Finance is the commodification of trust

Jul 18 JDN 2459414

What is it about finance?

Why is it that whenever we have an economic crisis, it seems to be triggered by the financial industry? Why has the dramatic rise in income and wealth inequality come in tandem with a rise in finance as a proportion of our economic output? Why are so many major banks implicated in crimes ranging from tax evasion to money laundering for terrorists?

In other words, why are the people who run our financial industry such utter scum? What is it about finance that it seems to attract the very worst people on Earth?

One obvious answer is that it is extremely lucrative: Incomes in the financial industry are higher than almost any other industry. Perhaps people who are particularly unscrupulous are drawn to the industries that make the most money, and don’t care about much else. But other people like making money too, so this is far from a full explanation. Indeed, incomes for physicists are comparable to those of Wall Street brokers, yet physicists rarely seem to be implicated in mass corruption scandals.

I think there is a deeper reason: Finance is the commodification of trust.

Many industries sell products, physical artifacts like shirts or televisions. Others sell services like healthcare or auto repair, which involve the physical movement of objects through space. Information-based industries are a bit different—what a software developer or an economist sells isn’t really a physical object moving through space. But then what they are selling is something more like knowledge—information that can be used to do useful things.

Finance is different. When you make a loan or sell a stock, you aren’t selling a thing—and you aren’t really doing a thing either. You aren’t selling information, either. You’re selling trust. You are making money by making promises.

Most people are generally uncomfortable with the idea of selling promises. It isn’t that we’d never do it—but we’re reluctant to do it. We try to avoid it whenever we can. But if you want to be successful in finance, you can’t have that kind of reluctance. To succeed on Wall Street, you need to be constantly selling trust every hour of every day.

Don’t get me wrong: Certain kinds of finance are tremendously useful, and we’d be much worse off without them. I would never want to get rid of government bonds, auto loans or home mortgages. I’m actually pretty reluctant to even get rid of student loans, despite the large personal benefits I would get if all student loans were suddenly forgiven. (I would be okay with a system like Elizabeth Warren’s proposal, where people with college degrees pay a surtax that supports free tuition. The problem with most proposals for free college is that they make people who never went to college pay for those who did, and that seems unfair and regressive to me.)

But the Medieval suspicion against “usury“—the notion that there is something immoral about making money just from having money and making promises—isn’t entirely unfounded. There really is something deeply problematic about a system in which the best way to get rich is to sell commodified packages of trust, and the best way to make money is to already have it.

Moreover, the more complex finance gets, the more divorced it becomes from genuinely necessary transactions, and the more commodified it becomes. A mortgage deal that you make with a particular banker in your own community isn’t particularly commodified; a mortgage that is sliced and redistributed into mortgage-backed securities that are sold anonymously around the world is about as commodified as anything can be. It’s rather like the difference between buying a bag of apples from your town farmers’ market versus ordering a barrel of apple juice concentrate. (And of course the most commodified version of all is the financial one: buying apple juice concentrate futures.)

Commodified trust is trust that has lost its connection to real human needs. Those bankers who foreclosed on thousands of mortgages (many of them illegally) weren’t thinking about the people they were making homeless—why would they, when for them those people have always been nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet? Your local banker might be willing to work with you to help you keep your home, because they see you as a person. (They might not for various reasons, but at least they might.) But there’s no reason for HSBC to do so, especially when they know that they are so rich and powerful they can get away with just about anything (have I mentioned money laundering for terrorists?).

I don’t think we can get rid of finance. We will always need some mechanism to let people who need money but don’t have it borrow that money from people who have it but don’t need it, and it makes sense to have interest charges to compensate lenders for the time and risk involved.

Yet there is much of finance we can clearly dispense with. Credit default swaps could simply be banned, and we’d gain much and lose little. Credit default swaps are basically unregulated insurance, and there’s no reason to allow that. If banks need insurance, they can buy the regulated kind like everyone else. Those regulations are there for a reason. We could ban collateralized debt obligations and similar tranche-based securities, again with far more benefit than harm. We probably still need stocks and commodity futures, and perhaps also stock options—but we could regulate their sale considerably more, particularly with regard to short-selling. Banking should be boring.

Some amount of commodification may be inevitable, but clearly much of what we currently have could be eliminated. In particular, the selling of loans should simply be banned. Maybe even your local banker won’t ever really get to know you or care about you—but there’s no reason we have to allow them to sell your loan to some bank in another country that you’ve never even heard of. When you make a deal with a bank, the deal should be between you and that bank—not potentially any bank in the world that decides to buy the contract at any point in the future. Maybe we’ll always be numbers on spreadsheets—but at least we should be able to choose whose spreadsheets.

If banks want more liquidity, they can borrow from other banks—themselves, taking on the risk themselves. A lending relationship is built on trust. You are free to trust whomever you choose; but forcing me to trust someone I’ve never met is something you have no right to do.

In fact, we might actually be able to get rid of banks—credit unions have a far cleaner record than banks, and provide nearly all of the financial services that are genuinely necessary. Indeed, if you’re considering getting an auto loan or a home mortgage, I highly recommend you try a credit union first.

For now, we can’t simply get rid of banks—we’re too dependent on them. But we could at least acknowledge that banks are too powerful, they get away with far too much, and their whole industry is founded upon practices that need to be kept on a very tight leash.

Social science is broken. Can we fix it?

May 16 JDN 2459349

Social science is broken. I am of course not the first to say so. The Atlantic recently published an article outlining the sorry state of scientific publishing, and several years ago Slate Star Codex published a lengthy post (with somewhat harsher language than I generally use on this blog) showing how parapsychology, despite being obviously false, can still meet the standards that most social science is expected to meet. I myself discussed the replication crisis in social science on this very blog a few years back.

I was pessimistic then about the incentives of scientific publishing be fixed any time soon, and I am even more pessimistic now.

Back then I noted that journals are often run by for-profit corporations that care more about getting attention than getting the facts right, university administrations are incompetent and top-heavy, and publish-or-perish creates cutthroat competition without providing incentives for genuinely rigorous research. But these are widely known facts, even if so few in the scientific community seem willing to face up to them.

Now I am increasingly concerned that the reason we aren’t fixing this system is that the people with the most power to fix it don’t want to. (Indeed, as I have learned more about political economy I have come to believe this more and more about all the broken institutions in the world. American democracy has its deep flaws because politicians like it that way. China’s government is corrupt because that corruption is profitable for many of China’s leaders. Et cetera.)

I know economics best, so that is where I will focus; but most of what I’m saying here would also apply to other social sciences such as sociology and psychology as well. (Indeed it was psychology that published Daryl Bem.)

Rogoff and Reinhart’s 2010 article “Growth in a Time of Debt”, which was a weak correlation-based argument to begin with, was later revealed (by an intrepid grad student! His name is Thomas Herndon.) to be based upon deep, fundamental errors. Yet the article remains published, without any notice of retraction or correction, in the American Economic Review, probably the most prestigious journal in economics (and undeniably in the vaunted “Top Five”). And the paper itself was widely used by governments around the world to justify massive austerity policies—which backfired with catastrophic consequences.

Why wouldn’t the AER remove the article from their website? Or issue a retraction? Or at least add a note on the page explaining the errors? If their primary concern were scientific truth, they would have done something like this. Their failure to do so is a silence that speaks volumes, a hound that didn’t bark in the night.

It’s rational, if incredibly selfish, for Rogoff and Reinhart themselves to not want a retraction. It was one of their most widely-cited papers. But why wouldn’t AER’s editors want to retract a paper that had been so embarrassingly debunked?

And so I came to realize: These are all people who have succeeded in the current system. Their work is valued, respected, and supported by the system of scientific publishing as it stands. If we were to radically change that system, as we would necessarily have to do in order to re-align incentives toward scientific truth, they would stand to lose, because they would suddenly be competing against other people who are not as good at satisfying the magical 0.05, but are in fact at least as good—perhaps even better—actual scientists than they are.

I know how they would respond to this criticism: I’m someone who hasn’t succeeded in the current system, so I’m biased against it. This is true, to some extent. Indeed, I take it quite seriously, because while tenured professors stand to lose prestige, they can’t really lose their jobs even if there is a sudden flood of far superior research. So in directly economic terms, we would expect the bias against the current system among grad students, adjuncts, and assistant professors to be larger than the bias in favor of the current system among tenured professors and prestigious researchers.

Yet there are other motives aside from money: Norms and social status are among the most powerful motivations human beings have, and these biases are far stronger in favor of the current system—even among grad students and junior faculty. Grad school is many things, some good, some bad; but one of them is a ritual gauntlet that indoctrinates you into the belief that working in academia is the One True Path, without which your life is a failure. If your claim is that grad students are upset at the current system because we overestimate our own qualifications and are feeling sour grapes, you need to explain our prevalence of Impostor Syndrome. By and large, grad students don’t overestimate our abilities—we underestimate them. If we think we’re as good at this as you are, that probably means we’re better. Indeed I have little doubt that Thomas Herndon is a better economist than Kenneth Rogoff will ever be.

I have additional evidence that insider bias is important here: When Paul Romer—Nobel laureate—left academia he published an utterly scathing criticism of the state of academic macroeconomics. That is, once he had escaped the incentives toward insider bias, he turned against the entire field.

Romer pulls absolutely no punches: He literally compares the standard methods of DSGE models to “phlogiston” and “gremlins”. And the paper is worth reading, because it’s obviously entirely correct. He pulls no punches and every single one lands on target. It’s also a pretty fun read, at least if you have the background knowledge to appreciate the dry in-jokes. (Much like “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” I still laugh out loud every time I read the phrase “hegemonic Zermelo-Frankel axioms”, though I realize most people would be utterly nonplussed. For the unitiated, these are the Zermelo-Frankel axioms. Can’t you just see the colonialist imperialism in sentences like “\forall x \forall y (\forall z, z \in x \iff z \in y) \implies x = y”?)

In other words, the Upton Sinclair Principle seems to be applying here: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon not understanding it.” The people with the most power to change the system of scientific publishing are journal editors and prestigious researchers, and they are the people for whom the current system is running quite swimmingly.

It’s not that good science can’t succeed in the current system—it often does. In fact, I’m willing to grant that it almost always does, eventually. When the evidence has mounted for long enough and the most adamant of the ancien regime finally retire or die, then, at last, the paradigm will shift. But this process takes literally decades longer than it should. In principle, a wrong theory can be invalidated by a single rigorous experiment. In practice, it generally takes about 30 years of experiments, most of which don’t get published, until the powers that be finally give in.

This delay has serious consequences. It means that many of the researchers working on the forefront of a new paradigm—precisely the people that the scientific community ought to be supporting most—will suffer from being unable to publish their work, get grant funding, or even get hired in the first place. It means that not only will good science take too long to win, but that much good science will never get done at all, because the people who wanted to do it couldn’t find the support they needed to do so. This means that the delay is in fact much longer than it appears: Because it took 30 years for one good idea to take hold, all the other good ideas that would have sprung from it in that time will be lost, at least until someone in the future comes up with them.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it: At the AEA conference a few years back, I went to a luncheon celebrating Richard Thaler, one of the founders of behavioral economics, whom I regard as one of the top 5 greatest economists of the 20th century (I’m thinking something like, “Keynes > Nash > Thaler > Ramsey > Schelling”). Yes, now he is being rightfully recognized for his seminal work; he won a Nobel, and he has an endowed chair at Chicago, and he got an AEA luncheon in his honor among many other accolades. But it was not always so. Someone speaking at the luncheon offhandedly remarked something like, “Did we think Richard would win a Nobel? Honestly most of us weren’t sure he’d get tenure.” Most of the room laughed; I had to resist the urge to scream. If Richard Thaler wasn’t certain to get tenure, then the entire system is broken. This would be like finding out that Erwin Schrodinger or Niels Bohr wasn’t sure he would get tenure in physics.

A. Gary Schilling, a renowned Wall Street economist (read: One Who Has Turned to the Dark Side), once remarked (the quote is often falsely attributed to Keynes): “markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.” In the same spirit, I would say this: the scientific community can remain wrong a lot longer than you and I can extend our graduate fellowships and tenure clocks.

Economic Possibilities for Ourselves

May 2 JDN 2459335

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote one of the greatest essays ever written on economics, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” You can read it here.


In that essay he wrote:

“I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is.”

US population in 1930: 122 million; US real GDP in 1930: $1.1 trillion. Per-capita GDP: $9,000

US population in 2020: 329 million; US real GDP in 2020: $18.4 trillion. Per-capita GDP: $56,000

That’s a factor of 6. Keynes said 4 to 8; that makes his estimate almost perfect. We aren’t just inside his error bar, we’re in the center of it. If anything he was under-confident. Of course we still have 10 years left before a full century has passed: At a growth rate of 1% in per-capita GDP, that will make the ratio closer to 7—still well within his confidence interval.

I’d like to take a moment to marvel at how good this estimate is. Keynes predicted the growth rate of the entire US economy one hundred years in the future to within plus or minus 30%, and got it right.

With this in mind, it’s quite astonishing what Keynes got wrong in his essay.


The point of the essay is that what Keynes calls “the economic problem” will soon be solved. By “the economic problem”, he means the scarcity of resources that makes it impossible for everyone in the world to make a decent living. Keynes predicts that by 2030—so just a few years from now—humanity will have effectively solved this problem, and we will live in a world where everyone can live comfortably with adequate basic necessities like shelter, food, water, clothing, and medicine.

He laments that with the dramatically higher productivity that technological advancement brings, we will be thrust into a life of leisure that we are unprepared to handle. Evolved for a world of scarcity, we built our culture around scarcity, and we may not know what to do with ourselves in a world of abundance.

Keynes sounds his most naive when he imagines that we would spread out our work over more workers each with fewer hours:

“For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”

Plainly that is nothing like what happened. Americans do on average work fewer hours today than we did in the past, but not by anything like this much: average annual hours fell from about 1,900 in 1950 to about 1,700 today. Where Keynes was predicting a drop of 60%, the actual drop was only about 10%.

Here’s another change Keynes predicted that I wish we’d made, but we certainly haven’t:

“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”

Sadly, people still idolize Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk just as much their forebears idolized Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie. And really there’s nothing semi- about it: The acquisition of billions of dollars by exploiting others is clearly indicative of narcissism if not psychopathy.

It’s not that we couldn’t have made the world that Keynes imagined. There’s plenty of stuff—his forecast for our per-capita GDP was impeccable. But when we automated away all of the most important work, Keynes thought we would turn to lives of leisure, exploring art, music, literature, film, games, sports. But instead we did something he did not anticipate: We invented new kinds of work.

This would be fine if the new work we invented is genuinely productive; and some of it is, no doubt. Keynes could not have anticipated the emergence of 3D graphics designers, smartphone engineers, or web developers, but these jobs do genuinely productive and beneficial work that makes use of our extraordinary new technologies.

But think for a moment about Facebook and Google, now two of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. What do they sell? Think carefully! Facebook doesn’t sell social media. Google doesn’t sell search algorithms. Those are services they provide as platforms for what they actually sell: Advertising.

That is, some of the most profitable, powerful corporations in the world today make all of their revenue entirely from trying to persuade people to buy things they don’t actually need. The actual benefits they provide to humanity are sort of incidental; they exist to provide an incentive to look at the ads.

Paul Krugman often talks about Solow’s famous remark that “computers showed up everywhere but the productivity statistics”; aggregate productivity growth has, if anything, been slower in the last 40 years than in the previous 40.

But this aggregate is a very foolish measure. It’s averaging together all sorts of work into one big lump.

If you look specifically at manufacturing output per workerthe sort of thing you’d actually expect to increase due to automation—it has in fact increased, at breakneck speed: The average American worker produced four times as much output per hour in 2000 as in 1950.

The problem is that instead of splitting up the manufacturing work to give people free time, we moved them all into services—which have not meaningfully increased their productivity in the same period. The average growth rate in multifactor productivity in the service industries since the 1970s has been a measly 0.2% per year, meaning that our total output per worker in service industries is only 10% higher than it was in 1970.

While our population is more than double what it was in 1950, our total manufacturing employment is now less than it was in 1950. Our employment in services is four times what it was in 1950. We moved everyone out of the sector that actually got more productive and stuffed them into the sector that didn’t.

This is why the productivity statistics are misleading. Suppose we had 100 workers, and 2 industries.

Initially, in manufacturing, each worker can produce goods worth $20 per hour. In services, each worker can only produce services worth $10 per hour. 50 workers work in each industry, so average productivity is (50*$20+50*$10)/100 = $15 per hour.

Then, after new technological advances, productivity in manufacturing increases to $80 per hour, but people don’t actually want to spend that much on manufactured good. So 30 workers from manufacturing move over to services, which still only produce $10 per hour. Now total productivity is (20*$80+80*$10)/100 = $24 per hour.

Overall productivity now appears to only have risen 60% over that time period (in 50 years this would be 0.9% per year), but in fact it rose 300% in manufacturing (2.2% per year) but 0% in services. What looks like anemic growth in productivity is actually a shift of workers out of the productive sectors into the unproductive sectors.

Keynes imagined that once we had made manufacturing so efficient that everyone could have whatever appliances they like, we’d give them the chance to live their lives without having to work. Instead, we found jobs for them—in large part, jobs that didn’t need doing.

Advertising is the clearest example: It’s almost pure rent-seeking, and if it were suddenly deleted from the universe almost everyone would actually be better off.

But there are plenty of other jobs, what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”, that have the same character: Sales, consulting, brokering, lobbying, public relations, and most of what goes on in management, law and finance. Graeber had a silly theory that we did this on purpose either to make the rich feel important or to keep people working so they wouldn’t question the existing system. The real explanation is much simpler: These jobs are rent-seeking. They do make profits for the corporations that employ them, but they contribute little or nothing to human society as a whole.

I’m not sure how surprised Keynes would be by this outcome. In parts of the essay he acknowledges that the attitude which considers work a virtue and idleness a vice is well-entrenched in our society, and seems to recognize that the transition to a world where most people work very little is one that would be widely resisted. But his vision of what the world would be like in the early 21st century does now seem to be overly optimistic, not in its forecasts of our productivity and output—which, I really cannot stress enough, were absolutely spot on—but in its predictions of how society would adapt to that abundance.

It seems that most people still aren’t quite ready to give up on a world built around jobs. Most people still think of a job as the primary purpose of an adult’s life, that someone who isn’t working for an employer is somehow wasting their life and free-riding on everyone else.

In some sense this is perhaps true; but why is it more true of someone living on unemployment than of someone who works in marketing, or stock brokering, or lobbying, or corporate law? At least people living on unemployment aren’t actively making the world worse. And since unemployment pays less than all but the lowest-paying jobs, the amount of resources that are taken up by people on unemployment is considerably less than the rents which are appropriated by industries like consulting and finance.

Indeed, whenever you encounter a billionaire, there’s one thing you know for certain: They are very good at rent-seeking. Whether by monopoly power, or exploitation, or outright corruption, all the ways it’s possible to make a billion dollars are forms of rent-seeking. And this is for a very simple and obvious reason: No one can possibly work so hard and be so productive as to actually earn a billion dollars. No one’s real opportunity cost is actually that high—and the difference between income and real opportunity cost is by definition economic rent.

If we’re truly concerned about free-riding on other people’s work, we should really be thinking in terms of the generations of scientists and engineers before us who made all of this technology possible, as well as the institutions and infrastructure that have bequeathed us a secure stock of capital. You didn’t build that applies to all of us: Even if all the necessary raw materials were present, none of us could build a smartphone by hand alone on a desert island. Most of us couldn’t even sew a pair of pants or build a house—though that is at least the sort of thing that it’s possible to do by hand.

But in fact I think free-riding on our forebears is a perfectly acceptable activity. I am glad we do it, and I hope our descendants do it to us. I want to build a future where life is better than it is now; I want to leave the world better than we found it. If there were some way to inter-temporally transfer income back to the past, I suppose maybe we ought to do so—but as far as we know, there isn’t. Nothing can change the fact that most people were desperately poor for most of human history.

What we now have the power to decide is what will happen to people in the future: Will we continue to maintain this system where our wealth is decided by our willingness to work for corporations, at jobs that may be utterly unnecessary or even actively detrimental? Or will we build a new system, one where everyone gets the chance to share in the abundance that our ancestors have given us and each person gets the chance to live their life in the way that they find most meaningful?

Keynes imagined a bright future for the generation of his grandchildren. We now live in that generation, and we have precisely the abundance of resources he predicted we would. Can we now find a way to build that bright future?

Men and violence

Apr4 JDN 2459302

Content warning: In this post, I’m going to be talking about violence, including sexual violence. April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. I won’t go into any explicit detail, but I understand that discussion of such topics can still be very upsetting for many people.

After short posts for the past two weeks, get ready for a fairly long post. This is a difficult and complicated topic, and I want to make sure that I state things very clearly and with all necessary nuance.

While the overall level of violence between human societies varies tremendously, one thing is astonishingly consistent: Violence is usually committed by men.

In fact, violence is usually suffered by men as well—with the quite glaring exception of sexual violence. This is why I am particularly offended by claims like “All men benefit from male violence”; no, men who were murdered by other men did not benefit from male violence, and it is frankly appalling to say otherwise. Most men would be better off if male violence were somehow eliminated from the world. (Most women would also be much better off as well, of course.)

I therefore consider it both a matter of both moral obligation and self-interest to endeavor to reduce the amount of male violence in the world, which is almost coextensive with reducing the amount of violence in general.

On the other hand, ought implies can, and despite significant efforts I have made to seek out recommendations for concrete actions I could be taking… I haven’t been able to find very many.

The good news is that we appear to be doing something right—overall rates of violent crime have declined by nearly half since 1990. The decline in rape has been slower, only about 25% since 1990, though this is a bit misleading since the legal definition of rape has been expanded during that interval. The causes of this decline in violence are unclear: Some of the most important factors seem to be changes in policing, economic growth, and reductions in lead pollution. For whatever reason, Millennials just don’t seem to commit crimes at the same rates that Gen-X-ers or Boomers did. We are also substantially more feminist, so maybe that’s an important factor too; the truth is, we really don’t know.

But all of this still leaves me asking: What should I be doing?

When I searched for an answer to this question, a significant fraction of the answers I got from various feminist sources were some variation on “ruminate on your own complicity in male violence”. I tried it; it was painful, difficult—and basically useless. I think this is particularly bad advice for someone like me who has a history of depression.

When you ruminate on your own life, it’s easy to find mistakes; but how important were those mistakes? How harmful were they? I can’t say that I’ve never done anything in my whole life that hurt anyone emotionally (can anyone?), but I can only think of a few times I’ve harmed someone physically (mostly by accident, once in self-defense). I’ve definitely never raped or murdered anyone, and as far as I can tell I’ve never done anything that would have meaningfully contributed to anyone getting raped or murdered. If you were to somehow replace every other man in the world with a copy of me, maybe that wouldn’t immediately bring about a utopian paradise—but I’m pretty sure that rates of violence would be a lot lower. (And in this world ruled by my clones, we’d have more progressive taxes! Less military spending! A basic income! A global democratic federation! Greater investment in space travel! Hey, this sounds pretty good, actually… though inbreeding would be a definite concern.) So, okay, I’m no angel; but I don’t think it’s really fair to say that I’m complicit in something that would radically decrease if everyone behaved as I do.

The really interesting thing is, I think this is true of most men. A typical man commits less than the average amount of violence—because there is great skew in the distribution, with most men committing little or no violence and a small number of men committing lots of violence. Truly staggering amounts of violence are committed by those at the very top of the distribution—that would be mass murderers like Hitler and Stalin. It sounds strange, but if all men in the world were replaced by a typical man, the world would surely be better off. The loss of the very best men would be more than compensated by the removal of the very worst. In fact, since most men are not rapists or murderers, replacing every man in the world with the median man would automatically bring the rates of rape and murder to zero. I know that feminists don’t like to hear #NotAllMen; but it’s not even most men. Maybe the reason that the “not all men” argument keeps coming up is… it’s actually kind of true? Maybe it’s not so unreasonable for men to resent the implication that we are complicit in acts we abhor that we have never done and would never do? Maybe this whole concept that an entire sex of people, literally almost half the human race, can share responsibility for violent crimes—is wrong?

I know that most women face a nearly constant bombardment of sexual harassment, and feel pressured to remain constantly vigilant in order to protect themselves against being raped. I know that victims of sexual violence are often blamed for their victimization (though this happens in a lot of crimes, not just sex crimes). I know that #YesAllWomen is true—basically all women have been in some way harmed or threatened by sexual violence. But the fact remains that most men are already not committing sexual violence. Many people seem to confuse the fact that most women are harmed by men with the claim that most men harm women; these are not at all equivalent. As long as one man can harm many women, there don’t need to be very many harmful men for all women to be affected.

Plausible guesses would be that about 20-25% of women suffer sexual assault, committed by about 4% or 5% of men, each of whom commits an average of 4 to 6 assaults—and some of whom commit far more. If these figures are right, then 95% of men are not guilty of sexual assault. The highest plausible estimate I’ve seen is from a study which found that 11% of men had committed rape. Since it’s only one study and its sample size was pretty small, I’m actually inclined to think that this is an overestimate which got excessive attention because it was so shocking. Larger studies rarely find a number above 5%.

But even if we suppose that it’s really 11%, that leaves 89%; in what sense is 89% not “most men”? I saw some feminist sites responding to this result by saying things like “We can’t imprison 11% of men!” but, uh, we almost do already. About 9% of American men will go to prison in their lifetimes. This is probably higher than it should be—it’s definitely higher than any other country—but if those convictions were all for rape, I’d honestly have trouble seeing the problem. (In fact only about 10% of US prisoners are incarcerated for rape.) If the US were the incarceration capital of the world simply because we investigated and prosecuted rape more reliably, that would be a point of national pride, not shame. In fact, the American conservatives who don’t see the problem with our high incarceration rate probably do think that we’re mostly incarcerating people for things like rape and murder—when in fact large portions of our inmates are incarcerated for drug possession, “public order” crimes, or pretrial detention.

Even if that 11% figure is right, “If you know 10 men, one is probably a rapist” is wrong. The people you know are not a random sample. If you don’t know any men who have been to prison, then you likely don’t know any men who are rapists. 37% of prosecuted rapists have prior criminal convictions, and 60% will be convicted of another crime within 5 years. (Of course, most rapes are never even reported; but where would we get statistics on those rapists?) Rapists are not typical men. They may seem like typical men—it may be hard to tell the difference at a glance, or even after knowing someone for a long time. But the fact that narcissists and psychopaths may hide among us does not mean that all of us are complicit in the crimes of narcissists and psychopaths. If you can’t tell who is a psychopath, you may have no choice but to be wary; but telling every man to search his heart is worthless, because the only ones who will listen are the ones who aren’t psychopaths.

That, I think, is the key disagreement here: Where the standard feminist line is “any man could be a rapist, and every man should search his heart”, I believe the truth is much more like, “monsters hide among us, and we should do everything in our power to stop them”. The monsters may look like us, they may often act like us—but they are not us. Maybe there are some men who would commit rapes but can be persuaded out of it—but this is not at all the typical case. Most rapes are committed by hardened, violent criminals and all we can really do is lock them up. (And for the love of all that is good in the world, test all the rape kits!)

It may be that sexual harassment of various degrees is more spread throughout the male population; perhaps the median man indeed commits some harassment at some point in his life. But even then, I think it’s pretty clear that the really awful kinds of harassment are largely committed by a small fraction of serial offenders. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between propensity toward sexual harassment and various measures of narcissism and psychopathy. So, if most men look closely enough, maybe they can think of a few things that they do occasionally that might make women uncomfortable; okay, stop doing those things. (Hint: Do not send unsolicited dick pics. Ever. Just don’t. Anyone who wants to see your genitals will ask first.) But it isn’t going to make a huge difference in anyone’s life. As long as the serial offenders continue, women will still feel utterly bombarded.

There are other kinds of sexual violations that more men commit—being too aggressive, or persisting too much after the first rejection, or sending unsolicited sexual messages or images. I’ve had people—mostly, but not only, men—do things like that to me; but it would be obviously unfair to both these people and actual rape victims to say I’d ever been raped. I’ve been groped a few times, but it seems like quite a stretch to call it “sexual assault”. I’ve had experiences that were uncomfortable, awkward, frustrating, annoying, occasionally creepy—but never traumatic. Never violence. Teaching men (and women! There is evidence that women are not much less likely than men to commit this sort of non-violent sexual violation) not to do these things is worthwhile and valuable in itself—but it’s not going to do much to prevent rape or murder.

Thus, whatever responsibility men have in reducing sexual violence, it isn’t simply to stop; you can’t stop doing what you already aren’t doing.

After pushing through all that noise, at last I found a feminist site making a more concrete suggestion: They recommended that I read a book by Jackson Katz on the subject entitled The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help.

First of all, I must say I can’t remember any other time I’ve read a book that was so poorly titled. The only mention of the phrase “macho paradox” is a brief preface that was added to the most recent edition explaining what the term was meant to mean; it occurs nowhere else in the book. And in all its nearly 300 pages, the book has almost nothing that seriously addresses either the motivations underlying sexual violence or concrete actions that most men could take in order to reduce it.

As far as concrete actions (“How all men can help”), the clearest, most consistent advice the book seems to offer that would apply to most men is “stop consuming pornography” (something like 90% of men and 60% of women regularly consume porn), when in fact there is a strong negative correlation between consumption of pornography and real-world sexual violence. (Perhaps Millennials are less likely to commit rape and murder because we are so into porn and video games!) This advice is literally worse than nothing.

The sex industry exists on a continuum from the adult-only but otherwise innocuous (smutty drawings and erotic novels), through the legal but often problematic (mainstream porn, stripping), to the usually illegal but defensible (consensual sex work), all the way to the utterly horrific and appalling (the sexual exploitation of children). I am well aware that there are many deep problems with the mainstream porn industry, but I confess I’ve never quite seen how these problems are specific to porn rather than endemic to media or even capitalism more generally. Particularly with regard to the above-board sex industry in places like Nevada or the Netherlands, it’s not obvious to me that a prostitute is more exploited than a coal miner, a sweatshop worker, or a sharecropper—indeed, given the choice between those four careers, I’d without hesitation choose to be a prostitute in Amsterdam. Many sex workers resent the paternalistic insistence by anti-porn feminists that their work is inherently degrading and exploitative. Overall, sex workers report job satisfaction not statistically different than the average for all jobs. There are a multitude of misleading statistics often reported about the sex industry that often make matters seem far worse than they are.

Katz (all-too) vividly describes the depiction of various violent or degrading sex acts in mainstream porn, but he seems unwilling to admit that any other forms of porn do or even could exist—and worse, like far too many anti-porn feminists, he seems to willfully elide vital distinctions, effectively equating fantasy depiction with genuine violence and consensual kinks with sexual abuse. I like to watch action movies and play FPS video games; does that mean I believe it’s okay to shoot people with machine guns? I know the sophisticated claim is that it somehow “desensitizes” us (whatever that means), but there’s not much evidence of that either. Given that porn and video games are negatively correlated with actual violence, it may in fact be that depicting the fantasy provides an outlet for such urges and helps prevent them from becoming reality. Or, it may simply be that keeping a bunch of young men at home in front of their computers keeps them from going out and getting into trouble. (Then again, homicides actually increased during the COVID pandemic—though most other forms of crime decreased.) But whatever the cause, the evidence is clear that porn and video games don’t increase actual violence—they decrease them.

At the very end of the book, Katz hints at a few other things men might be able to do, or at least certain groups of men: Challenge sexism in sports, the military, and similar male-dominated spaces (you know, if you have clout in such spaces, which I really don’t—I’m an effete liberal intellectual, a paradigmatic “soy boy”; do you think football players or soldiers are likely to listen to me?); educate boys with more positive concepts of masculinity (if you are in a position to do so, e.g. as a teacher or parent); or, the very best advice in the entire book, worth more than the rest of the book combined: Donate to charities that support survivors of sexual violence. Katz doesn’t give any specific recommendations, but here are a few for you: RAINN, NAESV and NSVRC.

Honestly, I’m more impressed by Upworthy’s bulleted list of things men can do, though they’re mostly things that conscientious men do anyway, and even if 90% of men did them, it probably wouldn’t greatly reduce actual violence.

As far as motivations (“Why some men hurt women”), the book does at least manage to avoid the mindless slogan “rape is about power, not sex” (there is considerable evidence that this slogan is false or at least greatly overstated). Still, Katz insists upon collective responsibility, attributing what are in fact typically individual crimes, committed mainly by psychopaths, motivated primarily by anger or sexual desire, to some kind of institutionalized system of patriarchal control that somehow permeates all of society. The fact that violence is ubiquitous does not imply that it is coordinated. It’s very much the same cognitive error as “murderism”.

I agree that sexism exists, is harmful, and may contribute to the prevalence of rape. I agree that there are many widespread misconceptions about rape. I also agree that reducing sexism and toxic masculinity are worthwhile endeavors in themselves, with numerous benefits for both women and men. But I’m just not convinced that reducing sexism or toxic masculinity would do very much to reduce the rates of rape or other forms of violence. In fact, despite widely reported success of campaigns like the “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign, the best empirical research on the subject suggests that such campaigns actually tend to do more harm than good. The few programs that seem to work are those that focus on bystander interventions—getting men who are not rapists to recognize rapists and stop them. Basically nothing has ever been shown to convince actual rapists; all we can do is deny them opportunities—and while bystander intervention can do that, the most reliable method is probably incarceration. Trying to change their sexist attitudes may be worse than useless.

Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that much—not all, but much—of what is called “sexism” is actually toxic expressions of heterosexuality. Why do most creepy male bosses only ever hit on their female secretaries? Well, maybe because they’re straight? This is not hard to explain. It’s a fair question why there are so many creepy male bosses, but one need not posit any particular misogyny to explain why their targets would usually be women. I guess it’s a bit hard to disentangle; if an incel hates women because he perceives them as univocally refusing to sleep with him, is that sexism? What if he’s a gay incel (yes they exist) and this drives him to hate men instead?

In fact, I happen to know of a particular gay boss who has quite a few rumors surrounding him regarding his sexual harassment of male employees. Or you could look at Kevin Spacey, who (allegedly) sexually abused teenage boys. You could tell a complicated story about how this is some kind of projection of misogynistic attitudes onto other men (perhaps for being too “femme” or something)—or you could tell a really simple story about how this man is only sexually abusive toward other men because that’s the gender of people he’s sexually attracted to. Occam’s Razor strongly favors the latter.

Indeed, what are we to make of the occasional sexual harasser who targets men and women equally? On the theory that abuse is caused by patriarchy, that seems pretty hard to explain. On the theory that abusive people sometimes happen to be bisexual, it’s not much of a mystery. (Though I would like to take a moment to debunk the stereotype of the “depraved bisexual”: Bisexuals are no more likely to commit sexual violence, but are far more likely to suffer it—more likely than either straight or gay people, independently of gender. Trans people face even higher risk; the acronym LGBT is in increasing order of danger of violence.)

Does this excuse such behavior? Absolutely not. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are definitely wrong, definitely harmful, and rightfully illegal. But when trying to explain why the victims are overwhelmingly female, the fact that roughly 90% of people are heterosexual is surely relevant. The key explanandum here is not why the victims are usually female, but rather why the perpetrators are usually male.

That, indeed, requires explanation; but such an explanation is really not so hard to come by. Why is it that, in nearly every human society, for nearly every form of violence, the vast majority of that violence is committed by men? It sure looks genetic to me.

Indeed, in anyother context aside from gender or race, we would almost certainly reject any explanation other than genetics for such a consistent pattern. Why is it that, in nearly every human society, about 10% of people are LGBT? Probably genetics. Why is it that, in near every human society, about 10% of people are left-handed? Genetics. Why, in nearly every human society, do smiles indicate happiness, children fear loud noises, and adults fear snakes? Genetics. Why, in nearly every human society, are men on average much taller and stronger than women? Genetics. Why, in nearly every human society, is about 90% of violence, including sexual violence, committed by men? Clearly, it’s patriarchy.

A massive body of scientific evidence from multiple sources shows a clear casual relationship between increased testosterone and increased aggression. The correlation is moderate, only about 0.38—but it’s definitely real. And men have a lot more testosterone than women: While testosterone varies a frankly astonishing amount between men and over time—including up to a 2-fold difference even over the same day—a typical adult man has about 250 to 950 ng/dL of blood testosterone, while a typical adult woman has only 8 to 60 ng/dL. (An adolescent boy can have as much as 1200 ng/dL!) This is a difference ranging from a minimum of 4-fold to a maximum of over 100-fold, with a typical value of about 20-fold. It would be astonishing if that didn’t have some effect on behavior.

This is of course far from a complete explanation: With a correlation of 0.38, we’ve only explained about 14% of the variance, so what’s the other 86%? Well, first of all, testosterone isn’t the only biological difference between men and women. It’s difficult to identify any particular genes with strong effects on aggression—but the same is true of height, and nobody disputes that the height difference between men and women is genetic.

Clearly societal factors do matter a great deal, or we couldn’t possibly explain why homicide rates vary between countries from less than 3 per million per year in Japan to nearly 400 per million per year in Hondurasa full 2 orders of magnitude! But gender inequality does not appear to strongly predict homicide rates. Japan is not a very feminist place (in fact, surveys suggest that, after Spain, Japan is second-worst highly-developed country for women). Sweden is quite feminist, and their homicide rate is relatively low; but it’s still 4 times as high as Japan’s. The US doesn’t strike me as much more sexist than Canada (admittedly subjective—surveys do suggest at least some difference, and in the expected direction), and yet our homicide rate is nearly 3 times as high. Also, I think it’s worth noting that while overall homicide rates vary enormously across societies, the fact that roughly 90% of homicides are committed by men does not. Through some combination of culture and policy, societies can greatly reduce the overall level of violence—but no society has yet managed to change the fact that men are more violent than women.

I would like to do a similar analysis of sexual assault rates across countries, but unfortunately I really can’t, because different countries have such different laws and different rates of reporting that the figures really aren’t comparable. Sweden infamously has a very high rate of reported sex crimes, but this is largely because they have very broad definitions of sex crimes and very high rates of reporting. The best I can really say for now is there is no obvious pattern of more feminist countries having lower rates of sex crimes. Maybe there really is such a pattern; but the data isn’t clear.

Yet if biology contributes anything to the causation of violence—and at this point I think the evidence for that is utterly overwhelming—then mainstream feminism has done the world a grave disservice by insisting upon only social and cultural causes. Maybe it’s the case that our best options for intervention are social or cultural, but that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore biology. And then again, maybe it’s not the case at all:A neurological treatment to cure psychopathy could cut almost all forms of violence in half.

I want to be completely clear that a biological cause is not a justification or an excuse: literally billions of men manage to have high testosterone levels, and experience plenty of anger and sexual desire, without ever raping or murdering anyone. The fact that men appear to be innately predisposed toward violence does not excuse actual violence, and the fact that rape is typically motivated at least in part by sexual desire is no excuse for committing rape.

In fact, I’m quite worried about the opposite: that the notion that sexual violence is always motivated by a desire to oppress and subjugate women will be used to excuse rape, because men who know that their motivation was not oppression will therefore be convinced that what they did wasn’t rape. If rape is always motivated by a desire to oppress women, and his desire was only to get laid, then clearly, what he did can’t be rape, right? The logic here actually makes sense. If we are to reject this argument—as we must—then we must reject the first premise, that all rape is motivated by a desire to oppress and subjugate women. I’m not saying that’s never a motivation—I’m simply saying we can’t assume it is always.

The truth is, I don’t know how to end violence, and sexual violence may be the most difficult form of violence to eliminate. I’m not even sure what most of us can do to make any difference at all. For now, the best thing to do is probably to donate money to organizations like RAINN, NAESV and NSVRC. Even $10 to one of these organizations will do more to help survivors of sexual violence than hours of ruminating on your own complicity—and cost you a lot less.

Because ought implies can, can may imply ought

Mar21JDN 2459295

Is Internet access a fundamental human right?

At first glance, such a notion might seem preposterous: Internet access has only existed for less than 50 years, how could it be a fundamental human right like life and liberty, or food and water?

Let’s try another question then: Is healthcare a fundamental human right?

Surely if there is a vaccine for a terrible disease, and we could easily give it to you but refuse to do so, and you thereby contract the disease and suffer horribly, we have done something morally wrong. We have either violated your rights or violated our own obligations—perhaps both.

Yet that vaccine had to be invented, just as the Internet did; go back far enough into history and there were no vaccines, no antibiotics, even no anethestetics or antiseptics.

One strong, commonly shared intuition is that denying people such basic services is a violation of their fundamental rights. Another strong, commonly shared intuition is that fundamental rights should be universal, not contingent upon technological or economic development. Is there a way to reconcile these two conflicting intuitions? Or is one simply wrong?

One of the deepest principles in deontic logic is “ought implies can“: One cannot be morally obligated to do what one is incapable of doing.

Yet technology, by its nature, makes us capable of doing more. By technological advancement, our space of “can” has greatly expanded over time. And this means that our space of “ought” has similarly expanded.

For if the only thing holding us back from an obligation to do something (like save someone from a disease, or connect them instantaneously with all of human knowledge) was that we were incapable and ought implies can, well, then now that we can, we ought.

Advancements in technology do not merely give us the opportunity to help more people: They also give us the obligation to do so. As our capabilities expand, our duties also expand—perhaps not at the same rate, but they do expand all the same.

It may be that on some deeper level we could articulate the fundamental rights so that they would not change over time: Not a right to Internet access, but a right to equal access to knowledge; not a right to vaccination, but a right to a fair minimum standard of medicine. But the fact remains: How this right becomes expressed in action and policy will and must change over time. What was considered an adequate standard of healthcare in the Middle Ages would rightfully be considered barbaric and cruel today. And I am hopeful that what we now consider an adequate standard of healthcare will one day seem nearly as barbaric. (“Dialysis? What is this, the Dark Ages?”)

We live in a very special time in human history.

Our technological and economic growth for the past few generations has been breathtakingly fast, and we are the first generation in history to seriously be in a position to end world hunger. We have in fact been rapidly reducing global poverty, but we could do far more. And because we can, we should.

After decades of dashed hope, we are now truly on the verge of space colonization: Robots on Mars are now almost routine, fully-reusable spacecraft have now flown successful missions, and a low-Earth-orbit hotel is scheduled to be constructed by the end of the decade. Yet if current trends continue, the benefits of space colonization are likely to be highly concentrated among a handful of centibillionaires—like Elon Musk, who gained a staggering $160 billion in wealth over the past year. We can do much better to share the rewards of space with the rest of the population—and therefore we must.

Artificial intelligence is also finally coming into its own, with GPT-3 now passing the weakest form of the Turing Test (though not the strongest form—you can still trip it up and see that it’s not really human if you are clever and careful). Many jobs have already been replaced by automation, but as AI improves, many more will be—not as soon as starry-eyed techno-optimists imagined, but sooner than most people realize. Thus far the benefits of automation have likewise been highly concentrated among the rich—we can fix that, and therefore we should.

Is there a fundamental human right to share in the benefits of space colonization and artificial intelligence? Two centuries ago the question wouldn’t have even made sense. Today, it may seem preposterous. Two centuries from now, it may seem preposterous to deny.

I’m sure almost everyone would agree that we are obliged to give our children food and water. Yet if we were in a desert, starving and dying of thirst, we would be unable to do so—and we cannot be obliged to do what we cannot do. Yet as soon as we find an oasis and we can give them water, we must.

Humanity has been starving in the desert for two hundred millennia. Now, at last, we have reached the oasis. It is our duty to share its waters fairly.

In search of reasonable conservatism

Feb 21JDN 2459267

This is a very tumultuous time for American politics. Donald Trump, not once, but twice was impeached—giving him the dubious title of having been impeached as many times as the previous 45 US Presidents combined. He was not convicted either time, not because the evidence for his crimes was lacking—it was in fact utterly overwhelming—but because of obvious partisan bias: Republican Senators didn’t want to vote against a Republican President. All 50 of the Democratic Senators, but only 7 of the 50 Republican Senators, voted to convict Trump. The required number of votes to convict was 67.

Some degree of partisan bias is to be expected. Indeed, the votes looked an awful lot like Bill Clinton’s impeachment, in which all Democrats and only a handful of Republicans voted to acquit. But Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial was nowhere near as open-and-shut as Donald Trump’s. He was being tried for perjury and obstruction of justice, over lies he told about acts that were unethical, but not illegal or un-Constitutional. I’m a little disappointed that no Democrats voted against him, but I think acquittal was probably the right verdict. There’s something very odd about being tried for perjury because you lied about something that wasn’t even a crime. Ironically, had it been illegal, he could have invoked the Fifth Amendment instead of lying and they wouldn’t have been able to touch him. So the only way the perjury charge could actually stick was because it wasn’t illegal. But that isn’t what perjury is supposed to be about: It’s supposed to be used for things like false accusations and planted evidence. Refusing to admit that you had an affair that’s honestly no one’s business but your family’s really shouldn’t be a crime, regardless of your station.

So let us not imagine an equivalency here: Bill Clinton was being tried for crimes that were only crimes because he lied about something that wasn’t a crime. Donald Trump was being tried for manipulating other countries to interfere in our elections, obstructing investigations by Congress, and above all attempting to incite a coup. Partisan bias was evident in all three trials, but only Trump’s trials were about sedition against the United States.

That is to say, I expect to see partisan bias; it would be unrealistic not to. But I expect that bias to be limited. I expect there to be lines beyond which partisans will refuse to go. The Republican Party in the United States today has shown us that they have no such lines. (Or if there are, they are drawn far too high. What would he have to do, bomb an American city? He incited an invasion of the Capitol Building, for goodness’ sake! And that was after so terribly mishandling a pandemic that he caused roughly 200,000 excess American deaths!)

Temperamentally, I like to compromise. I want as many people to be happy as possible, even if that means not always getting exactly what I would personally prefer. I wanted to believe that there were reasonable conservatives in our government, professional statespersons with principles who simply had honest disagreements about various matters of policy. I can now confirm that there are at most 7 such persons in the US Senate, and at most 10 such persons in the US House of Representatives. So of the 261 Republicans in Congress, no more than 17 are actually reasonable statespersons who do not let partisan bias override their most basic principles of justice and democracy.

And even these 17 are by no means certain: There were good strategic reasons to vote against Trump, even if the actual justice meant nothing to you. Trump’s net disapproval rating was nearly the highest of any US President ever. Carter and Bush I had periods where they fared worse, but overall fared better. Johnson, Ford, Reagan, Obama, Clinton, Bush II, and even Nixon were consistently more approved than Trump. Kennedy and Eisenhower completely blew him out of the water—at their worst, Kennedy and Eisenhower were nearly 30 percentage points above Trump at his best. With Trump this unpopular, cutting ties with him would make sense for the same reason rats desert a sinking ship. And yet somehow partisan loyalty won out for 94% of Republicans in Congress.

Politics is the mind-killer, and I fear that this sort of extreme depravity on the part of Republicans in Congress will make it all too easy to dismiss conservatism as a philosophy in general. I actually worry about that; not all conservative ideas are wrong! Low corporate taxes actually make a lot of sense. Minimum wage isn’t that harmful, but it’s also not that beneficial. Climate change is a very serious threat, but it’s simply not realistic to jump directly to fully renewable energy—we need something for the transition, probably nuclear energy. Capitalism is overall the best economic system, and isn’t particularly bad for the environment. Industrial capitalism has brought us a golden age. Rent control is a really bad idea. Fighting racism is important, but there are ways in which woke culture has clearly gone too far. Indeed, perhaps the worst thing about woke culture is the way it denies past successes for civil rights and numbs us with hopelessness.

Above all, groupthink is incredibly dangerous. Once we become convinced that any deviation from the views of the group constitutes immorality or even treason, we become incapable of accepting new information and improving our own beliefs. We may start with ideas that are basically true and good, but we are not omniscient, and even the best ideas can be improved upon. Also, the world changes, and ideas that were good a generation ago may no longer be applicable to the current circumstances. The only way—the only way—to solve that problem is to always remain open to new ideas and new evidence.

Therefore my lament is not just for conservatives, who now find themselves represented by craven ideologues; it is also for liberals, who no longer have an opposition party worth listening to. Indeed, it’s a little hard to feel bad for the conservatives, because they voted for these maniacs. Maybe they didn’t know what they were getting? But they’ve had chances to remove most of them, and didn’t do so. At best I’d say I pity them for being so deluded by propaganda that they can’t see the harm their votes have done.

But I’m actually quite worried that the ideologues on the left will now feel vindicated; their caricatured view of Republicans as moustache-twirling cartoon villains turned out to be remarkably accurate, at least for Trump himself. Indeed, it was hard not to think of the ridiculous “destroying the environment for its own sake” of Captain Planet villains when Trump insisted on subsidizing coal power—which by the way didn’t even work.

The key, I think, is to recognize that reasonable conservatives do exist—there just aren’t very many of them in Congress right now. A significant number of Americans want low taxes, deregulation, and free markets but are horrified by Trump and what the Republican Party has become—indeed, at least a few write for the National Review.

The mere fact that an idea comes from Republicans is not a sufficient reason to dismiss that idea. Indeed, I’m going to say something even stronger: The mere fact that an idea comes from a racist or a bigot is not a sufficient reason to dismiss that idea. If the idea itself is racist or bigoted, yes, that’s a reason to think it is wrong. But even bad people sometimes have good ideas.

The reasonable conservatives seem to be in hiding at the moment; I’ve searched for them, and had difficulty finding more than a handful. Yet we must not give up the search. Politics should not appear one-sided.

The paperclippers are already here

Jan 24 JDN 2459239

Imagine a powerful artificial intelligence, which is comprised of many parts distributed over a vast area so that it has no particular location. It is incapable of feeling any emotion: Neither love nor hate, neither joy nor sorrow, neither hope nor fear. It has no concept of ethics or morals, only its own programmed directives. It has one singular purpose, which it seeks out at any cost. Any who aid its purpose are generously rewarded. Any who resist its purpose are mercilessly crushed.

The Less Wrong community has come to refer to such artificial intelligences as “paperclippers”; the metonymous singular directive is to maximize the number of paperclips produced. There’s even an online clicker game where you can play as one called “Universal Paperclips“. The concern is that we might one day invent such artificial intelligences, and they could get out of control. The paperclippers won’t kill us because they hate us, but simply because we can be used to make more paperclips. This is a far more plausible scenario for the “AI apocalypse” than the more conventional sci-fi version where AIs try to kill us on purpose.

But I would say that the paperclippers are already here. Slow, analog versions perhaps. But they are already getting out of control. We call them corporations.

A corporation is probably not what you visualized when you read the first paragraph of this post, so try reading it again. Which parts are not true of corporations?

Perhaps you think a corporation is not an artificial intelligence? But clearly it’s artificial, and doesn’t it behave in ways that seem intelligent? A corporation has purpose beyond its employees in much the same way that a hive has purpose beyond its bees. A corporation is a human superorganism (and not the only kind either).

Corporations are absolutely, utterly amoral. Their sole directive is to maximize profit. Now, you might think that an individual CEO, or a board of directors, could decide to do something good, or refrain from something evil, for reasons other than profit; and to some extent this is true. But particularly when a corporation is publicly-traded, that CEO and those directors are beholden to shareholders. If shareholders see that the corporation is acting in ways that benefit the community but hurt their own profits, shareholders can rebel by selling their shares or even suing the company. In 1919, Dodge successfully sued Ford for the “crime” of setting wages too high and prices too low.

Humans are altruistic. We are capable of feeling, emotion, and compassion. Corporations are not. Corporations are made of human beings, but they are specifically structured to minimize the autonomy of human choices. They are designed to provide strong incentives to behave in a particular way so as to maximize profit. Even the CEO of a corporation, especially one that is publicly traded, has their hands tied most of the time by the desires of millions of shareholders and customers—so-called “market forces”. Corporations are entirely the result of human actions, but they feel like impersonal forces because they are the result of millions of independent choices, almost impossible to coordinate; so one individual has very little power to change the outcome.

Why would we create such entities? It almost feels as though we were conquered by some alien force that sought to enslave us to its own purposes. But no, we created corporations ourselves. We intentionally set up institutions designed to limit our own autonomy in the name of maximizing profit.

Part of the answer is efficiency: There are genuine gains in economic efficiency due to the corporate structure. Corporations can coordinate complex activity on a vast scale, with thousands or even millions of employees each doing what they are assigned without ever knowing—or needing to know—the whole of which they are a part.

But a publicly-traded corporation is far from the only way to do that. Even for-profit businesses are not the only way to organize production. And empirically, worker co-ops actually seem to be about as productive as corporations, while producing far less inequality and far more satisfied employees.

Thus, in order to explain the primacy of corporations, particularly those that are traded on stock markets, we must turn to ideology: The extreme laissez- faire concept of capitalism and its modern expression in the ideology of “shareholder value”. Somewhere along the way enough people—or at least enough policymakers—became convinced that the best way to run an economy was to hand over as much as possible to entities that exist entirely to maximize their own profits.

This is not to say that corporations should be abolished entirely. I am certainly not advocating a shift to central planning; I believe in private enterprise. But I should note that private enterprise can also include co-ops, partnerships, and closely-held businesses, rather than publicly traded corproations, and perhaps that’s all we need. Yet there do seem to be significant advantages to the corporate structure: Corporation seem to be spectacularly good at scaling up the production of goods and providing them to a large number of customers. So let’s not get rid of corporations just yet.

Instead, let us keep corporations on a short leash. When properly regulated, corporations can be very efficient at producing goods. But corporations can also cause tremendous damage when given the opportunity. Regulations aren’t just “red tape” that gets in the way of production. They are a vital lifeline that protects us against countless abuses that corporations would otherwise commit.

These vast artificial intelligences are useful to us, so let’s not get rid of them. But never for a moment imagine that their goals are the same as ours. Keep them under close watch at all times, and compel them to use their great powers for good—for, left to their own devices, they can just as easily do great evil.

I dislike overstatement

Jan 10 JDN 2459225

I was originally planning on titling this post “I hate overstatement”, but I thought that might be itself an overstatement; then I considered leaning into the irony with something like “Overstatement is the worst thing ever”. But no, I think my point best comes across if I exemplify it, rather than present it ironically.

It’s a familiar formula: “[Widespread belief] is wrong! [Extreme alternative view] is true! [Obvious exception]. [Further qualifications]. [Revised, nuanced view that is only slightly different from the widespread belief].”

Here are some examples of the formula (these are not direct quotes but paraphrases of their general views). Note that these are all people I basically agree with, and yet I still find their overstatement annoying:

Bernie Sanders: “Capitalism is wrong! Socialism is better! Well, not authoritarian socialism like the Soviet Union. And some industries clearly function better when privatized. Scandinavian social democracy seems to be the best system.”

Richard Dawkins: “Religion is a delusion! Only atheists are rational! Well, some atheists are also pretty irrational. And most religious people are rational about most things most of the time, and don’t let their religious beliefs interfere too greatly with their overall behavior. Really, what I mean to say that is that God doesn’t exist and organized religion is often harmful.”

Black Lives Matter: “Abolish the police! All cops are bastards! Well, we obviously still need some kind of law enforcement system for dealing with major crimes; we can’t just let serial killers go free. In fact, while there are deep-seated flaws in police culture, we could solve a lot of the most serious problems with a few simple reforms like changing the rules of engagement.”

Sam Harris is particularly fond of this formula, so here is a direct quote that follows the pattern precisely:

“The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.”

Somehow in a single paragraph he started with the assertion “It is permissible to punish thoughtcrime with death” and managed to qualify it down to “The Afghanistan War was largely justified”. This is literally the difference between a proposition fundamentally antithetical to everything America stands for, and an utterly uncontroversial statement most Americans agree with. Harris often complains that people misrepresent his views, and to some extent this is true, but honestly I think he does this on purpose because he knows that controversy sells. There’s taking things out of context—and then there’s intentionally writing in a style that will maximize opportunities to take you out of context.

I think the idea behind overstating your case is that you can then “compromise” toward your actual view, and thereby seem more reasonable.

If there is some variable X that we want to know the true value of, and I currently believe that it is some value x1 while you believe that it is some larger value x2, and I ask you what you think, you may not want to tell me x2. Intead you might want to give some number even larger than x2 that you choose to try to make me adjust all the way into adopting your new belief.

For instance, suppose I think the probability of your view being right is p and the probability of my view being right is 1-p. But you think that the probability of your view being right is q > p and the probability of my view being right is 1-q < 1-p.

I tell you that my view is x1. Then I ask you what your view is. What answer should you give?


Well, you can expect that I’ll revise my belief to a new value px + (1-p)x1, where x is whatever answer you give me. The belief you want me to hold is qx2 + (1-q)x1. So your optimal choice is as follows:

qx2 + (1-q)x1 = px + (1-p)x1

x = x1 + q/p(x2-x1)

Since q > p, q/p > 1 and the x you report to me will be larger than your true value x2. You will overstate your case to try to get me to adjust my beliefs more. (Interestingly, if you were less confident in your own beliefs, you’d report a smaller difference. But this seems like a rare case.)

In a simple negotiation over dividing some resource (e.g. over a raise or a price), this is quite reasonable. When you’re a buyer and I’m a seller, our intentions are obvious enough: I want to sell high and you want to buy low. Indeed, the Nash Equilibrium of this game seems to be that we both make extreme offers then compromise on a reasonable offer, all the while knowing that this is exactly what we’re doing.

But when it comes to beliefs about the world, things aren’t quite so simple.

In particular, we have reasons for our beliefs. (Or at least, we’re supposed to!) And evidence isn’t linear. Even when propositions can be placed on a one-dimensional continuum in this way (and quite frankly we shoehorn far too many complex issues onto a simple “left/right” continuum!), evidence that X = x isn’t partial evidence that X = 2x. A strong argument that the speed of light is 3*108 m/s isn’t a weak argument that the speed of light is 3*109 m/s. A compelling reason to think that taxes should be over 30% isn’t even a slight reason to think that taxes should be over 90%.

To return to my specific examples: Seeing that Norway is a very prosperous country doesn’t give us reasons to like the Soviet Union. Recognizing that religion is empirically false doesn’t justify calling all religious people delusional. Reforming the police is obviously necessary, and diverting funds to other social services is surely a worthwhile goal; but law enforcement is necessary and cannot simply be abolished. And defending against the real threat of Islamist terrorism in no way requires us to institute the death penalty for thoughtcrime.

I don’t know how most people response to overstatement. Maybe it really does cause them to over-adjust their beliefs. Hyperbole is a very common rhetorical tactic, and for all I know perhaps it is effective on many people.

But personally, here is my reaction: At the very start, you stated something implausible. That has reduced your overall credibility.

If I continue reading and you then deal with various exceptions and qualifications, resulting in a more reasonable view, I do give you some credit for that; but now I am faced with a dilemma: Either (1) you were misrepresenting your view initially, or (2) you are engaging in a motte-and-bailey doctrine, trying to get me to believe the strong statement while you can only defend the weak statement. Either way I feel like you are being dishonest and manipulative. I trust you less. I am less interested in hearing whatever else you have to say. I am in fact less likely to adopt your nuanced view than I would have been if you’d simply presented it in the first place.

And that’s assuming I have the opportunity to hear your full nuanced version. If all I hear is the sound-byte overstatement, I will come away with an inaccurate assessment of your beliefs. I will have been presented with an implausible claim and evidence that doesn’t support that claim. I will reject your view out of hand, without ever actually knowing what your view truly was.

Furthermore, I know that many others who are listening are not as thoughtful as I am about seeking out detailed context, so even if I know the nuanced version I know—and I think you know—that some people are going to only hear the extreme version.

Maybe what it really comes down to is a moral question: Is this a good-faith discussion where we are trying to reach the truth together? Or is this a psychological manipulation to try to get me to believe what you believe? Am I a fellow rational agent seeking knowledge with you? Or am I a behavior machine that you want to control by pushing the right buttons?

I won’t say that overstatement is always wrong—because that would be an overstatement. But please, make an effort to avoid it whenever you can.

Signaling and the Curse of Knowledge

Jan 3 JDN 2459218

I received several books for Christmas this year, and the one I was most excited to read first was The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. Pinker is exactly the right person to write such a book: He is both a brilliant linguist and cognitive scientist and also an eloquent and highly successful writer. There are two other books on writing that I rate at the same tier: On Writing by Stephen King, and The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Don’t bother with style manuals from people who only write style manuals; if you want to learn how to write, learn from people who are actually successful at writing.

Indeed, I knew I’d love The Sense of Style as soon as I read its preface, containing some truly hilarious takedowns of Strunk & White. And honestly Strunk & White are among the best standard style manuals; they at least actually manage to offer some useful advice while also being stuffy, pedantic, and often outright inaccurate. Most style manuals only do the second part.

One of Pinker’s central focuses in The Sense of Style is on The Curse of Knowledge, an all-too-common bias in which knowing things makes us unable to appreciate the fact that other people don’t already know it. I think I succumbed to this failing most greatly in my first book, Special Relativity from the Ground Up, in which my concept of “the ground” was above most people’s ceilings. I was trying to write for high school physics students, and I think the book ended up mostly being read by college physics professors.

The problem is surely a real one: After years of gaining expertise in a subject, we are all liable to forget the difficulty of reaching our current summit and automatically deploy concepts and jargon that only a small group of experts actually understand. But I think Pinker underestimates the difficulty of escaping this problem, because it’s not just a cognitive bias that we all suffer from time to time. It’s also something that our society strongly incentivizes.

Pinker points out that a small but nontrivial proportion of published academic papers are genuinely well written, using this to argue that obscurantist jargon-laden writing isn’t necessary for publication; but he didn’t seem to even consider the fact that nearly all of those well-written papers were published by authors who already had tenure or even distinction in the field. I challenge you to find a single paper written by a lowly grad student that could actually get published without being full of needlessly technical terminology and awkward passive constructions: “A murian model was utilized for the experiment, in an acoustically sealed environment” rather than “I tested using mice and rats in a quiet room”. This is not because grad students are more thoroughly entrenched in the jargon than tenured professors (quite the contrary), nor that grad students are worse writers in general (that one could really go either way), but because grad students have more to prove. We need to signal our membership in the tribe, whereas once you’ve got tenure—or especially once you’ve got an endowed chair or something—you have already proven yourself.

Pinker seems to briefly touch this insight (p. 69), without fully appreciating its significance: “Even when we have an inlkling that we are speaking in a specialized lingo, we may be reluctant to slip back into plain speech. It could betray to our peers the awful truth that we are still greenhorns, tenderfoots, newbies. And if our readers do know the lingo, we might be insulting their intelligence while spelling it out. We would rather run the risk of confusing them while at least appearing to be soophisticated than take a chance at belaboring the obvious while striking them as naive or condescending.”

What we are dealing with here is a signaling problem. The fact that one can write better once one is well-established is the phenomenon of countersignaling, where one who has already established their status stops investing in signaling.

Here’s a simple model for you. Suppose each person has a level of knowledge x, which they are trying to demonstrate. They know their own level of knowledge, but nobody else does.

Suppose that when we observe someone’s knowledge, we get two pieces of information: We have an imperfect observation of their true knowledge which is x+e, the real value of x plus some amount of error e. Nobody knows exactly what the error is. To keep the model as simple as possible I’ll assume that e is drawn from a uniform distribution between -1 and 1.

Finally, assume that we are trying to select people above a certain threshold: Perhaps we are publishing in a journal, or hiring candidates for a job. Let’s call that threshold z. If x < z-1, then since e can never be larger than 1, we will immediately observe that they are below the threshold and reject them. If x > z+1, then since e can never be smaller than -1, we will immediately observe that they are above the threshold and accept them.

But when z-1 < x < z+1, we may think they are above the threshold when they actually are not (if e is positive), or think they are not above the threshold when they actually are (if e is negative).

So then let’s say that they can invest in signaling by putting some amount of visible work in y (like citing obscure papers or using complex jargon). This additional work may be costly and provide no real value in itself, but it can still be useful so long as one simple condition is met: It’s easier to do if your true knowledge x is high.

In fact, for this very simple model, let’s say that you are strictly limited by the constraint that y <= x. You can’t show off what you don’t know.

If your true value x > z, then you should choose y = x. Then, upon observing your signal, we know immediately that you must be above the threshold.

But if your true value x < z, then you should choose y = 0, because there’s no point in signaling that you were almost at the threshold. You’ll still get rejected.

Yet remember before that only those with z-1 < x < z+1 actually need to bother signaling at all. Those with x > z+1 can actually countersignal, by also choosing y = 0. Since you already have tenure, nobody doubts that you belong in the club.

This means we’ll end up with three groups: Those with x < z, who don’t signal and don’t get accepted; those with z < x < z+1, who signal and get accepted; and those with x > z+1, who don’t signal but get accepted. Then life will be hardest for those who are just above the threshold, who have to spend enormous effort signaling in order to get accepted—and that sure does sound like grad school.

You can make the model more sophisticated if you like: Perhaps the error isn’t uniformly distributed, but some other distribution with wider support (like a normal distribution, or a logistic distribution); perhaps the signalling isn’t perfect, but itself has some error; and so on. With such additions, you can get a result where the least-qualified still signal a little bit so they get some chance, and the most-qualified still signal a little bit to avoid a small risk of being rejected. But it’s a fairly general phenomenon that those closest to the threshold will be the ones who have to spend the most effort in signaling.

This reveals a disturbing overlap between the Curse of Knowledge and Impostor Syndrome: We write in impenetrable obfuscationist jargon because we are trying to conceal our own insecurity about our knowledge and our status in the profession. We’d rather you not know what we’re talking about than have you realize that we don’t know what we’re talking about.

For the truth is, we don’t know what we’re talking about. And neither do you, and neither does anyone else. This is the agonizing truth of research that nearly everyone doing research knows, but one must be either very brave, very foolish, or very well-established to admit out loud: It is in the nature of doing research on the frontier of human knowledge that there is always far more that we don’t understand about our subject than that we do understand.

I would like to be more open about that. I would like to write papers saying things like “I have no idea why it turned out this way; it doesn’t make sense to me; I can’t explain it.” But to say that the profession disincentivizes speaking this way would be a grave understatement. It’s more accurate to say that the profession punishes speaking this way to the full extent of its power. You’re supposed to have a theory, and it’s supposed to work. If it doesn’t actually work, well, maybe you can massage the numbers until it seems to, or maybe you can retroactively change the theory into something that does work. Or maybe you can just not publish that paper and write a different one.

Here is a graph of one million published z-scores in academic journals:

It looks like a bell curve, except that almost all the values between -2 and 2 are mysteriously missing.

If we were actually publishing all the good science that gets done, it would in fact be a very nice bell curve. All those missing values are papers that never got published, or results that were excluded from papers, or statistical analyses that were massaged, in order to get a p-value less than the magical threshold for publication of 0.05. (For the statistically uninitiated, a z-score less than -2 or greater than +2 generally corresponds to a p-value less than 0.05, so these are effectively the same constraint.)

I have literally never read a single paper published in an academic journal in the last 50 years that said in plain language, “I have no idea what’s going on here.” And yet I have read many papers—probably most of them, in fact—where that would have been an appropriate thing to say. It’s actually quite a rare paper, at least in the social sciences, that actually has a theory good enough to really precisely fit the data and not require any special pleading or retroactive changes. (Often the bar for a theory’s success is lowered to “the effect is usually in the right direction”.) Typically results from behavioral experiments are bizarre and baffling, because people are a little screwy. It’s just that nobody is willing to stake their career on being that honest about the depth of our ignorance.

This is a deep shame, for the greatest advances in human knowledge have almost always come from people recognizing the depth of their ignorance. Paradigms never shift until people recognize that the one they are using is defective.

This is why it’s so hard to beat the Curse of Knowledge: You need to signal that you know what you’re talking about, and the truth is you probably don’t, because nobody does. So you need to sound like you know what you’re talking about in order to get people to listen to you. You may be doing nothing more than educated guesses based on extremely limited data, but that’s actually the best anyone can do; those other people saying they have it all figured out are either doing the same thing, or they’re doing something even less reliable than that. So you’d better sound like you have it all figured out, and that’s a lot more convincing when you “utilize a murian model” than when you “use rats and mice”.

Perhaps we can at least push a little bit toward plainer language. It helps to be addressing a broader audience: it is both blessing and curse that whatever I put on this blog is what you will read, without any gatekeepers in my path. I can use plainer language here if I so choose, because no one can stop me. But of course there’s a signaling risk here as well: The Internet is a public place, and potential employers can read this as well, and perhaps decide they don’t like me speaking so plainly about the deep flaws in the academic system. Maybe I’d be better off keeping my mouth shut, at least for awhile. I’ve never been very good at keeping my mouth shut.

Once we get established in the system, perhaps we can switch to countersignaling, though even this doesn’t always happen. I think there are two reasons this can fail: First, you can almost always try to climb higher. Once you have tenure, aim for an endowed chair. Once you have that, try to win a Nobel. Second, once you’ve spent years of your life learning to write in a particular stilted, obscurantist, jargon-ridden way, it can be very difficult to change that habit. People have been rewarding you all your life for writing in ways that make your work unreadable; why would you want to take the risk of suddenly making it readable?

I don’t have a simple solution to this problem, because it is so deeply embedded. It’s not something that one person or even a small number of people can really fix. Ultimately we will need to, as a society, start actually rewarding people for speaking plainly about what they don’t know. Admitting that you have no clue will need to be seen as a sign of wisdom and honesty rather than a sign of foolishness and ignorance. And perhaps even that won’t be enough: Because the fact will still remain that knowing what you know that other people don’t know is a very difficult thing to do.

Adversity is not a gift

Nov 29 JDN 2459183

For the last several weeks I’ve been participating in a program called “positive intelligence” (which they abbreviate “PQ” even though that doesn’t make sense); it’s basically a self-help program that is designed to improve mood and increase productivity. I am generally skeptical of such things, and I could tell from the start that it was being massively oversold, but I had the opportunity to participate for free, and I looked into the techniques involved and most of them seem to be borrowed from cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation.

Overall, I would say that the program has had small but genuine benefits for me. I think the most helpful part was actually getting the chance to participate in group sessions (via Zoom of course) with others also going through the program. That kind of mutual social support can make a big difference. The group I joined was all comprised of fellow economists (some other grad students, some faculty), so we had a lot of shared experiences.

Some of the techniques feel very foolish, and others just don’t seem to work for me; but I did find at least some of the meditation techniques (which they annoyingly insist on calling by the silly name “PQ reps”) have helped me relax.

But there’s one part of the PQ program in particular that I just can’t buy into, and this is the idea that adversity is a gift and an opportunity.

They call it the “Sage perspective”: You observe the world without judging what is good or bad, and any time you think something is bad, you find a way to transform it into a gift and an opportunity. The claim is that everything—or nearly everything—that happens to you can make you better off. There’s a lot of overlap here with the attitude “Everything happens for a reason”.

I don’t doubt that sincerely believing this would make you happier. Nevertheless, it is obviously false.

If indeed adversity were a gift, we would seek it out. If getting fired or going bankrupt or getting sick were a gift and an opportunity, we’d work to make these things happen.

Yes, it’s true that sometimes an event which seems bad at the time can turn out to have good consequences in the long run. This is simply because we are unable to foresee all future ramifications. Sometimes things turn out differently than you think they will. But most of the time, when something seems bad, it is actually bad.

There might be some small amount of discomfort or risk that would be preferable to a life of complete safety and complacency; but we are perfectly capable of seeking out whatever discomfort or risk we choose. Most of us live with far more discomfort and risk than we would prefer, and simply have no choice in the matter.

If adversity were a gift, people would thank you for giving it to them. “Thanks for dumping me!” “Thanks for firing me!” “Thanks for punching me!” These aren’t the sort of thing we hear very often (at least not sincerely).

I think this is fairly obvious, honestly, so I won’t belabor it any further. But it raises a question: Is there a way to salvage the mental health benefits of this attitude while abandoning its obvious falsehood?

“Everything happens for a reason” doesn’t work; we live in a universe of deep randomness, ruled by the blind idiot gods of natural law.

“Every cloud has a silver lining” is better; but clearly not every bad thing has an upside, or if it does the upside can be so small as to be utterly negligible. (What was the upside of Rwandan genocide?) Restricted to ordinary events like getting fired this one works pretty well; but it obviously fails for the most extreme traumas, and doesn’t seem particularly helpful for the death of a loved one either.

“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is better still, but clearly not true in every case; some bad events that don’t actually kill us can traumatize us and make the rest of our lives harder. Perhaps “What doesn’t permanently damage me makes me stronger”?

I think the version of this attitude that I have found closest to the truth is “Everything is raw material”. Sometimes bad things just happen: Bad luck, or bad actions, can harm just about anyone at just about any time. But it is within our power to decide how we will respond to what happens to us, and wallowing in despair is almost never the best response.

Thus, while it is foolish to see adversity as a gift, it is not so foolish to see it as an opportunity. Don’t try to pretend that bad things aren’t bad. There’s no sense in denying that we would prefer some outcomes over others, and we feel hurt or disappointed when things don’t turn out how we wanted. Yet even what is bad can still contain within it chances to learn or make things better.