist. You will never satisfy everyone with what you write. The challenge is to satisfy as much of your target audience as possible.

And therein lies the paradox: For when you have devoted your heart and soul into a work, receiving criticism on it can make you want to shut down, wanting to avoid that pain. And thus, you stop practicing, and you stop improving.

What can be done about this?

I am told that it helps to “get a thick skin”, but seeing as I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to do that and failed completely, this may not be the most useful advice. Indeed, even if it can be done it may not be worth it: The most thick-skinned people I know of are generally quite incompetent at whatever they do, because they ignore criticism. There are two ways to be a narcissist: One is to be so sensitive to criticism that you refuse to hear it; the other is to be so immune to criticism that it has no effect on you. (The former is “covert narcissism”, the latter is “overt narcissism”.)

One thing that does seem to help is learning to develop some measure of detachment frrom your work, so that you can take criticism of your work as applying to that work and not to yourself. Usually the robots really are just misassembled, and there’s nothing wrong with your soul.

But this can be dangerous as well: If you detach yourself too much from your work, you lose your devotion to it, and it becomes mechanically polished but emotionally hollow. If you optimize over and over to what other people want, it eventually stops being the work that had meaning for you.

Perhaps what ultimately separates good writers from everyone else is not what they can do, but what they feel they must do: Serious writers feel a kind of compulsion to write, an addiction to transferring thoughts into words. Often they don’t even particularly enjoy it; they don’t “want” to write in the ordinary sense of the word. They simply must write, feeling as though they die or go mad if they ever were forced to stop. It is this compulsion that gets them to persevere in the face of failure and rejection—and the self-doubt that rejection drives.

And if you don’t feel that compulsion? Honestly, maybe you’re better off than those of us who do.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

Oct 18 JDN 2459141

You’ve probably heard the saying before: “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Something has been building up for a long time, with no apparent effect; then suddenly it crosses some kind of threshold and the effect becomes enormous.

Some real-world systems do behave like this: Avalanches, for instance. There is a very sharp critical threshold at which snow suddenly becomes unstable and triggers an avalanche.

This is how weight works in many video games, and it seems ridiculous: In Skyrim, for instance, one 1-pound cheese wheel can mean the difference between being able to function normally and being unable to move. Fear not, however: You can simply eat that cheese wheel and then be on your way.

But most real-world systems aren’t like this. In particular, camels are not. Yes, zero pieces of straw will not break a camel’s back, and some quantity of straw will. No, there is not a well-defined threshold at which adding just one piece of straw will kill the camel. This is one of those times where formal mathematical modeling can help us to see things that we otherwise couldn’t.

If this seems too frivolous, consider that this model need not be about camels: It could be about the weight a bridge can hold, or the amount of pollution a region can sustain, or the amount of psychological stress a person can bear. I think applying it to psychological stress is particularly appropriate at the moment: COVID-19 has suddenly thrust us all above our usual level of stress, and it’s important to understand where our limits lie.

A really strict formal model useful for engineering purposes would be a stress-strain curve, showing the relationship between stress (the amount of force applied) and strain (the amount of deformation of the object). But for this purpose there are basically two regimes to consider:

Below some weight y (the yield strength)the camel’s back will compress under the weight, but once the weight is removed it will return to normal. A healthy camel can carry up to y in straw essentially indefinitely.

Above that point, additional weight will begin to strain the camel’s back. But this damage will not all occur at once; a larger amount of weight for a shorter time will have the same effect as a smaller amount of weight for a longer time.

The total strain on the camel will thus look something like this, for exposure time t: (w-y)t

There is a total amount of strain that the camel can take without breaking its back. This has units of momentum, so I’m going to use p.

What is the amount of straw that breaks the camel’s back? Well, that depends on how long it is there!

w = p/t + y

This implies that even an arbitrarily large weight is survivable, if experienced for a sufficiently small amount of time. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s actually quite realistic: I’m not aware of any tests on camels, but human beings have been able to survive impacts of 40 g for a few milliseconds.

If you are hoping to carry a certain load of straw by camel over a certain distance, and need to know how many camels to use (or how many trips to take), you would figure out how long it takes to cover that distance, then use that as your time parameter to figure out the maximum weight a camel could carry for that long.

So what would happen if you actually added one piece of straw at a time to a camel’s back? That depends on how fast you add them and how long you leave them there!

What if we cared for everyone equally?

Oct 11 JDN 2459134

Imagine for a moment a hypothetical being who was a perfect utilitarian, who truly felt at the deepest level an equal caring for all human beings—or even all life.

We often imagine that such a being would be perfectly moral, and sometimes chide ourselves for failing so utterly to live up to its ideal. Today I’d like to take a serious look at how such a being would behave, and ask whether it is really such a compelling ideal after all.

I cannot feel sadness at your grandmother’s death, for over 150,000 people die every day. By far the highest QALY lost are the deaths of children in the poorest countries, and I feel sad for them as an aggregate, but couldn’t feel particularly saddened by any individual one.

I cannot feel happiness at your wedding or the birth of your child, for 50,000 couples marry every day, and another 30,000 divorce. 350,000 children are born every day, so why should I care about yours?

My happiness does not change from hour to hour or day to day, except as a slow, steady increase over time that is occasionally interrupted briefly by sudden disasters like hurricanes or tsunamis. 2020 was the saddest year I’ve had in awhile, as for once there was strongly correlated suffering across the globe sufficient to break through the trend of steadily increasing prosperity.

Should we go out with friends for drinks or dinner or games, I’ll be ever-so-slightly happier, some barely perceptible degree, provided that there is no coincidental event which causes more than the baseline rate of global suffering that day. And I’d be just as happy to learn that someone else I’d never met went out to dinner with someone else I’d also never met.

Of course I love you, my dear: Precisely as much as I love the other eight billion people on Earth.

I hope now that you can see how flat, how bleak, how inhuman such a being’s experience would be. We might sometimes wish some respite from the roller coaster ride of our own emotional experiences, but in its place this creature feels almost nothing at all, just a vague sense of gradually increasing contentment which is occasionally interrupted by fleeting deviations from the trend.

Such a being is incapable of feeling love as we would recognize it—for a mind such as ours could not possibly feel so intensely for a billion people at once. To love all the people of the world equally, and still have anything resembling a human mind, is to love no one at all.

Perhaps we should not feel so bad that we are not such creatures, then?

Of course I do not mean to say that we should care nothing for distant strangers in foreign lands, or even that the tiny amount most people seem to care is adequate. We should care—and we should care more, and do more, than most people do.

But I do mean to say that it is possible to care too much about other people far away, an idea that probably seems obvious to some but radical to others. The human capacity for caring is not simply zero-sum—there are those who care more overall and less overall—but I do believe that it is limited: At some point you begin to sacrifice so much for those you have no attachments to that you begin to devalue your own attachments.

There is an interior optimum: We should care enough, but not too much. We should sacrifice some things, but not everything. Those closest to us should matter more than those further away—but both should matter. Where exactly to draw that line is a very difficult question, which has stumped far greater philosophers than I; but at least we can narrow the space and exclude the endpoints.

This may even make a certain space for morally justifying selfishness. Surely it does not justify total, utter selfishness with no regard for the suffering of others. But it defends self-care at the very least, and perhaps can sweep away some of the feelings of guilt we may have from being fortunate or prevailing in fair competition. Yes, much of what you have was gained by sheer luck, and even much of what you have earned, you earned by out-competing someone else nearly as deserving. But this is true of everyone, and as long as you played fair, you’ve not done wrong by doing better. There’s even good reason to think that a system which allocates its privileges by fair competition is a particularly efficient one, one which ultimately raises the prosperity of all.

If nothing else, reflecting on this has made me feel better about giving 8% of my gross income to charity instead of 20% or 50% or even 80%. And if even 8% is too much for you, try 2% or even 1%.

How do we fix the Supreme Court?

Oct 4 JDN 2459127

By now I’m sure you have already heard the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. My social media feeds have been full of people either lionizing her for her accomplishments on behalf of women’s rights or demonizing her for her record on Indigenous rights.

If you are a woman, a person of color, or LGBT, her death likely struck fear into your heart. If right-wing justices gain a majority, your—our—civil rights are once again up for grabs. Obergefell v. Hodges, Grutter v. Bollinger, even Lawrence v. Texas and Roe v. Wade may not be safe. Even if you’re a straight White male, you should be probably be concerned about the possibility of overturning Massachusetts v. EPA or Riley v. California. And while Trump’s shortlist of potential appointees includes quite a few women, nearly everyone on it is dangerously right-wing.

This is not how the system should work. The death of a single person should not result in the loss of rights for hundreds of millions of other people. Democracy and rule of law are supposed to protect us from this kind of capricious government.

What can we do to fix this system? We obviously do need some kind of judicial branch, but it may not need to be a Supreme Court as we know it.

First, we should fight tooth and nail to block whoever Trump nominates, just as Republicans blocked Merrick Garland. Once again I find myself agreeing with Jacobin.

The next step is clearly to pack the court: Congress can pass a law increasing the number of Supreme Court seats, and then the President can appoint new justices to those seats. Add 8 seats to the existing 9 and you regain a strong liberal majority.

After that, pass a Constitutional amendment to prevent future court-packing. Otherwise we just get a cycle of retaliation in which the Supreme Court doubles in size with every new administration. This amendment should also include term limits for justices, so that new justices are appointed on a regular schedule instead of whenever one happens to retire or die.

Let me emphasize that this plan is 100% legal and Constitutional. It feels unfair and underhanded, and it is certainly playing hardball; but there is nothing illegal about it. This is exactly how we need to respond to fascism: Follow all the rules of democracy to the letter, but otherwise it’s scorched earth. No doubt Republicans would complain that we are violating standards and norms—but they’ve done far worse.

In order to achieve this, we need to win elections across the board. The Presidency is not nearly enough; we need to take control of both houses of Congress (to pack the court) and most of the state legislatures as well (to pass a Constitutional amendment).

But this may not be enough. We should ask whether the Supreme Court as an institution is worth keeping around, or if we could replace it with something better.

We clearly do need some sort of judiciary, and probably some kind of top-level court to act as the court of last resort. In that sense, I guess we need a Supreme Court.

But there’s no particular reason justices need to be appointed by the President. The UK recently established a Supreme Court whose justices are appointed by an independent commission. The Court of Cassation in France is huge, with over 85 trial judges and 40 deputy judges; judges each have a relatively narrowly-defined jurisdiction of the types of cases they handle. The High Court of Australia is modeled on the US Supreme Court and is appointed by the Prime Minister; and yet it has a mandatory retirement age of 70.

I’m not aware of any country that directly elects its supreme court justices, but that would be feasible as well. Whether it would be wise is a different matter: There’s evidence that direct election of judges is a major contributing factor to our mass incarceration, because judges want to look “tough on crime” in their election campaigns. And most people simply aren’t well-informed enough to elect judges. But it’s worth considering whether direct election—requiring re-election every few years—would be better than a system where a single appointment puts someone in power for generations.

In any case, it is clear that the Supreme Court is broken. Our rights should not be this fragile.

Capitalism isn’t bad for the environment

Sep 27 JDN 2459120

There are certainly many legitimate criticisms to be made against capitalism, particularly unregulated, unfettered capitalism. But many of the criticisms the left likes to offer against capitalism really don’t hold water, and one of them is the assertion that capitalism is bad for the environment.

The world’s most polluted cities are largely in India and China. In fact, as China has opened up to world markets and become more capitalist, it has become more ecologically efficient, in the sense of producing far less greenhouse emission per dollar of GDP.

Indeed, the entire world has been getting more efficient on this metric: We now produce about twice as much GDP per ton of CO2 emitted than we did in 1990.

Pollution in the Soviet Union was horrific; even today, many of the world’s most polluted places are in the former Soviet Union. Much of the ecological damage was hidden while the USSR was still in place, but once it collapsed, the damage that Soviet policy had done to the environment became obvious.

If you sort countries by their per-capita greenhouse emissions, the worst offenders are Kuwait, Brunei, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain—small, oil-producing countries in the Middle East. The US and Canada also do pretty badly, and are certainly quite capitalist; but so do Libya, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, not exactly known for their devotion to free markets.

I think this in fact too generous to socialist countries. We really should adjust for GDP per capita. It’s easy to produce zero pollution: Just let everyone starve to death. And if that sounds extreme, consider that millions of people literally did starve to death under Stalin and Mao. It’s a fair question whether we really need the high standard of living we have become accustomed to in the First World; perhaps we could afford to cut back. But clearly some kind of adjustment is necessary: A country is obviously doing better if they can produce more GDP for the same carbon emissions.

Therefore, let’s see what happens when we rank countries by kilograms of CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP. The highest polluters are then the Central African Republic, Belize, Libya, Gambia, Eritrea, Niger, Grenada, Palau… not a First World country among them. CAR produces a horrifying 126 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP. The US is near the world average at about 3.0 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP, and as usual Scandinavia Is Better with about 1 ton of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP. China does worse than the US, at about 4.0 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP. Russia and most of the former Soviet Union does substantially worse, generally around 5.0 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP.

Then again, these figures use production-based accounting; perhaps we should be using consumption-based accounting, so that First World countries can’t simply offshore their emissions. The data is less complete and probably less reliable, but it’s still pretty clear that the highest per-capita emissions are in small oil-exporting countries in the Middle East, like Qatar and Brunei.

Moreover, on consumption-based accounting, the highest emissions per dollar of GDP are in Mongolia, Namibia, Ukraine, South Africa, and Kazakhstan. The US actually does better at 2.6 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP, while Scandinavia is still at about 1 ton of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP. China closes the gap, but still does worse than the US, at about 3.0 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP.

No matter how you slice it, the US just isn’t the world’s worst polluter, and we only look like we are in the top 10 because we are so fabulously rich. If it were generally true that higher wealth always comes with proportionally higher pollution, then perhaps capitalism could be blamed for producing all this pollution—though then we’d have a difficult tradeoff to make between reducing pollution and increasing wealth. But in fact there is wide variation in the ecological efficiency of an economy; nuclearize your energy grid like France did and you can cut your emissions in half. Do whatever Scandanavia does and you can do even better.

Now I suppose it would be fair to say that France and Scandinavia are less capitalist than the United States; they certainly have much stronger social welfare states (including universal healthcare) and more redistribution of wealth. But they’re still quite capitalist. They have robust free-market economies, thousands of for-profit corporations, and plenty of billionaires. France has 41 billionaires among 65 million people, just a slightly lower rate of billionaires-per-capita than the US. Sweden has 31 billionaires among 10 million people, a substantially higher rate of billionaires-per-capita than the US. It may be that the optimal level of capitalism for environmental sustainability is not 100%; but it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near 0% either. National Review overstates the case a little (I mean, they are National Review), but I don’t think they are wrong when they say that socialism is bad for the environment.

Indeed, it seems quite important that France and Scandinavia are democratic (by some measures the most democratic places in the world), while China and Russia are authoritarian. It’s not hard to see why democracy would be good for the environment: It solves the Tragedy of the Commons by including the interests of everyone who is impacted by pollution. Policies that produce really catastrophic pollution tend to get leaders voted out.

The rather surprising result is that empirically there doesn’t appear to be a strong effect of democracy on environmental sustainability either. There’s some evidence that it helps, but it seems to depend upon a lot of factors, and on some measures democracy may actually make matters worse. I honestly don’t have a good explanation for this; I would have expected a really strong benefit, since the theoretical argument is quite strong: Voters have strong reasons to want clean air and water, while dictators don’t (especially water, which they can easily pay to import).


Perhaps capitalism is bad for the environment, but democracy is good, and the two sort of cancel out? But there isn’t even much reason theoretically to think that capitalism would be worse for the environment. Private ownership yields private stewardship, and poisoning your employees and customers is not good business. Yes, some forms of pollution spread out far enough that they become a Tragedy of the Commons; but it’s actually hard to find clear examples where pollution spreads far enough to be a Tragedy of the Commons for a corporation but doesn’t spread far enough to be a Tragedy of the Commons for a whole country. Some multinational corporations are large enough that they probably have more reason to care about the environment than many small countries—Walmart’s total revenue is nearly 15 times higher than Brunei’s total GDP. Indeed, one of the few upsides of concentrated oligopolies is that they are less likely to pollute!

I can understand why it’s tempting to blame capitalism for the degradation of the environment. Indeed, if the argument could stick, it would be a really compelling reason to dismantle capitalism—we simply cannot continue to degrade the environment at the rate we have been for much longer. But empirically it just doesn’t work; whatever determines a country’s ecological sustainability or lack thereof, it’s something subtler than capitalism versus socialism—or even democracy versus authoritarianism.

Sheepskin effect doesn’t prove much

Sep 20 JDN 2459113

The sheepskin effect is the observation that the increase in income from graduating from college after four years, relative going through college for three years, is much higher than the increase in income from simply going through college for three years instead of two.

It has been suggested that this provides strong evidence that education is primarily due to signaling, and doesn’t provide any actual value. In this post I’m going to show why this view is mistaken. The sheepskin effect in fact tells us very little about the true value of college. (Noah Smith actually made a pretty decent argument that it provides evidence against signaling!)

To see this, consider two very simple models.

In both models, we’ll assume that markets are competitive but productivity is not directly observable, so employers sort you based on your education level and then pay a wage equal to the average productivity of people at your education level, compensated for the cost of getting that education.

Model 1:

In this model, people all start with the same productivity, and are randomly assigned by their life circumstances to go to either 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 years of college. College itself has no long-term cost.

The first year of college you learn a lot, the next couple of years you don’t learn much because you’re trying to find your way, and then in the last year of college you learn a lot of specialized skills that directly increase your productivity.

So this is your productivity after x years of college:

Years of collegeProductivity
010
117
222
325
431

We assumed that you’d get paid your productivity, so these are also your wages.

The increase in income each year goes from +7, to +5, to +3, then jumps up to +6. So if you compare the 4-year-minus-3-year gap (+6) with the 3-year-minus-2-year gap (+3), you get a sheepskin effect.

Model 2:

In this model, college is useless and provides no actual benefits. People vary in their intrinsic productivity, which is also directly correlated with the difficulty of making it through college.

In particular, there are five types of people:

TypeProductivityCost per year of college
0108
1116
2144
3193
4310

The wages for different levels of college education are as follows:

Years of collegeWage
010
117
222
325
431

Notice that these are exactly the same wages as in scenario 1. This is of course entirely intentional. In a moment I’ll show why this is a Nash equilibrium.

Consider the choice of how many years of college to attend. You know your type, so you know the cost of college to you. You want to maximize your net benefit, which is the wage you’ll get minus the total cost of going to college.

Let’s assume that if a given year of college isn’t worth it, you won’t try to continue past it and see if more would be.

For a type-0 person, they could get 10 by not going to college at all, or 17-(1)(8) = 9 by going for 1 year, so they stop.

For a type-1 person, they could get 10 by not going to college at all, or 17-(1)(6) = 11 by going for 1 year, or 22-(2)(6) = 10 by going for 2 years, so they stop.

Filling out all the possibilities yields this table:

Years \ Type01234
01010101010
1911131417
2
10141622
3

131925
4


1930

I’d actually like to point out that it was much harder to find numbers that allowed me to make the sheepskin effect work in the second model, where education was all signaling. In the model where education provides genuine benefit, all I need to do is posit that the last year of college is particularly valuable (perhaps because high-level specialized courses are more beneficial to productivity). I could pretty much vary that parameter however I wanted, and get whatever magnitude of sheepskin effect I chose.

For the signaling model, I had to carefully calibrate the parameters so that the costs and benefits lined up just right to make sure that each type chose exactly the amount of college I wanted them to choose while still getting the desired sheepskin effect. It took me about two hours of very frustrating fiddling just to get numbers that worked. And that’s with the assumption that someone who finds 2 years of college not worth it won’t consider trying for 4 years of college (which, given the numbers above, they actually might want to), as well as the assumption that when type-3 individuals are indifferent between staying and dropping out they drop out.

And yet the sheepskin effect is supposed to be evidence that the world works like the signaling model?

I’m sure a more sophisticated model could make the signaling explanation a little more robust. The biggest limitation of these models is that once you observe someone’s education level, you immediately know their true productivity, whether it came from college or not. Realistically we should be allowing for unobserved variation that can’t be sorted out by years of college.

Maybe it seems implausible that the last year of college is actually more beneficial to your productivity than the previous years. This is probably the intuition behind the idea that sheepskin effects are evidence of signaling rather than genuine learning.

So how about this model?

Model 3:

As in the second model, there are four types of people, types 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4. They all start with the same level of productivity, and they have the same cost of going to college; but they get different benefits from going to college.

The problem is, people don’t start out knowing what type they are. Nor can they observe their productivity directly. All they can do is observe their experience of going to college and then try to figure out what type they must be.

Type 0s don’t benefit from college at all, and they know they are type 0; so they don’t go to college.

Type 1s benefit a tiny amount from college (+1 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 1s until after one year of college.

Type 2s benefit a little from college (+2 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 2s until after two years of college.

Type 3s benefit a moderate amount from college (+3 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 3s until after three years of college.

Type 4s benefit a great deal from college (+5 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 4s until after three years of college.

What then will happen? Type 0s will not go to college. Type 1s will go one year and then drop out. Type 2s will go two years and then drop out. Type 3s will go three years and then drop out. And type 4s will actually graduate.

That results in the following before-and-after productivity:

TypeProductivity before collegeYears of collegeProductivity after college
010010
110111
210214
310319
410430

If each person is paid a wage equal to their productivity, there will be a huge sheepskin effect; wages only go up +1 for 1 year, +3 for 2 years, +5 for 3 years, but then they jump up to +11 for graduation. It appears that the benefit of that last year of college is more than the other three combined. But in fact it’s not; for any given individual, the benefits of college are the same each year. It’s just that college is more beneficial to the people who decided to stay longer.

And I could of course change that assumption too, making the early years more beneficial, or varying the distribution of types, or adding more uncertainty—and so on. But it’s really not hard at all to make a model where college is beneficial and you observe a large sheepskin effect.

In reality, I am confident that some of the observed benefit of college is due to sorting—not the same thing as signaling—rather than the direct benefits of education. The earnings advantage of going to a top-tier school may be as much about the selection of students as they are the actual quality of the education, since once you control for measures of student ability like GPA and test scores those benefits drop dramatically.

Moreover, I agree that it’s worth looking at this: Insofar as college is about sorting or signaling, it’s wasteful from a societal perspective, and we should be trying to find more efficient sorting mechanisms.

But I highly doubt that all the benefits of college are due to sorting or signaling; there definitely are a lot of important things that people learn in college, not just conventional academic knowledge like how to do calculus, but also broader skills like how to manage time, how to work in groups, and how to present ideas to others. Colleges also cultivate friendships and provide opportunities for networking and exposure to a diverse community. Judging by voting patterns, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that college also makes you a better citizen, which would be well worth it by itself.

The truth is, we don’t know exactly why college is beneficial. We certainly know that it is beneficial: Unemployment rates and median earnings are directly sorted by education level. Yes, even PhDs in philosophy and sociology have lower unemployment and higher incomes (on average) than the general population. (And of course PhDs in economics do better still.)

What would a better job market look like?

Sep 13 JDN 2459106

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but getting a job is really hard. Indeed, much harder than it seems like it ought to be.

Having all but completed my PhD, I am now entering the job market. The job market for economists is quite different from the job market most people deal with, and these differences highlight some potential opportunities for improving job matching in our whole economy—which, since employment is such a large part of our lives, could have wide-ranging benefits for our society.

The most obvious difference is that the job market for economists is centralized: Job postings are made through the American Economic Association listing of Job Openings for Economists (often abbrievated AEA JOE); in a typical year about 4,000 jobs are posted there. All of them have approximately the same application deadline, near the end of the year. Then, after applying to various positions, applicants get interviewed in rapid succession, all at the annual AEA conference. Then there is a matching system, where applicants get to send two “signals” indicating their top choices and then offers are made.

This year of course is different, because of COVID-19. The conference has been canceled, with all of its presentations moved online; interviews will also be conducted online. Perhaps more worrying, the number of postings has been greatly reduced, and based on past trends may be less than half of the usual number. (The number of applicants may also be reduced, but it seems unlikely to drop as much as the number of postings does.)

There are a number of flaws in even this system. First, it’s too focused on academia; very few private-sector positions use the AEA JOE system, and almost no government positions do. So those of us who are not so sure we want to stay in academia forever end up needing to deal with both this system and the conventional system in parallel. Second, I don’t understand why they use this signaling system and not a deferred-acceptance matching algorithm. I should be able to indicate more about my preferences than simply what my top two choices are—particularly when most applicants apply to over 100 positions. Third, it isn’t quite standardized enough—some positions do have earlier deadlines or different application materials, so you can’t simply put together one application packet and send it to everyone at once.

Still, it’s quite obvious that this system is superior to the decentralized job market that most people deal with. Indeed, this becomes particularly obvious when one is participating in both markets at once, as I am. The decentralized market has a wide range of deadlines, where upon seeing an application you may need to submit to it within that week, or you may have several months to respond. Nearly all applications require a resume, but different institutions will expect different content on it. Different applications may require different materials: Cover letters, references, writing samples, and transcripts are all things that some firms will want and others won’t.

Also, this is just my impression from a relatively small sample, but I feel like the AEA JOE listings are more realistic, in the following sense: They don’t all demand huge amounts of prior experience, and those that do ask for prior experience are either high-level positions where that’s totally reasonable, or are willing to substitute education for experience. For private-sector job openings you basically have to subtract three years from whatever amount of experience they say they require, because otherwise you’d never have anywhere you could apply to. (Federal government jobs are a weird case here; they all say they require a lot of experience at a specific government pay grade, but from talking with those who have dealt with the system before, they are apparently willing to make lots of substitutions—private-sector jobs, education, and even hobbies can sometimes substitute.)

I think this may be because the decentralized market has to some extent unraveled. The job market is the epitome of a matching market; unraveling in a matching market occurs when there is fierce competition for a small number of good candidates or, conversely, a small number of good openings. Each firm has the incentive to make a binding offer earlier than the others, with a short deadline so that candidates don’t have time to shop around. As firms compete with each other, they start making deadlines earlier and earlier until candidates feel like they are in a complete crapshoot: An offer made on Monday might be gone by Friday, and you have no way of knowing if you should accept it now or wait for a better one to come along. This is a Tragedy of the Commons: Given what other firms are doing, each firm benefits from making an earlier binding offer. But once they all make early offers, that benefit disappears and the result just makes the whole system less efficient.

The centralization of the AEA JOE market prevents this from happening: Everyone has common deadlines and does their interviews at the same time. Each institution may be tempted to try to break out of the constraints of the centralized market, but they know that if they do, they will be punished by receiving fewer applicants.

The fact that the centralized market is more efficient is likely a large part of why economics PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate of any PhD graduates and nearly the lowest unemployment rate of any job sector whatsoever. In some sense we should expect this: If anyone understands how to make employment work, it should be economists. Noah Smith wrote in 2013 (and I suppose I took it to heart): “If you get a PhD, get an economics PhD.” I think PhD graduates are the right comparison group here: If we looked at the population as a whole, employment rates and salaries for economists look amazing, but that isn’t really fair since it’s so much harder to become an economist than it is to get most other jobs. But I don’t think it’s particularly easier to get a PhD in physics or biochemistry than to get one in economics, and yet economists still have a lower unemployment rate than physicists or biochemists. (Though it’s worth noting that any PhD—yes, even in the humanities—will give you a far lower risk of unemployment than the general population.) The fact that we have AEA JOE and they don’t may be a major factor here.


So, here’s my question: Why don’t we do this in more job markets? It would be straightforward enough to do this for all PhD graduates, at least—actually my understanding is that some other disciplines do have centralized markets similar to the one in economics, but I’m not sure how common this is.

The federal government could relatively easily centralize its own job market as well; maybe not for positions that need to be urgently filled, but anything that can wait several months would be worth putting into a centralized system that has deadlines once or twice a year.

But what about the private sector, which after all is where most people work? Could we centralize that system as well?

It’s worth noting the additional challenges that immediately arise: Many positions need to be filled immediately, and centralization would make that impossible. There are thousands of firms that would need to be coordinated (there are at least 100,000 firms in the US with 100 or more employees). There are millions of different jobs to be filled, requiring a variety of different skills. In an average month over 5 million jobs are filled in the United States.

Most people want a job near where they live, so part of the solution might be to centralize only jobs within a certain region, such as a particular metro area. But if we are limited to open positions of a particular type within a particular city, there might not be enough openings at any given time to be worth centralizing. And what about applicants who don’t care so much about geography? Should they be applying separately to each regional market?

Yet even with all this in mind, I think some degree of centralization would be feasible and worthwhile. If nothing else, I think standardizing deadlines and application materials could make a significant difference—it’s far easier to apply to many places if they all use the same application and accept them at the same time.

Another option would be to institute widespread active labor market policies, which are a big part of why #ScandinaviaIsBetter. Denmark especially invests heavily in such programs, which provide training and job matching for unemployed citizens. It is no coincidence that Denmark has kept their unemployment rate under 7% even through the worst of the Great Recession. The US unemployment rate fluctuates wildly with the business cycle, while most of Europe has steadier but higher unemployment. Indeed, the lowest unemployment rates in France over the last 30 years have exceeded the highest rates in Denmark over the same period. Denmark spends a lot on their active labor market programs, but I think they’re getting their money’s worth.

Such a change would make our labor markets more efficient, matching people to jobs that fit them better, increasing productivity and likely decreasing turnover. Wages probably wouldn’t change much, but working in a better job for the same wage is still a major improvement in your life. Indeed, job satisfaction is one of the strongest predictors of life satisfaction, which isn’t too surprising given how much of our lives we spend at work.

Reasons to like Joe Biden

Sep 6 JDN 2459099

Maybe it’s because I follow too many radical leftists on social media (this is at least a biased sample, no doubt), but I’ve seen an awful lot of posts basically making this argument: “Joe Biden is terrible, but we have to elect him, because Donald Trump is worse.”

And make no mistake: Whatever else you think about this election, the fact that Donald Trump is a fascist and Joe Biden is not is indeed a fully sufficient reason to vote for Biden. You shouldn’t need any more than that.

But in fact Joe Biden is not terrible. Yes, there are some things worth criticizing about his record and his platform—particularly with regard to civil liberties and war (both of those links are to my own posts making such criticisms of the Obama administration). I don’t want to sweep these significant flaws under the rug.

Yet, there are also a great many things that are good about Biden and his platform, and it’s worthwhile to talk about them. You shouldn’t feel like you are holding your nose and voting for the lesser of two evils; Biden is going to make a very good President.

First and foremost, there is his plan to invest in clean energy and combat climate change. For the first time in decades, we have a Presidential candidate who is explicitly pro-nuclear and has a detailed, realistic plan for achieving net-zero carbon emissions within a generation. We should have done this 30 years ago; but far better to start now than to wait even longer.

Then there is Biden’s plan for affordable housing. He wants to copy California’s Homeowner Bill of Rights at the federal level, fight redlining, expand Section 8, and nationalize the credit rating system. Above all, he wants to create a new First Down Payment Tax Credit that will provide first-time home buyers with $15,000 toward a down payment on a home. That is how you increase homeownership. The primary reason why people rent instead of owning is that they can’t afford the down payment.

Biden is also serious about LGBT rights, and wants to pass the Equality Act, which would finally make all discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity illegal at the federal level. He has plans to extend and aggressively enforce federal rules protecting people with disabilities. His plans for advancing racial equality seem to be thoroughly baked into all of his proposals, from small business funding to housing reform—likely part of why he’s so popular among Black voters.

His plan for education reform includes measures to equalize funding between rich and poor districts and between White and non-White districts.

Biden’s healthcare plan isn’t quite Medicare For All, but it’s actually remarkably close to that. He wants to provide a public healthcare option available to everyone, and also lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60 instead of 65. This means that anyone who wants Medicare will be able to buy into it, and also sets a precedent of lowering the eligibility age—remember, all we really need to do to get Medicare For All is lower that age to 18. Moreover, it avoids forcing people off private insurance that they like, which is the main reason why Medicare For All still does not have majority support.

While many on the left have complained that Biden believes in “tough on crime”, his plan for criminal justice reform actually strikes a very good balance between maintaining low crime rates and reducing incarceration and police brutality. The focus is on crime prevention instead of punishment, and it includes the elimination of all federal use of privatized prisons.

Most people would give lip service to being against domestic violence, but Biden has a detailed plan for actually protecting survivors and punishing abusers—including ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and ending the rape kit backlog. The latter is an utter no-brainer. If we need to, we can pull the money from just about any other form of law enforcement (okay, I guess not homicide); those rape kits need to be tested and those rapists need to be charged.

Biden also has a sensible plan for gun control, which is consistent with the Second Amendment and Supreme Court precedent but still could provide substantial protections by reinstating the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, requiring universal background checks, and adding other sensible restrictions on who can be licensed to own firearms. It won’t do much about handguns or crimes of passion, but it should at least reduce mass shootings.

Biden doesn’t want to implement free four-year college—then again, neither do I—but he does have a plan for free community college and vocational schooling.

He also has a very ambitious plan for campaign finance reform, including a Constitutional Amendment that would ban all private campaign donations. Honestly if anything the plan sounds too ambitious; I doubt we can really implement all of these things any time soon. But if even half of them get through, our democracy will be in much better shape.

His immigration policy, while far from truly open borders, would reverse Trump’s appalling child-separation policy, expand access to asylum, eliminate long-term detention in favor of a probation system, and streamline the path to citizenship.

Biden’s platform is the first one I’ve seen that gives detailed plans for foreign aid and international development projects; he is particularly focused on Latin America.

I’ve seen many on the left complain that Biden was partly responsible for the current bankruptcy system that makes it nearly impossible to discharge student loans; well, his current platform includes a series of reforms developed by Elizabeth Warren designed to reverse that.

I do think Biden is too hawkish on war and not serious enough about protecting civil liberties—and I said the same thing about Obama years ago. But Biden isn’t just better than Trump (almost anyone would be better than Trump); he’s actually a genuinely good candidate with a strong, progressive platform.

You should already have been voting for Biden anyway. But hopefully now you can actually do it with some enthusiasm.

Sincerity inflation

Aug 30 JDN 2459092

What is the most saccharine, empty, insincere way to end a letter? “Sincerely”.

Whence such irony? Well, we’ve all been using it for so long that we barely notice it anymore. It’s just the standard way to end a letter now.

This process is not unlike inflation: As more and more dollars get spent, the value of a dollar decreases, and as a word or phrase gets used more and more, its meaning weakens.

It’s hardly just the word “Sincerely” itself that has thus inflated. Indeed, almost any sincere expression of caring often feels empty. We routinely ask strangers “How are you?” when we don’t actually care how they are.

I felt this quite vividly when I was applying to GiveWell (alas, they decided not to hire me). I was trying to express how much I care about GiveWell’s mission to maximize the effectiveness of charity at saving lives, and it was quite hard to find the words. I kept find myself saying things that anyone could say, whether they really cared or not. Fighting global poverty is nothing less than my calling in life—but how could I say that without sounding obsequious or hyperbolic? Anyone can say that they care about global poverty—and if you asked them, hardly anyone would say that they don’t care at all about saving African children from malaria—but how many people actually give money to the Against Malaria Foundation?

Or think about how uncomfortable it can feel to tell a friend that you care about them. I’ve seen quite a few posts on social media that are sort of scattershot attempts at this: “I love you all!” Since that is obviously not true—you do not in fact love all 286 of your Facebook friends—it has plausible deniability. But you secretly hope that the ones you really do care about will see its truth.

Where is this ‘sincerity inflation’ coming from? It can’t really be from overuse of sincerity in ordinary conversation—the question is precisely why such conversation is so rare.

But there is a clear source of excessive sincerity, and it is all around us: Advertising.

Every product is the “best”. They will all “change your life”. You “need” every single one. Every corporation “supports family”. Every product will provide “better living”. The product could be a toothbrush or an automobile; the ads are never really about the product. They are about how the corporation will make your family happy.

Consider the following hilarious subversion by the Steak-umms Twitter account (which is a candle in the darkness of these sad times; they have lots of really great posts about Coronavirus and critical thinking).

Kevin Farzard (who I know almost nothing about, but gather he’s a comedian?) wrote this on Twitter: “I just want one brand to tell me that we are not in this together and their health is our lowest priority”

Steak-umms diligently responded: “Kevin we are not in this together and your health is our lowest priority”

Why is this amusing? Because every other corporation—whose executives surely care less about public health than whatever noble creature runs the Steak-umms Twitter feed—has been saying the opposite: “We are all in this together and your health is our highest priority.”

We are so inundated with this saccharine sincerity by advertisers that we learn to tune it out—we have to, or else we’d go crazy and/or bankrupt. But this has an unfortunate side effect: We tune out expressions of caring when they come from other human beings as well.

Therefore let us endeavor to change this, to express our feelings clearly and plainly to those around us, while continuing to shield ourselves from the bullshit of corporations. (I choose that word carefully: These aren’t lies, they’re bullshit. They aren’t false so much as they are utterly detached from truth.) Part of this means endeavoring to be accepting and supportive when others express their feelings to us, not retreating into the comfort of dismissal or sarcasm. Restoring the value of our sincerity will require a concerted effort from many people acting at once.

For this project to succeed, we must learn to make a sharp distinction between the institutions that are trying to extract profits from us and the people who have relationships with us. This is not to say that human beings cannot lie or be manipulative; of course they can. Trust is necessary for all human relationships, but there is such a thing as too much trust. There is a right amount to trust others you do not know, and it is neither complete distrust nor complete trust. Higher levels of trust must be earned.

But at least human beings are not systematically designed to be amoral and manipulative—which corporations are. A corporation exists to do one thing: Maximize profit for its shareholders. Whatever else a corporation is doing, it is in service of that one ultimate end. Corporations can do many good things; but they sort of do it by accident, along the way toward their goal of maximizing profit. And when those good things stop being profitable, they stop doing them. Keep these facts in mind, and you may have an easier time ignoring everything that corporations say without training yourself to tune out all expressions of sincerity.

Then, perhaps one day it won’t feel so uncomfortable to tell people that we care about them.

This attack on the postal service must not stand

Aug 23 JDN 2459085

Trump has done so many unprecedented and terrible things that we can become numbed by it all, unable to process each new offense because we are already overwhelmed by the others. Perhaps this is a kind of strategy on his part: Keep doing so many outrageous things that we lose our capacity to be outraged. Already it is fair to say that at least half of the 160,000 (and counting) Americans killed by COVID-19 would still be alive if a better President had been in office.

But the attack on the US Postal Service deserves particular attention, because the disruption of mail-in voting during a pandemic could radically alter the results of the election. Indeed, Trump has all but said that this was his goal in defunding the post office.

Trump has long hated the postal service (perhaps because it is a clear example of federal government doing things well and helping people), but his full-scale war upon it started with the appointment of Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General, whose main qualifications appear to be that he has given millions of dollars to Republican campaigns and hates everything the post office stands for. I am quite certain that if there were a Director of Henhouse Affairs, Trump would appoint the Fantastic Mr. Fox.

The White House chief of staff claims that there have been no mail sorting machines decommissioned aside from those that were normally scheduled for replacement. Yet it’s easy to find a number of different sources claiming that there have been far more machines shut down than usual. Postal workers have also spoken out about other kinds of restructuring in the postal system that claim to be about “reducing costs” but seem to be systematically impairing the speed and reliability of service.

Trump claims that mail-in voting is insecure, which has a kernel of truth: Mail-in voting certainly doesn’t have the ironclad security against fraud that in-person voting has. (Unlike in-person voter fraud, mail-in voter fraud actually exists.) But not only is his concern obviously overblown, the USPS has even taken measures to upgrade their security using blockchain encryption. Bitcoin has always been a stupid idea (though a very lucrative one for anyone who bought in early), but blockchain does have some major advantages for voting security, because it is one of the few ways to make a remote system that is simultaneously secure and anonymous. Indeed, I think blockchain encryption (combined with more standard SSL encryption that most web pages already use) might well be a way to implement full-scale online voting—though surely not in time for this election.

The US Postal Service is the most popular federal agency in the United States, followed by the CDC, the Census Bureau, and the Department of Health and Human Services, all of which deservedly have strong bipartisan majority support among voters. It may surprise you to learn that the Department of Homeland Security, the IRS, and the Department of Justice also have strong majority support—though with substantial partisan differences. The most divisive federal agency is ICE, which is beloved by Republicans but hated by Democrats.

Some 91% of Americans approve of the USPS—and why shouldn’t they? It is objectively rated one of the best postal systems in the world—and if anything this isn’t even fair, because most of the other top-rated postal services, particularly Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Singapore, have far smaller areas to cover than the US does. If we restrict ourselves to countries of at least 10 million people and territory of at least 100,000 square kilometers, there are only four postal services rated higher than the US: Japan, Germany, France, and Poland. If we restrict to countries of at least 100 million people, only Japan remains.

Thus, attacking the postal service is clearly not a winning proposition if your goal is to advance the interests of your constituents or even gain more votes. But during a pandemic, mail-in voting is likely to be—and well should be—a very large proportion of all votes. Sabotaging the mail system is a highly effective way to make it much harder to vote in general. And that seems to very much be Trump’s intention.

It is a general pattern that when voting gets harder, Republicans become more likely to win. Liberal voters are more likely to be young adults, poor people, or people of color, all of whom generally have a harder time making it to the polls. This may be less true in this election in particular, because against Trump in particular people who are highly educated and live in cities have been far more likely to vote against Trump—and these are groups of people with particularly high voter turnout. Empirical estimates of how a switch to mail-in voting will affect the election results have been highly ambiguous.

Indeed, perhaps this makes the Republican vote suppression campaign even more sinister: Perhaps they have moved beyond simply trying to tilt the scales in elections and are now willing to actively suppress democracy itself. It sounds radical, if not outright crazy, to assert such a thing—but many of the things that Trump and his Republican lackeys have done would have sounded crazy to me just a few years ago. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I honestly don’t know that Trump will concede defeat when he loses the election—he may refuse to accept the election results and try to stay in office via some sort of coup d’etat. Why do I think this could happen? Because he said so himself on national television. Vladimir Putin must be so embarrassed; his protege doesn’t even know how to be subtle about his authoritarianism.

FiveThirtyEight is currently giving Biden a 72% chance of victory, which is about 27% too low for my taste. That isn’t much better than the margin Hillary Clinton had four years ago. We can only hope that Trump attacking the most popular agency in our federal government will tilt those odds a little further.