Fighting the zero-sum paradigm

Dec 2 JDN 2458455

It should be obvious at this point that there are deep, perhaps even fundamental, divides between the attitudes and beliefs of different political factions. It can be very difficult to even understand, much less sympathize, with the concerns of people who are racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and authoritarian.
But at the end of the day we still have to live in the same country as these people, so we’d better try to understand how they think. And maybe, just maybe, that understanding will help us to change them.

There is one fundamental belief system that I believe underlies almost all forms of extremism. Right now right-wing extremism is the major threat to global democracy, but left-wing extremism subscribes to the same core paradigm (consistent with Horseshoe Theory).

I think the best term for this is the zero-sum paradigm. The idea is quite simple: There is a certain amount of valuable “stuff” (money, goods, land, status, happiness) in the world, and the only political question is who gets how much.

Thus, any improvement in anyone’s life must, necessarily, come at someone else’s expense. If I become richer, you become poorer. If I become stronger, you become weaker. Any improvement in my standard of living is a threat to your status.

If this belief were true, it would justify, or at least rationalize, all sorts of destructive behavior: Any harm I can inflict upon someone else will yield a benefit for me, by some fundamental conservation law of the universe.

Viewed in this light, beliefs like patriarchy and White supremacy suddenly become much more comprehensible: Why would you want to spend so much effort hurting women and Black people? Because, by the fundamental law of zero-sum, any harm to women is a benefit to men, and any harm to Black people is a benefit to White people. The world is made of “teams”, and you are fighting for your own against all the others.

And I can even see why such an attitude is seductive: It’s simple and easy to understand. And there are many circumstances where it can be approximately true.
When you are bargaining with your boss over a wage, one dollar more for you is one dollar less for your boss.
When your factory outsources production to China, one more job for China is one less job for you.

When we vote for President, one more vote for the Democrats is one less vote for the Republicans.

But of course the world is not actually zero-sum. Both you and your boss would be worse off if your job were to disappear; they need your work and you need their money. For every job that is outsourced to China, another job is created in the United States. And democracy itself is such a profound public good that it basically overwhelms all others.

In fact, it is precisely when a system is running well that the zero-sum paradigm becomes closest to true. In the space of all possible allocations, it is the efficient ones that behave in something like a zero-sum way, because when the system is efficient, we are already producing as much as we can.

This may be part of why populist extremism always seems to assert itself during periods of global prosperity, as in the 1920s and today: It is precisely when the world is running at its full capacity that it feels most like someone else’s gain must come at your loss.

Yet if we live according to the zero-sum paradigm, we will rapidly destroy the prosperity that made that paradigm seem plausible. A trade war between the US and China would put millions out of work in both countries. A real war with conventional weapons would kill millions. A nuclear war would kill billions.

This is what we must convey: We must show people just how good things are right now.

This is not an easy task; when people want to believe the world is falling apart, they can very easily find excuses to do so. You can point to the statistics showing a global decline in homicide, but one dramatic shooting on the TV news will wipe that all away. You can show the worldwide rise in real incomes across the board, but that won’t console someone who just lost their job and blames outsourcing or immigrants.

Indeed, many people will be offended by the attempt—the mere suggestion that the world is actually in very good shape and overall getting better will be perceived as an attempt to deny or dismiss the problems and injustices that still exist.

I encounter this especially from the left: Simply pointing out the objective fact that the wealth gap between White and Black households is slowly closing is often taken as a claim that racism no longer exists or doesn’t matter. Congratulating the meteoric rise in women’s empowerment around the world is often paradoxically viewed as dismissing feminism instead of lauding it.

I think the best case against progress can be made with regard to global climate change: Carbon emissions are not falling nearly fast enough, and the world is getting closer to the brink of truly catastrophic ecological damage. Yet even here the zero-sum paradigm is clearly holding us back; workers in fossil-fuel industries think that the only way to reduce carbon emissions is to make their families suffer, but that’s simply not true. We can make them better off too.

Talking about injustice feels righteous. Talking about progress doesn’t. Yet I think what the world needs most right now—the one thing that might actually pull us back from the brink of fascism or even war—is people talking about progress.

If people think that the world is full of failure and suffering and injustice, they will want to tear down the whole system and start over with something else. In a world that is largely democratic, that very likely means switching to authoritarianism. If people think that this is as bad as it gets, they will be willing to accept or even instigate violence in order to change to almost anything else.

But if people realize that in fact the world is full of success and prosperity and progress, that things are right now quite literally better in almost every way for almost every person in almost every country than they were a hundred—or even fifty—years ago, they will not be so eager to tear the system down and start anew. Centrism is often mocked (partly because it is confused with false equivalence), but in a world where life is improving this quickly for this many people, “stay the course” sounds awfully attractive to me.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore the real problems and injustices that still exist, of course. There is still a great deal of progress left to be made.  But I believe we are more likely to make progress if we acknowledge and seek to continue the progress we have already made, than if we allow ourselves to fall into despair as if that progress did not exist.

What really works against bigotry

Sep 30 JDN 2458392

With Donald Trump in office, I think we all need to be thinking carefully about what got us to this point, how we have apparently failed in our response to bigotry. It’s good to see that Kavanaugh’s nomination vote has been delayed pending investigations, but we can’t hope to rely on individual criminal accusations to derail every potentially catastrophic candidate. The damage that someone like Kavanaugh would do to the rights of women, racial minorities, and LGBT people is too severe to risk. We need to attack this problem at its roots: Why are there so many bigoted leaders, and so many bigoted voters willing to vote for them?

The problem is hardly limited to the United States; we are witnessing a global crisis of far-right ideology, as even the UN has publicly recognized.

I think the left made a very dangerous wrong turn with the notion of “call-out culture”. There is now empirical data to support me on this. Publicly calling people racist doesn’t make them less racist—in fact, it usually makes them more racist. Angrily denouncing people doesn’t change their minds—it just makes you feel righteous. Our own accusatory, divisive rhetoric is part of the problem: By accusing anyone who even slightly deviates from our party line (say, by opposing abortion in some circumstances, as 75% of Americans do?) of being a fascist, we slowly but surely push more people toward actual fascism.

Call-out culture encourages a black-and-white view of the world, where there are “good guys” (us) and “bad guys” (them), and our only job is to fight as hard as possible against the “bad guys”. It frees us from the pain of nuance, complexity, and self-reflection—at only the cost of giving up any hope of actually understanding the real causes or solving the problem. Bigotry is not something that “other” people have, which you, fine upstanding individual, could never suffer from. We are all Judy Hopps.

This is not to say we should do nothing—indeed, that would be just as bad if not worse. The rise of neofascism has been possible largely because so many people did nothing. Knowing that there is bigotry in all of us shouldn’t stop us from recognizing that some people are far worse than others, or paralyze us against constructively improving ourselves and our society. See the shades of gray without succumbing to the Fallacy of Gray.

The most effective interventions at reducing bigotry are done in early childhood; obviously, it’s far too late for that when it comes to people like Trump and Kavanaugh.

But there are interventions that can work at reducing bigotry among adults. We need to first understand where the bigotry comes from—and it doesn’t always come from the same source. We need to be willing to look carefully—yes, even sympathetically—at people with bigoted views so that we can understand them.

There are deep, innate systems in the human brain that make bigotry come naturally to us. Even people on the left who devote their lives to combating discrimination against women, racial minorities and LGBT people can still harbor bigoted attitudes toward other groups—such as rural people or Republicans. If you think that all Republicans are necessarily racist, that’s not a serious understanding of what motivates Republicans—that’s just bigotry on your part. Trump is racist. Pence is racist. One could argue that voting for them constitutes, in itself, a racist act. But that does not mean that every single Republican voter is fundamentally and irredeemably racist.

It’s also important to have conversations face-to-face. I must admit that I am personally terrible at this; despite training myself extensively in etiquette and public speaking to the point where most people perceive me as charismatic, even charming, deep down I am still a strong introvert. I dislike talking in person, and dread talking over the phone. I would much prefer to communicate entirely in written electronic communication—but the data is quite clear on this: Face-to-face conversations work better at changing people’s minds. It may be awkward and uncomfortable, but by being there in person, you limit their ability to ignore you or dismiss you; you aren’t a tweet from the void, but an actual person, sitting there in front of them.

Speak with friends and family members. This, I know, can be especially awkward and painful. In the last few years I have lost connections with friends who were once quite close to me as a result of difficult political conversations. But we must speak up, for silence becomes complicity. And speaking up really can work.

Don’t expect people to change their entire worldview overnight. Focus on small, concrete policy ideas. Don’t ask them to change who they are; ask them to change what they believe. Ask them to justify and explain their beliefs—and really listen to them when they do. Be open to the possibility that you, too might be wrong about something.

If they say “We should deport all illegal immigrants!”, point out that whenever we try this, a lot of fields go unharvested for lack of workers, and ask them why they are so concerned about illegal immigrants. If they say “Illegal immigrants come here and commit crimes!” point them to the statistical data showing that illegal immigrants actually commit fewer crimes on average than native-born citizens (probably because they are more afraid of what happens if they get caught).

If they are concerned about Muslim immigrants influencing our culture in harmful ways, first, acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about Islamic cultural values (particularly toward women and LGBT people)but then point out that over 90% of Muslim-Americans are proud to be American, and that welcoming people is much more effective at getting them to assimilate into our culture than keeping them out and treating them as outsiders.

If they are concerned about “White people getting outnumbered”, first point out that White people are still over 70% of the US population, and in most rural areas there are only a tiny fraction of non-White people. Point out that Census projections showing the US will be majority non-White by 2045 are based on naively extrapolating current trends, and we really have no idea what the world will look like almost 30 years from now. Next, ask them why they worry about being “outnumbered”; get them to consider that perhaps racial demographics don’t have to be a matter of zero-sum conflict.

After you’ve done this, you will feel frustrated and exhausted, and the relationship between you and the person you’re trying to convince will be strained. You will probably feel like you have accomplished absolutely nothing to change their mind—but you are wrong. Even if they don’t acknowledge any change in their beliefs, the mere fact that you sat down and asked them to justify what they believe, and presented calm, reasonable, cogent arguments against those beliefs will have an effect. It will be a small effect, difficult for you to observe in that moment. But it will still be an effect.

Think about the last time you changed your mind about something important. (I hope you can remember such a time; none of us were born being right about everything!) Did it happen all at once? Was there just one, single knock-down argument that convinced you? Probably not. (On some mathematical and scientific questions I’ve had that experience: Oh, wow, yeah, that proof totally demolishes what I believed. Well, I guess I was wrong. But most beliefs aren’t susceptible to such direct proof.) More likely, you were presented with arguments from a variety of sources over a long span of time, gradually chipping away at what you thought you knew. In the moment, you might not even have admitted that you thought any differently—even to yourself. But as the months or years went by, you believed something quite different at the end than you had at the beginning.

Your goal should be to catalyze that process in other people. Don’t take someone who is currently a frothing neo-Nazi and expect them to start marching with Black Lives Matter. Take someone who is currently a little bit uncomfortable about immigration, and calm their fears. Don’t take someone who thinks all poor people are subhuman filth and try to get them to support a basic income. Take someone who is worried about food stamps adding to our national debt, and show them how it is a small portion of our budget. Don’t take someone who thinks global warming was made up by the Chinese and try to get them to support a ban on fossil fuels. Take someone who is worried about gas prices going up as a result of carbon taxes and show them that carbon offsets would add only about $100 per person per year while saving millions of lives.

And if you’re ever on the other side, and someone has just changed your mind, even a little bit—say so. Thank them for opening your eyes. I think a big part of why we don’t spend more time trying to honestly persuade people is that so few people acknowledge us when we do.

What exactly is “gentrification”? How should we deal with it?

Nov 26, JDN 2458083

“Gentrification” is a word that is used in a variety of mutually-inconsistent ways. If you compare the way social scientists use it to the way journalists use it, for example, they are almost completely orthogonal.

The word “gentrification” is meant to invoke the concept of a feudal gentry—a hereditary landed class that extracts rents from the rest of the population while contributing little or nothing themselves.

If indeed that is what we are talking about, then obviously this is bad. Moreover, it’s not an entirely unfounded fear; there are some remarkably strong vestiges of feudalism in the developed world, even in the United States where we never formally had a tradition of feudal titles. There really is a significant portion of the world’s wealth held by a handful of billionaire landowner families.

But usually when people say “gentrification” they mean something much broader. Almost any kind of increase in urban real estate prices gets characterized as “gentrification” by at least somebody, and herein lies the problem.

In fact, the kind of change that is most likely to get characterized as “gentrification” isn’t even the rising real estate prices we should be most worried about. People aren’t concerned when the prices of suburban homes double in 20 years. You might think that things that are already too expensive getting more expensive would be the main concern, but on the contrary, people are most likely to cry “gentrification” when housing prices rise in poor areas where housing is cheap.

One of the most common fears about gentrification is that it will displace local residents. In fact, the best quasi-experimental studies show little or no displacement effect. It’s actually mainly middle-class urbanites who get displaced by rising rents. Poor people typically own their homes, and actually benefit from rising housing prices. Young upwardly-mobile middle-class people move to cities to rent apartments near where they work, and tend to assume that’s how everyone lives, but it’s not. Rising rents in a city are far more likely to push out its grad students than they are poor families that have lived there for generations. Part of why displacement does not occur may be because of policies specifically implemented to fight it, such as subsidized housing and rent control. If that’s so, let’s keep on subsidizing housing (though rent control will always be a bad idea).

Nor is gentrification actually a very widespread phenomenon. The majority of poor neighborhoods remain poor indefinitely. In most studies, only about 30% of neighborhoods classified as “gentrifiable” actually end up “gentrifying”. Less than 10% of the neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 had low poverty rates in 2010.

Most people think gentrification reduces crime, but in the short run the opposite is the case. Robbery and larceny are higher in gentrifying neighborhoods. Criminals are already there, and suddenly they get much more valuable targets to steal from, so they do.

There is also a general perception that gentrification involves White people pushing Black people out, but this is also an overly simplistic view. First of all, a lot of gentrification is led by upwardly-mobile Black and Latino people. Black people who live in gentrified neighborhoods seem to be better off than Black people who live in non-gentrified neighborhoods; though selection bias may contribute to this effect, it can’t be all that strong, or we’d observe a much stronger displacement effect. Moreover, some studies have found that gentrification actually tends to increase the racial diversity of neighborhoods, and may actually help fight urban self-segregation, though it does also tend to increase racial polarization by forcing racial mixing.

What should we conclude from all this? I think the right conclusion is we are asking the wrong question.

Rising housing prices in poor areas aren’t inherently good or inherently bad, and policies designed specifically to increase or decrease housing prices are likely to have harmful side effects. What we need to be focusing on is not houses or neighborhoods but people. Poverty is definitely a problem, for sure. Therefore we should be fighting poverty, not “gentrification”. Directly transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, and then let the housing market fall where it may.

There is still some role for government in urban planning more generally, regarding things like disaster preparedness, infrastructure development, and transit systems. It may even be worthwhile to design regulations or incentives that directly combat racial segregation at the neighborhood level, for, as the Schelling Segregation Model shows, it doesn’t take a large amount of discriminatory preference to have a large impact on socioeconomic outcomes. But don’t waste effort fighting “gentrification”; directly design policies that will incentivize desegregation.

Rising rent as a proportion of housing prices is still bad, and the fundamental distortions in our mortgage system that prevent people from buying houses are a huge problem. But rising housing prices are most likely to be harmful in rich neighborhoods, where housing is already overpriced; in poor neighborhoods where housing is cheap, rising prices might well be a good thing.
In fact, I have a proposal to rapidly raise homeownership across the United States, which is almost guaranteed to work, directly corrects an enormous distortion in financial markets, and would cost about as much as the mortgage interest deduction (which should probably be eliminated, as most economists agree). Give each US adult a one-time grant voucher which gives them $40,000 that can only be spent as a down payment on purchasing a home. Each time someone turns 18, they get a voucher. You only get one over your lifetime, so use it wisely (otherwise the policy could become extremely expensive); but this is an immediate direct transfer of wealth that also reduces your credit constraint. I know I for one would be house-hunting right now if I were offered such a voucher. The mortgage interest deduction means nothing to me, because I can’t afford a down payment. Where the mortgage interest deduction is regressive, benefiting the rich more than the poor, this policy gives everyone the same amount, like a basic income.

In the short run, this policy would probably be expensive, as we’d have to pay out a large number of vouchers at once; but with our current long-run demographic trends, the amortized cost is basically the same as the mortgage interest deduction. And the US government especially should care about the long-run amortized cost, as it is an institution that has lasted over 200 years without ever missing a payment and can currently borrow at negative real interest rates.

This is one of the worst wildfire seasons in American history. But it won’t be for long.

Oct 22, JDN 2458049

At least 38 people have now been killed by the wildfires that are still ongoing in California; in addition, 5700 buildings have been destroyed and 190,000 acres of land burned. The State of California keeps an updated map of all the fires that are ongoing and how well-controlled they are; it’s not a pretty sight.

While the particular details are extreme, this is not an isolated incident. This year alone, wildfires have destroyed over 8 million acres of land in the US. In 2015, that figure was 10 million acres.

Property damage for this year’s wildfires in California is estimated at over $65 billion. That’s more than what Trump recently added to the military budget, and getting close to our total spending on food stamps.

There is a very clear upward trend in the scale and intensity of wildfires just over the last 50 years, and the obvious explanation is climate change. As climate change gets worse, these numbers are projected to increase between 30% and 50% by the 2040s. We still haven’t broken the record of fire damage in 1910, but as the upward trend continues we might soon enough.

It’s important to keep the death tolls in perspective; much as with hurricanes, our evacuation protocols and first-response agencies do their jobs very well, and as a result we’ve been averaging only about 10 wildfire deaths per year over the whole United States for the last century. In a country of over 300 million people, that’s really an impressively small number. That number has also been trending upward, however, so we shouldn’t get complacent.

Climate change isn’t the only reason these fires are especially damaging. It also matters where you build houses. We have been expanding our urban sprawl into fire-prone zones, and that is putting a lot of people in danger. Since 1990, over 60% of new homes were built in “wildland-urban interface areas” that are at higher risk.

Why are we doing this? Because housing prices in urban centers are too expensive for people to live there, but that is where most of the jobs are. So people have little choice but to live in exurbs and suburbs closer to the areas where fires are worst. That’s right: The fires are destroying homes and killing people because the rent is too damn high.

We need to find a solution to this problem of soaring housing prices. And since housing is such a huge proportion of our total expenditure—we spend more on housing than we do on all government spending combined—this would have an enormous impact on our entire economy. If you compare the income of a typical American today to most of the world’s population, or even to a typical American a century ago, we should feel extremely rich, but we don’t—largely because we spend so much of it just on keeping a roof over our heads.

Real estate is also a major driver of economic inequality. Wealth inequality is highest in urban centers where homeownership is rare. The large wealth gaps between White and non-White Americans can be in large part attributed to policies that made homeownership much more difficult for non-White people. Housing value inequality and overall wealth inequality are very strongly correlated. The high inequality in housing prices is making it far more difficult for people to move from poor regions to rich regions, holding back one of the best means we had for achieving more equal incomes.

Moreover, the rise in capital income share since the 1970s is driven almost entirely by real estate, rather than actual physical capital. The top 10% richest housing communities constitute over 52% of the total housing wealth in the US.

There is a lot of debate about what exactly causes these rising housing prices. No doubt, there are many factors contributing, from migration patterns to zoning regulations to income inequality in general. In a later post, I’ll get into why I think many of the people who think they are fighting the problem are actually making it worse, and suggest some ideas for what they should be doing instead.

When are we going to get serious about climate change?

Oct 8, JDN 24578035

Those two storms weren’t simply natural phenomena. We had a hand in creating them.

The EPA doesn’t want to talk about the connection, and we don’t have enough statistical power to really be certain, but there is by now an overwhelming scientific consensus that global climate change will increase hurricane intensity. The only real question left is whether it is already doing so.

The good news is that global carbon emissions are no longer rising. They have been essentially static for the last few years. The bad news is that this is almost certainly too little, too late.

The US is not on track to hit our 2025 emission target; we will probably exceed it by at least 20%.

But the real problem is that the targets themselves are much too high. Most countries have pledged to drop emissions only about 8-10% below their 1990s levels.

Even with the progress we have made, we are on track to exceed the global carbon budget needed to keep warming below 2 C by the year 2040. We have been reducing emission intensity by about 0.8% per year—we need to be reducing it by at least 3% per year and preferably faster. Highly-developed nations should be switching to nuclear energy as quickly as possible; an equitable global emission target requires us to reduce our emissions by 80% by 2050.

At the current rate of improvement, we will overshoot the 2 C warming target and very likely the 3C target as well.

Why aren’t we doing better? There is of course the Tragedy of the Commons to consider: Each individual country acting in its own self-interest will continue to pollute more, as this is the cheapest and easiest way to maintain industrial development. But then if all countries do so, the result is a disaster for us all.
But this explanation is too simple. We have managed to achieve some international cooperation on this issue. The Kyoto protocol has worked; emissions among Kyoto member nations have been reduced by more than 20% below 1990 levels, far more than originally promised. The EU in particular has taken a leadership role in reducing emissions, and has a serious shot at hitting their target of 40% reduction by 2030.

That is a truly astonishing scale of cooperation; the EU has a population of over 500 million people and spans 28 nations. It would seem like doing that should get us halfway to cooperating across all nations and all the world’s people.

But there is a vital difference between the EU and the world as a whole: The tribal paradigm. Europeans certainly have their differences: The UK and France still don’t really get along, everyone’s bitter with Germany about that whole Hitler business, and as the acronym PIIGS emphasizes, the peripheral countries have never quite felt as European as the core Schengen members. But despite all this, there has been a basic sense of trans-national (meta-national?) unity among Europeans for a long time.
For one thing, today Europeans see each other as the same race. That wasn’t always the case. In Medieval times, ethnic categories were as fine as “Cornish” and “Liverpudlian”. (To be fair, there do still exist a handful of Cornish nationalists.) Starting around the 18th cenutry, Europeans began to unite under the heading of “White people”, a classification that took on particular significance during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But even in the 19th century, “Irish” and “Sicilian” were seen as racial categories. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Europeans really began to think of themselves as one “kind of people”, and not coincidentally it was at the end of the 20th century that the European Union finally took hold.

There is another region that has had a similar sense of unification: Latin America. Again, there are conflicts: There are a lot of nasty stereotypes about Puerto Ricans among Cubans and vice-versa. But Latinos, by and large, think of each other as the same “kind of people”, distinct from both Europeans and the indigenous population of the Americas.

I don’t think it is coincidental that the lowest carbon emission intensity (carbon emissions / GDP PPP) in the world is in Latin America, followed closely by Europe.
And if you had to name right now the most ethnically divided region in the world, what would you say? The Middle East, of course. And sure enough, they have the worst carbon emission intensity. (Of course, oil is an obvious confounding variable here, likely contributing to both.)

Indeed, the countries with the lowest ethnic fractionalization ratings tend to be in Europe and Latin America, and the highest tend to be in the Middle East and Africa.

Even within the United States, political polarization seems to come with higher carbon emissions. When we think of Democrats and Republicans as different “kinds of people”, we become less willing to cooperate on finding climate policy solutions.

This is not a complete explanation, of course. China has a low fractionalization rating but a high carbon intensity, and extremely high overall carbon emissions due to their enormous population. Africa’s carbon intensity isn’t as high as you’d think just from their terrible fractionalization, especially if you exclude Nigeria which is a major oil producer.

But I think there is nonetheless a vital truth here: One of the central barriers to serious long-term solutions to climate change is the entrenchment of racial and national identity. Solving the Tragedy of the Commons requires cooperation, we will only cooperate with those we trust, and we will only trust those we consider to be the same “kind of people”.

You can even hear it in the rhetoric: If “we” (Americans) give up our carbon emissions, then “they” (China) will take advantage of us. No one seems to worry about Alabama exploiting California—certainly no Republican would—despite the fact that in real economic terms they basically do. But people in Alabama are Americans; in other words, they count as actual people. People in China don’t count. If anything, people in California are supposed to be considered less American than people in Alabama, despite the fact that vastly more Americans live in California than Alabama. This mirrors the same pattern where we urban residents are somehow “less authentic” even though we outnumber the rural by four to one.
I don’t know how to mend this tribal division; I very much wish I did. But I do know that simply ignoring it isn’t going to work. We can talk all we want about carbon taxes and cap-and-trade, but as long as most of the world’s people are divided into racial, ethnic, and national identities that they consider to be in zero-sum conflict with one another, we are never going to achieve the level of cooperation necessary for a real permanent solution to climate change.

The temperatures and the oceans rise. United we must stand, or divided we shall fall.

I think I know what the Great Filter is now

Sep 3, JDN 2458000

One of the most plausible solutions to the Fermi Paradox of why we have not found any other intelligent life in the universe is called the Great Filter: Somewhere in the process of evolving from unicellular prokaryotes to becoming an interstellar civilization, there is some highly-probable event that breaks the process, a “filter” that screens out all but the luckiest species—or perhaps literally all of them.

I previously thought that this filter was the invention of nuclear weapons; I now realize that this theory is incomplete. Nuclear weapons by themselves are only an existential threat because they co-exist with widespread irrationality and bigotry. The Great Filter is the combination of the two.

Yet there is a deep reason why we would expect that this is precisely the combination that would emerge in most species (as it has certainly emerged in our own): The rationality of a species is not uniform. Some individuals in a species will always be more rational than others, so as a species increases its level of rationality, it does not do so all at once.

Indeed, the processes of economic development and scientific advancement that make a species more rational are unlikely to be spread evenly; some cultures will develop faster than others, and some individuals within a given culture will be further along than others. While the mean level of rationality increases, the variance will also tend to increase.

On some arbitrary and oversimplified scale where 1 is the level of rationality needed to maintain a hunter-gatherer tribe, and 20 is the level of rationality needed to invent nuclear weapons, the distribution of rationality in a population starts something like this:

Great_Filter_1

Most of the population is between levels 1 and 3, which we might think of as lying between the bare minimum for a tribe to survive and the level at which one can start to make advances in knowledge and culture.

Then, as the society advances, it goes through a phase like this:

Great_Filter_2

This is about where we were in Periclean Athens. Most of the population is between levels 2 and 8. Level 2 used to be the average level of rationality back when we were hunter-gatherers. Level 8 is the level of philosophers like Archimedes and Pythagoras.

Today, our society looks like this:
Great_Filter_3

Most of the society is between levels 4 and 20. As I said, level 20 is the point at which it becomes feasible to develop nuclear weapons. Some of the world’s people are extremely intelligent and rational, and almost everyone is more rational than even the smartest people in hunter-gatherer times, but now there is enormous variation.

Where on this chart are racism and nationalism? Importantly, I think they are above the level of rationality that most people had in ancient times. Even Greek philosophers had attitudes toward slaves and other cultures that the modern KKK would find repulsive. I think on this scale racism is about a 10 and nationalism is about a 12.

If we had managed to uniformly increase the rationality of our society, with everyone gaining at the same rate, our distribution would instead look like this:
Great_Filter_4

If that were the case, we’d be fine. The lowest level of rationality widespread in the population would be 14, which is already beyond racism and nationalism. (Maybe it’s about the level of humanities professors today? That makes them substantially below quantum physicists who are 20 by construction… but hey, still almost twice as good as the Greek philosophers they revere.) We would have our nuclear technology, but it would not endanger our future—we wouldn’t even use it for weapons, we’d use it for power generation and space travel. Indeed, this lower-variance high-rationality state seems to be about what they have the Star Trek universe.

But since we didn’t, a large chunk of our population is between 10 and 12—that is, still racist or nationalist. We have the nuclear weapons, and we have people who might actually be willing to use them.

Great_Filter_5

I think this is what happens to most advanced civilizations around the galaxy. By the time they invent space travel, they have also invented nuclear weapons—but they still have their equivalent of racism and nationalism. And most of the time, the two combine into a volatile mix that results in the destruction or regression of their entire civilization.

If this is right, then we may be living at the most important moment in human history. It may be right here, right now, that we have the only chance we’ll ever get to turn the tide. We have to find a way to reduce the variance, to raise the rest of the world’s population past nationalism to a cosmopolitan morality. And we may have very little time.

The real crisis in education is access, not debt

Jan 8, JDN 2457762

A few weeks ago I tried to provide assurances that the “student debt crisis” is really not much of a crisis; there is a lot of debt, but it is being spent on a very good investment both for individuals and for society. Student debt is not that large in the scheme of things, and it more than pays for itself in the long run.

But this does not mean we are not in the midst of an education crisis. It’s simply not about debt.

The crisis I’m worried about involves access.

As you may recall, there are a substantial number of people with very small amounts of student debt, and they tend to be the most likely to default. The highest default rates are among the group of people with student debt greater than $0 but less than $5000.

So how is it that there are people with only $5,000 in student debt anyway? You can’t buy much college for $5,000 these days, as tuition prices have risen at an enormous rate: From 1983 to 2013, in inflation-adjusted dollars, average annual tuition rose from $7,286 at public institutions and $17,333 at private institutions to $15,640 at public institutions and $35,987 at private institutions—more than doubling in each case.

Enrollments are much higher, but this by itself should not raise tuition per student. So where is all the extra money going? Some of it is due to increases in public funding that have failed to keep up with higher enrollments; but a lot of it just seems to be going to higher pay for administrators and athletic coaches. This is definitely a problem; students should not be forced to subsidize the millions of dollars most universities lose on funding athletics—the NCAA, who if anything are surely biased in favor of athletics, found that the total net loss due to athletics spending at FBS universities was $17 million per year. Only a handful of schools actually turn a profit on athletics, all of them Division I. So it might be fair to speak of an “irresponsible college administration crisis”, administrators who heap wealth upon themselves and their beloved athletic programs while students struggle to pay their bills, or even a “college tuition crisis” where tuition keeps rising far beyond what is sustainable. But that’s not the same thing as a “student debt crisis”—just as the mortgage crisis we had in 2008 is distinct from the slow-burning housing price crisis we’ve been in since the 1980s. Making restrictions on mortgages tighter might prevent banks from being as predatory as they have been lately, but it won’t suddenly allow people to better afford houses.

And likewise, I’m much more worried about students who don’t go to college because they are afraid of this so-called “debt crisis”; they’re going to end up much worse off. As Eduardo Porter put it in the New York Times:

And yet Mr. Beltrán says he probably wouldn’t have gone to college full time if he hadn’t received a Pell grant and financial aid from New York State to defray the costs. He has also heard too many stories about people struggling under an unbearable burden of student loans to even consider going into debt. “Honestly, I don’t think I would have gone,” he said. “I couldn’t have done four years.”

And that would have been the wrong decision.

His reasoning is not unusual. The rising cost of college looms like an insurmountable obstacle for many low-income Americans hoping to get a higher education. The notion of a college education becoming a financial albatross around the neck of the nation’s youth is a growing meme across the culture. Some education experts now advise high school graduates that a college education may not be such a good investment after all. “Sticker price matters a lot,” said Lawrence Katz, a professor of Harvard University. “It is a deterrent.”

 

[…]

 

And the most perplexing part of this accounting is that regardless of cost, getting a degree is the best financial decision a young American can make.

According to the O.E.C.D.’s report, a college degree is worth $365,000 for the average American man after subtracting all its direct and indirect costs over a lifetime. For women — who still tend to earn less than men — it’s worth $185,000.

College graduates have higher employment rates and make more money. According to the O.E.C.D., a typical graduate from a four-year college earns 84 percent more than a high school graduate. A graduate from a community college makes 16 percent more.

A college education is more profitable in the United States than in pretty much every other advanced nation. Only Irish women get more for the investment: $185,960 net.

So, these students who have $5,000 or less in student debt; what does that mean? That amount couldn’t even pay for a single year at most universities, so how did that happen?

Well, they almost certainly went to community college; only a community college could provide you with a nontrivial amount of education for less than $5,000. But community colleges vary tremendously in their quality, and some have truly terrible matriculation rates. While most students who start at a four-year school do eventually get a bachelor’s degree (57% at public schools, 78% at private schools), only 17% of students who start at community college do. And once students drop out, they very rarely actually return to complete a degree.

Indeed, the only way to really have that little student debt is to drop out quickly. Most students who drop out do so chiefly for reasons that really aren’t all that surprising: Mostly, they can’t afford to pay their bills. “Unable to balance school and work” is the number 1 reported reason why students drop out of college.

In the American system, student loans are only designed to pay the direct expenses of education; they often don’t cover the real costs of housing, food, transportation and healthcare, and even when they do, they basically never cover the opportunity cost of education—the money you could be making if you were working full-time instead of going to college. For many poor students, simply breaking even on their own expenses isn’t good enough; they have families that need to be taken care of, and that means working full-time. Many of them even need to provide for their parents or grandparents who may be poor or disabled. Yet in the US system it is tacitly assumed that your parents will help you—so when you need to help them, what are you supposed to do? You give up on college and you get a job.

The most successful reforms for solving this problem have been comprehensive; they involved working to support students directly and intensively in all aspects of their lives, not just the direct financial costs of school itself.

Another option would be to do something more like what they do in Sweden, where there is also a lot of student debt, but for a very different reason. The direct cost of college is paid automatically by the government. Yet essentially all Swedish students have student debt, and total student debt in Sweden is much larger than other European countries and comparable to the United States; why? Because Sweden understands that you should also provide for the opportunity cost. In Sweden, students live fully self-sufficient on student loans, just as if they were working full-time. They are not expected to be supported by their parents.

The problem with American student loans, then, is not that they are too large—but that they are too small. They don’t provide for what students actually need, and thus don’t allow them to make the large investment in their education that would have paid off in the long run. Panic over student loans being too large could make the problem worse, if it causes us to reduce the amount of loanable funds available for students.

The lack of support for poor students isn’t the only problem. There are also huge barriers to education in the US based upon race. While Asian students do as well (if not better) than White students, Black and Latino students have substantially lower levels of educational attainment. Affirmative action programs can reduce these disparities, but they are unpopular and widely regarded as unfair, and not entirely without reason.

A better option—indeed one that should be a no-brainer in my opinion—is not to create counter-biases in favor of Black and Latino students (which is what affirmative action is), but to eliminate biases in favor of White students that we know exist. Chief among these are so-called “legacy admissions”, in which elite universities attract wealthy alumni donors by granting their children admission and funding regardless of whether they even remotely deserve it or would contribute anything academically to the university.

These “legacy admissions” are frankly un-American. They go against everything our nation supposedly stands for; in fact, they reek of feudalism. And unsurprisingly, they bias heavily in favor of White students—indeed, over 90 percent of legacy admits are White and Protestant. Athletic admissions are also contrary to the stated mission of the university, though their racial biases are more complicated (Black students are highly overrepresented in football and basketball admits, for example) and it is at least not inherently un-American to select students based upon their athletic talent as opposed to their academic talent.

But this by itself would not be enough; the gaps are clearly too large to close that way. Getting into college is only the start, and graduation rates are much worse for Black students than White students. Moreover, the education gap begins well before college—high school dropout rates are much higher among Black and Latino studentsas well.

In fact, even closing the education gap by itself would not be enough; racial biases permeate our whole society. Black individuals with college degrees are substantially more likely to be unemployed and have substantially lower wages on average than White individuals with college degrees—indeed, a bachelor’s degree gets a Black man a lower mean wage than a White man would get with only an associate’s degree.

Fortunately, the barriers against women in college education have largely been conquered. In fact, there are now more women in US undergraduate institutions than men. This is not to say that there are not barriers against women in society at large; women still make about 75% as much income as men on average, and even once you adjust for factors such as education and career choice they still only make about 95% as much. Moreover, these factors we’re controlling for are endogenous. Women don’t choose their careers in a vacuum, they choose them based upon a variety of social and cultural pressures. The fact that 93% of auto mechanics are men and 79% of clerical workers are women might reflect innate differences in preferences—but it could just as well reflect a variety of cultural biases or even outright discrimination. Quite likely, it’s some combination of these. So it is not obvious to me that the “adjusted” wage gap is actually a more accurate reflection of the treatment of women in our society than the “unadjusted” wage gap; the true level of bias is most likely somewhere in between the two figures.

Gender wage gaps vary substantially across age groups and between even quite similar countries: Middle-aged women in Germany make 28% less than middle-aged men, while in France that gap is only 19%. Young women in Latvia make 14% less than young men, but in Romania they make 1.1% more. This variation clearly shows that this is not purely the effect of some innate genetic difference in skills or preferences; it must be at least in large part the product of cultural pressures or policy choices.

Even within academia, women are less likely to be hired full-time instead of part-time, awarded tenure, or promoted to administrative positions. Moreover, this must be active discrimination in some form, because gaps in hiring and wage offers between men and women persist in randomized controlled experiments. You can literally present the exact same resume and get a different result depending on whether you attached a male name or a female name.

But at least when it comes to the particular question of getting bachelor’s degrees, we have achieved something approaching equality across gender, and that is no minor accomplishment. Most countries in the world still have more men than women graduating from college, and in some countries the difference is terrifyingly large. I found from World Bank data that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, only 3% of men go to college—and less than 1% of women do. Even in Germany, 29% of men graduate from college but only 19% of women do. Getting both of these figures over 30% and actually having women higher than men is a substantial achievement for which the United States should be proud.

Yet it still remains the case that Americans who are poor, Black, Native American, or Latino are substantially less likely to ever make it through college. Panic about student debt might well be making this problem worse, as someone whose family makes $15,000 per year is bound to hear $50,000 in debt as an overwhelming burden, even as you try to explain that it will eventually pay for itself seven times over.

We need to instead be talking about the barriers that are keeping people from attending college, and pressuring them to drop out once they do. Debt is not the problem. Even tuition is not really the problem. Access is the problem. College is an astonishingly good investment—but most people never get the chance to make it. That is what we need to change.