I’m old enough to be President now.

Jan 22 JDN 2459967

When this post goes live, I will have passed my 35th birthday. This is old enough to be President of the United States, at least by law. (In practice, no POTUS has been less than 42.)

Not that I will ever be President. I have neither the wealth nor the charisma to run any kind of national political campaign. I might be able to get elected to some kind of local office at some point, like a school board or a city water authority. But I’ve been eligible to run for such offices for quite awhile now, and haven’t done so; nor do I feel particularly inclined at the moment.

No, the reason this birthday feels so significant is the milestone it represents. By this age, most people have spouses, children, careers. I have a spouse. I don’t have kids. I sort of have a career.

I have a job, certainly. I work for relatively decent pay. Not excellent, not what I was hoping for with a PhD in economics, but enough to live on (anywhere but an overpriced coastal metropolis). But I can’t really call that job a career, because I find large portions of it unbearable and I have absolutely no job security. In fact, I have the exact opposite: My job came with an explicit termination date from the start. (Do the people who come up with these short-term postdoc positions understand how that feels? It doesn’t seem like they do.)

I missed the window to apply for academic jobs that start next year. If I were happy here, this would be fine; I still have another year left on my contract. But I’m not happy here, and that is a grievous understatement. Working here is clearly the most important situational factor contributing to my ongoing depression. So I really ought to be applying to every alternative opportunity I can find—but I can’t find the will to try it, or the self-confidence to believe that my attempts could succeed if I did.

Then again, I’m not sure I should be applying to academic positions at all. If I did apply to academic positions, they’d probably be teaching-focused ones, since that’s the one part of my job I’m actually any good at. I’ve more or less written off applying to major research institutions; I don’t think I would get hired anyway, and even if I did, the pressure to publish is so unbearable that I think I’d be just as miserable there as I am here.

On the other hand, I can’t be sure that I would be so miserable even at another research institution; maybe with better mentoring and better administration I could be happy and successful in academic research after all.

The truth is, I really don’t know how much of my misery is due to academia in general, versus the British academic system, versus Edinburgh as an institution, versus starting work during the pandemic, versus the experience of being untenured faculty, versus simply my own particular situation. I don’t know if working at another school would be dramatically better, a little better, or just the same. (If it were somehow worse—which frankly seems hard to arrange—I would literally just quit immediately.)

I guess if the University of Michigan offered me an assistant professor job right now, I would take it. But I’m confident enough that they wouldn’t offer it to me that I can’t see the point in applying. (Besides, I missed the application windows this year.) And I’m not even sure that I would be happy there, despite the fact that just a few years ago I would have called it a dream job.

That’s really what I feel most acutely about turning 35: The shattering of dreams.

I thought I had some idea of how my life would go. I thought I knew what I wanted. I thought I knew what would make me happy.

The weirdest part it that it isn’t even that different from how I’d imagined it. If you’d asked me 10 or even 20 years ago what my career would be like at 35, I probably would have correctly predicted that I would have a PhD and be working at a major research university. 10 years ago I would have correctly expected it to be a PhD in economics; 20, I probably would have guessed physics. In both cases I probably would have thought I’d be tenured by now, or at least on the tenure track. But a postdoc or adjunct position (this is sort of both?) wouldn’t have been utterly shocking, just vaguely disappointing.

The biggest error by my past self was thinking that I’d be happy and successful in this career, instead of barely, desperately hanging on. I thought I’d have published multiple successful papers by now, and be excited to work on a new one. I imagined I’d also have published a book or two. (The fact that I self-published a nonfiction book at 16 but haven’t published any nonfiction ever since would be particularly baffling to my 15-year-old self, and is particularly depressing to me now.) I imagined myself becoming gradually recognized as an authority in my field, not languishing in obscurity; I imagined myself feeling successful and satisfied, not hopeless and depressed.

It’s like the dark Mirror Universe version of my dream job. It’s so close to what I thought I wanted, but it’s also all wrong. I finally get to touch my dreams, and they shatter in my hands.

When you are young, birthdays are a sincere cause for celebration; you look forward to the new opportunities the future will bring you. I seem to be now at the age where it no longer feels that way.

Good enough is perfect, perfect is bad

Jan 8 JDN 2459953

Not too long ago, I read the book How to Keep House While Drowning by KC Davis, which I highly recommend. It offers a great deal of useful and practical advice, especially for someone neurodivergent and depressed living through an interminable pandemic (which I am, but honestly, odds are, you may be too). And to say it is a quick and easy read is actually an unfair understatement; it is explicitly designed to be readable in short bursts by people with ADHD, and it has a level of accessibility that most other books don’t even aspire to and I honestly hadn’t realized was possible. (The extreme contrast between this and academic papers is particularly apparent to me.)

One piece of advice that really stuck with me was this: Good enough is perfect.

At first, it sounded like nonsense; no, perfect is perfect, good enough is just good enough. But in fact there is a deep sense in which it is absolutely true.

Indeed, let me make it a bit stronger: Good enough is perfect; perfect is bad.

I doubt Davis thought of it in these terms, but this is a concise, elegant statement of the principles of bounded rationality. Sometimes it can be optimal not to optimize.

Suppose that you are trying to optimize something, but you have limited computational resources in which to do so. This is actually not a lot for you to suppose—it’s literally true of basically everyone basically every moment of every day.

But let’s make it a bit more concrete, and say that you need to find the solution to the following math problem: “What is the product of 2419 times 1137?” (Pretend you don’t have a calculator, as it would trivialize the exercise. I thought about using a problem you couldn’t do with a standard calculator, but I realized that would also make it much weirder and more obscure for my readers.)

Now, suppose that there are some quick, simple ways to get reasonably close to the correct answer, and some slow, difficult ways to actually get the answer precisely.

In this particular problem, the former is to approximate: What’s 2500 times 1000? 2,500,000. So it’s probably about 2,500,000.

Or we could approximate a bit more closely: Say 2400 times 1100, that’s about 100 times 100 times 24 times 11, which is 2 times 12 times 11 (times 10,000), which is 2 times (110 plus 22), which is 2 times 132 (times 10,000), which is 2,640,000.

Or, we could actually go through all the steps to do the full multiplication (remember I’m assuming you have no calculator), multiply, carry the 1s, add all four sums, re-check everything and probably fix it because you messed up somewhere; and then eventually you will get: 2,750,403.

So, our really fast method was only off by about 10%. Our moderately-fast method was only off by 4%. And both of them were a lot faster than getting the exact answer by hand.

Which of these methods you’d actually want to use depends on the context and the tools at hand. If you had a calculator, sure, get the exact answer. Even if you didn’t, but you were balancing the budget for a corporation, I’m pretty sure they’d care about that extra $110,403. (Then again, they might not care about the $403 or at least the $3.) But just as an intellectual exercise, you really didn’t need to do anything; the optimal choice may have been to take my word for it. Or, if you were at all curious, you might be better off choosing the quick approximation rather than the precise answer. Since nothing of any real significance hinged on getting that answer, it may be simply a waste of your time to bother finding it.

This is of course a contrived example. But it’s not so far from many choices we make in real life.

Yes, if you are making a big choice—which job to take, what city to move to, whether to get married, which car or house to buy—you should get a precise answer. In fact, I make spreadsheets with formal utility calculations whenever I make a big choice, and I haven’t regretted it yet. (Did I really make a spreadsheet for getting married? You’re damn right I did; there were a lot of big financial decisions to make there—taxes, insurance, the wedding itself! I didn’t decide whom to marry that way, of course; but we always had the option of staying unmarried.)

But most of the choices we make from day to day are small choices: What should I have for lunch today? Should I vacuum the carpet now? What time should I go to bed? In the aggregate they may all add up to important things—but each one of them really won’t matter that much. If you were to construct a formal model to optimize your decision of everything to do each day, you’d spend your whole day doing nothing but constructing formal models. Perfect is bad.

In fact, even for big decisions, you can’t really get a perfect answer. There are just too many unknowns. Sometimes you can spend more effort gathering additional information—but that’s costly too, and sometimes the information you would most want simply isn’t available. (You can look up the weather in a city, visit it, ask people about it—but you can’t really know what it’s like to live there until you do.) Even those spreadsheet models I use to make big decisions contain error bars and robustness checks, and if, even after investing a lot of effort trying to get precise results, I still find two or more choices just can’t be clearly distinguished to within a good margin of error, I go with my gut. And that seems to have been the best choice for me to make. Good enough is perfect.

I think that being gifted as a child trained me to be dangerously perfectionist as an adult. (Many of you may find this familiar.) When it came to solving math problems, or answering quizzes, perfection really was an attainable goal a lot of the time.

As I got older and progressed further in my education, maybe getting every answer right was no longer feasible; but I still could get the best possible grade, and did, in most of my undergraduate classes and all of my graduate classes. To be clear, I’m not trying to brag here; if anything, I’m a little embarrassed. What it mainly shows is that I had learned the wrong priorities. In fact, one of the main reasons why I didn’t get a 4.0 average in undergrad is that I spent a lot more time back then writing novels and nonfiction books, which to this day I still consider my most important accomplishments and grieve that I’ve not (yet?) been able to get them commercially published. I did my best work when I wasn’t trying to be perfect. Good enough is perfect; perfect is bad.

Now here I am on the other side of the academic system, trying to carve out a career, and suddenly, there is no perfection. When my exam is being graded by someone else, there is a way to get the most points. When I’m the one grading the exams, there is no “correct answer” anymore. There is no one scoring me to see if I did the grading the “right way”—and so, no way to be sure I did it right.

Actually, here at Edinburgh, there are other instructors who moderate grades and often require me to revise them, which feels a bit like “getting it wrong”; but it’s really more like we had different ideas of what the grade curve should look like (not to mention US versus UK grading norms). There is no longer an objectively correct answer the way there is for, say, the derivative of x^3, the capital of France, or the definition of comparative advantage. (Or, one question I got wrong on an undergrad exam because I had zoned out of that lecture to write a book on my laptop: Whether cocaine is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor. It is. And the fact that I still remember that because I got it wrong over a decade ago tells you a lot about me.)

And then when it comes to research, it’s even worse: What even constitutes “good” research, let alone “perfect” research? What would be most scientifically rigorous isn’t what journals would be most likely to publish—and without much bigger grants, I can afford neither. I find myself longing for the research paper that will be so spectacular that top journals have to publish it, removing all risk of rejection and failure—in other words, perfect.

Yet such a paper plainly does not exist. Even if I were to do something that would win me a Nobel or a Fields Medal (this is, shall we say, unlikely), it probably wouldn’t be recognized as such immediately—a typical Nobel isn’t awarded until 20 or 30 years after the work that spawned it, and while Fields Medals are faster, they’re by no means instant or guaranteed. In fact, a lot of ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting research was originally relegated to minor journals because the top journals considered it too radical to publish.

Or I could try to do something trendy—feed into DSGE or GTFO—and try to get published that way. But I know my heart wouldn’t be in it, and so I’d be miserable the whole time. In fact, because it is neither my passion nor my expertise, I probably wouldn’t even do as good a job as someone who really buys into the core assumptions. I already have trouble speaking frequentist sometimes: Are we allowed to say “almost significant” for p = 0.06? Maximizing the likelihood is still kosher, right? Just so long as I don’t impose a prior? But speaking DSGE fluently and sincerely? I’d have an easier time speaking in Latin.

What I know—on some level at least—I ought to be doing is finding the research that I think is most worthwhile, given the resources I have available, and then getting it published wherever I can. Or, in fact, I should probably constrain a little by what I know about journals: I should do the most worthwhile research that is feasible for me and has a serious chance of getting published in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s sad that those two things aren’t the same, but they clearly aren’t. This constraint binds, and its Lagrange multiplier is measured in humanity’s future.

But one thing is very clear: By trying to find the perfect paper, I have floundered and, for the last year and a half, not written any papers at all. The right choice would surely have been to write something.

Because good enough is perfect, and perfect is bad.

The case against phys ed

Dec 4 JDN 2459918

If I want to stop someone from engaging in an activity, what should I do? I could tell them it’s wrong, and if they believe me, that would work. But what if they don’t believe me? Or I could punish them for doing it, and as long as I can continue to do that reliably, that should deter them from doing it. But what happens after I remove the punishment?

If I really want to make someone not do something, the best way to accomplish that is to make them not want to do it. Make them dread doing it. Make them hate the very thought of it. And to accomplish that, a very efficient method would be to first force them to do it, but make that experience as miserable and humiliating is possible. Give them a wide variety of painful or outright traumatic experiences that are directly connected with the undesired activity, to carry with them for the rest of their life.

This is precisely what physical education does, with regard to exercise. Phys ed is basically optimized to make people hate exercise.

Oh, sure, some students enjoy phys ed. These are the students who are already athletic and fit, who already engage in regular exercise and enjoy doing so. They may enjoy phys ed, may even benefit a little from it—but they didn’t really need it in the first place.

The kids who need more physical activity are the kids who are obese, or have asthma, or suffer from various other disabilities that make exercising difficult and painful for them. And what does phys ed do to those kids? It makes them compete in front of their peers at various athletic tasks at which they will inevitably fail and be humiliated.

Even the kids who are otherwise healthy but just don’t get enough exercise will go into phys ed class at a disadvantage, and instead of being carefully trained to improve their skills and physical condition at their own level, they will be publicly shamed by their peers for their inferior performance.

I know this, because I was one of those kids. I have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, a lung condition similar to asthma (actually there’s some debate as to whether it should be considered a form of asthma), in which intense aerobic exercise causes the airways of my lungs to become constricted and inflamed, making me unable to get enough air to continue.

It’s really quite remarkable I wasn’t diagnosed with this as a child; I actually once collapsed while running in gym class, and all they thought to do at the time was give me water and let me rest for the remainder of the class. Nobody thought to call the nurse. I was never put on a beta agonist or an inhaler. (In fact at one point I was put on a beta blocker for my migraines; I now understand why I felt so fatigued when taking it—it was literally the opposite of the drug my lungs needed.)

Actually it’s been a few years since I had an attack. This is of course partly due to me generally avoiding intense aerobic exercise; but even when I do get intense exercise, I rarely seem to get bronchoconstriction attacks. My working hypothesis is that the norepinephrine reuptake inhibition of my antidepressant acts like a beta agonist; both drugs mimic norepinephrine.

But as a child, I got such attacks quite frequently; and even when I didn’t, my overall athletic performance was always worse than most of the other kids. They knew it, I knew it, and while only a few actively tried to bully me for it, none of the others did anything to make me feel better. So gym class was always a humiliating and painful experience that I came to dread.

As a result, as soon as I got out of school and had my own autonomy in how to structure my own life, I basically avoided exercise whenever I could. Even knowing that it was good for me—really, exercise is ridiculously good for you; it honestly doesn’t even make sense to me how good it is for you—I could rarely get myself to actually go out and exercise. I certainly couldn’t do it with anyone else; sometimes, if I was very disciplined, I could manage to maintain an exercise routine by myself, as long as there was no one else there who could watch me, judge me, or compare themselves to me.

In fact, I’d probably have avoided exercise even more, had I not also had some more positive experiences with it outside of school. I trained in martial arts for a few years, getting almost to a black belt in tae kwon do; I quit precisely when it started becoming very competitive and thus began to feel humiliated again when I performed worse than others. Part of me wishes I had stuck with it long enough to actually get the black belt; but the rest of me knows that even if I’d managed it, I would have been miserable the whole time and it probably would have made me dread exercise even more.

The details of my story are of course individual to me; but the general pattern is disturbingly common. A kid does poorly in gym class, or even suffers painful attacks of whatever disabling condition they have, but nobody sees it as a medical problem; they just see the kid as weak and lazy. Or even if the adults are sympathetic, the other kids aren’t; they just see a peer who performed worse than them, and they have learned by various subtle (and not-so-subtle) cultural pressures that anyone who performs worse at a culturally-important task is worthy of being bullied and shunned.

Even outside the directly competitive environment of sports, the very structure of a phys ed class, where a large group of students are all expected to perform the same athletic tasks and can directly compare their performance against each other, invites this kind of competition. Kids can see, right in their faces, who is doing better and who is doing worse. And our culture is astonishingly bad at teaching children (or anyone else, for that matter) how to be sympathetic to others who perform worse. Worse performance is worse character. Being bad at running, jumping and climbing is just being bad.

Part of the problem is that school administrators seem to see physical education as a training and selection regimen for their sports programs. (In fact, some of them seem to see their entire school as existing to serve their sports programs.) Here is a UK government report bemoaning the fact that “only a minority of schools play competitive sport to a high level”, apparently not realizing that this is necessarily true because high-level sports performance is a relative concept. Only one team can win the championship each year. Only 10% of students will ever be in the top 10% of athletes. No matter what. Anything else is literally mathematically impossible. We do not live in Lake Wobegon; not all the children can be above average.

There are good phys ed programs out there. They have highly-trained instructors and they focus on matching tasks to a student’s own skill level, as well as actually educating them—teaching them about anatomy and physiology rather than just making them run laps. Actually the one phys ed class I took that I actually enjoyed was actually an anatomy and physiology class; we didn’t do any physical exercise in that class. But well-taught phys ed classes are clearly the exception, not the norm.

Of course, it could be that some students actually benefit from phys ed, perhaps even enough to offset the harms to people like me. (Though then the question should be asked whether phys ed should be compulsory for all students—if an intervention helps some and hurts others, maybe only give it to the ones it helps?) But I know very few people who actually described their experiences of phys ed class as positive ones. While many students describe their experiences of math class in similarly-negative terms (which is also a problem with how math classes are taught), I definitely do know people who actually enjoyed and did well in math class. Still, my sample is surely biased—it’s comprised of people similar to me, and I hated gym and loved math. So let’s look at the actual data.

Or rather, I’d like to, but there isn’t that much out there. The empirical literature on the effects of physical education is surprisingly limited.

A lot of analyses of physical education simply take as axiomatic that more phys ed means more exercise, and so they use the—overwhelming, unassailable—evidence that exercise is good to support an argument for more phys ed classes. But they never seem to stop and take a look at whether phys ed classes are actually making kids exercise more, particularly once those kids grow up and become adults.

In fact, the surprisingly weak correlations between higher physical activity and better mental health among adolescents (despite really strong correlations in adults) could be because exercise among adolescents is largely coerced via phys ed, and the misery of being coerced into physical humiliation counteracts any benefits that might have been obtained from increased exercise.

The best long-term longitudinal study I can find did show positive effects of phys ed on long-term health, though by a rather odd mechanism: Women exercised more as adults if they had phys ed in primary school, but men didn’t; they just smoked less. And this study was back in 1999, studying a cohort of adults who had phys ed quite a long time ago, when it was better funded.

The best experiment I can find actually testing whether phys ed programs work used a very carefully designed phys ed program with a lot of features that it would be really nice to have, but the vast majority of actual gym classes do not, including carefully structured activities with specific developmental goals, and, perhaps most importantly, children were taught to track and evaluate their own individual progress rather than evaluate themselves in comparison to others.

And even then, the effects are not all that large. The physical activity scores of the treatment group rose from 932 minutes per week to 1108 minutes per week for first-graders, and from 1212 to 1454 for second-graders. But the physical activity scores of the control group rose from 906 to 996 for first-graders, and 1105 to 1211 for second-graders. So of the 176 minutes per week gained by first-graders, 90 would have happened anyway. Likewise, of the 242 minutes per week gained by second-graders, 106 were not attributable to the treatment. Only about half of the gains were due to the intervention, and they amount to about a 10% increase in overall physical activity. It also seems a little odd to me that the control groups both started worse off than the experimental groups and both groups gained; it raises some doubts about the randomization.

The researchers also measured psychological effects, and these effects are even smaller and honestly a little weird. On a scale of “somatic anxiety” (basically, how bad do you feel about your body’s physical condition?), this well-designed phys ed program only reduced scores in the treatment group from 4.95 to 4.55 among first-graders, and from 4.50 to 4.10 among second-graders. Seeing as the scores for second-graders also fell in the control group from 4.63 to 4.45, only about half of the observed reduction—0.2 points on a 10-point scale—is really attributable to the treatment. And the really baffling part is that the measure of social anxiety actually fell more, which makes me wonder if they’re really measuring what they think they are.

Clearly, exercise is good. We should be trying to get people to exercise more. Actually, this is more important than almost anything else we could do for public health, with the possible exception of vaccinations. All of these campaigns trying to get kids to lose weight should be removed and replaced with programs to get them to exercise more, because losing weight doesn’t benefit health and exercising more does.

But I am not convinced that physical education as we know it actually makes people exercise more. In the short run, it forces kids to exercise, when there were surely ways to get kids to exercise that didn’t require such coercion; and in the long run, it gives them painful, even traumatic memories of exercise that make them not want to continue it once they get older. It’s too competitive, too one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t account for innate differences in athletic ability or match challenge levels to skill levels. It doesn’t help kids cope with having less ability, or even teach kids to be compassionate toward others with less ability than them.

And it makes kids miserable.

Mind reading is not optional

Nov 20 JDN 2459904

I have great respect for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and it has done a lot of good for me. (It is also astonishingly cost-effective; its QALY per dollar rate compares favorably to almost any other First World treatment, and loses only to treating high-impact Third World diseases like malaria and schistomoniasis.)

But there are certain aspects of it that have always been frustrating to me. Standard CBT techniques often present as ‘cognitive distortions‘ what are in fact clearly necessary heuristics without which it would be impossible to function.

Perhaps the worst of these is so-called ‘mind reading‘. The very phrasing of it makes it sound ridiculous: Are you suggesting that you have some kind of extrasensory perception? Are you claiming to be a telepath?

But in fact ‘mind reading’ is simply the use of internal cognitive models to forecast the thoughts, behaviors, and expectations of other human beings. And without it, it would be completely impossible to function in human society.

For instance, I have had therapists tell me that it is ‘mind reading’ for me to anticipate that people will have tacit expectations for my behavior that they will judge me for failing to meet, and I should simply wait for people to express their expectations rather than assuming them. I admit, life would be much easier if I could do that. But I know for a fact that I can’t. Indeed, I used to do that, as a child, and it got me in trouble all the time. People were continually upset at me for not doing things they had expected me to do but never bothered to actually mention. They thought these expectations were “obvious”; they were not, at least not to me.

It was often little things, and in hindsight some of these things seem silly: I didn’t know what a ‘made bed’ was supposed to look like, so I put it in a state that was functional for me, but that was not considered ‘making the bed’. (I have since learned that my way was actually better: It’s good to let sheets air out before re-using them.) I was asked to ‘clear the sink’, so I moved the dishes out of the sink and left them on the counter, not realizing that the implicit command was for me to wash those dishes, dry them, and put them away. I was asked to ‘bring the dinner plates to the table’, so I did that, and left them in a stack there, not realizing that I should be setting them out in front of each person’s chair and also bringing flatware. Of course I know better now. But how was I supposed to know then? It seems like I was expected to, though.

Most people just really don’t seem to realize how many subtle, tacit expectations are baked into every single task. I think neurodivergence is quite relevant here; I have a mild autism spectrum disorder, and so I think rather differently than most people. If you are neurotypical, then you probably can forecast other people’s expectations fairly well automatically, and so they may seem obvious to you. In fact, they may seem so obvious that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Then when someone like me comes along and is consciously, actively trying to forecast other people’s expectations, and sometimes doing it poorly, you go and tell them to stop trying to forecast. But if they were to do that, they’d end up even worse off than they are. What you really need to be telling them is how to forecast better—but that would require insight into your own forecasting methods which you aren’t even consciously aware of.

Seriously, stop and think for a moment all of the things other people expect you to do every day that are rarely if ever explicitly stated. How you are supposed to dress, how you are supposed to speak, how close you are supposed to stand to other people, how long you are supposed to hold eye contact—all of these are standards you will be expected to meet, whether or not any of them have ever been explicitly explained to you. You may do this automatically; or you may learn to do it consciously after being criticized for failing to do it. But one way or another, you must forecast what other people will expect you to do.

To my knowledge, no one has ever explicitly told me not to wear a Starfleet uniform to work. I am not aware of any part of the university dress code that explicitly forbids such attire. But I’m fairly sure it would not be a good idea. To my knowledge, no one has ever explicitly told me not to burst out into song in the middle of a meeting. But I’m still pretty sure I shouldn’t do that. To my knowledge, no one has ever explicitly told me what the ‘right of way’ rules are for walking down a crowded sidewalk, who should be expected to move out of the way of whom. But people still get mad if you mess up and bump into them.

Even when norms are stated explicitly, it is often as a kind of last resort, and the mere fact that you needed to have a norm stated is often taken as a mark against your character. I have been explicitly told in various contexts not to talk to myself or engage in stimming leg movements; but the way I was told has generally suggested that I would have been judged better if I hadn’t had to be told, if I had simply known the way that other people seem to know. (Or is it that they never felt any particular desire to stim?)

In fact, I think a major part of developing social skills and becoming more functional, to the point where a lot of people actually now seem a bit surprised to learn I have an autism spectrum disorder, has been improving my ability to forecast other people’s expectations for my behavior. There are dozens if not hundreds of norms that people expect you to follow at any given moment; most people seem to intuit them so easily that they don’t even realize they are there. But they are there all the same, and this is painfully evident to those of us who aren’t always able to immediately intuit them all.

Now, the fact remains that my current mental models are surely imperfect. I am often wrong about what other people expect of me. I’m even prepared to believe that some of my anxiety comes from believing that people have expectations more demanding than what they actually have. But I can’t simply abandon the idea of forecasting other people’s expectations. Don’t tell me to stop doing it; tell me how to do it better.

Moreover, there is a clear asymmetry here: If you think people want more from you than they actually do, you’ll be anxious, but people will like you and be impressed by you. If you think people want less from you than they actually do, people will be upset at you and look down on you. So, in the presence of uncertainty, there’s a lot of pressure to assume that the expectations are high. It would be best to get it right, of course; but when you aren’t sure you can get it right, you’re often better off erring on the side of caution—which is to say, the side of anxiety.

In short, mind reading isn’t optional. If you think it is, that’s only because you do it automatically.

The United Kingdom in transition

Oct 30 JDN 2459883

When I first decided to move to Edinburgh, I certainly did not expect it to be such a historic time. The pandemic was already in full swing, but I thought that would be all. But this year I was living in the UK when its leadership changed in two historic ways:

First, there was the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the coronation of King Charles III.

Second, there was the resignation of Boris Johnson, the appointment of Elizabeth Truss, and then, so rapidly I feel like I have whiplash, the resignation of Elizabeth Truss.

In other words, I have seen the end of the longest-reigning monarch and the rise and fall of the shortest-reigning prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom. The three hundred-year history of the United Kingdom.

The prior probability of such a 300-year-historic event happening during my own 3-year term in the UK is approximately 1%. Yet, here we are. A new king, one of a handful of genuine First World monarchs to be coronated in the 21st century. The others are the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Monaco, Andorra, and Luxembourg; none of these have even a third the population of the UK, and if we include every Commonwealth Realm (believe it or not, “realm” is in fact still the official term), Charles III is now king of a supranational union with a population of over 150 million people—half the size of the United States. (Yes, he’s your king too, Canada!) Note that Charles III is not king of the entire Commonwealth of Nations, which includes now-independent nations such as India, Pakistan, and South Africa; that successor to the British Empire contains 54 nations and has a population of over 2 billion.

I still can’t quite wrap my mind around this idea of having a king. It feels even more ancient and anachronistic than the 400-year-old university I work at. Of course I knew that we had a queen before, and that she was old and would presumably die at some point and probably be replaced; but that wasn’t really salient information to me until she actually did die and then there was a ten-mile-long queue to see her body and now next spring they will be swearing in this new guy as the monarch of the fourteen realms. It now feels like I’m living in one of those gritty satirical fractured fairy tales. Maybe it’s an urban fantasy setting; it feels a lot like Shrek, to be honest.

Yet other than feeling surreal, none of this has affected my life all that much. I haven’t even really felt the effects of inflation: Groceries and restaurant meals seem a bit more expensive than they were when we arrived, but it’s well within what our budget can absorb; we don’t have a car here, so we don’t care about petrol prices; and we haven’t even been paying more than usual in natural gas because of the subsidy programs. Actually it’s probably been good for our household finances that the pound is so weak and the dollar is so strong. I have been much more directly affected by the university union strikes: being temporary contract junior faculty (read: expendable), I am ineligible to strike and hence had to cross a picket line at one point.

Perhaps this is what history has always felt like for most people: The kings and queens come and go, but life doesn’t really change. But I honestly felt more directly affected by Trump living in the US than I did by Truss living in the UK.

This may be in part because Elizabeth Truss was a very unusual politician; she combined crazy far-right economic policy with generally fairly progressive liberal social policy. A right-wing libertarian, one might say. (As Krugman notes, such people are astonishingly rare in the electorate.) Her socially-liberal stance meant that she wasn’t trying to implement horrific hateful policies against racial minorities or LGBT people the way that Trump was, and for once her horrible economic policies were recognized immediately as such and quickly rescinded. Unlike Trump, Truss did not get the chance to appoint any supreme court justices who could go on to repeal abortion rights.

Then again, Truss couldn’t have appointed any judges if she’d wanted to. The UK Supreme Court is really complicated, and I honestly don’t understand how it works; but from what I do understand, the Prime Minister appoints the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chancellor forms a commission to appoint the President of the Supreme Court, and the President of the Supreme Court forms a commission to appoint new Supreme Court judges. But I think the monarch is considered the ultimate authority and can veto any appointment along the way. (Or something. Sometimes I get the impression that no one truly understands the UK system, and they just sort of go with doing things as they’ve always been done.) This convoluted arrangement seems to grant the court considerably more political independence than its American counterpart; also, unlike the US Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court is not allowed to explicitly overturn primary legislation. (Fun fact: The Lord Chancellor is also the Keeper of the Great Seal of the Realm, because Great Britain hasn’t quite figured out that the 13th century ended yet.)

It’s sad and ironic that it was precisely by not being bigoted and racist that Truss ensured she would not have sufficient public support for her absurd economic policies. There’s a large segment of the population of both the US and UK—aptly, if ill-advisedly, referred to by Clinton as “deplorables”—who will accept any terrible policy as long as it hurts the right people. But Truss failed to appeal to that crucial demographic, and so could find no one to support her. Hence, her approval rating fell to a dismal 10%, and she was outlasted by a head of lettuce.

At the time of writing, the new prime minister has not yet been announced, but the smart money is on Rishi Sunak. (I mean that quite literally; he’s leading in prediction markets.) He’s also socially liberal but fiscally conservative, but unlike Truss he seems to have at least some vague understanding of how economics works. Sunak is also popular in a way Truss never was (though that popularity has been declining recently). So I think we can expect to get new policies which are in the same general direction as what Truss wanted—lower taxes on the rich, more privatization, less spent on social services—but at least Sunak is likely to do so in a way that makes the math(s?) actually add up.

All of this is unfortunate, but largely par for the course for the last few decades. It compares quite favorably to the situation in the US, where somehow a large chunk of Americans either don’t believe that an insurrection attempt occurred, are fine with it, or blame the other side, and as the guardrails of democracy continue breaking, somehow gasoline prices appear to be one of the most important issues in the midterm election.

You know what? Living through history sucks. I don’t want to live in “interesting times” anymore.

On (gay) marriage

Oct 9 JDN 2459862

This post goes live on my first wedding anniversary. Thus, as you read this, I will have been married for one full year.

Honestly, being married hasn’t felt that different to me. This is likely because we’d been dating since 2012 and lived together for several years before actually getting married. It has made some official paperwork more convenient, and I’ve reached the point where I feel naked without my wedding band; but for the most part our lives have not really changed.

And perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps the best way to really know that you should get married is to already feel as though you are married, and just finally get around to making it official. Perhaps people for whom getting married is a momentous change in their lives (as opposed to simply a formal announcement followed by a celebration) are people who really shouldn’t be getting married just yet.

A lot of things in my life—my health, my career—have not gone very well in this past year. But my marriage has been only a source of stability and happiness. I wouldn’t say we never have conflict, but quite honestly I was expecting a lot more challenges and conflicts from the way I’d heard other people talk about marriage in the past. All of my friends who have kids seem to be going through a lot of struggles as a result of that (which is one of several reasons we keep procrastinating on looking into adoption), but marriage itself does not appear to be any more difficult than friendship—in fact, maybe easier.

I have found myself oddly struck by how un-important it has been that my marriage is to a same-sex partner. I keep expecting people to care—to seem uncomfortable, to be resistant, or simply to be surprised—and it so rarely happens.

I think this is probably generational: We Millennials grew up at the precise point in history when the First World suddenly decided, all at once, that gay marriage was okay.

Seriously, look at this graph. I’ve made it combining this article using data from the General Social Survey, and this article from Pew:

Until around 1990—when I was 2 years old—support for same-sex marriage was stable and extremely low: About 10% of Americans supported it (presumably most of them LGBT!), and over 70% opposed it. Then, quite suddenly, attitudes began changing, and by 2019, over 60% of Americans supported it and only 31% opposed it.

That is, within a generation, we went from a country where almost no one supported gay marriage to a country where same-sex marriage is so popular that any major candidate who opposed it would almost certainly lose a general election. (They might be able to survive a Republican primary, as Republican support for same-sex marriage is only about 44%—about where it was among Democrats in the early 2000s.)

This is a staggering rate of social change. If development economics is the study of what happened in South Korea from 1950-2000, I think political science should be the study of what happened to attitudes on same-sex marriage in the US from 1990-2020.

And of course it isn’t just the US. Similar patterns can be found across Western Europe, with astonishingly rapid shifts from near-universal opposition to near-universal support within a generation.

I don’t think I have been able to fully emotionally internalize this shift. I grew up in a world where homophobia was mainstream, where only the most radical left-wing candidates were serious about supporting equal rights and representation for LGBT people. And suddenly I find myself in a world where we are actually accepted and respected as equals, and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Aren’t you the same people who told me as a teenager that I was a sexual deviant who deserved to burn in Hell? But now you’re attending my wedding? And offering me joint life insurance policies? My own extended family members treat me differently now than they did when I was a teenager, and I don’t quite know how to trust that the new way is the true way and not some kind of facade that could rapidly disappear.

I think this sort of generational trauma may never fully heal, in which case it will be the generation after us—the Zoomers, I believe we’re calling them now—who will actually live in this new world we created, while the rest of us forever struggle to accept that things are not as we remember them. Once bitten, we remain forever twice shy, lest attitudes regress as suddenly as they advanced.

Then again, it seems that Zoomers may be turning against the institution of marriage in general. As the meme says: “Boomers: No gay marriage. Millennials: Yes gay marriage. Gen Z: Yes gay, no marriage.” Maybe that’s for the best; maybe the future of humanity is for personal relationships to be considered no business of the government at all. But for now at least, equal marriage is clearly much better than unequal marriage, and the First World seems to have figured that out blazing fast.

And of course the rest of the world still hasn’t caught up. While trends are generally in a positive direction, there are large swaths of the world where even very basic rights for LGBT people are opposed by most of the population. As usual, #ScandinaviaIsBetter, with over 90% support for LGBT rights; and, as usual, Sub-Saharan Africa is awful, with support in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria not even hitting 20%.

Mindful of mindfulness

Sep 25 JDN 2459848

I have always had trouble with mindfulness meditation.

On the one hand, I find it extremely difficult to do: if there is one thing my mind is good at, it’s wandering. (I think in addition to my autism spectrum disorder, I may also have a smidgen of ADHD. I meet some of the criteria at least.) And it feels a little too close to a lot of practices that are obviously mumbo-jumbo nonsense, like reiki, qigong, and reflexology.

On the other hand, mindfulness meditation has been empirically shown to have large beneficial effects in study after study after study. It helps with not only depression, but also chronic pain. It even seems to improve immune function. The empirical data is really quite clear at this point. The real question is how it does all this.

And I am, above all, an empiricist. I bow before the data. So, when my new therapist directed me to an app that’s supposed to train me to do mindfulness meditation, I resolved that I would in fact give it a try.

Honestly, as of writing this, I’ve been using it less than a week; it’s probably too soon to make a good evaluation. But I did have some prior experience with mindfulness, so this was more like getting back into it rather than starting from scratch. And, well, I think it might actually be working. I feel a bit better than I did when I started.

If it is working, it doesn’t seem to me that the mechanism is greater focus or mental control. I don’t think I’ve really had time to meaningfully improve those skills, and to be honest, I have a long way to go there. The pre-recorded voice samples keep telling me it’s okay if my mind wanders, but I doubt the app developers planned for how much my mind can wander. When they suggest I try to notice each wandering thought, I feel like saying, “Do you want the complete stack trace, or just the final output? Because if I wrote down each terminal branch alone, my list would say something like ‘fusion reactors, ice skating, Napoleon’.”

I think some of the benefit is simply parasympathetic activation, that is, being more relaxed. I am, and have always been, astonishingly bad at relaxing. It’s not that I lack positive emotions: I can enjoy, I can be excited. Nor am I incapable of low-arousal emotions: I can get bored, I can be lethargic. I can also experience emotions that are negative and high-arousal: I can be despondent or outraged. But I have great difficulty reaching emotional states which are simultaneously positive and low-arousal, i.e. states of calm and relaxation. (See here for more on the valence/arousal model of emotional states.) To some extent I think this is due to innate personality: I am high in both Conscientiousness and Neuroticism, which basically amounts to being “high-strung“. But mindfulness has taught me that it’s also trainable, to some extent; I can get better at relaxing, and I already have.

And even more than that, I think the most important effect has been reminding and encouraging me to practice self-compassion. I am an intensely compassionate person, toward other people; but toward myself, I am brutal, demanding, unforgiving, even cruel. My internal monologue says terrible things to me that I wouldnever say to anyone else. (Or at least, not to anyone else who wasn’t a mass murderer or something. I wouldn’t feel particularly bad about saying “You are a failure, you are broken, you are worthless, you are unworthy of love” to, say, Josef Stalin. And yes, these are in fact things my internal monologue has said to me.) Whenever I am unable to master a task I consider important, my automatic reaction is to denigrate myself for failing; I think the greatest benefit I am getting from practicing meditation is being encouraged to fight that impulse. That is, the most important value added by the meditation app has not been in telling me how to focus on my own breathing, but in reminding me to forgive myself when I do it poorly.

If this is right (as I said, it’s probably too soon to say), then we may at last be able to explain why meditation is simultaneously so weird and tied to obvious mumbo-jumbo on the one hand, and also so effective on the other. The actual function of meditation is to be a difficult cognitive task which doesn’t require outside support.

And then the benefit actually comes from doing this task, getting slowly better at it—feeling that sense of progress—and also from learning to forgive yourself when you do it badly. The task probably could have been anything: Find paths through mazes. Fill out Sudoku grids. Solve integrals. But these things are hard to do without outside resources: It’s basically impossible to draw a maze without solving it in the process. Generating a Sudoku grid with a unique solution is at least as hard as solving one (which is NP-complete). By the time you know a given function is even integrable over elementary functions, you’ve basically integrated it. But focusing on your breath? That you can do anywhere, anytime. And the difficulty of controlling all your wandering thoughts may be less a bug than a feature: It’s precisely because the task is so difficult that you will have reason to practice forgiving yourself for failure.

The arbitrariness of the task itself is how you can get a proliferation of different meditation techniques, and a wide variety of mythologies and superstitions surrounding them all, but still have them all be about equally effective in the end. Because it was never really about the task at all. It’s about getting better and failing gracefully.

It probably also helps that meditation is relaxing. Solving integrals might not actually work as well as focusing on your breath, even if you had a textbook handy full of integrals to solve. Breathing deeply is calming; integration by parts isn’t. But lots of things are calming, and some things may be calming to one person but not to another.

It is possible that there is yet some other benefit to be had directly via mindfulness itself. If there is, it will surely have more to do with anterior cingulate activation than realignment of qi. But such a particular benefit isn’t necessary to explain the effectiveness of meditation, and indeed would be hard-pressed to explain why so many different kinds of meditation all seem to work about as well.

Because it was never about what you’re doing—it was always about how.

The injustice of talent

Sep 4 JDN 2459827

Consider the following two principles of distributive justice.

A: People deserve to be rewarded in proportion to what they accomplish.

B: People deserve to be rewarded in proportion to the effort they put in.

Both principles sound pretty reasonable, don’t they? They both seem like sensible notions of fairness, and I think most people would broadly agree with both them.

This is a problem, because they are mutually contradictory. We cannot possibly follow them both.

For, as much as our society would like to pretend otherwise—and I think this contradiction is precisely why our society would like to pretend otherwise—what you accomplish is not simply a function of the effort you put in.

Don’t get me wrong; it is partly a function of the effort you put in. Hard work does contribute to success. But it is neither sufficient, nor strictly necessary.

Rather, success is a function of three factors: Effort, Environment, and Talent.

Effort is the work you yourself put in, and basically everyone agrees you deserve to be rewarded for that.

Environment includes all the outside factors that affect you—including both natural and social environment. Inheritance, illness, and just plain luck are all in here, and there is general, if not universal, agreement that society should make at least some efforts to minimize inequality created by such causes.

And then, there is talent. Talent includes whatever capacities you innately have. It could be strictly genetic, or it could be acquired in childhood or even in the womb. But by the time you are an adult and responsible for your own life, these factors are largely fixed and immutable. This includes things like intelligence, disability, even height. The trillion-dollar question is: How much should we reward talent?

For talent clearly does matter. I will never swim like Michael Phelps, run like Usain Bolt, or shoot hoops like Steph Curry. It doesn’t matter how much effort I put in, how many hours I spend training—I will never reach their level of capability. Never. It’s impossible. I could certainly improve from my current condition; perhaps it would even be good for me to do so. But there are certain hard fundamental constraints imposed by biology that give them more potential in these skills than I will ever have.

Conversely, there are likely things I can do that they will never be able to do, though this is less obvious. Could Michael Phelps never be as good a programmer or as skilled a mathematician as I am? He certainly isn’t now. Maybe, with enough time, enough training, he could be; I honestly don’t know. But I can tell you this: I’m sure it would be harder for him than it was for me. He couldn’t breeze through college-level courses in differential equations and quantum mechanics the way I did. There is something I have that he doesn’t, and I’m pretty sure I was born with it. Call it spatial working memory, or mathematical intuition, or just plain IQ. Whatever it is, math comes easy to me in not so different a way from how swimming comes easy to Michael Phelps. I have talent for math; he has talent for swimming.

Moreover, these are not small differences. It’s not like we all come with basically the same capabilities with a little bit of variation that can be easily washed out by effort. We’d like to believe that—we have all sorts of cultural tropes that try to inculcate that belief in us—but it’s obviously not true. The vast majority of quantum physicists are people born with high IQ. The vast majority of pro athletes are people born with physical prowess. The vast majority of movie stars are people born with pretty faces. For many types of jobs, the determining factor seems to be talent.

This isn’t too surprising, actually—even if effort matters a lot, we would still expect talent to show up as the determining factor much of the time.

Let’s go back to that contest function model I used to analyze the job market awhile back (the one that suggests we spend way too much time and money in the hiring process). This time let’s focus on the perspective of the employees themselves.

Each employee has a level of talent, h. Employee X has talent hx and exerts effort x, producing output of a quality that is the product of these: hx x. Similarly, employee Z has talent hz and exerts effort z, producing output hz z.

Then, there’s a certain amount of luck that factors in. The most successful output isn’t necessarily the best, or maybe what should have been the best wasn’t because some random circumstance prevailed. But we’ll say that the probability an individual succeeds is proportional to the quality of their output.

So the probability that employee X succeeds is: hx x / ( hx x + hz z)

I’ll skip the algebra this time (if you’re interested you can look back at that previous post), but to make a long story short, in Nash equilibrium the two employees will exert exactly the same amount of effort.

Then, which one succeeds will be entirely determined by talent; because x = z, the probability that X succeeds is hx / ( hx + hz).

It’s not that effort doesn’t matter—it absolutely does matter, and in fact in this model, with zero effort you get zero output (which isn’t necessarily the case in real life). It’s that in equilibrium, everyone is exerting the same amount of effort; so what determines who wins is innate talent. And I gotta say, that sounds an awful lot like how professional sports works. It’s less clear whether it applies to quantum physicists.

But maybe we don’t really exert the same amount of effort! This is true. Indeed, it seems like actually effort is easier for people with higher talent—that the same hour spent running on a track is easier for Usain Bolt than for me, and the same hour studying calculus is easier for me than it would be for Usain Bolt. So in the end our equilibrium effort isn’t the same—but rather than compensating, this effect only serves to exaggerate the difference in innate talent between us.

It’s simple enough to generalize the model to allow for such a thing. For instance, I could say that the cost of producing a unit of effort is inversely proportional to your talent; then instead of hx / ( hx + hz ), in equilibrium the probability of X succeeding would become hx2 / ( hx2 + hz2). The equilibrium effort would also be different, with x > z if hx > hz.

Once we acknowledge that talent is genuinely important, we face an ethical problem. Do we want to reward people for their accomplishment (A), or for their effort (B)? There are good cases to be made for each.

Rewarding for accomplishment, which we might call meritocracy,will tend to, well, maximize accomplishment. We’ll get the best basketball players playing basketball, the best surgeons doing surgery. Moreover, accomplishment is often quite easy to measure, even when effort isn’t.

Rewarding for effort, which we might call egalitarianism, will give people the most control over their lives, and might well feel the most fair. Those who succeed will be precisely those who work hard, even if they do things they are objectively bad at. Even people who are born with very little talent will still be able to make a living by working hard. And it will ensure that people do work hard, which meritocracy can actually fail at: If you are extremely talented, you don’t really need to work hard because you just automatically succeed.

Capitalism, as an economic system, is very good at rewarding accomplishment. I think part of what makes socialism appealing to so many people is that it tries to reward effort instead. (Is it very good at that? Not so clear.)

The more extreme differences are actually in terms of disability. There’s a certain baseline level of activities that most people are capable of, which we think of as “normal”: most people can talk; most people can run, if not necessarily very fast; most people can throw a ball, if not pitch a proper curveball. But some people can’t throw. Some people can’t run. Some people can’t even talk. It’s not that they are bad at it; it’s that they are literally not capable of it. No amount of effort could have made Stephen Hawking into a baseball player—not even a bad one.

It’s these cases when I think egalitarianism becomes most appealing: It just seems deeply unfair that people with severe disabilities should have to suffer in poverty. Even if they really can’t do much productive work on their own, it just seems wrong not to help them, at least enough that they can get by. But capitalism by itself absolutely would not do that—if you aren’t making a profit for the company, they’re not going to keep you employed. So we need some kind of social safety net to help such people. And it turns out that such people are quite numerous, and our current system is really not adequate to help them.

But meritocracy has its pull as well. Especially when the job is really important—like surgery, not so much basketball—we really want the highest quality work. It’s not so important whether the neurosurgeon who removes your tumor worked really hard at it or found it a breeze; what we care about is getting that tumor out.

Where does this leave us?

I think we have no choice but to compromise, on both principles. We will reward both effort and accomplishment, to greater or lesser degree—perhaps varying based on circumstances. We will never be able to entirely reward accomplishment or entirely reward effort.

This is more or less what we already do in practice, so why worry about it? Well, because we don’t like to admit that it’s what we do in practice, and a lot of problems seem to stem from that.

We have people acting like billionaires are such brilliant, hard-working people just because they’re rich—because our society rewards effort, right? So they couldn’t be so successful if they didn’t work so hard, right? Right?

Conversely, we have people who denigrate the poor as lazy and stupid just because they are poor. Because it couldn’t possibly be that their circumstances were worse than yours? Or hey, even if they are genuinely less talented than you—do less talented people deserve to be homeless and starving?

We tell kids from a young age, “You can be whatever you want to be”, and “Work hard and you’ll succeed”; and these things simply aren’t true. There are limitations on what you can achieve through effort—limitations imposed by your environment, and limitations imposed by your innate talents.

I’m not saying we should crush children’s dreams; I’m saying we should help them to build more realistic dreams, dreams that can actually be achieved in the real world. And then, when they grow up, they either will actually succeed, or when they don’t, at least they won’t hate themselves for failing to live up to what you told them they’d be able to do.

If you were wondering why Millennials are so depressed, that’s clearly a big part of it: We were told we could be and do whatever we wanted if we worked hard enough, and then that didn’t happen; and we had so internalized what we were told that we thought it had to be our fault that we failed. We didn’t try hard enough. We weren’t good enough. I have spent years feeling this way—on some level I do still feel this way—and it was not because adults tried to crush my dreams when I was a child, but on the contrary because they didn’t do anything to temper them. They never told me that life is hard, and people fail, and that I would probably fail at my most ambitious goals—and it wouldn’t be my fault, and it would still turn out okay.

That’s really it, I think: They never told me that it’s okay not to be wildly successful. They never told me that I’d still be good enough even if I never had any great world-class accomplishments. Instead, they kept feeding me the lie that I would have great world-class accomplishments; and then, when I didn’t, I felt like a failure and I hated myself. I think my own experience may be particularly extreme in this regard, but I know a lot of other people in my generation who had similar experiences, especially those who were also considered “gifted” as children. And we are all now suffering from depression, anxiety, and Impostor Syndrome.

All because nobody wanted to admit that talent, effort, and success are not the same thing.

How to fix economics publishing

Aug 7 JDN 2459806

The current system of academic publishing in economics is absolutely horrible. It seems practically designed to undermine the mental health of junior faculty.

1. Tenure decisions, and even most hiring decisions, are almost entirely based upon publication in five (5) specific journals.

2. One of those “top five” journals is owned by Elsevier, a corrupt monopoly that has no basis for its legitimacy yet somehow controls nearly one-fifth of all scientific publishing.

3. Acceptance rates in all of these journals are between 5% and 10%—greatly decreased from what they were a generation or two ago. Given a typical career span, the senior faculty evaluating you on whether you were published in these journals had about a three times better chance to get their own papers published there than you do.

4. Submissions are only single-blinded, so while you have no idea who is reading your papers, they know exactly who you are and can base their decision on whether you are well-known in the profession—or simply whether they like you.

5. Simultaneous submissions are forbidden, so when submitting to journals you must go one at a time, waiting to hear back from one before trying the next.

6. Peer reviewers are typically unpaid and generally uninterested, and so procrastinate as long as possible on doing their reviews.

7. As a result, review times for a paper are often measured in months, for every single cycle.

So, a highly successful paper goes like this: You submit it to a top journal, wait three months, it gets rejected. You submit it to another one, wait another four months, it gets rejected. You submit it to a third one, wait another two months, and you are told to revise and resubmit. You revise and resubmit, wait another three months, and then finally get accepted.

You have now spent an entire year getting one paper published. And this was a success.

Now consider a paper that doesn’t make it into a top journal. You submit, wait three months, rejected; you submit again, wait four months, rejected; you submit again, wait two months, rejected. You submit again, wait another five months, rejected; you submit to the fifth and final top-five, wait another four months, and get rejected again.

Now, after a year and a half, you can turn to other journals. You submit to a sixth journal, wait three months, rejected. You submit to a seventh journal, wait four months, get told to revise and resubmit. You revise and resubmit, wait another two months, and finally—finally, after two years—actually get accepted, but not to a top-five journal. So it may not even help you get tenure, unless maybe a lot of people cite it or something.

And what if you submit to a seventh, an eighth, a ninth journal, and still keep getting rejected? At what point do you simply give up on that paper and try to move on with your life?

That’s a trick question: Because what really happens, at least to me, is I can’t move on with my life. I get so disheartened from all the rejections of that paper that I can’t bear to look at it anymore, much less go through the work of submitting it to yet another journal that will no doubt reject it again. But worse than that, I become so depressed about my academic work in general that I become unable to move on to any other research either. And maybe it’s me, but it isn’t just me: 28% of academic faculty suffer from severe depression, and 38% from severe anxiety. And that’s across all faculty—if you look just at junior faculty it’s even worse: 43% of junior academic faculty suffer from severe depression. When a problem is that prevalent, at some point we have to look at the system that’s making us this way.

I can blame the challenges of moving across the Atlantic during a pandemic, and the fact that my chronic migraines have been the most frequent and severe they have been in years, but the fact remains: I have accomplished basically nothing towards the goal of producing publishable research in the past year. I have two years left at this job; if I started right now, I might be able to get something published before my contract is done. Assuming that the project went smoothly, I could start submitting it as soon as it was done, and it didn’t get rejected as many times as the last one.

I just can’t find the motivation to do it. When the pain is so immediate and so intense, and the rewards are so distant and so uncertain, I just can’t bring myself to do the work. I had hoped that talking about this with my colleagues would help me cope, but it hasn’t; in fact it only makes me seem to feel worse, because so few of them seem to understand how I feel. Maybe I’m talking to the wrong people; maybe the ones who understand are themselves suffering too much to reach out to help me. I don’t know.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are some simple changes that could make the entire process of academic publishing in economics go better:

1. Boycott Elsevier and all for-profit scientific journal publishers. Stop reading their journals. Stop submitting to their journals. Stop basing tenure decisions on their journals. Act as though they don’t exist, because they shouldn’t—and then hopefully soon they won’t.

2. Peer reviewers should be paid for their time, and in return required to respond promptly—no more than a few weeks. A lack of response should be considered a positive vote on that paper.

3. Allow simultaneous submissions; if multiple journals accept, let the author choose between them. This is already how it works in fiction publishing, which you’ll note has not collapsed.

4. Increase acceptance rates. You are not actually limited by paper constraints anymore; everything is digital now. Most of the work—even in the publishing process—already has to be done just to go through peer review, so you may as well publish it. Moreover, most papers that are submitted are actually worthy of publishing, and this whole process is really just an idiotic status hierarchy. If the prestige of your journal decreases because you accept more papers, we are measuring prestige wrong. Papers should be accepted something like 50% of the time, not 5-10%.

5. Double blind submissions, and insist on ethical standards that maintain that blinding. No reviewer should know whether they are reading the work of a grad student or a Nobel Laureate. Reputation should mean nothing; scientific rigor should mean everything.

And, most radical of all, what I really need in my life right now:

6. Faculty should not have to submit their own papers. Each university department should have administrative staff whose job it is to receive papers from their faculty, format them appropriately, and submit them to journals. They should deal with all rejections, and only report to the faculty member when they have received an acceptance or a request to revise and resubmit. Faculty should simply do the research, write the papers, and then fire and forget them. We have highly specialized skills, and our valuable time is being wasted on the clerical tasks of formatting and submitting papers, which many other people could do as well or better. Worse, we are uniquely vulnerable to the emotional impact of the rejection—seeing someone else’s paper rejected is an entirely different feeling from having your own rejected.

Do all that, and I think I could be happy to work in academia. As it is, I am seriously considering leaving and never coming back.

Krugman and rockets and feathers

Jul 17 JDN 2459797

Well, this feels like a milestone: Paul Krugman just wrote a column about a topic I’ve published research on. He didn’t actually cite our paper—in fact the literature review he links to is from 2014—but the topic is very much what we were studying: Asymmetric price transmission, ‘rockets and feathers’. He’s even talking about it from the perspective of industrial organization and market power, which is right in line with our results (and a bit different from the mainstream consensus among economic policy pundits).

The phenomenon is a well-documented one: When the price of an input (say, crude oil) rises, the price of outputs made from that input (say, gasoline) rise immediately, and basically one to one, sometimes even more than one to one. But when the price of an input falls, the price of outputs only falls slowly and gradually, taking a long time to converge to the same level as the input prices. Prices go up like a rocket, but down like a feather.

Many different explanations have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, and they aren’t all mutually exclusive. They include various aspects of market structure, substitution of inputs, and use of inventories to smooth the effects of prices.

One that I find particularly unpersuasive is the notion of menu costs: That it requires costly effort to actually change your prices, and this somehow results in the asymmetry. Most gas stations have digital price boards; it requires almost zero effort for them to change prices whenever they want. Moreover, there’s no clear reason this would result in asymmetry between raising and lowering prices. Some models extend the notion of “menu cost” to include expected customer responses, which is a much better explanation; but I think that’s far beyond the original meaning of the concept. If you fear to change your price because of how customers may respond, finding a cheaper way to print price labels won’t do a thing to change that.

But our paper—and Krugman’s article—is about one factor in particular: market power. We don’t see prices behave this way in highly competitive markets. We see it the most in oligopolies: Markets where there are only a small number of sellers, who thus have some control over how they set their prices.

Krugman explains it as follows:

When oil prices shoot up, owners of gas stations feel empowered not just to pass on the cost but also to raise their markups, because consumers can’t easily tell whether they’re being gouged when prices are going up everywhere. And gas stations may hang on to these extra markups for a while even when oil prices fall.

That’s actually a somewhat different mechanism from the one we found in our experiment, which is that asymmetric price transmission can be driven by tacit collusion. Explicit collusion is illegal: You can’t just call up the other gas stations and say, “Let’s all set the price at $5 per gallon.” But you can tacitly collude by responding to how they set their prices, and not trying to undercut them even when you could get a short-run benefit from doing so. It’s actually very similar to an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma: Cooperation is better for everyone, but worse for you as an individual; to get everyone to cooperate, it’s vital to severely punish those who don’t.

In our experiment, the participants in our experiment were acting as businesses setting their prices. The customers were fully automated, so there was no opportunity to “fool” them in this way. We also excluded any kind of menu costs or product inventories. But we still saw prices go up like rockets and down like feathers. Moreover, prices were always substantially higher than costs, especially during that phase when they are falling down like feathers.

Our explanation goes something like this: Businesses are trying to use their market power to maintain higher prices and thereby make higher profits, but they have to worry about other businesses undercutting their prices and taking all the business. Moreover, they also have to worry about others thinking that they are trying to undercut prices—they want to be perceived as cooperating, not defecting, in order to preserve the collusion and avoid being punished.

Consider how this affects their decisions when input prices change. If the price of oil goes up, then there’s no reason not to raise the price of gasoline immediately, because that isn’t violating the collusion. If anything, it’s being nice to your fellow colluders; they want prices as high as possible. You’ll want to raise the prices as high and fast as you can get away with, and you know they’ll do the same. But if the price of oil goes down, now gas stations are faced with a dilemma: You could lower prices to get more customers and make more profits, but the other gas stations might consider that a violation of your tacit collusion and could punish you by cutting their prices even more. Your best option is to lower prices very slowly, so that you can take advantage of the change in the input market, but also maintain the collusion with other gas stations. By slowly cutting prices, you can ensure that you are doing it together, and not trying to undercut other businesses.

Krugman’s explanation and ours are not mutually exclusive; in fact I think both are probably happening. They have one important feature in common, which fits the empirical data: Markets with less competition show greater degrees of asymmetric price transmission. The more concentrated the oligopoly, the more we see rockets and feathers.

They also share an important policy implication: Market power can make inflation worse. Contrary to what a lot of economic policy pundits have been saying, it isn’t ridiculous to think that breaking up monopolies or putting pressure on oligopolies to lower their prices could help reduce inflation. It probably won’t be as reliably effective as the Fed’s buying and selling of bonds to adjust interest rates—but we’re also doing that, and the two are not mutually exclusive. Besides, breaking up monopolies is a generally good thing to do anyway.

It’s not that unusual that I find myself agreeing with Krugman. I think what makes this one feel weird is that I have more expertise on the subject than he does.