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.

Authoritarianism and Masculinity

Apr 19 JDN 2458957

There has always been a significant difference between men and women voters, at least as long as we have been gathering data—and probably as long as women have been voting, which is just about to hit its centennial in the United States.

But the 2016 and 2018 elections saw the largest gender gaps we’ve ever recorded. Dividing by Presidential administrations, Bush would be from 2000 to 2006, when the gender gap never exceeded 18 percentage points, and averaged less than 10 points. Obama would be from 2008 to 2014, when the gender gap never exceeded 20 points and averaged about 15 points. In 2018, the gap stood at 23 percentage points.

Indeed, it is quite clear at this point that Trump’s support base comes mainly from White men.

This is far from the only explanatory factor here: Younger voters are much more liberal than older voters, more educated voters are more liberal than less educated voters, and urban voters are much more liberal than rural voters.

But the gender and race gaps are large enough that even if only White men with a college degree had voted, Trump would have still won, and even if only women without a college degree had voted, Trump would have lost. Trumpism is a white male identity movement.

And indeed it seems significant that Trump’s opponent was the first woman to be a US Presidential nominee from a major party.

Why would men be so much more likely to support Trump than women? Well, there’s the fact that Trump has been accused of sexual harassment dozens of times and sexual assault several times. Women are more likely to be victims of such behavior, and men are more likely to be perpetrators of it.

But I think that’s really a symptom of a broader cause, which is that authoritarianism is masculine.

Think about it: Can you even name a woman who was an authoritarian dictator? There have been a few queen tyrants historically, but not many; tyrants are almost always kings. And for all her faults, Margaret Thatcher was assuredly no Joseph Stalin.

Masculinity is tied to power, authority, strength, dominance: All things that authoritarians promise. It doesn’t even seem to matter that it’s always the dictator asserting power and dominance upon us, taking away the power and authority we previously had; the mere fact that some man is exerting power and dominance on someone seems to satisfy this impulse. And of course those who support authoritarians always seem to imagine that the dictator will oppress someone else—never me. (“I never thought leopards would eat my face!”)

Conversely, the virtues of democracy, such as equality, fairness, cooperation, and compromise, are coded feminine. This is how toxic masculinity sustains itself: Even being willing to talk about disagreements rather than fighting over them constitutes surrender to the feminine. So the mere fact that I am trying to talk them out of their insanely (both self- and other-) destructive norms proves that I serve the enemy.

I don’t often interact with Trump supporters, because doing so is a highly unpleasant experience. But when I have, certain themes kept reoccurring: “Trump is a real man”; “Democrats are pussies”; “they [people of color] are taking over our [White people’s] country”; “you’re a snowflake libtard beta cuck”.

Almost all of the content was about identity, particularly masculine and White identity. Virtually none of their defenses of Trump involved any substantive claims about policy, though some did at least reference the relatively good performance of the economy (up until recently—and that they all seem to blame on the “unforeseeable” pandemic, a “Black Swan”; nevermind that people actually did foresee it and were ignored). Ironically they are always the ones complaining about “identity politics”.

And while they would be the last to admit it, I noticed something else as well: Most of these men were deeply insecure about their own masculinity. They kept constantly trying to project masculine dominance, and getting increasingly aggravated when I simply ignored it rather than either submitting or responding with my own displays of dominance. Indeed, they probably perceived me as displaying a kind of masculine dominance: I was just countersignaling instead of signaling, and that’s what made them so angry. They clearly felt deeply envious of the fact that I could simply be secure in my own identity without feeling a need to constantly defend it.

But of course I wasn’t born that way. Indeed, the security I now feel in my own identity was very hard-won through years of agony and despair—necessitated by being a bisexual man in a world that even today isn’t very accepting of us. Even now I’m far from immune to the pressures of masculinity; I’ve simply learned to channel them better and resist their worst effects.

They call us “snowflakes” because they feel fragile, and fear their own fragility. And in truth, they are fragile. Indeed, fragile masculinity is one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump. But it is in the nature of fragile masculinity that pointing it out only aggravates it and provokes an even angrier response. Toxic masculinity is a very well-adapted meme; its capacity to defend itself is morbidly impressive, like the way that deadly viruses spread themselves is morbidly impressive.

This is why I think it is extremely dangerous to mock the size of Trump’s penis (or his hands, metonymously—though empirically, digit ratio slightly correlates with penis size, but overall hand size does not), or accuse his supporters of likewise having smaller penises. In doing so, you are reinforcing the very same toxic masculinity norms that underlie so much of Trump’s support. And this is even worse if the claim is true: In that case you’re also reinforcing that man’s own crisis of masculine identity.

Indeed, perhaps the easiest way to anger a man who is insecure about his masculinity is to accuse him of being insecure about his masculinity. It’s a bit of a paradox. I have even hesitated to write this post, for fear of triggering the same effect; but I realized that it’s more likely that you, my readers, would trigger it inadvertently, and by warning you I might reduce the overall rate at which it is triggered.

I do not use the word “triggered” lightly; I am talking about a traumatic trigger response. These men have been beaten down their whole lives for not being “manly enough”, however defined, and they lash out by attacking the masculinity of every other man they encounter—thereby perpetuating the cycle of trauma. And stricter norms of masculinity also make coping with trauma more difficult, which is why men who exhibit stricter masculinity also are more likely to suffer PTSD in war. There are years of unprocessed traumatic memories in these men’s brains, and the only way they know to cope with them is to try to inflict them on someone else.

The ubiquity of “cuck” as an insult in the alt-right is also quite notable in this context. It’s honestly a pretty weird insult to throw around casually; it implies knowing all sorts of things about a person’s sexual relationships that you can’t possibly know. (For someone in an openly polyamorous relationship, it’s probably quite amusing.) But it’s a way of attacking masculine identity: If you were a “real man”, your wife wouldn’t be sleeping around. We accuse her of infidelity in order to accuse you of inferiority. (And if your spouse is male? Well then obviously you’re even worse than a “cuck”—you’re a “fag”.) There also seems to be some sort of association that the alt-right made between cuckoldry and politics, as though the election of Obama constitutes America “cheating” on them. I’m not sure whether it bothers them more that Obama is liberal, or that he is Black. Both definitely bother them a great deal.

How do we deal with these men? If we shouldn’t attack their masculinity for fear of retrenchment, and we can’t directly engage them on questions of policy because it means nothing to them, what then should we do? I’m honestly not sure. What these men actually need is years of psychotherapy to cope with their deep-seated traumas; but they would never seek it out, because that, too, is considered unmasculine. Of course you can’t be expected to provide the effect of years of psychotherapy in a single conversation with a stranger. Even a trained therapist wouldn’t be able to do that, nor would they be likely to give actual therapy sessions to angry strangers for free.

What I think we can do, however, is to at least try to refrain from making their condition worse. We can rigorously resist the temptation to throw the same insults back at them, accusing them of having small penises, or being cuckolds, or whatever. We should think of this the way we think of using “gay” as an insult (something I all too well remember from middle school): You’re not merely insulting the person you’re aiming it at, you’re also insulting an entire community of innocent people.

We should even be very careful about directly addressing their masculine insecurity; it may sometimes be necessary, but it, too, is sure to provoke a defensive response. And as I mentioned earlier, if you are a man and you are not constantly defending your own masculinity, they can read that as countersignaling your own superiority. This is not an easy game to win.

But the stakes are far too high for us to simply give up. The fate of America and perhaps even the world hinges upon finding a solution.

A Socratic open letter to transphobes everywhere

Feb 23 JDN 2458903

This post is a bit different than usual. This is an open letter to those who doubt that trans people actually exist, or insist on using the wrong pronouns; above all it is an open letter to those who want to discriminate against trans people, denying trans people civil rights or the dignity to use public bathrooms in peace. Most of my readers are probably not such people, but I think you’ll still benefit from reading it—perhaps you can use some of its arguments when you inevitably encounter someone who is.

Content warning: Because of how sex and gender are tied up together in transphobes’ minds, I’m going to need to talk a little bit about sexual anatomy and genital surgery. If such topics make you uncomfortable, feel free to skip this post.

Dear Transphobe:

First of all, I’m going to assume you are a man. Statistically you probably are, in which case that works. If by chance you’re not, well, now you know what it feels like for people to assume your gender and never correct themselves. You’re almost certainly politically right-wing, so that’s an even safer assumption on my part.

You probably think that gender and sex are interchangeable things, that the idea of a woman born with a penis or a man born without one is utter nonsense. I’m here to hopefully make you question this notion.

Let’s start by thinking about your own identity. You are a man. I presume that you have a penis. I am not going to make the standard insult many on the left would and say that it’s probably a small penis. In fact I have no particular reason to believe that, and in any case the real problem is that we as a society have so thoroughly equated penis size with masculinity with value as a human being. Right-wing attitudes of the sort that lead to discriminating against LGBT people are strongly correlated with aggressive behaviors to assert one’s masculinity. Even if I had good reason—which I assuredly do not—to do so, attacking your masculinity would be inherently counterproductive, causing you to double down on the same aggressive, masculinity-signaling behaviors. If it so happens that you are insecure in your masculinity, I certainly don’t want to make that worse, as masculine insecurity was one of the strongest predictors of voting for Donald Trump. You are a man, and I make no challenges to your masculinity whatsoever. I’m even prepared to concede that you are more manly than I am, whatever you may take that to mean.

Let us consider a thought experiment. Suppose that you were to lose your penis in some tragic accident. Don’t try to imagine the details; I’m sure the mere fact of it is terrifying enough. Suppose a terrible day were to arrive where you wake up in a hospital and find you no longer have a penis.

I have a question for you now: Should such a terrible day arrive, would you cease to be a man?

I contend that you would remain a man. I think that you, upon reflection, would also contend the same. There are a few thousand men in the world who have undergone penectomy, typically as a treatment for genital cancer. You wouldn’t even know unless you saw them naked or they told you. As far as anyone else can tell, they look and act as men, just as they did before their surgery. They are still men, just as they were before.

In fact, it’s quite likely that you would experience a phantom limb effect—where here the limb that is in your self-image but no longer attached to your body is your penis. You would sometimes feel “as if” your penis was still there, because your brain continues to have the neural connections that generate such sensations.

An even larger number of men have undergone castration for various reasons, and while they do often find that their thoughts and behavior change due to the changes in hormone balances, they still consider themselves men, and are generally considered men by others as well. We do not even consider them transgender men; we simply consider them men.

But does this not mean, then, that there is something more to being a man than simply having male anatomy?

Perhaps it has to do with other body parts, or some totality of the male body? Let’s consider another thought experiment then. Suppose that by some bizarre event you were transported into a female body. The mechanism isn’t important: Perhaps it was a mad scientist, or aliens, or magic. But just suppose that somehow or other, while you slept, your brain in its current state was transported into an entirely female body, complete with breasts, vulva, wide hips, narrow shoulders—the whole package. When you awaken, your body is female.

Such a transition would no doubt be distressing and disorienting. People would probably begin to see you as a woman when they looked at you. You would be denied access to men’s spaces you had previously used, and suddenly granted access to women’s spaces you had never before been allowed into. And who knows what sort of effect the hormonal changes would have on your mind?

Particularly if you are sexually attracted to women, you might imagine that you would enjoy this transformation: Now you get to play with female body parts whenever you want! But think about this matter carefully, now: While there might be some upsides, would you really want this change to happen? You have to now wear women’s clothing, use women’s restrooms, cope with a menstrual cycle. Everyone will see you as a woman and treat you as a woman. (How do you treat women, by the way? Is this something you’ve thought carefully about?)

And if you still think that being a woman isn’t so bad, maybe it isn’t—if your mind and body are in agreement. But remember that you’ve still got the mind of a man; you still feel that mental attachment to body parts that are no longer present, and these new body parts you have don’t feel like they are properly your own.

But throughout this harrowing experience, would you still be a man?

Once again I contend that you would. You would now feel a deep conflict between your mind and your body—dare I call it gender dysphoria?—and you would probably long to change your body back to what it was, or at least back to a body that is male.

You would once again experience phantom limb effects—but now all over, everywhere your new body deviated from your original form. In your brain there is a kind of map of where your body parts are supposed to be: Your shoulders are supposed to end here, your legs are supposed to end there, and down here there is supposed to be a penis, not vulva. This map is deeply ingrained into your mind, its billions of strands almost literally woven into the fabric of your brain.

We are presumably born with such a map: By some mindbogglingly complex mix of genetic and environmental factors our brains organize themselves into specific patterns, telling us what kind of body we’re supposed to have. Some of this structuring may go on before birth, some while we are growing up. But surely by the time we are adults the process is complete.

This mental map does allow for some flexibility: When we were young and growing, it allowed us to adjust to our ever-increasing height. Now that we are older, it allows us to adjust to gaining or losing weight. But this flexibility is quite limited: it might take years, or perhaps we could never adjust at all, to finding that we had suddenly grown a tail—or suddenly changed from male to female.

Now imagine that this transformation didn’t happen by some sudden event when you were an adult, but by some quirk of ontogeny while you were still in the womb. Suppose that you were born this way: in a body that is female, but with a mind that is male.

In such a state, surely something is wrong, in the same way that being born with sickle-cell anemia or spina bifida is wrong. There are more ambiguous cases: Is polydactyly a disorder? Sometimes? But surely there are some ways to be born that are worth correcting, and “female body, male mind” seems like one of them.

And yet, this is often precisely how trans people describe their experience. Not always—humans are nothing if not diverse, and trans people are no exception—but quite frequently, they will say that they feel like “a man in a woman’s body” or the reverse. By all accounts, they seem to have precisely this hypothetical condition: The gender of their mind does not match the sex of their body. And since this mismatch causes great suffering, we ought to correct it.

But then the question becomes: Correct it how?

Broadly speaking, it seems we’ve only two options: Change the body, or change the mind. If you were in this predicament, which would you want?

In the case of being transferred into a new body as an adult, I’m quite sure you’d prefer to change your body, and keep your mind as it is. You don’t belong in this new body, and you want your old one back.

Yet perhaps you think that if you were born with this mismatch, things might be different: Perhaps in such a case you think it would make more sense to change the mind to match the body. But I ask you this: Which is more fundamental to who you are? If you are still an infant, we can’t ask your opinion; but what do you suppose you’d say if we could?

Or suppose that you notice the mismatch later, as a child, or even as a teenager. Before that, something felt off somehow, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it. But now you realize where the problem lies: You were born in a body of the wrong sex. Now that you’ve had years to build up your identity, would you still say that the mind is the right thing to change? Once you can speak, now we can ask you—and we do ask such children, and their answers are nigh-unanimous: They want to change their bodies, not their minds. David Reimer was raised as a girl for years, and yet he always still knew he was a boy and tried to act like one.

In fact, we don’t even know how to change the gender of a mind. Despite literally millennia of civilization trying at great expense to enforce particular gender norms on everyone’s minds, we still get a large proportion of the population deviating substantially from them—if you include mild enough deviations, probably a strict majority. If I seem a soft “soy boy” to you (and, I admit, I am both bisexual and vegetarian—though I already knew I was the former before I became the latter), ask yourself this: Why would I continue to deviate from your so ferociously-enforced gender norms, if it were easy to conform?

Whereas, we do have some idea how to change a body. We have hormonal and surgical treatments that allow people to change their bodies substantially—trans women can grow breasts, trans men can grow beards. Often this is enough to make people feel much more comfortable in their own bodies, and also present themselves in a way that leads others to recognize them as their desired gender.

Sex reassignment surgery is not as reliable, especially for trans men: While building artificial vulva works relatively well, building a good artificial penis still largely eludes us. Yet technological process in this area continues, and we’ve improved our ability to change the sex of bodies substantially in just the last few decades—while, let me repeat, we have not meaningfully improved our ability to change the gender of minds in the last millennium.

If we could reliably change the gender of minds, perhaps that would be an option worth considering. But ought implies can: We cannot be ethically expected to do that which we are simply incapable.

At present, this means that our only real options are two: We can accept the gender of the mind, change the sex of the body, and treat this person as the gender they identify themselves as; or we can demand that they repress and conceal their mental gender in favor of conforming to the standards we have imposed upon them based on their body. The option you may most prefer—accept the body, change the mind—simply is not feasible with any current or foreseeable technology.

We have tried repressing transgender identity for centuries: It has brought endless suffering, depression, suicide.

But now that we are trying to affirm transgender identity the outlook seems much better: Simply having one adult in their life who accepts their gender identity reduces the risk of a transgender child attempting suicide by 40%. Meta-analysis of research on the subject shows that gender transition, while surely no panacea, does overall improve outcomes for transgender people—including reducing risk of depression and suicide. (That site is actually refreshingly nuanced; it does not simply accept either the left-wing or right-wing ideology on the subject, instead delving deeply into the often quite ambiguous evidence.)

Above all, ask yourself: If you ever found yourself in the wrong sort of body, what would you want us to do?

The cost of illness

Feb 2 JDN 2458882

As I write this I am suffering from some sort of sinus infection, most likely some strain of rhinovirus. So far it has just been basically a bad cold, so there isn’t much to do aside from resting and waiting it out. But it did get me thinking about healthcare—we’re so focused on the costs of providing it that we often forget the costs of not providing it.

The United States is the only First World country without a universal healthcare system. It is not a coincidence that we also have some of the highest rates of preventable mortality and burden of disease.

We in the United States spend about $3.5 trillion per year on healthcare, the most of any country in the world, even as a proportion of GDP. Yet this is not the cost of disease; this is how much we were willing to pay to avoid the cost of disease. Whatever harm that would have been caused without all that treatment must actually be worth more than $3.5 trillion to us—because we paid that much to avoid it.

Globally, the disease burden is about 30,000 disability-adjusted life-years (DALY) per 100,000 people per year—that is to say, the average person is about 30% disabled by disease. I’ve spoken previously about quality-adjusted life years (QALY); the two measures take slightly different approaches to the same overall goal, and are largely interchangeable for most purposes.

Of course this result relies upon the disability weights; it’s not so obvious how we should be comparing across different conditions. How many years would you be willing to trade of normal life to avoid ten years of Alzheimer’s? But it’s probably not too far off to say that if we could somehow wave a magic wand and cure all disease, we would really increase our GDP by something like 30%. This would be over $6 trillion in the US, and over $26 trillion worldwide.

Of course, we can’t actually do that. But we can ask what kinds of policies are most likely to promote health in a cost-effective way.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest improvements to be made are in the poorest countries, where it can be astonishingly cheap to improve health. Malaria prevention has a cost of around $30 per DALY—by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation you can buy a year of life for less than the price of a new video game. Compare this to the standard threshold in the US of $50,000 per QALY: Targeting healthcare in the poorest countries can increase cost-effectiveness a thousandfold. In humanitarian terms, it would be well worth diverting spending from our own healthcare to provide public health interventions in poor countries. (Fortunately, we have even better options than that, like raising taxes on billionaires or diverting military spending instead.)

We in the United States spend about twice as much (per person per year) on healthcare as other First World countries. Are our health outcomes twice as good? Clearly not. Are they any better at all? That really isn’t clear. We certainly don’t have a particularly high life expectancy. We spend more on administrative costs than we do on preventative care—unlike every other First World country except Australia. Almost all of our drugs and therapies are more expensive here than they are everywhere else in the world.

The obvious answer here is to make our own healthcare system more like those of other First World countries. There are a variety of universal health care systems in the world that we could model ourselves on, ranging from the single-payer government-run system in the UK to the universal mandate system of Switzerland. The amazing thing is that it almost doesn’t matter which one we choose: We could copy basically any other First World country and get better healthcare for less spending. Obamacare was in many ways similar to the Swiss system, but we never fully implemented it and the Republicans have been undermining it every way they can. Under President Trump, they have made significant progress in undermining it, and as a result, there are now 3 million more Americans without health insurance than there were before Trump took office. The Republican Party is intentionally increasing the harm of disease.

Darkest Before the Dawn: Bayesian Impostor Syndrome

Jan 12 JDN 2458860

At the time of writing, I have just returned from my second Allied Social Sciences Association Annual Meeting, the AEA’s annual conference (or AEA and friends, I suppose, since there several other, much smaller economics and finance associations are represented as well). This one was in San Diego, which made it considerably cheaper for me to attend than last year’s. Alas, next year’s conference will be in Chicago. At least flights to Chicago tend to be cheap because it’s a major hub.

My biggest accomplishment of the conference was getting some face-time and career advice from Colin Camerer, the Caltech economist who literally wrote the book on behavioral game theory. Otherwise I would call the conference successful, but not spectacular. Some of the talks were much better than others; I think I liked the one by Emmanuel Saez best, and I also really liked the one on procrastination by Matthew Gibson. I was mildly disappointed by Ben Bernanke’s keynote address; maybe I would have found it more compelling if I were more focused on macroeconomics.

But while sitting through one of the less-interesting seminars I had a clever little idea, which may help explain why Impostor Syndrome seems to occur so frequently even among highly competent, intelligent people. This post is going to be more technical than most, so be warned: Here There Be Bayes. If you fear yon algebra and wish to skip it, I have marked below a good place for you to jump back in.

Suppose there are two types of people, high talent H and low talent L. (In reality there is of course a wide range of talents, so I could assign a distribution over that range, but it would complicate the model without really changing the conclusions.) You don’t know which one you are; all you know is a prior probability h that you are high-talent. It doesn’t matter too much what h is, but for concreteness let’s say h = 0.50; you’ve got to be in the top 50% to be considered “high-talent”.

You are engaged in some sort of activity that comes with a high risk of failure. Many creative endeavors fit this pattern: Perhaps you are a musician looking for a producer, an actor looking for a gig, an author trying to secure an agent, or a scientist trying to publish in a journal. Or maybe you’re a high school student applying to college, or a unemployed worker submitting job applications.

If you are high-talent, you’re more likely to succeed—but still very likely to fail. And even low-talent people don’t always fail; sometimes you just get lucky. Let’s say the probability of success if you are high-talent is p, and if you are low-talent, the probability of success is q. The precise value depends on the domain; but perhaps p = 0.10 and q = 0.02.

Finally, let’s suppose you are highly rational, a good and proper Bayesian. You update all your probabilities based on your observations, precisely as you should.

How will you feel about your talent, after a series of failures?

More precisely, what posterior probability will you assign to being a high-talent individual, after a series of n+k attempts, of which k met with success and n met with failure?

Since failure is likely even if you are high-talent, you shouldn’t update your probability too much on a failurebut each failure should, in fact, lead to revising your probability downward.

Conversely, since success is rare, it should cause you to revise your probability upward—and, as will become important, your revisions upon success should be much larger than your revisions upon failure.

We begin as any good Bayesian does, with Bayes’ Law:

P[H|(~S)^n (S)^k] = P[(~S)^n (S)^k|H] P[H] / P[(~S)^n (S)^k]

In words, this reads: The posterior probability of being high-talent, given that you have observed k successes and n failures, is equal to the probability of observing such an outcome, given that you are high-talent, times the prior probability of being high-skill, divided by the prior probability of observing such an outcome.

We can compute the probabilities on the right-hand side using the binomial distribution:

P[H] = h

P[(~S)^n (S)^k|H] = (n+k C k) p^k (1-p)^n

P[(~S)^n (S)^k] = (n+k C k) p^k (1-p)^n h + (n+k C k) q^k (1-q)^n (1-h)

Plugging all this back in and canceling like terms yields:

P[H|(~S)^n (S)^k] = 1/(1 + [1-h/h] [q/p]^k [(1-q)/(1-p)]^n)

This turns out to be particularly convenient in log-odds form:

L[X] = ln [ P(X)/P(~X) ]

L[(~S)^n) (S)^k|H] = ln [h/(1-h)] + k ln [p/q] + n ln [(1-p)/(1-q)]

Since p > q, ln[p/q] is a positive number, while ln[(1-p)/(1-q)] is a negative number. This corresponds to the fact that you will increase your posterior when you observe a success (k increases by 1) and decrease your posterior when you observe a failure (n increases by 1).

But when p and q are small, it turns out that ln[p/q] is much larger in magnitude than ln[(1-p)/(1-q)]. For the numbers I gave above, p = 0.10 and q = 0.02, ln[p/q] = 1.609 while ln[(1-p)/(1-q)] = -0.085. You will therefore update substantially more upon a success than on a failure.

Yet successes are rare! This means that any given success will most likely be first preceded by a sequence of failures. This results in what I will call the darkest-before-dawn effect: Your opinion of your own talent will tend to be at its very worst in the moments just preceding a major success.

I’ve graphed the results of a few simulations illustrating this: On the X-axis is the number of overall attempts made thus far, and on the Y-axis is the posterior probability of being high-talent. The simulated individual undergoes randomized successes and failures with the probabilities I chose above.

Bayesian_Impostor_full

There are 10 simulations on that one graph, which may make it a bit confusing. So let’s focus in on two runs in particular, which turned out to be run 6 and run 10:

[If you skipped over the math, here’s a good place to come back. Welcome!]

Bayesian_Impostor_focus

Run 6 is a lucky little devil. They had an immediate success, followed by another success in their fourth attempt. As a result, they quickly update their posterior to conclude that they are almost certainly a high-talent individual, and even after a string of failures beyond that they never lose faith.

Run 10, on the other hand, probably has Impostor Syndrome. Failure after failure after failure slowly eroded their self-esteem, leading them to conclude that they are probably a low-talent individual. And then, suddenly, a miracle occurs: On their 20th attempt, at last they succeed, and their whole outlook changes; perhaps they are high-talent after all.

Note that all the simulations are of high-talent individuals. Run 6 and run 10 are equally competent. Ex ante, the probability of success for run 6 and run 10 was exactly the same. Moreover, both individuals are completely rational, in the sense that they are doing perfect Bayesian updating.

And yet, if you compare their self-evaluations after the 19th attempt, they could hardly look more different: Run 6 is 85% sure that they are high-talent, even though they’ve been in a slump for the last 13 attempts. Run 10, on the other hand, is 83% sure that they are low-talent, because they’ve never succeeded at all.

It is darkest just before the dawn: Run 10’s self-evaluation is at its very lowest right before they finally have a success, at which point their self-esteem surges upward, almost to baseline. With just one more success, their opinion of themselves would in fact converge to the same as Run 6’s.

This may explain, at least in part, why Impostor Syndrome is so common. When successes are few and far between—even for the very best and brightest—then a string of failures is the most likely outcome for almost everyone, and it can be difficult to tell whether you are so bright after all. Failure after failure will slowly erode your self-esteem (and should, in some sense; you’re being a good Bayesian!). You’ll observe a few lucky individuals who get their big break right away, and it will only reinforce your fear that you’re not cut out for this (whatever this is) after all.

Of course, this model is far too simple: People don’t just come in “talented” and “untalented” varieties, but have a wide range of skills that lie on a continuum. There are degrees of success and failure as well: You could get published in some obscure field journal hardly anybody reads, or in the top journal in your discipline. You could get into the University of Northwestern Ohio, or into Harvard. And people face different barriers to success that may have nothing to do with talent—perhaps why marginalized people such as women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and people with disabilities tend to have the highest rates of Impostor Syndrome. But I think the overall pattern is right: People feel like impostors when they’ve experienced a long string of failures, even when that is likely to occur for everyone.

What can be done with this information? Well, it leads me to three pieces of advice:

1. When success is rare, find other evidence. If truly “succeeding” (whatever that means in your case) is unlikely on any given attempt, don’t try to evaluate your own competence based on that extremely noisy signal. Instead, look for other sources of data: Do you seem to have the kinds of skills that people who succeed in your endeavors have—preferably based on the most objective measures you can find? Do others who know you or your work have a high opinion of your abilities and your potential? This, perhaps is the greatest mistake we make when falling prey to Impostor Syndrome: We imagine that we have somehow “fooled” people into thinking we are competent, rather than realizing that other people’s opinions of us are actually evidence that we are in fact competent. Use this evidence. Update your posterior on that.

2. Don’t over-update your posterior on failures—and don’t under-update on successes. Very few living humans (if any) are true and proper Bayesians. We use a variety of heuristics when judging probability, most notably the representative and availability heuristics. These will cause you to over-respond to failures, because this string of failures makes you “look like” the kind of person who would continue to fail (representative), and you can’t conjure to mind any clear examples of success (availability). Keeping this in mind, your update upon experiencing failure should be small, probably as small as you can make it. Conversely, when you do actually succeed, even in a small way, don’t dismiss it. Don’t look for reasons why it was just luck—it’s always luck, at least in part, for everyone. Try to update your self-evaluation more when you succeed, precisely because success is rare for everyone.

3. Don’t lose hope. The next one really could be your big break. While astronomically baffling (no, it’s darkest at midnight, in between dusk and dawn!), “it is always darkest before the dawn” really does apply here. You are likely to feel the worst about yourself at the very point where you are about to finally succeed. The lowest self-esteem you ever feel will be just before you finally achieve a major success. Of course, you can’t know if the next one will be it—or if it will take five, or ten, or twenty more tries. And yes, each new failure will hurt a little bit more, make you doubt yourself a little bit more. But if you are properly grounded by what others think of your talents, you can stand firm, until that one glorious day comes and you finally make it.

Now, if I could only manage to take my own advice….