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.

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.

Congratulations, America.

Nov 13, JDN 2457676

Congratulations, you elected Donald Trump.

Instead of the candidate with decades of experience as Secretary of State, US Senator, and an internationally renowned philanthropist, you chose the first President in history to not have any experience whatsoever in government or the military.

Instead of the candidate with the most comprehensive, evidence-based plan for action against climate change (that is, the only candidate who supports nuclear energy), you elected the one who is planning to appoint a climate-change denier head of the EPA.

Perhaps to punish the candidate who carried out a longstanding custom of using private email servers because the public servers were so defective, you accepted the candidate who is being charged with not only mass fraud but also multiple counts of sexual assault.

Perhaps based on the Russian propaganda—not kidding, read the URL—saying that one candidate could trigger a Third World War, you chose the candidate who has no idea how international diplomacy works and wants to convert NATO into a mercantilist empire (and by the way has no apparent qualms about deploying nuclear weapons).

Because one candidate was “too close to Wall Street” in some vague ill-defined sense (oh my god, she gave speeches! And accepted donations!), you elected the other one who has already vowed to turn back the financial regulations that are currently protecting us from a repeat of the Great Recession.

Because you didn’t trust the candidate with one of the highest honest ratings ever recorded, you elected the one who is surrounded by hundreds of scandals and never even released his tax returns.
Even if you didn’t outright agree with it, you were willing to look past his promise to deport 11 million people and his long history of bigotry toward a wide variety of ethnic groups.
Even his Vice President, who seems like a great statesman simply by comparison, is one of the most fanatical right-wing Vice Presidents we’ve had in decades. He opposes not just abortion, but birth control. He supports—and has signed as governor—“religious freedom” bills designed to legalize discrimination against LGBT people.

Congratulations, America. You literally elected the candidate that was supported by Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, the American Nazi Party, and the Klu Klux Klan. Now, reversed stupidity is not intelligence; being endorsed by someone horrible doesn’t necessarily mean you are horrible. But when this many horrible people endorse you, and start giving the same reasons, and those reasons are based on things you particularly have in common with those horrible people like bigotry and authoritarianism… yeah, I think it does say something about you.

Now, to be fair, much of the blame here goes to the Electoral College.

By current counts, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by at least 500,000 votes. It is projected that she may even win by as much as 2 million. This will be the fourth time in US history that the Electoral College winner was definitely not the popular vote winner.

But even that is only possible because Hillary Clinton did not win the overwhelming landslide she deserved. The Electoral College should have been irrelevant, because she should have won at least 60% of every demographic in every state. Our whole nation should have declared together in one voice that we will not tolerate bigotry and authoritarianism. The fact that that didn’t happen is reason enough to be ashamed; even if Clinton will slightly win the popular vote that still says something truly terrible about our country.

Indeed, this is what it says:

We slightly preferred democracy over fascism.

We slightly preferred liberty over tyranny.

We slightly preferred justice over oppression.

We slightly preferred feminism over misogyny.

We slightly preferred equality over racism.

We slightly preferred reason over instinct.

We slightly preferred honesty over fraud.

We slightly preferred sustainability over ecological devastation.

We slightly preferred competence over incompetence.

We slightly preferred diplomacy over impulsiveness.

We slightly preferred humility over narcissism.

We were faced with the easiest choice ever given to us in any election, and just a narrow majority got the answer right—and then under the way our system works that wasn’t even enough.

I sincerely hope that Donald Trump is not as bad as I believe he is. The feeling of vindication at being able to tell so many right-wing family members “I told you so” pales in comparison to the fear and despair for the millions of people who will die from his belligerent war policy, his incompetent economic policy, and his insane (anti-)environmental policy. Even the working-class White people who voted for him will surely suffer greatly under his regime.

Yes, I sincerely hope that he is not as bad as we think he is, though I remember saying that George W. Bush was not as bad as we thought when he was elected—and he was. He was. His Iraq War killed hundreds of thousands of people based on lies. His economy policy triggered the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. So now I have to ask: What if he is as bad as we think?

Fortunately, I do not believe that Trump will literally trigger a global nuclear war.

Then again, I didn’t believe he would win, either.

Zootopia taught us constructive responses to bigotry

Sep 10, JDN 2457642

Zootopia wasn’t just a good movie; Zootopia was a great movie. I’m not just talking about its grosses (over $1 billion worldwide), or its ratings, 8.1 on IMDB, 98% from critics and 93% from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, 78 from critics and 8.8 from users on Metacritic. No, I’m talking about its impact on the world. This movie isn’t just a fun and adorable children’s movie (though it is that). This movie is a work of art that could have profound positive effects on our society.

Why? Because Zootopia is about bigotry—and more than that, it doesn’t just say “bigotry is bad, bigots are bad”; it provides us with a constructive response to bigotry, and forces us to confront the possibility that sometimes the bigots are us.

Indeed, it may be no exaggeration (though I’m sure I’ll get heat on the Internet for suggesting it) to say that Zootopia has done more to fight bigotry than most social justice activists will achieve in their entire lives. Don’t get me wrong, some social justice activists have done great things; and indeed, I may have to count myself in this “most activists” category, since I can’t point to any major accomplishments I’ve yet made in social justice.

But one of the biggest problems I see in the social justice community is the tendency to exclude and denigrate (in sociology jargon, “other” as a verb) people for acts of bigotry, even quite mild ones. Make one vaguely sexist joke, and you may as well be a rapist. Use racially insensitive language by accident, and clearly you are a KKK member. Say something ignorant about homosexuality, and you may as well be Rick Santorum. It becomes less about actually moving the world forward, and more about reaffirming our tribal unity as social justice activists. We are the pure ones. We never do wrong. All the rest of you are broken, and the only way to fix yourself is to become one of us in every way.

In the process of fighting tribal bigotry, we form our own tribe and become our own bigots.

Zootopia offers us another way. If you haven’t seen it, go rent it on DVD or stream it on Netflix right now. Seriously, this blog post will be here when you get back. I’m not going to play any more games with “spoilers!” though. It is definitely worth seeing, and from this point forward I’m going to presume you have.

The brilliance of Zootopia lies in the fact that it made bigotry what it is—not some evil force that infests us from outside, nor something that only cruel, evil individuals would ever partake in, but thoughts and attitudes that we all may have from time to time, that come naturally, and even in some cases might be based on a kernel of statistical truth. Judy Hopps is prey, she grew up in a rural town surrounded by others of her own species (with a population the size of New York City according to the sign, because this is still sometimes a silly Disney movie). She only knew a handful of predators growing up, yet when she moves to Zootopia suddenly she’s confronted with thousands of them, all around her. She doesn’t know what most predators are like, or how best to deal with them.

What she does know is that her ancestors were terrorized, murdered, and quite literally eaten by the ancestors of predators. Her instinctual fear of predators isn’t something utterly arbitrary; it was written into the fabric of her DNA by her ancestral struggle for survival. She has a reason to hate and fear predators that, on its face, actually seems to make sense.

And when there is a spree of murders, all committed by predators, it feels natural to us that Judy would fall back on her old prejudices; indeed, the brilliance of it is that they don’t immediately feel like prejudices. It takes us a moment to let her off-the-cuff comments at the press conference sink in (and Nick’s shocked reaction surely helps), before we realize that was really bigoted. Our adorable, innocent, idealistic, beloved protagonist is a bigot!

Or rather, she has done something bigoted. Because she is such a sympathetic character, we avoid the implication that she is a bigot, that this is something permanent and irredeemable about her. We have already seen the good in her, so we know that this bigotry isn’t what defines who she is. And in the end, she realizes where she went wrong and learns to do better. Indeed, it is ultimately revealed that the murders were orchestrated by someone whose goal was specifically to trigger those ancient ancestral feuds, and Judy reveals that plot and ultimately ends up falling in love with a predator herself.

What Zootopia is really trying to tell us is that we are all Judy Hopps. Every one of us most likely harbors some prejudiced attitude toward someone. If it’s not Black people or women or Muslims or gays, well, how about rednecks? Or Republicans? Or (perhaps the hardest for me) Trump supporters? If you are honest with yourself, there is probably some group of people on this planet that you harbor attitudes of disdain or hatred toward that nonetheless contains a great many good people who do not deserve your disdain.

And conversely, all bigots are Judy Hopps too, or at least the vast majority of them. People don’t wake up in the morning concocting evil schemes for the sake of being evil like cartoon supervillains. (Indeed, perhaps the greatest thing about Zootopia is that it is a cartoon in the sense of being animated, but it is not a cartoon in the sense of being morally simplistic. Compare Captain Planet, wherein polluters aren’t hardworking coal miners with no better options or even corrupt CEOs out to make an extra dollar to go with their other billion; no, they pollute on purpose, for no reason, because they are simply evil. Now that is a cartoon.) Normal human beings don’t plan to make the world a worse place. A handful of psychopaths might, but even then I think it’s more that they don’t care; they aren’t trying to make the world worse, they just don’t particularly mind if they do, as long as they get what they want. Robert Mugabe and Kim-Jong Un are despicable human beings with the blood of millions on their hands, but even they aren’t trying to make the world worse.

And thus, if your theory of bigotry requires that bigots are inhuman monsters who harm others by their sheer sadistic evil, that theory is plainly wrong. Actually I think when stated outright, hardly anyone would agree with that theory; but the important thing is that we often act as if we do. When someone does something bigoted, we shun them, deride them, push them as far as we can to the fringes of our own social group or even our whole society. We don’t say that your statement was racist; we say you are racist. We don’t say your joke was sexist; we say you are sexist. We don’t say your decision was homophobic; we say you are homophobic. We define bigotry as part of your identity, something as innate and ineradicable as your race or sex or sexual orientation itself.

I think I know why we do this: It is to protect ourselves from the possibility that we ourselves might sometimes do bigoted things. Because only bigots do bigoted things, and we know that we are not bigots.

We laugh at this when someone else does it: “But some of my best friends are Black!” “Happy #CincoDeMayo; I love Hispanics!” But that is the very same psychological defense mechanism we’re using ourselves, albeit in a more extreme application. When we commit an act that is accused of being bigoted, we begin searching for contextual evidence outside that act to show that we are not bigoted. The truth we must ultimately confront is that this is irrelevant: The act can still be bigoted even if we are not overall bigots—for we are all Judy Hopps.

This seems like terrible news, even when delivered by animated animals (or fuzzy muppets in Avenue Q), because we tend to hear it as “We are all bigots.” We hear this as saying that bigotry is inevitable, inescapable, literally written into the fabric of our DNA. At that point, we may as well give up, right? It’s hopeless!

But that much we know can’t be true. It could be (indeed, likely is) true that some amount of bigotry is inevitable, just as no country has ever managed to reach zero homicide or zero disease. But just as rates of homicide and disease have precipitously declined with the advancement of human civilization (starting around industrial capitalism, as I pointed out in a previous post!), so indeed have rates of bigotry, at least in recent times.

For goodness’ sake, it used to be a legal, regulated industry to buy and sell other human beings in the United States! This was seen as normal; indeed many argued that it was economically indispensable.

Is 1865 too far back for you? How about racially segregated schools, which were only eliminated from US law in 1954, a time where my parents were both alive? (To be fair, only barely; my father was a month old.) Yes, even today the racial composition of our schools is far from evenly mixed; but it used to be a matter of law that Black children could not go to school with White children.

Women were only granted the right to vote in the US in 1920. My parents weren’t alive yet, but there definitely are people still alive today who were children when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

Same-sex marriage was not legalized across the United States until last year. My own life plans were suddenly and directly affected by this change.

We have made enormous progress against bigotry, in a remarkably short period of time. It has been argued that social change progresses by the death of previous generations; but that simply can’t be true, because we are moving much too fast for that! Attitudes toward LGBT people have improved dramatically in just the last decade.

Instead, it must be that we are actually changing people’s minds. Not everyone’s, to be sure; and often not as quickly as we’d like. But bit by bit, we tear bigotry down, like people tearing off tiny pieces of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

It is important to understand what we are doing here. We are not getting rid of bigots; we are getting rid of bigotry. We want to convince people, “convert” them if you like, not shun them or eradicate them. And we want to strive to improve our own behavior, because we know it will not always be perfect. By forgiving others for their mistakes, we can learn to forgive ourselves for our own.

It is only by talking about bigoted actions and bigoted ideas, rather than bigoted people, that we can hope to make this progress. Someone can’t change who they are, but they can change what they believe and what they do. And along those same lines, it’s important to be clear about detailed, specific actions that people can take to make themselves and the world better.

Don’t just say “Check your privilege!” which at this point is basically a meaningless Applause Light. Instead say “Here are some articles I think you should read on police brutality, including this one from The American Conservative. And there’s a Black Lives Matter protest next weekend, would you like to join me there to see what we do?” Don’t just say “Stop being so racist toward immigrants!”; say “Did you know that about a third of undocumented immigrants are college students on overstayed visas? If we deport all these people, won’t that break up families?” Don’t try to score points. Don’t try to show that you’re the better person. Try to understand, inform, and persuade. You are talking to Judy Hopps, for we are all Judy Hopps.

And when you find false beliefs or bigoted attitudes in yourself, don’t deny them, don’t suppress them, don’t make excuses for them—but also don’t hate yourself for having them. Forgive yourself for your mistake, and then endeavor to correct it. For we are all Judy Hopps.

Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations

JDN 2457548

In last week’s post I made a sharp distinction between believing in human progress and believing that colonialism was justified. To make this argument, I relied upon a moral assumption that seems to me perfectly obvious, and probably would to most ethicists as well: Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations, and people are only responsible for their individual actions.

But is in fact this principle is not uncontroversial in many circles. When I read utterly nonsensical arguments like this one from the aptly-named Race Baitr saying that White people have no role to play in the liberation of Black people apparently because our blood is somehow tainted by the crimes our ancestors, it becomes apparent to me that this principle is not obvious to everyone, and therefore is worth defending. Indeed, many applications of the concept of “White Privilege” seem to ignore this principle, speaking as though racism is not something one does or participates in, but something that one is simply by being born with less melanin. Here’s a Salon interview specifically rejecting the proposition that racism is something one does:

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”

If racism isn’t something one does, then what in the world is it? It’s all well and good to talk about systems and social institutions, but ultimately systems and social institutions are made of human behaviors. If you think most White people aren’t doing enough to combat racism (which sounds about right to me!), say that—don’t make some bizarre accusation that simply by existing we are inherently racist. (Also: We? I’m only 75% White, so am I only 75% inherently racist?) And please, stop redefining the word “racism” to mean something other than what everyone uses it to mean; “White people are snakes” is in fact a racist sentiment (and yes, one I’ve actually heard–indeed, here is the late Muhammad Ali comparing all White people to rattlesnakes, and Huffington Post fawning over him for it).

Racism is clearly more common and typically worse when performed by White people against Black people—but contrary to the claims of some social justice activists the White perpetrator and Black victim are not part of the definition of racism. Similarly, sexism is more common and more severe committed by men against women, but that doesn’t mean that “men are pigs” is not a sexist statement (and don’t tell me you haven’t heard that one). I don’t have a good word for bigotry by gay people against straight people (“heterophobia”?) but it clearly does happen on occasion, and similarly cannot be defined out of existence.

I wouldn’t care so much that you make this distinction between “racism” and “racial prejudice”, except that it’s not the normal usage of the word “racism” and therefore confuses people, and also this redefinition clearly is meant to serve a political purpose that is quite insidious, namely making excuses for the most extreme and hateful prejudice as long as it’s committed by people of the appropriate color. If “White people are snakes” is not racism, then the word has no meaning.

Not all discussions of “White Privilege” are like this, of course; this article from Occupy Wall Street actually does a fairly good job of making “White Privilege” into a sensible concept, albeit still not a terribly useful one in my opinion. I think the useful concept is oppression—the problem here is not how we are treating White people, but how we are treating everyone else. What privilege gives you is the freedom to be who you are.”? Shouldn’t everyone have that?

Almost all the so-called “benefits” or “perks” associated with privilege” are actually forgone harms—they are not good things done to you, but bad things not done to you. But benefitting from racist systems doesn’t mean that everything is magically easy for us. It just means that as hard as things are, they could always be worse.” No, that is not what the word “benefit” means. The word “benefit” means you would be worse off without it—and in most cases that simply isn’t true. Many White people obviously think that it is true—which is probably a big reason why so many White people fight so hard to defend racism, you know; you’ve convinced them it is in their self-interest. But, with rare exceptions, it is not; most racial discrimination has literally zero long-run benefit. It’s just bad. Maybe if we helped people appreciate that more, they would be less resistant to fighting racism!

The only features of “privilege” that really make sense as benefits are those that occur in a state of competition—like being more likely to be hired for a job or get a loan—but one of the most important insights of economics is that competition is nonzero-sum, and fairer competition ultimately means a more efficient economy and thus more prosperity for everyone.

But okay, let’s set that aside and talk about this core question of what sort of responsibility we bear for the acts of our ancestors. Many White people clearly do feel deep shame about what their ancestors (or people the same color as their ancestors!) did hundreds of years ago. The psychological reactance to that shame may actually be what makes so many White people deny that racism even exists (or exists anymore)—though a majority of Americans of all races do believe that racism is still widespread.

We also apply some sense of moral responsibility applied to whole races quite frequently. We speak of a policy “benefiting White people” or “harming Black people” and quickly elide the distinction between harming specific people who are Black, and somehow harming “Black people” as a group. The former happens all the time—the latter is utterly nonsensical. Similarly, we speak of a “debt owed by White people to Black people” (which might actually make sense in the very narrow sense of economic reparations, because people do inherit money! They probably shouldn’t, that is literally feudalist, but in the existing system they in fact do), which makes about as much sense as a debt owed by tall people to short people. As Walter Michaels pointed out in The Trouble with Diversity (which I highly recommend), because of this bizarre sense of responsibility we are often in the habit of “apologizing for something you didn’t do to people to whom you didn’t do it (indeed to whom it wasn’t done)”. It is my responsibility to condemn colonialism (which I indeed do), to fight to ensure that it never happens again; it is not my responsibility to apologize for colonialism.

This makes some sense in evolutionary terms; it’s part of the all-encompassing tribal paradigm, wherein human beings come to identify themselves with groups and treat those groups as the meaningful moral agents. It’s much easier to maintain the cohesion of a tribe against the slings and arrows (sometimes quite literal) of outrageous fortune if everyone believes that the tribe is one moral agent worthy of ultimate concern.

This concept of racial responsibility is clearly deeply ingrained in human minds, for it appears in some of our oldest texts, including the Bible: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” (Exodus 20:5)

Why is inheritance of moral responsibility across generations nonsensical? Any number of reasons, take your pick. The economist in me leaps to “Ancestry cannot be incentivized.” There’s no point in holding people responsible for things they can’t control, because in doing so you will not in any way alter behavior. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on moral responsibility takes it as so obvious that people are only responsible for actions they themselves did that they don’t even bother to mention it as an assumption. (Their big question is how to reconcile moral responsibility with determinism, which turns out to be not all that difficult.)

An interesting counter-argument might be that descent can be incentivized: You could use rewards and punishments applied to future generations to motivate current actions. But this is actually one of the ways that incentives clearly depart from moral responsibilities; you could incentivize me to do something by threatening to murder 1,000 children in China if I don’t, but even if it was in fact something I ought to do, it wouldn’t be those children’s fault if I didn’t do it. They wouldn’t deserve punishment for my inaction—I might, and you certainly would for using such a cruel incentive.

Moreover, there’s a problem with dynamic consistency here: Once the action is already done, what’s the sense in carrying out the punishment? This is why a moral theory of punishment can’t merely be based on deterrence—the fact that you could deter a bad action by some other less-bad action doesn’t make the less-bad action necessarily a deserved punishment, particularly if it is applied to someone who wasn’t responsible for the action you sought to deter. In any case, people aren’t thinking that we should threaten to punish future generations if people are racist today; they are feeling guilty that their ancestors were racist generations ago. That doesn’t make any sense even on this deterrence theory.

There’s another problem with trying to inherit moral responsibility: People have lots of ancestors. Some of my ancestors were most likely rapists and murderers; most were ordinary folk; a few may have been great heroes—and this is true of just about anyone anywhere. We all have bad ancestors, great ancestors, and, mostly, pretty good ancestors. 75% of my ancestors are European, but 25% are Native American; so if I am to apologize for colonialism, should I be apologizing to myself? (Only 75%, perhaps?) If you go back enough generations, literally everyone is related—and you may only have to go back about 4,000 years. That’s historical time.

Of course, we wouldn’t be different colors in the first place if there weren’t some differences in ancestry, but there is a huge amount of gene flow between different human populations. The US is a particularly mixed place; because most Black Americans are quite genetically mixed, it is about as likely that any randomly-selected Black person in the US is descended from a slaveowner as it is that any randomly-selected White person is. (Especially since there were a large number of Black slaveowners in Africa and even some in the United States.) What moral significance does this have? Basically none! That’s the whole point; your ancestors don’t define who you are.

If these facts do have any moral significance, it is to undermine the sense most people seem to have that there are well-defined groups called “races” that exist in reality, to which culture responds. No; races were created by culture. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The “races” we hold most dear in the US, White and Black, are in fact the most nonsensical. “Asian” and “Native American” at least almost make sense as categories, though Chippewa are more closely related to Ainu than Ainu are to Papuans. “Latino” isn’t utterly incoherent, though it includes as much Aztec as it does Iberian. But “White” is a club one can join or be kicked out of, while “Black” is the majority of genetic diversity.

Sex is a real thing—while there are intermediate cases of course, broadly speaking humans, like most metazoa, are sexually dimorphic and come in “male” and “female” varieties. So sexism took a real phenomenon and applied cultural dynamics to it; but that’s not what happened with racism. Insofar as there was a real phenomenon, it was extremely superficial—quite literally skin deep. In that respect, race is more like class—a categorization that is itself the result of social institutions.

To be clear: Does the fact that we don’t inherit moral responsibility from our ancestors absolve us from doing anything to rectify the inequities of racism? Absolutely not. Not only is there plenty of present discrimination going on we should be fighting, there are also inherited inequities due to the way that assets and skills are passed on from one generation to the next. If my grandfather stole a painting from your grandfather and both our grandfathers are dead but I am now hanging that painting in my den, I don’t owe you an apology—but I damn well owe you a painting.

The further we become from the past discrimination the harder it gets to make reparations, but all hope is not lost; we still have the option of trying to reset everyone’s status to the same at birth and maintaining equality of opportunity from there. Of course we’ll never achieve total equality of opportunity—but we can get much closer than we presently are.

We could start by establishing an extremely high estate tax—on the order of 99%—because no one has a right to be born rich. Free public education is another good way of equalizing the distribution of “human capital” that would otherwise be concentrated in particular families, and expanding it to higher education would make it that much better. It even makes sense, at least in the short run, to establish some affirmative action policies that are race-conscious and sex-conscious, because there are so many biases in the opposite direction that sometimes you must fight bias with bias.

Actually what I think we should do in hiring, for example, is assemble a pool of applicants based on demographic quotas to ensure a representative sample, and then anonymize the applications and assess them on merit. This way we do ensure representation and reduce bias, but don’t ever end up hiring anyone other than the most qualified candidate. But nowhere should we think that this is something that White men “owe” to women or Black people; it’s something that people should do in order to correct the biases that otherwise exist in our society. Similarly with regard to sexism: Women exhibit just as much unconscious bias against other women as men do. This is not “men” hurting “women”—this is a set of unconscious biases found in almost everywhere and social structures almost everywhere that systematically discriminate against people because they are women.

Perhaps by understanding that this is not about which “team” you’re on (which tribe you’re in), but what policy we should have, we can finally make these biases disappear, or at least fade so small that they are negligible.

The powerful persistence of bigotry

JDN 2457527

Bigotry has been a part of human society since the beginning—people have been hating people they perceive as different since as long as there have been people, and maybe even before that. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that different tribes of chimpanzees or even elephants hold bigoted beliefs about each other.

Yet it may surprise you that neoclassical economics has basically no explanation for this. There is a long-standing famous argument that bigotry is inherently irrational: If you hire based on anything aside from actual qualifications, you are leaving money on the table for your company. Because women CEOs are paid less and perform better, simply ending discrimination against women in top executive positions could save any typical large multinational corporation tens of millions of dollars a year. And yet, they don’t! Fancy that.

More recently there has been work on the concept of statistical discrimination, under which it is rational (in the sense of narrowly-defined economic self-interest) to discriminate because categories like race and gender may provide some statistically valid stereotype information. For example, “Black people are poor” is obviously not true across the board, but race is strongly correlated with wealth in the US; “Asians are smart” is not a universal truth, but Asian-Americans do have very high educational attainment. In the absence of more reliable information that might be your best option for making good decisions. Of course, this creates a vicious cycle where people in the positive stereotype group are better off and have more incentive to improve their skills than people in the negative stereotype group, thus perpetuating the statistical validity of the stereotype.

But of course that assumes that the stereotypes are statistically valid, and that employers don’t have more reliable information. Yet many stereotypes aren’t even true statistically: If “women are bad drivers”, then why do men cause 75% of traffic fatalities? Furthermore, in most cases employers have more reliable information—resumes with education and employment records. Asian-Americans are indeed more likely to have bachelor’s degrees than Latino Americans, but when it say right on Mr. Lorenzo’s resume that he has a B.A. and on Mr. Suzuki’s resume that he doesn’t, that racial stereotype no longer provides you with any further information. Yet even if the resumes are identical, employers will be more likely to hire a White applicant than a Black applicant, and more likely to hire a male applicant than a female applicant—we have directly tested this in experiments. In an experiment where employers had direct performance figures in front of them, they were still more likely to choose the man when they had the same scores—and sometimes even when the woman had a higher score!

Even our assessments of competence are often biased, probably subconsciously; given the same essay to review, most reviewers find more spelling errors and are more concerned about those errors if they are told that the author is Black. If they thought the author was White, they thought of the errors as “minor mistakes” by a student with “otherwise good potential”; but if they thought the author was Black, they “can’t believe he got into this school in the first place”. These reviewers were reading the same essay. The alleged author’s race was decided randomly. Most if not all of these reviewers were not consciously racist. Subconscious racial biases are all over the place; almost everyone exhibits some subconscious racial bias.

No, discrimination isn’t just rational inference based on valid (if unfortunate and self-reinforcing) statistical trends. There is a significant component of just outright irrational bigotry.

We’re seeing this play out in North Carolina; due to their arbitrary discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and especially transgender people, they are now hemorrhaging jobs as employers pull out, and their federal funding for student loans is now in jeopardy due to the obvious Title IX violation. This is obviously not in the best interest of the people of North Carolina (even the ones who aren’t LGBT!); and it’s all being justified on the grounds of an epidemic of sexual assaults by people pretending to be trans that doesn’t even exist. It turns out that more Republican Senators have been arrested for sexual misconduct in bathrooms than transgender people—and while the number of transgender people in the US is surprisingly hard to measure, it’s clearly a lot larger than the number of Republican Senators!

In fact, discrimination is even more irrational than it may seem, because empirically the benefits of discrimination (such as they are—short-term narrow economic self-interest) fall almost entirely on the rich while the harms fall mainly on the poor, yet poor people are much more likely to be racist! Since income and education are highly correlated, education accounts for some of this effect. This is reason to be hopeful, for as educational attainment has soared, we have found that racism has decreased.

But education doesn’t seem to explain the full effect. One theory to account this is what’s called last-place aversiona highly pernicious heuristic where people are less concerned about their own absolute status than they are about not having the worst status. In economic experiments, people are usually more willing to give money to people worse off than them than to those better off than them—unless giving it to the worse-off would make those people better off than they themselves are. I think we actually need to do further study to see what happens if it would make those other people exactly as well-off as they are, because that turns out to be absolutely critical to whether people would be willing to support a basic income. In other words, do people count “tied for last”? Would they rather play a game where everyone gets $100, or one where they get $50 but everyone else only gets $10?

I would hope that humanity is better than that—that we would want to play the $100 game, which is analogous to a basic income. But when I look at the extreme and persistent inequality that has plagued human society for millennia, I begin to wonder if perhaps there really are a lot of people who think of the world in such zero-sum, purely relative terms, and care more about being better than others than they do about doing well themselves. Perhaps the horrific poverty of Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia is, for many First World people, not a bug but a feature; we feel richer when we know they are poorer. Scarcity seems to amplify this zero-sum thinking; racism gets worse whenever we have economic downturns. Precisely because discrimination is economically inefficient, this can create a vicious cycle where poverty causes bigotry which worsens poverty.

There is also something deeper going on, something evolutionary; bigotry is part of what I call the tribal paradigm, the core aspect of human psychology that defines identity in terms of in-groups which are good and out-groups which are bad. We will probably never fully escape the tribal paradigm, but this is not a reason to give up hope; we have made substantial progress in reducing bigotry in many places. What seems to happen is that people learn to expand their mental tribe, so that it encompasses larger and larger groups—not just White Americans but all Americans, or not just Americans but all human beings. Peter Singer calls this the Expanding Circle (also the title of his book on it). We may one day be able to make our tribe large enough to encompass all sentient beings in the universe; at that point, it’s just fine if we are only interested in advancing the interests of those in our tribe, because our tribe would include everyone. Yet I don’t think any of us are quite there yet, and some people have a really long way to go.

But with these expanding tribes in mind, perhaps I can leave you with a fact that is as counter-intuitive as it is encouraging, and even easier still to take out of context: Racism was better than what came before it. What I mean by this is not that racism is good—of course it’s terrible—but that in order to be racism, to define the whole world into a small number of “racial groups”, people already had to enormously expand their mental tribe from where it started. When we evolved on the African savannah millions of years ago, our tribe was 150 people; to this day, that’s about the number of people we actually feel close to and interact with on a personal level. We could have stopped there, and for millennia we did. But over time we managed to expand beyond that number, to a village of 1,000, a town of 10,000, a city of 100,000. More recently we attained mental tribes of whole nations, in some case hundreds of millions of people. Racism is about that same scale, if not a bit larger; what most people (rather arbitrarily, and in a way that changes over time) call “White” constitutes about a billion people. “Asian” (including South Asian) is almost four billion. These are astonishingly huge figures, some seven orders of magnitude larger than what we originally evolved to handle. The ability to feel empathy for all “White” people is just a little bit smaller than the ability to feel empathy for all people period. Similarly, while today the gender in “all men are created equal” is jarring to us, the idea at the time really was an incredibly radical broadening of the moral horizon—Half the world? Are you mad?

Therefore I am confident that one day, not too far from now, the world will take that next step, that next order of magnitude, which many of us already have (or try to), and we will at last conquer bigotry, and if not eradicate it entirely then force it completely into the most distant shadows and deny it its power over our society.

Nature via Nurture

JDN 2457222 EDT 16:33.

One of the most common “deep questions” human beings have asked ourselves over the centuries is also one of the most misguided, the question of “nature versus nurture”: Is it genetics or environment that makes us what we are?

Humans are probably the single entity in the universe for which this question makes least sense. Artificial constructs have no prior existence, so they are “all nurture”, made what we choose to make them. Most other organisms on Earth behave accordingly to fixed instinctual programming, acting out a specific series of responses that have been honed over millions of years, doing only one thing, but doing it exceedingly well. They are in this sense “all nature”. As the saying goes, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one very big thing. Most organisms on Earth are in this sense hedgehogs, but we Homo sapiens are the ultimate foxes. (Ironically, hedgehogs are not actually “hedgehogs” in this sense: Being mammals, they have an advanced brain capable of flexibly responding to environmental circumstances. Foxes are a good deal more intelligent still, however.)

But human beings are by far the most flexible, adaptable organism on Earth. We live on literally every continent; despite being savannah apes we even live deep underwater and in outer space. Unlike most other species, we do not fit into a well-defined ecological niche; instead, we carve our own. This certainly has downsides; human beings are ourselves a mass extinction event.

Does this mean, therefore, that we are tabula rasa, blank slates upon which anything can be written?

Hardly. We’re more like word processors. Staring (as I of course presently am) at the blinking cursor of a word processor on a computer screen, seeing that wide, open space where a virtual infinity of possible texts could be written, depending entirely upon a sequence of miniscule key vibrations, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are looking at a blank slate. But in fact you are looking at the pinnacle of thousands of years of technological advancement, a machine so advanced, so precisely engineered, that its individual components are one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair (Intel just announced that we can now do even better than that). At peak performance, it is capable of over 100 billion calculations per second. Its random-access memory stores as much information as all the books on a stacks floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library, and its hard drive stores as much as all the books in the US Library of Congress. (Of course, both libraries contain digital media as well, exceeding anything my humble hard drive could hold by a factor of a thousand.)

All of this, simply to process text? Of course not; word processing is an afterthought for a processor that is specifically designed for dealing with high-resolution 3D images. (Of course, nowadays even a low-end netbook that is designed only for word processing and web browsing can typically handle a billion calculations per second.) But there the analogy with humans is quite accurate as well: Written language is about 10,000 years old, while the human visual mind is at least 100,000. We were 3D image analyzers long before we were word processors. This may be why we say “a picture is worth a thousand words”; we process each with about as much effort, even though the image necessarily contains thousands of times as many bits.

Why is the computer capable of so many different things? Why is the human mind capable of so many more? Not because they are simple and impinged upon by their environments, but because they are complex and precision-engineered to nonlinearly amplify tiny inputs into vast outputs—but only certain tiny inputs.

That is, it is because of our nature that we are capable of being nurtured. It is precisely the millions of years of genetic programming that have optimized the human brain that allow us to learn and adapt so flexibly to new environments and form a vast multitude of languages and cultures. It is precisely the genetically-programmed humanity we all share that makes our environmentally-acquired diversity possible.

In fact, causality also runs the other direction. Indeed, when I said other organisms were “all nature” that wasn’t right either; for even tightly-programmed instincts are evolved through millions of years of environmental pressure. Human beings have even been involved in cultural interactions long enough that it has begun to affect our genetic evolution; the reason I can digest lactose is that my ancestors about 10,000 years ago raised goats. We have our nature because of our ancestors’ nurture.

And then of course there’s the fact that we need a certain minimum level of environmental enrichment even to develop normally; a genetically-normal human raised into a deficient environment will suffer a kind of mental atrophy, as when children raised feral lose their ability to speak.

Thus, the question “nature or nurture?” seems a bit beside the point: We are extremely flexible and responsive to our environment, because of innate genetic hardware and software, which requires a certain environment to express itself, and which arose because of thousands of years of culture and millions of years of the struggle for survival—we are nurture because nature because nurture.

But perhaps we didn’t actually mean to ask about human traits in general; perhaps we meant to ask about some specific trait, like spatial intelligence, or eye color, or gender identity. This at least can be structured as a coherent question: How heritable is the trait? What proportion of the variance in this population is caused by genetic variation? Heritability analysis is a well-established methodology in behavioral genetics.
Yet, that isn’t the same question at all. For while height is extremely heritable within a given population (usually about 80%), human height worldwide has been increasing dramatically over time due to environmental influences and can actually be used as a measure of a nation’s economic development. (Look at what happened to the height of men in Japan.) How heritable is height? You have to be very careful what you mean.

Meanwhile, the heritability of neurofibromatosis is actually quite low—as many people acquire the disease by new mutations as inherit it from their parents—but we know for a fact it is a genetic disorder, because we can point to the specific genes that mutate to cause the disease.

Heritability also depends on the population under consideration; speaking English is more heritable within the United States than it is across the world as a whole, because there are a larger proportion of non-native English speakers in other countries. In general, a more diverse environment will lead to lower heritability, because there are simply more environmental influences that could affect the trait.

As children get older, their behavior gets more heritablea result which probably seems completely baffling, until you understand what heritability really means. Your genes become a more important factor in your behavior as you grow up, because you become separated from the environment of your birth and immersed into the general environment of your whole society. Lower environmental diversity means higher heritability, by definition. There’s also an effect of choosing your own environment; people who are intelligent and conscientious are likely to choose to go to college, where they will be further trained in knowledge and self-control. This latter effect is called niche-picking.

This is why saying something like “intelligence is 80% genetic” is basically meaningless, and “intelligence is 80% heritable” isn’t much better until you specify the reference population. The heritability of intelligence depends very much on what you mean by “intelligence” and what population you’re looking at for heritability. But even if you do find a high heritability (as we do for, say, Spearman’s g within the United States), this doesn’t mean that intelligence is fixed at birth; it simply means that parents with high intelligence are likely to have children with high intelligence. In evolutionary terms that’s all that matters—natural selection doesn’t care where you got your traits, only that you have them and pass them to your offspring—but many people do care, and IQ being heritable because rich, educated parents raise rich, educated children is very different from IQ being heritable because innately intelligent parents give birth to innately intelligent children. If genetic variation is systematically related to environmental variation, you can measure a high heritability even though the genes are not directly causing the outcome.

We do use twin studies to try to sort this out, but because identical twins raised apart are exceedingly rare, two very serious problems emerge: One, there usually isn’t a large enough sample size to say anything useful; and more importantly, this is actually an inaccurate measure in terms of natural selection. The evolutionary pressure is based on the correlation with the genes—it actually doesn’t matter whether the genes are directly causal. All that matters is that organisms with allele X survive and organisms with allele Y do not. Usually that’s because allele X does something useful, but even if it’s simply because people with allele X happen to mostly come from a culture that makes better guns, that will work just as well.

We can see this quite directly: White skin spread across the world not because it was useful (it’s actually terrible in any latitude other than subarctic), but because the cultures that conquered the world happened to be comprised mostly of people with White skin. In the 15th century you’d find a very high heritability of “using gunpowder weapons”, and there was definitely a selection pressure in favor of that trait—but it obviously doesn’t take special genes to use a gun.

The kind of heritability you get from twin studies is answering a totally different, nonsensical question, something like: “If we reassigned all offspring to parents randomly, how much of the variation in this trait in the new population would be correlated with genetic variation?” And honestly, I think the only reason people think that this is the question to ask is precisely because even biologists don’t fully grasp the way that nature and nurture are fundamentally entwined. They are trying to answer the intuitive question, “How much of this trait is genetic?” rather than the biologically meaningful “How strongly could a selection pressure for this trait evolve this gene?”

And if right now you’re thinking, “I don’t care how strongly a selection pressure for the trait could evolve some particular gene”, that’s fine; there are plenty of meaningful scientific questions that I don’t find particularly interesting and are probably not particularly important. (I hesitate to provide a rigid ranking, but I think it’s safe to say that “How does consciousness arise?” is a more important question than “Why are male platypuses venomous?” and “How can poverty be eradicated?” is a more important question than “How did the aircraft manufacturing duopoly emerge?”) But that’s really the most meaningful question we can construct from the ill-formed question “How much of this trait is genetic?” The next step is to think about why you thought that you were asking something important.

What did you really mean to ask?

For a bald question like, “Is being gay genetic?” there is no meaningful answer. We could try to reformulate it as a meaningful biological question, like “What is the heritability of homosexual behavior among males in the United States?” or “Can we find genetic markers strongly linked to self-identification as ‘gay’?” but I don’t think those are the questions we really meant to ask. I think actually the question we meant to ask was more fundamental than that: Is it legitimate to discriminate against gay people? And here the answer is unequivocal: No, it isn’t. It is a grave mistake to think that this moral question has anything to do with genetics; discrimination is wrong even against traits that are totally environmental (like religion, for example), and there are morally legitimate actions to take based entirely on a person’s genes (the obvious examples all coming from medicine—you don’t treat someone for cystic fibrosis if they don’t actually have it).

Similarly, when we ask the question “Is intelligence genetic?” I don’t think most people are actually interested in the heritability of spatial working memory among young American males. I think the real question they want to ask is about equality of opportunity, and what it would look like if we had it. If success were entirely determined by intelligence and intelligence were entirely determined by genetics, then even a society with equality of opportunity would show significant inequality inherited across generations. Thus, inherited inequality is not necessarily evidence against equality of opportunity. But this is in fact a deeply disingenuous argument, used by people like Charles Murray to excuse systemic racism, sexism, and concentration of wealth.

We didn’t have to say that inherited inequality is necessarily or undeniably evidence against equality of opportunity—merely that it is, in fact, evidence of inequality of opportunity. Moreover, it is far from the only evidence against equality of opportunity; we also can observe the fact that college-educated Black people are no more likely to be employed than White people who didn’t even finish high school, for example, or the fact that otherwise identical resumes with predominantly Black names (like “Jamal”) are less likely to receive callbacks compared to predominantly White names (like “Greg”). We can observe that the same is true for resumes with obviously female names (like “Sarah”) versus obviously male names (like “David”), even when the hiring is done by social scientists. We can directly observe that one-third of the 400 richest Americans inherited their wealth (and if you look closer into the other two-thirds, all of them had some very unusual opportunities, usually due to their family connections—“self-made” is invariably a great exaggeration). The evidence for inequality of opportunity in our society is legion, regardless of how genetics and intelligence are related. In fact, I think that the high observed heritability of intelligence is largely due to the fact that educational opportunities are distributed in a genetically-biased fashion, but I could be wrong about that; maybe there really is a large genetic influence on human intelligence. Even so, that does not justify widespread and directly-measured discrimination. It does not justify a handful of billionaires luxuriating in almost unimaginable wealth as millions of people languish in poverty. Intelligence can be as heritable as you like and it is still wrong for Donald Trump to have billions of dollars while millions of children starve.

This is what I think we need to do when people try to bring up a “nature versus nurture” question. We can certainly talk about the real complexity of the relationship between genetics and environment, which I think are best summarized as “nature via nurture”; but in fact usually we should think about why we are asking that question, and try to find the real question we actually meant to ask.