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%.

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.

Why nonviolence?

Aug 16 JDN 2459078

You are no doubt aware that there are widespread protests going on right now. You may even have marched in some of them. Nearly 30 million Americans have participated in the Black Lives Matter protests, located in cities all around the country; this makes them quite likely the largest protests in American history.

The right wing is of course making much of the isolated incidents of violence that have occurred, often but not always actually provoked by the police or federal agents assigned to quell the protests. They have also made much of the property destruction caused by riots that have emerged from the protests, typically eliding the distinction between property destruction and violence. Since there has been far more property destruction than actual violence, this allows them to effectively inflate the level of violence.

In reality, the total deaths caused by these protests over two months and counting is clearly less than the number of Americans who are shot by police in an average week. And the total amount of property destruction is clearly less than the tens of billions of dollars per year that are stolen in wage theft, let alone the hundreds of billions of dollars per year that are stolen by white-collar crime. If violence and loss of property are really what you care about, these protests should not be your main concern.

Yet, I am concerned that too many on the left are too willing to accept violence. I have seen far too many people sharing and endorsing this quote:

“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

~ Stokely Carmichael

Nonviolence does work. Nonviolence did work for the civil rights movement. No, it doesn’t depend upon your opponent having a conscience—it only depends upon bystanders having a conscience. (Also, “the United States has no conscience” is only true insofar as socially constructed institutions don’t have feelings. Clearly most of the people in the United States—probably even most of the people in the US government—have a conscience!)

In fact, nonviolent protest is typically more effective than violent protest. When protesters turn to violence, they alienate the public whose support they need, and they allow the government to feel justified in responding with even more force. Campaigns of nonviolent civil resistance have been historically more effective than violent revolutions, even against authoritarian governments. On average, nonviolent protests are twice as likely to achieve their goals than violent protests.

Even worse than the Carmichael quote are the memes that have been shared saying things like this: “You want to fix the system, but not use violence; so, by magic?”

Nonviolence doesn’t mean politely asking for rights. It doesn’t mean being calm and non-confrontational. It doesn’t mean waiting patiently.

Nonviolence doesn’t even mean following the law or never damaging property. Some of the most important and effective acts of nonviolent protest involved breaking laws and damaging things—Rosa Parks was breaking the law, and does the Boston Tea Party ring a bell?

Nonviolence doesn’t even mean that nobody gets hurt; it often means strategically placing your own people in harm’s way knowing that the government’s violent overreaction will stir support for your cause. It’s a kind of ethical and political judo: Instead of directly resisting your stronger opponent, you maneuver so that their own power ends up damaging them. You use the government’s repression as a weapon for your own cause.

What does nonviolence mean?

Nonviolence means you don’t hurt people.

It sounds so simple and obvious, but a lot of people still don’t seem to get it. They seem to think that our only choices are “ask nicely” or “start a civil war”. Asking nicely obviously would not be effective; only someone deeply naive could imagine otherwise. Working legally within the system can sometimes be effective, but when really deep reforms are needed urgently it is often not enough. Starting a civil war might work—it has sometimes worked in the past—but it would come at a horrendous cost, probably thousands if not millions of lives.

Fortunately, these are not our only options. We don’t have to ask nicely; we don’t even have to obey the law. We can even break things. We just need to not hurt people. That still allows for a variety of forms of protest, confrontation, civil disobedience, and direct action. Jacobin, oddly enough, gets this right.

In reality, any movement is going to have extremists who act violently. A protest movement can still be considered nonviolent as long as such incidents of violence can be kept to a minimum, and never condoned by the leaders of the movement. Thus far, Black Lives Matter has absolutely fit that description—indeed, impressively so, given the sheer scale of the protests.

Some degree of self-defense can even be consistent with nonviolence, though it must be of a very minimal sort. Wearing armor and carrying a shield is entirely consistent with nonviolence. Hitting back after you are hit is a finer line. This is morally still nonviolence as long as you use only the minimal necessary force—but politically it will only work if the public clearly knows that you are not the ones who hit first.

The ethical case for nonviolence is simple, but worth repeating: Human lives have intrinsic value. Yes, even if those human beings work willingly for a corrupt and evil system. Yes, even the average Nazi was a sentient being of intrinsic moral worth.

The only people who really deserve to die are the psychopaths at the top pulling the strings—and they are almost never the ones on the front lines getting shot or bombed. If you had a plan to kill Donald Trump, I would have no particular moral objection. I think such a plan would be very unlikely to succeed, and I would never attempt such a thing myself; but does Donald Trump deserve to die for his brazen authoritarianism, overwhelming corruption, and depraved indifference for over 160,000 dead Americans? Yes. But how does that justify killing random police officers?

Nonviolence also has another great advantage, which is that it works better when you are on the right side. The effectiveness of violence is proportional to your firepower; the effectiveness of nonviolence is proportional to your righteousness. Why in the world would you, who are righteous but have little firepower, want to use violence against an enemy that is unrighteous and has more firepower?

Nonviolent protest actually works best when your enemy is violent and repressive; it is precisely that contrast between your nonviolence and their violence that wins people to your cause. Probably the smartest thing a government could do to respond to nonviolent protests would be to sit back and calmly watch them, then make whatever was the minimal level of concessions in order to make the protests lose momentum. When you bring out the tear gas, you have basically already admitted that you are on the wrong side of history. But repressive governments don’t think that way; if they did, they would have given those same concessions before the protests even gathered steam. They imagine that by simply cracking down harder they will be able to win—but they are usually wrong.

And even if the ethical case for nonviolence means literally nothing to you, please consider the strategic case: The empirical data says quite clearly that nonviolent protest works better. In many ways, violence is the default; it’s the conflict revolution mechanism that we evolved to use, largely unmodified from the same instincts that motivate any other primate. Nonviolence is a recent invention, a high-tech solution to this ancient problem. Violence is easy; just about anyone can do it. Nonviolence is hard; it requires strategic cleverness, unwavering vigilance, and deep moral courage.

This is not to say that violence is never necessary: Against a truly totalitarian regime that is willing to murder people simply for speaking out against the government, violence may well be the only option. I certainly do not begrudge the French Resistance for using violence against the Nazis. But violence should be a last resort, not simply for ethical reasons—but also for strategic reasons.

How to hurt allies and alienate people

Aug 9 JDN 2459071

I’ve been wanting to write this post for awhile now, but I have been worried about the reaction I might get. Ultimately I realized that this is precisely why it needs to be written. Especially since Slate Star Codex is offline for the foreseeable future, there don’t see to be a lot of other people willing to write it.

The timing could be questioned, I suppose; when we are in the throes of a historic pandemic and brazen creeping authoritarianism, perhaps now should be the time for unconditional solidarity. But I fear that unconditional solidarity is one of the most dangerous forces in human existence: Politics is the mind-killer, arguments are soldiers, and the absolute unwillingness to question one’s own side is how we get everything from the Spanish Inquisition to Vladimir Lenin.

And since this is about not simply being mistaken but alienating allies, perhaps these desperate times are when we need the correction most: For we simply cannot afford to lose any allies right now.

“All men benefit from male violence.”

“It’s impossible to be racist against White people.”

“I hate White people.”

“Men are pigs.”

“All I want for Christmas is White genocide.”

Statements like these have two things in common: One, they are considered appropriate and acceptable to say by most of the social justice left; and two, they are harmful, alienating, and wrong.

All men benefit from male violence? You mean that male rape victims benefit from male violence? The thousands of men who are assaulted and murdered by other men—at far higher rates than women—benefit from that, do they? Did Matthew Shepard benefit from male violence?

It’s impossible to be racist against White people? Then tell me, what was it when a Black woman told me that melanin is the gateway to the soul and all White people are soulless snakes? Swap the colors, and it sounds like something only a diehard KKK member or neo-Nazi could say. If that’s not racism, what is?

The insistence that racism is “prejudice plus power” is a disingenuous redefinition of the concept precisely in an attempt to retroactively make it true that it’s impossible to be racist against White people. This is not what the word “racist” means to most people. But even if I were to allow that definition, do you think Black people never have power over White people? There are no Black managers who discriminate against their White employees, no Black teachers who abuse their White students? I’m not aware of Barack Obama discriminating against any White people, but can anyone deny that he had power? White people may have more power on average, but that doesn’t mean they have more power in every case.

What’s more, I don’t really understand what leftists think they are accomplishing by making this kind of assertion. Is it just an expression of rage, or a signal of your group identity? You’re clearly not going to convince any White person who has been discriminated against that White people never get discriminated against. You’re clearly not going to convince any man who has been brutally attacked by another man that all men benefit from male violence. It would be one thing to say that White people face less discrimination (clearly true) or that most White people don’t face discrimination (maybe true); but to say that no White people ever face discrimination is just obviously false, and will be disproved by many people’s direct experience.

Indeed, it seems quite obvious to me that this kind of talk is likely to frustrate and alienate many people who could otherwise have been allies.

The left has a counter-argument prepared for this: If you are alienated by what we say, then you were never a true ally in the first place.

The accusation seems to be that alienated allies are just fair-weather friends; but I don’t think someone is being a fair-weather friend if they stop wanting to be your friend because you abuse them. And make no mistake: Continually telling people that they are inferior and defective because of their race or gender or some other innate aspect of themselves absolutely constitutes abuse. Indeed, it’s nothing less than a mirror image of the very abuse that social justice is supposed to exist to prevent.

To be sure, there are cases where people claim to be alienated allies but were never really allies to begin with. Anyone who says “Wokeness made me a Nazi” obviously was far-right to begin with, and is just using that as an excuse. No amount of people saying “I hate White people” would justify becoming a Nazi or a KKK member. This isn’t them genuinely being alienated by the left being unfair; this is them saying “Look what you made me do” as they punch you in the face.

But I think the far more common scenario is more like this: “I want to support social justice, but every time I try to participate in leftist spaces, people attack me. They say that I’m defective because of who I am, and it hurts. They don’t seem interested in my input anyway, so I think I’ll just stay away from leftist spaces to preserve my own mental health.” These are people who broadly agree with social justice in principle, but just feel so frustrated and alienated by the movement in practice that they decide they are better off remaining on the sidelines.

Is it really so hard to understand how someone might feel that way? Why would anyone want to interact in a social space where most of the time is spent disparaging people like them? To stay in such a space, one either needs to have very strong moral convictions to sustain them against that onslaught, or needs to be masochistic or self-loathing.

Maybe it is self-loathing, actually: Liberal White people are the only group that systematically exhibits a negative in-group bias. The further left you are on the political spectrum, the more likely you are to suffer from mental illness, especially if you are male. I’ve seen some right-wing sources use this to claim that “liberalism is a mental illness”, but the far more sensible explanation is that the kind of collective guilt and self-hatred that the left inculcates in liberal White people is harmful to mental health. It may also be because concern about the injustice in the world makes your life generally harder, even though you are right to be concerned.

There really does seem to be a lot of pressure to confess and self-flagellate among White leftists. I think my favorite is the injunction to “Divest from Whiteness“; it’s beautiful because it’s utterly meaningless. If you really just meant “fight racial discrimination”, you could have said that. Better yet, you could have recommended some specific policy or belief to adopt. (“Defund the Police”, for all its flaws, is an infinitely superior slogan to “Divest from Whiteness”.) By saying it this way, you’re trying to bring in some notion that we are morally obliged to somehow stop being White—which is of course completely impossible. Frankly I think even if I got gene therapy to convert my body to a West African phenotype people would still say I was “really White”. Thus, Whiteness becomes Original Sin: A stain acquired at birth that can never be removed and must always be a source of guilt.

So let me say this in no uncertain terms:

It’s okay to be White.

It’s okay to be straight.

It’s okay to be male.

It’s wrong to be racist.

It’s wrong to be homophobic.

It’s wrong to be sexist.

No, it isn’t “covertly racist” to say that it’s okay to be White—and if you think it is, you are part of the problem here. People do not have control over what race they are born into. There is no moral failing in being a particular color, or in being descended from people who did terrible things. (And it’s not like only White people have ancestors who did terrible things!)

Yes, I know that there are White supremacist groups using the slogan “It’s okay to be White”, but you know what? Stopped Clock Principle. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Nazis believe many things that are wrong, but the mere fact that Nazis believe something doesn’t make it wrong. Nazis also generally believe in Darwinian evolution, and Adolf Hitler was a strict vegetarian.

I am not denying that privilege and oppression exist. But there is a clear and absolutely vital moral distinction between being a member of a group and oppressing people who are not in that group. Being White is not the same thing as being racist. Being straight is not the same thing as being homophobic. Being male is not the same thing as being sexist. Indeed, I would argue that being a member of the privileged category is not even necessary to participate in oppression—you can oppress people of your own group, or be in one underprivileged group and oppress someone in another group. Being privileged certainly makes it easier for you to support oppression and more likely that you’ll do so—but it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Another common response is that this is just “tone policing“, that complaining about alienating rhetoric is just a way of shutting down dissent in general. No doubt this is sometimes true: One of the more effective ways of silencing someone’s argument is to convince people that it has been delivered in an overly aggressive or shrill way, thus discrediting the messenger. (This was basically the only major criticism ever leveled against New Atheism, for instance.)

But it clearly takes the notion too far to say that any kind of rhetoric is acceptable as long as it’s for the right cause. Insulting and denigrating people is never appropriate. Making people feel guilty for being born in the wrong group is never fair. Indeed, it’s not clear that one can even argue against tone policing without… tone policing. Sometimes your tone is actually inappropriate and harmful and you need to be criticized for it.

In fact, some of the people that harsh rhetoric is alienating may harbor real prejudices that need to be challenged. But they aren’t very likely to make the intense effort to challenge their own prejudices if every interaction they have with the social justice community is hostile. If we want to change someone’s mind, it helps a great deal to start by showing them compassion and respect.

I’m not saying that fighting for social justice is never going to upset people. Social change is always painful, and there are many cherished beliefs and institutions that will have to be removed in order to achieve lasting justice. So the mere fact that someone is frustrated or upset with you doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done anything wrong. But you should at least consider that people might sometimes be upset with you for genuinely good reasons, that when they say your aggressive rhetoric is hurtful and alienating that might be because it’s actually true.

A better kind of patriotism

Jul 5 JDN 2459037

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, but a lot of us haven’t felt much like celebrating. When things are this bad—pandemic, economic crisis, corrupt government, police brutality, riots, and so on—it can be hard to find much pride in our country.

Perhaps this is why Republicans tend to describe themselves as more patriotic than Democrats. Republicans have always held our country to a far lower standard (indeed, do they hold it to any standard at all!?) and so they can be proud of it even in its darkest times.

Indeed, in some sense national pride in general is a weird concept: We weren’t even alive when our nation was founded, and even today there are hundreds of millions of people in our nation, so most of what it does has nothing to do with us. But human beings are tribal: We feel a deep need to align ourselves with groups larger than ourselves. In the current era, nations fill much of that role (though certainly not all of it, as we form many other types of groups as well). We identify so strongly with our nation that our pride or shame in it becomes pride or shame in ourselves.

As the toppling of statues extends beyond Confederate leaders (obviously those statues should come down! Would Great Britain put up statues of Napoleon?) and Christopher Columbus (who was recognized as a monster in his own time!) to more ambiguous cases like Ulysses Grant, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, or even utterly nonsensical ones like Matthias Baldwin, one does begin to get the sense that the left wing doesn’t just hate racism; some of them really do seem to hate America.

Don’t get me wrong: The list of America’s sins is long and weighty. From the very beginning the United States was built by forcing out Native populations and importing African slaves. The persistent inequality between racial groups today suggests that reparations for these crimes may still be necessary.

But I think it is a mistake to look at a statue of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and see only a slaveowner. They were slaveowners, certainly—and we shouldn’t sweep that under the rug. Perhaps it is wrong to idolize anyone, because our heroes never live up to our expectations and great men are almost always bad men. Even Martin Luther King was a sexual predator and Mahatma Gandhi abused his wife. Then again, people seem to need heroes: Without something to aspire to, some sense of pride in who they are, people rapidly become directionless or even hopeless.

While there is much to be appalled by in Washington or Jefferson, there is also much to admire. Indeed, specifically what we are celebrating on Independence Day strikes me as something particularly noteworthy, something truly worthy of the phrase “American exceptionalism”.

For most of human history, every major nation formed organically. Many were ruled by hereditary dynasties that extended to time immemorial. Others were aware that they had experienced coups and revolutions, but all of these were about the interests of one king (or prince, or duke) versus another. The Greek philosophers had debated what the best sort of government would be, but never could agree on anything; insofar as they did agree, they seemed to prefer benevolent autocracy. Even where democracies existed, they too had formed organically, and in practice rarely had suffrage beyond upper-class men. Nations had laws, but these laws were subordinate to the men who made and enforced them; one king’s sacred duty was another’s heinous crime.

Then came the Founding Fathers. After fighting their way out of the grip of the British Empire, they could easily have formed their own new monarchy and declared their own King George—and there were many who wanted to do this. They could have kept things running basically the same way they always had.

But they didn’t. Instead, they gathered together a group of experts and leaders from the revolution, all to ask the question: “What is the best way to run a country?” Of course there were many different ideas about the answer. A long series of impassioned arguments and bitter conflicts ensued. Different sides cited historians and philosophers back and forth at each other, often using the same source to entirely opposite conclusions. Great compromises were made that neither side was happy with (like the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Connecticut Compromise).

When all the dust cleared and all the signatures were collected, the result was a document that all involved knew was imperfect and incomplete—but nevertheless represented a remarkable leap forward for the very concept of what it means to govern a nation. However painfully and awkwardly, they came to some kind of agreement as to what was the best way to run a country—and then they made that country.

It’s difficult to overstate what a watershed moment this was in human history. With a few exceptions—mostly small communities—every other government on earth had been created to serve the interests of its rulers, with barely even a passing thought toward what would be ethical or in the best interests of the citizens. Of course some self-interest crept in even to the US Constitution, and in some ways we’ve been trying to fix that ever since. But even asking what sort of government would be best for the people was something deeply radical.

Today the hypocrisy of a slaveowner writing “all men are created equal” is jarring to us; but at the time the shock was not that he would own slaves, but that he would even give lip service to universal human equality. It seems bizarre to us that someone could announce “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and then only grant voting rights to landowning White men—but to his contemporaries, the odd thing was citing philosophers (specifically John Locke) in your plan for a new government.

Indeed, perhaps the most radical thing of all about the Constitution of the United States is that they knew it was imperfect. The Founding Fathers built into the very text of the document a procedure for amending and improving it. And since then we have amended it 27 times (though to be fair the first 10 were more like “You know what? We should actually state clearly that people have free speech rather than assuming courts will automatically protect that.”)

Every nation has a founding myth that lionizes its founders. And certainly many, if not most, Americans believe a version of this myth that is as much fable as fact. But even the historical truth with all of its hypocrises has plenty to be proud of.

Though we may not have had any control over how our nation was founded, we do have a role in deciding its future. If we feel nothing but pride in our nation, we will not do enough to mend and rectify its flaws. If we feel nothing but shame in our nation, we will not do enough to preserve and improve its strengths.

Thus, this Independence Day, I remind you to be ambivalent: There is much to be ashamed of, but also much to be proud of.

“The Patriarchy” is not a thing

Jun 28 JDN 2459030

It’s really mainly a coincidence that I am writing this post on Father’s Day; working at home and almost never going out due to the pandemic, I have become unmoored from the normal passage of time. It’s a wonder I can remember it’s Sunday. But it is at least a bit ironic, since the word “patriarchy” comes from the Latin word pater meaning “father”.

A great deal of feminist discourse references “The Patriarchy”: Examples are included as links in this sentence from a variety of different sources.

This is a problem, because “The Patriarchy” plainly does not exist.

Am I saying that patriarchy doesn’t exist? Of course not. Patriarchy plainly exists. What I’m saying is that there is no one single source “The Patriarchy“.

China and Japan are both extremely patriarchial societies. They have fought wars with one another dozens of times. Saudi Arabia and Iran are both extremely patriarchal. They hate each other and have likewise fought numerous wars.

Indeed, nearly every human society is to some degree patriarchal; and yet, somehow we seem to be in conflict with one another quite frequently. If patriarchy all stemmed from some common source “The Patriarchy”, such a result would be baffling: If we’re all following the same ruler, how can we fight each other so much? Whoever is running this conspiracy is doing a really awful job!

Yes, there are common elements between the various forms of patriarchy in different societies—otherwise, we wouldn’t recognize them all as patriarchy. But there are also substantial differences. Nearly all societies regulate how women must dress, but precisely what women are expected to wear varies a great deal. Nearly all societies put more men in positions of power than women, but the degree to which this is true runs a wide gamut.

Patriarchy is like authoritarianism, or fanaticism, or corruption; yes, obviously authoritarianism, fanaticism, and corruption exist, and are important forces in the world. But there are no such things as “The Authoritarianism”, “The Fanaticism”, or “The Corruption”. There is no single unified source of these things. Indeed, authoritarians are often at each other’s throats, fanatics fight with other fanatics all the time, and those who are corrupt have no qualms about exploiting others who are corrupt.

Is this important? Perhaps it’s just a provocative turn of phrase, and I’m being overly pedantic.

But I do think it’s important, for the following reasons.

Many feminists who use the phrase “The Patriarchy” really do seem to think that all patriarchial ideas, beliefs, norms, attitudes, and behaviors stem from some common root, as the following quotes attest:

Only “patriarchy” seems to capture the peculiar elusiveness of gendered power – the idea that it does not reside in any one site or institution, but seems spread throughout the world. Only “patriarchy” seems to express that it is felt in the way individual examples of gender inequality interact, reinforcing each other to create entire edifices of oppression.

~Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian

I’m not angry because I hate men. I’m not even angry at men. I’m angry at the system that, for the lack of a better term, most people refer to as the patriarchy.

~Anne Theriaut, The Good Men Project

Remember in “Terminator 2” how the bad terminator kept getting smashed and shattered and ripped apart, but it didn’t matter? He just kept re-emerging, rising from the ashes, as an unstoppable force. Now imagine that terminator is a vessel to keep power, wealth and status in the hands of men — that’s the patriarchy. It can feel indestructible, coming back ever stronger despite seemingly endless efforts to smash it.

~Maya Salam, The New York Times

If you imagine that there is such a thing as “The Patriarchy”, it gives you the sense that you have just one enemy to fight. It makes the world simple and comprehensible. There’s a lot of psychological appeal in that kind of worldview. But it also makes you miss a great deal of the real complexity and nuance in the world. You have reified the concept.

Such a simplistic worldview might motivate you to fight harder against patriarchy, which would be a good thing. But then again, it could actually sap your motivation, by making it seem like you have a single implacable enemy that controls the entire world and has throughout history. If there is such a thing as “The Patriarchy”, then its power must be tremendous; perhaps we have weakened its hold upon the world, but could we ever hope to completely defeat it? (I made a similar point in an old post about how acknowledging progress is vital in order to make more progress.)

Moreover, thinking that all patriarchy stems from the same source could cause you to misdiagnose problems and fail to notice solutions that would otherwise be readily available. If you go around thinking that any disparity between how men and women are treated must be the result of some global phenomenon called “The Patriarchy”, you may not think to try simple fixes like blinded auditions or revising or eliminating student evaluations. You may assume that sexism is around ever corner when often the real causes are nepotism and network effects.

Slate Star Codex made a similar point about racism in an excellent post called “Murderism”. If your view of the world is that all bad things (or even all bad things in a broad class like “racism” or “sexism”) must stem from the same source, you will be unable to analyze the real nuances of what causes problems and thus be powerless to fix them.

Yes, of course patriarchy exists; and it’s important. But it comes in many different kinds, and many difference degrees, and policies that amelioriate it in some contexts may be ineffective—or even counterproductive—in others. This is why I say that it’s dangerous to use a phrase like “The Patriarchy”—for patriarchy isn’t a thing, it’s many things.

How we measure efficiency affects our efficiency

Jun 21 JDN 2459022

Suppose we are trying to minimize carbon emissions, and we can afford one of the two following policies to improve fuel efficiency:

  1. Policy A will replace 10,000 cars that average 25 MPG with hybrid cars that average 100 MPG.
  2. Policy B will replace 5,000 diesel trucks that average 5 MPG with turbocharged, aerodynamic diesel trucks that average 10 MPG.

Assume that both cars and trucks last about 100,000 miles (in reality this of course depends on a lot of factors), and diesel and gas pollute about the same amount per gallon (this isn’t quite true, but it’s close). Which policy should we choose?

It seems obvious: Policy A, right? 10,000 vehicles, each increasing efficiency by 75 MPG or a factor of 4, instead of 5,000 vehicles, each increasing efficiency by only 5 MPG or a factor of 2.

And yet—in fact the correct answer is definitely policy B, because the use of MPG has distorted our perception of what constitutes efficiency. We should have been using the inverse: gallons per hundred miles.

  1. Policy A will replace 10,000 cars that average 4 GPHM with cars that average 1 GPHM.
  2. Policy B will replace 5,000 trucks that average 20 GPHM with trucks that average 10 GPHM.

This means that policy A will save (10,000)(100,000/100)(4-1) = 30 million gallons, while policy B will save (5,000)(100,000/100)(20-10) = 50 million gallons.

A gallon of gasoline produces about 9 kg of CO2 when burned. This means that by choosing the right policy here, we’ll have saved 450,000 tons of CO2—or by choosing the wrong one we would only have saved 270,000.

The simple choice of which efficiency measure to use when making our judgment—GPHM versus MPG—has had a profound effect on the real impact of our choices.

Let’s try applying the same reasoning to charities. Again suppose we can choose one of two policies.

  1. Policy C will move $10 million that currently goes to local community charities which can save one QALY for $1 million to medical-research charities that can save one QALY for $50,000.
  2. Policy D will move $10 million that currently goes to direct-transfer charities which can save one QALY for $1000 to anti-malaria net charities that can save one QALY for $800.

Policy C means moving funds from charities that are almost useless ($1 million per QALY!?) to charities that meet a basic notion of cost-effectiveness (most public health agencies in the First World have a standard threshold of about $50,000 or $100,000 per QALY).

Policy D means moving funds from charities that are already highly cost-effective to other charities that are only a bit more cost-effective. It almost seems pedantic to even concern ourselves with the difference between $1000 per QALY and $800 per QALY.

It’s the same $10 million either way. So, which policy should we pick?

If the lesson you took from the MPG example is that we should always be focused on increasing the efficiency of the least efficient, you’ll get the wrong answer. The correct answer is based on actually using the right measure of efficiency.

Here, it’s not dollars per QALY we should care about; it’s QALY per million dollars.

  1. Policy C will move $10 million from charities which get 1 QALY per million dollars to charities which get 20 QALY per million dollars.
  2. Policy D will move $10 million from charities which get 1000 QALY per million dollars to charities which get 1250 QALY per million dollars.

Multiply that out, and policy C will gain (10)(20-1) = 190 QALY, while policy D will gain (10)(1250-1000) = 2500 QALY. Assuming that “saving a life” means about 50 QALY, this is the difference between saving 4 lives and saving 50 lives.

My intuition actually failed me on this one; before I actually did the math, I had assumed that it would be far more important to move funds from utterly useless charities to ones that meet a basic standard. But it turns out that it’s actually far more important to make sure that the funds being targeted at the most efficient charities are really the most efficient—even apparently tiny differences matter a great deal.

Of course, if we can move that $10 million from the useless charities to the very best charities, that’s the best of all; it would save (10)(1250-1) = 12,490 QALY. This is nearly 250 lives.

In the fuel economy example, there’s no feasible way to upgrade a semitrailer to get 100 MPG. If we could, we totally should; but nobody has any idea how to do that. Even an electric semi probably won’t be that efficient, depending on how the grid produces electricity. (Obviously if the grid were all nuclear, wind, and solar, it would be; but very few places are like that.)

But when we’re talking about charities, this is just money; it is by definition fungible. So it is absolutely feasible in an economic sense to get all the money currently going towards nearly-useless charities like churches and museums and move that money directly toward high-impact charities like anti-malaria nets and vaccines.

Then again, it may not be feasible in a practical or political sense. Someone who currently donates to their local church may simply not be motivated by the same kind of cosmopolitan humanitarianism that motivates Effective Altruism. They may care more about supporting their local community, or be motivated by genuine religious devotion. This isn’t even inherently a bad thing; nobody is a cosmopolitan in everything they do, nor should we be—we have good reasons to care more about our own friends, family, and community than we do about random strangers in foreign countries thousands of miles away. (And while I’m fairly sure Jesus himself would have been an Effective Altruist if he’d been alive today, I’m well aware that most Christians aren’t—and this doesn’t make them “false Christians”.) There might be some broader social or cultural change that could make this happen—but it’s not something any particular person can expect to accomplish.

Whereas, getting people who are already Effective Altruists giving to efficient charities to give to a slightly more efficient charity is relatively easy: Indeed, it’s basically the whole purpose for which GiveWell exists. And there are analysts working at GiveWell right now whose job it is to figure out exactly which charities yield the most QALY per dollar and publish that information. One person doing that job even slightly better can save hundreds or even thousands of lives.

Indeed, I’m seriously considering applying to be one myself—it sounds both more pleasant and more important than anything I’d be likely to get in academia.

Moral disagreement is not bad faith

Jun 7 JDN 2459008

One of the most dangerous moves to make in an argument is to accuse your opponent of bad faith. It’s a powerful, and therefore tempting, maneuver: If they don’t even really believe what they are saying, then you can safely ignore basically whatever comes out of their mouth. And part of why this is so tempting is that it is in fact occasionally true—people do sometimes misrepresent their true beliefs in various ways for various reasons. On the Internet especially, sometimes people are just trolling.

But unless you have really compelling evidence that someone is arguing in bad faith, you should assume good faith. You should assume that whatever they are asserting is what they actually believe. For if you assume bad faith and are wrong, you have just cut off any hope of civil discourse between the two of you. You have made it utterly impossible for either side to learn anything or change their mind in any way. If you assume good faith and are wrong, you may have been overly charitable; but in the end you are the one that is more likely to persuade any bystanders, not the one who was arguing in bad faith.

Furthermore, it is important to really make an effort to understand your opponent’s position as they understand it before attempting to respond to it. Far too many times, I have seen someone accused of bad faith by an opponent who simply did not understand their worldview—and did not even seem willing to try to understand their worldview.

In this post, I’m going to point out some particularly egregious examples of this phenomenon that I’ve found, all statements made by left-wing people in response to right-wing people. Why am I focusing on these? Well, for one thing, it’s as important to challenge bad arguments on your own side as it is to do so on the other side. I also think I’m more likely to be persuasive to a left-wing audience. I could find right-wing examples easily enough, but I think it would be less useful: It would be too tempting to think that this is something only the other side does.

Example 1: “Republicans Have Stopped Pretending to Care About Life”

The phrase “pro-life” means thinking that abortion is wrong. That’s all it means. It’s jargon at this point. The phrase has taken on this meaning independent of its constituent parts, just as a red herring need not be either red or a fish.

Stop accusing people of not being “truly pro-life” because they don’t adopt some other beliefs that are not related to abortion. Even if those would be advancing life in some sense (most people probably think that most things they think are good advance life in some sense!), they aren’t relevant to the concept of being “pro-life”. Moreover, being “pro-life” in the traditional conservative sense isn’t even about minimizing the harm of abortion or the abortion rate. It’s about emphasizing the moral wrongness of abortion itself, and often even criminalizing it.

I don’t think this is really so hard to understand. If someone truly, genuinely believes that abortion is murdering a child, it’s quite clear why they won’t be convinced by attempts at minimizing harm or trying to reduce the abortion rate via contraception or other social policy. Many policies are aimed at “reducing the demand for abortion”; would you want to “reduce the demand for murder”? No, you’d want murderers to be locked up. You wouldn’t care what their reasons were, and you wouldn’t be interested in using social policies to address those reasons. It’s not even hard to understand why this would be such an important issue to them, overriding almost anything else: If you thought that millions of people were murdering children you would consider that an extremely important issue too.

If you want to convince people to support Roe v. Wade, you’re going to have to change their actual belief that abortion is murder. You may even be able to convince them that they don’t really think abortion is murder—many conservatives support the death penalty for murder, but very few do so for abortion. But they clearly do think that abortion is a grave moral wrong, and you can’t simply end-run around that by calling them hypocrites because they don’t care about whatever other issue you think they should care about.

Example 2: “Stop pretending to care about human life if you support wars in the Middle East”

I had some trouble finding the exact wording of the meme I originally saw with this sentiment, but the gist of it was basically that if you support bombing Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and/or Syria, you have lost all legitimacy to claiming that you care about human life.

Say what you will about these wars (though to be honest I think what the US has done in Libya and Syria has done more good than harm), but simply supporting a war does not automatically undermine all your moral legitimacy. The kind of radical pacifism that requires us to never kill anyone ever is utterly unrealistic; the question is and has always been “Which people is it okay to kill, when and how and why?” Some wars are justified; we have to accept that.

It would be different if these were wars of genocidal extermination; I can see a case for saying that anyone who supported the Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide has lost all moral legitimacy. But even then it isn’t really accurate to say that those people don’t care about human life; it’s much more accurate to say that they have assigned the group of people they want to kill to a subhuman status. Maybe you would actually get more traction by saying “They are human beings too!” rather than by accusing people of not believing in the value of human life.

And clearly these are not wars of extermination—if the US military wanted to exterminate an entire nation of people, they could do so much more efficiently than by using targeted airstrikes and conventional warfare. Remember: They have nuclear weapons. Even if you think that they wouldn’t use nukes because of fear of retaliation (Would Russia or China really retaliate using their own nukes if the US nuked Afghanistan or Iran?), it’s clear that they could have done a lot more to kill a lot more innocent people if that were actually their goal. It’s one thing to say they don’t take enough care not to kill innocent civilians—I agree with that. It’s quite another to say that they actively try to kill innocent civilians—that’s clearly not what is happening.

Example 3: “Stop pretending to be Christian if you won’t help the poor.”

This one I find a good deal more tempting: In the Bible, Jesus does spend an awful lot more words on helping the poor than he does on, well, almost anything else; and he doesn’t even once mention abortion or homosexuality. (The rest of the Bible does at least mention homosexuality, but it really doesn’t have any clear mentions of abortion.) So it really is tempting to say that anyone who doesn’t make helping the poor their number one priority can’t really be a Christian.

But the world is more complicated than that. People can truly and deeply believe some aspects of a religion while utterly rejecting others. They can do this more or less arbitrarily, in a way that may not even be logically coherent. They may even honestly believe that every single word of the Bible to be the absolute perfect truth of an absolute perfect God, and yet there are still passages you could point them to that they would have to admit they don’t believe in. (There are literally hundreds of explicit contradictions in the Bible. Many are minor—though still undermine any claim to absolute perfect truth—but some are really quite substantial. Does God forgive and forget, or does he visit revenge upon generations to come? That’s kind of a big deal! And should we be answering fools or not?) In some sense they don’t really believe that every word is true, then; but they do seem to believe in believing it.

Yes, it’s true; people can worship a penniless son of a carpenter who preached peace and charity and at the same time support cutting social welfare programs and bombing the Middle East. Such a worldview may not be entirely self-consistent; it’s certainly not the worldview that Jesus himself espoused. But it nevertheless is quite sincerely believed by many millions of people.

It may still be useful to understand the Bible in order to persuade Christians to help the poor more. There are certainly plenty of passages you can point them to where Jesus talks about how important it is to help the poor. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t seem to much like the rich, so it is fair to ask: How Christian is it for Republicans to keep cutting taxes on the rich? (I literally laughed out loud when I first saw this meme: “Celebrate Holy Week By Flogging a Banker: It’s What Jesus Would Have Done!“) But you should not accuse people of “pretending to be Christian”. They really do strongly identify themselves as Christian, and would sooner give up almost anything else about their identity. If you accuse them of pretending, all that will do is shut down the conversation.

Now, after all that, let me give one last example that doesn’t fit the trend, one example where I really do think the other side is acting in bad faith.

Example 4: “#AllLivesMatter is a lie. You don’t actually think all lives matter.”

I think this one is actually true. If you truly believed that all lives matter, you wouldn’t post the hashtag #AllLivesMatter in response to #BlackLivesMatter protests against police brutality.

First of all, you’d probably be supporting those protests. But even if you didn’t for some reason, that isn’t how you would use the hashtag. As a genuine expression of caring, the hashtag #AllLivesMatter would only really make sense for something like Oxfam or UNICEF: Here are these human lives that are in danger and we haven’t been paying enough attention to them, and here, you can follow my hashtag and give some money to help them because all lives matter. If it were really about all lives mattering, then you’d see the hashtag pop up after a tsunami in Southeast Asia or a famine in central Africa. (For awhile I tried actually using it that way; I quickly found that it was overwhelmed by the bad faith usage and decided to give up.)

No, this hashtag really seems to be trying to use a genuinely reasonable moral norm—all lives matter—as a weapon against a political movement. We don’t see #AllLivesMatter popping up asking people to help save some lives—it’s always as a way of shouting down other people who want to save some lives. It’s a glib response that lets you turn away and ignore their pleas, without ever actually addressing the substance of what they are saying. If you really believed that all lives matter, you would not be so glib; you would want to understand how so many people are suffering and want to do something to help them. Even if you ultimately disagreed with what they were saying, you would respect them enough to listen.

The counterpart #BlueLivesMatter isn’t in bad faith, but it is disturbing in a different way: What are ‘blue lives’? People aren’t born police officers. They volunteer for that job. They can quit if want. No one can quit being Black. Working as a police officer isn’t even especially dangerous! But it’s not a bad faith argument: These people really do believe that the lives of police officers are worth more—apparently much more—than the lives of Black civilians.

I do admit, the phrasing “#BlackLivesMatter” is a bit awkward, and could be read to suggest that other lives don’t matter, but it takes about 2 minutes of talking to someone (or reading a blog by someone) who supports those protests to gather that this is not their actual view. Perhaps they should have used #BlackLivesMatterToo, but when your misconception is that easily rectified the responsibility to avoid it falls on you. (Then again, some people do seem to stoke this misconception: I was quite annoyed when a question was asked at a Democratic debate: “Do Black Lives Matter, or Do All Lives Matter?” The correct answer of course is “All lives matter, which is why I support the Black Lives Matter movement.”)

So, yes, bad faith arguments do exist, and sometimes we need to point them out. But I implore you, consider that a last resort, a nuclear option you’ll only deploy when all other avenues have been exhausted. Once you accuse someone of bad faith, you have shut down the conversation completely—preventing you, them, and anyone else who was listening from having any chance of learning or changing their mind.

Failures of democracy or capitalism?

May 24 JDN 2458992

Blaming capitalism for the world’s woes is a common habit of the left wing in general, but it seems to have greatly increased in frequency and volume in the era of Trump. I don’t want to say that this is always entirely wrong; capitalism in its purest form certainly does have genuine flaws that need to be addressed (and that’s why we have taxes, regulations, the welfare state, etc.).

But I’ve noticed that a lot of the things people complain about most really don’t seem to have a lot to do with capitalism.

For instance: Forced labor in Third World countries? First of all, that’s been around for as long as civilization has existed, and quite probably longer. It’s certainly not new to capitalism. Second, the freedom to choose who you transact with—including who employs you—is a fundamental principle of capitalism. In that sense, forced labor is the very opposite of capitalism; it spits upon everything capitalism stands for.

It’s certainly the case that many multinational corporations are implicated in slavery, even today—usually through complex networks of subsidiaries and supply chains. But it’s not clear to me that socialism is any kind of solution to this problem; nationalized industries are perfectly capable of enslaving people. (You may have heard of a place called the Gulag?)

Or what about corporate welfare, the trillions of dollars in subsidies we give to the oil and coal industries? Well, that’s not very capitalist either; capitalism is supposed to be equal competition in a free market, not the government supporting particular businesses or industries at the expense of others. And it’s not like socialist Venezuela has any lack of oil subsidies—indeed it’s not quite clear to me where the government ends and PDVSA begins. We need a word for such policies that are neither capitalist nor socialist; perhaps “corporatist”?

And really, the things that worry me about America today are not flaws in our markets; they are flaws in our government. We are not witnessing a catastrophic failure of capitalism; we are witnessing a catastrophic failure of democracy.

As if the Electoral College weren’t bad enough (both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton should have won the Presidency, by any sensible notion of democratic voting!), we are now seeing extreme levels of voter suppression, including refusing to accept mail-in ballots in the middle of a historic pandemic. This looks disturbingly like how democracy has collapsed in other countries, such as Turkey and Hungary.

The first-past-the-post plurality vote is already basically the worst possible voting system that can still technically be considered democratic. But it is rendered far worse by a defective primary system, which was even more of a shambles this year than usual. The number of errors in the Iowa caucus was ridiculous, and the primaries as a whole suffered from so many flaws that many voters now consider them illegitimate.

And of course there’s Donald Trump himself. He is certainly a capitalist (though he’s not exactly a free-trade neoliberal; he’s honestly more like a mercantilist). But what really makes him dangerous is not his free-market ideology, which is basically consistent with the US right wing going back at least 30 years; it’s his willingness to flaunt basic norms of democracy and surround himself with corrupt, incompetent sycophants. Republicans have been cutting the upper tax brackets and subsidizing oil companies for quite some time now; but it’s only recently that they have so blatantly disregarded the guardrails of democracy.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to criticize capitalism. There certainly are things worth criticizing, particularly about the most extreme free-market ideology. But it’s important to be clear about where exactly problems lie if you want to fix them—and right now we desperately need to fix them. America is in a crisis right now, something much bigger than just this pandemic. We are not in this crisis because of an excessive amount of deregulation or tax-cutting; we are in this crisis because of an excessive amount of corruption, incompetence, and authoritarianism. We wouldn’t fix this by nationalizing industries or establishing worker co-ops. We need to fix it first by voting out those responsible, and second by reforming our system so that they won’t get back in.

Glorifying superstars glorifies excessive risk

Apr 26 JDN 2458964

Suppose you were offered the choice of the following two gambles; which one would you take?

Gamble A: 99.9% chance of $0; 0.1% chance of $100 million

Gamble B: 10% chance of $50,000; 80% chance of $100,000; 10% chance of $1 million

I think it’s pretty clear that you should choose gamble B.

If you were risk-neutral, the expected payoffs would be $100,000 for gamble A and $185,000 for gamble B. So clearly gamble B is the better deal.

But you’re probably risk-averse. If you have logarithmic utility with a baseline and current wealth of $10,000, the difference is even larger:

0.001*ln(10001) = 0.009

0.1*ln(6) + 0.8*ln(11) + 0.1*ln(101) = 2.56

Yet suppose this is a gamble that a lot of people get to take. And furthermore suppose that what you read about in the news every day is always the people who are the very richest. Then you will read, over and over again, about people who took gamble A and got lucky enough to get the $100 million. You’d probably start to wonder if maybe you should be taking gamble A instead.

This is more or less the world we live in. A handful of billionaires own staggering amounts of wealth, and we are constantly hearing about them. Even aside from the fact that most of them inherited a large portion of it and all of them had plenty of advantages that most of us will never have, it’s still not clear that they were actually smart about taking the paths they did—it could simply be that they got spectacularly lucky.

Or perhaps there’s an even clearer example: Professional athletes. The vast majority of athletes make basically no money at sports. Even most paid athletes are in minor leagues and make only a modest living.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with being an amateur who plays sports for fun. But if you were to invest a large proportion of your time training in sports in the hopes of becoming a professional athlete, you would most likely find yourself gravely disappointed, as your chances of actually getting into the major leagues and becoming a multi-millionaire are exceedingly small. Yet you can probably name at least a few major league athletes who are multi-millionaires—perhaps dozens, if you’re a serious fan—and I doubt you can name anywhere near as many minor league players or players who never made it into paid leagues in the first place.

When we spend all of our time focused on the superstars, what we are effectively assessing is the maximum possible income available on a given career track. And it’s true; the maximum for professional athletes and especially entrepreneurs is extremely high. But the maximum isn’t what you should care about; you should really be concerned about the average or even the median.

And it turns out that the same professions that offer staggeringly high incomes at the very top also tend to be professions with extremely high risk attached. The average income for an athlete is very small; the median is almost certainly zero. Entrepreneurs do better; their average and median income aren’t too much worse than most jobs. But this moderate average comes with a great deal of risk; yes, you could become a billionaire—but far more likely, you could become bankrupt.

This is a deeply perverse result: The careers that our culture most glorifies, the ones that we inspire people to dream about, are precisely those that are the most likely to result in financial ruin.

Realizing this changes your perspective on a lot of things. For instance, there is a common lament that teachers aren’t paid the way professional athletes are. I for one am extremely grateful that this is the case. If teachers were paid like athletes, yes, 0.1% would be millionaires, but only 4.9% would make a decent living, and the remaining 95% would be utterly broke. Indeed, this is precisely what might happen if MOOCs really take off, and a handful of superstar teachers are able to produce all the content while the vast majority of teaching mostly amounts to showing someone else’s slideshows. Teachers are much better off in a world where they almost all make a decent living even though none of them ever get spectacularly rich. (Are many teachers still underpaid? Sure. How do I know this? Because there are teacher shortages. A chronic shortage of something is a surefire sign that its price is too low.) And clearly the idea that we could make all teachers millionaires is just ludicrous: Do you want to pay $1 million a year for your child’s education?

Is there a way that we could change this perverse pattern? Could we somehow make it feel more inspiring to choose a career that isn’t so risky? Well, I doubt we’ll ever get children to dream of being accountants or middle managers. But there are a wide range of careers that are fulfilling and meaningful while still making a decent living—like, well, teaching. Even working in creative arts can be like this: While very few authors are millionaires, the median income for an author is quite respectable. (On the other hand there’s some survivor bias here: We don’t count you as an author if you can’t get published at all.) Software engineers are generally quite satisfied with their jobs, and they manage to get quite high incomes with low risk. I think the real answer here is to spend less time glorifying obscene hoards of wealth and more time celebrating lives that are rich and meaningful.

I don’t know if Jeff Bezos is truly happy. But I do know that you and I are more likely to be happy if instead of trying to emulate him, we focus on making our own lives meaningful.