Sympathy for the incel

Post 237: May 6 JDN 2458245

If you’ve been following the news surrounding the recent terrorist attack in Toronto, you may have encountered the word “incel” for the first time via articles in NPR, Vox, USA Today, or other sources linking the attack to the incel community.

If this was indeed your first exposure to the concept of “incel”, I think you are getting a distorted picture of their community, which is actually a surprisingly large Internet subculture. Finding out about incel this way would be like finding out about Islam from 9/11. (Actually, I’m fairly sure a lot of Americans did learn that way, which is awful.) The incel community is remarkably large one—hundreds of thousands of members at least, and quite likely millions.

While a large proportion subscribe to a toxic and misogynistic ideology, a similarly large proportion do not; while the ideology has contributed to terrorism and other violence, the vast majority of members of the community are not violent.

Note that the latter sentence is also entirely true of Islam. So if you are sympathetic toward Muslims and want to protect them from abuse and misunderstanding, I maintain that you should want to do the same for incels, and for basically the same reasons.

I want to make something abundantly clear at the outset:

This attack was terrorism. I am in no way excusing or defending the use of terrorism. Once someone crosses the line and starts attacking random civilians, I don’t care what their grievances were; the best response to their behavior involves snipers on rooftops. I frankly don’t even understand the risks police are willing to take in order to capture these people alive—especially considering how trigger-happy they are when it comes to random Black men. If you start shooting (or bombing, or crashing vehicles into) civilians, the police should shoot you. It’s that simple.

I do not want to evoke sympathy for incel-motivated terrorism. I want to evoke sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of incels who would never support terrorism and are now being publicly demonized.

I also want to make it clear that I am not throwing in my hat with the likes of Robin Hanson (who is also well-known as a behavioral economist, blogger, science fiction fan, Less Wrong devotee, and techno-utopian—so I feel a particular need to clarify my differences with him) when he defends something he calls in purposefully cold language “redistribution of sex” (that one is from right after the attack, but he has done this before, in previous blog posts).

Hanson has drunk Robert Nozick‘s Kool-Aid, and thinks that redistribution of wealth via taxation is morally equivalent to theft or even slavery. He is fond of making comparisons between redistribution of wealth and other forms of “redistribution” that obviously would be tantamount to theft and slavery, and asking “What’s the difference?” when in fact the difference is glaringly obvious to everyone but him. He is also fond of saying that “inequality between households within a nation” is a small portion of inequality, and then wondering aloud why we make such a big deal out of it. The answer here is also quite obvious: First of all, it’s not that small a portion of inequality—it’s a third of global income inequality by most measures, it’s increasing while across-nation inequality is decreasing, and the absolute magnitude of within-nation inequality is staggering: there are households with incomes over one million times that of other households within the same nation. (Where are the people who have had sex one hundred billion times, let alone the ones who had sex forty billion times in one year? Because here’s the man who has one hundred billion dollars and made almost $40 billion in one year.) Second, within-nation inequality is extremely simple to fix by public policy; just change a few numbers in the tax code—in fact, just change them back to what they were in the 1950s. Cross-national inequality is much more complicated (though I believe it can be solved, eventually) and some forms of what he’s calling “inequality” (like “inequality across periods of human history” or “inequality of innate talent”) don’t seem amenable to correction under any conceivable circumstances.

Hanson has lots of just-so stories about the evolutionary psychology of why “we don’t care” about cross-national inequality (gee, I thought maybe devoting my career to it was a pretty good signal otherwise?) or inequality in access to sex (which is thousands of times smaller than income inequality), but no clear policy suggestions for how these other forms of inequality could be in any way addressed. This whole idea of “redistribution of sex”; what does that mean, exactly? Legalized or even subsidized prostitution or sex robots would be one thing; I can see pros and cons there at least. But without clarification, it sounds like he’s endorsing the most extremist misogynist incels who think that women should be rightfully compelled to have sex with sexually frustrated men—which would be quite literally state-sanctioned rape. I think really Hanson isn’t all that interested in incels, and just wants to make fun of silly “socialists” who would dare suppose that maybe Jeff Bezos doesn’t need his 120 billion dollars as badly as some of the starving children in Africa could benefit from them, or that maybe having a tax system similar to Sweden or Denmark (which consistently rate as some of the happiest, most prosperous nations on Earth) sounds like a good idea. He takes things that are obviously much worse than redistributive taxation, and compares them to redistributive taxation to make taxation seem worse than it is.

No, I do not support “redistribution of sex”. I might be able to support legalized prostitution, but I’m concerned about the empirical data suggesting that legalized prostitution correlates with increased human sex trafficking. I think I would also support legalized sex robots, but for reasons that will become clear shortly, I strongly suspect they would do little to solve the problem, even if they weren’t ridiculously expensive. Beyond that, I’ve said enough about Hanson; Lawyers, Guns & Money nicely skewers Hanson’s argument, so I’ll not bother with it any further.
Instead, I want to talk about the average incel, one of hundreds of thousands if not millions of men who feels cast aside by society because he is socially awkward and can’t get laid. I want to talk about him because I used to be very much like him (though I never specifically identified as “incel”), and I want to talk about him because I think that he is genuinely suffering and needs help.

There is a moderate wing of the incel community, just as there is a moderate wing of the Muslim community. The moderate wing of incels is represented by sites like Love-Shy.com that try to reach out to people (mostly, but not exclusively young heterosexual men) who are lonely and sexually frustrated and often suffering from social anxiety or other mood disorders. Though they can be casually sexist (particularly when it comes to stereotypes about differences between men and women), they are not virulently misogynistic and they would never support violence. Moreover, they provide a valuable service in offering social support to men who otherwise feel ostracized by society. I disagree with a lot of things these groups say, but they are providing valuable benefits to their members and aren’t hurting anyone else. Taking out your anger against incel terrorists on Love-Shy.com is like painting graffiti on a mosque in response to 9/11 (which, of course, people did).

To some extent, I can even understand the more misogynistic (but still non-violent) wings of the incel community. I don’t want to defend their misogyny, but I can sort of understand where it might come from.

You see, men in our society (and most societies) are taught from a very young age that their moral worth as human beings is based primarily on one thing in particular: Sexual prowess. If you are having a lot of sex with a lot of women, you are a good and worthy man. If you are not, you are broken and defective. (Donald Trump has clearly internalized this narrative quite thoroughly—as have a shockingly large number of his supporters.)

This narrative is so strong and so universal, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if it has a genetic component. It actually makes sense as a matter of evolutionary psychology than males would evolve to think this way; in an evolutionary sense it’s true that a male’s ultimate worth—that is, fitness, the one thing natural selection cares about—is defined by mating with a maximal number of females. But even if it has a genetic component, there is enough variation in this belief that I am confident that social norms can exaggerate or suppress it. One thing I can’t stand about popular accounts of evolutionary psychology is how they leap from “plausible evolutionary account” to “obviously genetic trait” all the way to “therefore impossible to change or compensate for”. My myopia and astigmatism are absolutely genetic; we can point to some of the specific genes. And yet my glasses compensate for them perfectly, and for a bit more money I could instead get LASIK surgery that would correct them permanently. Never think for a moment that “genetic” implies “immutable”.

Because of this powerful narrative, men who are sexually frustrated get treated like garbage by other men and even women. They feel ostracized and degraded. Often, they even feel worthless. If your worth as a human being is defined by how many women you have sex with, and you aren’t having sex with any, it follows that your worth is zero. No wonder, then, that so many become overcome with despair.
The incel community provides an opportunity to escape that despair. If you are told that you are not defective, but instead there is something wrong with society that keeps you down, you no longer have to feel worthless. It’s not that you don’t deserve to have sex, it’s that you’ve been denied what you deserve. When the only other narrative you’ve been given is that you are broken and worthless, I can see why “society is screwing you over” is an appealing counter-narrative. Indeed, it’s not even that far off from the truth.

The moderate wing of the incel community even offers some constructive solutions: They offer support to help men improve themselves, overcome their own social anxiety, and ultimately build fulfilling sexual relationships.

The extremist wing gets this all wrong: Instead of blaming the narrative that sex equals worth, they blame women—often, all women—for somehow colluding to deny them access to the sex they so justly deserve. They often link themselves to the “pick-up artist” community who try to manipulate women into having sex.

And then in the most extreme cases, they may even decide to turn their anger into violence.

But really I don’t think most of these men actually want sex at all, which is part of why I don’t think sex robots would be particularly effective.

Rather, to clarify: They want sex, as most of us do—but that’s not what they need. A simple lack of sex can be compensated reasonably well by pornography and masturbation. (Let me state this outright: Pornography and masturbation are fundamental human rights. Porn is free speech, and masturbation is part of the fundamental right of bodily autonomy. The fact that increased access to porn reduces incidence of sexual assault is nice, but secondary; porn is freedom.) Obviously it would be more satisfying to have a real sexual relationship, but with such substitutes available, a mere lack of sex does not cause suffering.

The need that these men are feeling is companionship. It is love. It is understanding. These are things that can’t be replaced, even partially, by sex robots or Internet porn.

Why do they conflate the two? Again, because society has taught them to do so. This one is clearly cultural, as it varies quite considerably between nations; it’s not nearly as bad in Southern Europe for example.
In American society (and many, but not all others), men are taught three things: First, expression of any emotion except for possibly anger, and especially expression of affection, is inherently erotic. Second, emotional vulnerability jeopardizes masculinity. Third, erotic expression must be only between men and women in a heterosexual relationship.

In principle, it might be enough to simply drop the third proposition: This is essentially what happens in the LGBT community. Gay men still generally suffer from the suspicion that all emotional expression is erotic, but have long-since abandoned their fears of expressing eroticism with other men. Often they’ve also given up on trying to sustain norms of masculinity as well. So gay men can hug each other and cry in front of each other, for example, without breaking norms within the LGBT community; the sexual subtext is often still there, but it’s considered unproblematic. (Gay men typically aren’t even as concerned about sexual infidelity as straight men; over 40% of gay couples are to some degree polyamorous, compared to 5% of straight couples.) It may also be seen as a loss of masculinity, but this too is considered unproblematic in most cases. There is a notable exception, which is the substantial segment of gay men who pride themselves upon hypermasculinity (generally abbreviated “masc”); and indeed, within that subcommunity you often see a lot of the same toxic masculinity norms that are found in the society as large.

That is also what happened in Classical Greece and Rome, I think: These societies were certainly virulently misogynistic in their own way, but their willingness to accept erotic expression between men opened them to accepting certain kinds of emotional expression between men as well, as long as it was not perceived as a threat to masculinity per se.

But when all three of those norms are in place, men find that the only emotional outlet they are even permitted to have while remaining within socially normative masculinity is a woman who is a romantic partner. Family members are allowed certain minimal types of affection—you can hug your mom, as long as you don’t seem too eager—but there is only one person in the world that you are allowed to express genuine emotional vulnerability toward, and that is your girlfriend. If you don’t have one? Get one. If you can’t get one? Well, sorry, pal, you’re just out of luck. Deal with it, or you’re not a real man.

But really what I’d like to get rid of is the first two propositions: Emotional expression should not be considered inherently sexual. Expressing emotional vulnerability should not be taken as a capitulation of your masculinity—and if I really had my druthers, the whole idea of “masculinity” would disappear or become irrelevant. This is the way that society is actually holding incels down: Not by denying them access to sex—the right to refuse sex is also a fundamental human right—but by denying them access to emotional expression and treating them like garbage because they are unable to have sex.

My sense is that what most incels are really feeling is not a dearth of sexual expression; it’s a dearth of emotional expression. But precisely because social norms have forced them into getting the two from the same place, they have conflated them. Further evidence in favor of this proposition? A substantial proportion of men who hire prostitutes spend a lot of the time they paid for simply talking.

I think what most of these men really need is psychotherapy. I’m not saying that to disparage them; I myself am a regular consumer of psychotherapy, which is one of the most cost-effective medical interventions known to humanity. I feel a need to clarify this because there is so much stigma on mental illness that saying someone is mentally ill and needs therapy can be taken as an insult; but I literally mean that a lot of these men are mentally ill and need therapy. Many of them exhibit significant signs of social anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder.

Even for those who aren’t outright mentally ill, psychotherapy might be able to help them sort out some of these toxic narratives they’ve been fed by society, get them to think a little more carefully about what it means to be a good man and whether the “man” part is even so important. A good therapist could tease out the fabric of their tangled cognition and point out that when they say they want sex, it really sounds like they want self-worth, and when they say they want a girlfriend it really sounds like they want someone to talk to.

Such a solution won’t work on everyone, and it won’t work overnight on anyone. But the incel community did not emerge from a vacuum; it was catalyzed by a great deal of genuine suffering. Remove some of that suffering, and we might just undermine the most dangerous parts of the incel community and prevent at least some future violence.

No one owes sex to anyone. But maybe we do, as a society, owe these men a little more sympathy?

Toward an economics of social norms

Sep 17, JDN 2457649

It is typical in economics to assume that prices are set by perfect competition in markets with perfect information. This is obviously ridiculous, so many economists do go further and start looking into possible distortions of the market, such as externalities and monopolies. But almost always the assumption is still that human beings are neoclassical rational agents, what I call “infinite identical psychopaths”, selfish profit-maximizers with endless intelligence and zero empathy.

What happens when we recognize that human beings are not like this, but in fact are empathetic, social creatures, who care about one another and work toward the interests of (what they perceive to be) their tribe? How are prices really set? What actually decides what is made and sold? What does economics become once you understand sociology? (The good news is that experiments are now being done to find out.)

Presumably some degree of market competition is involved, and no small amount of externalities and monopolies. But one of the very strongest forces involved in setting prices in the real world is almost completely ignored, and that is social norms.

Social norms are tremendously powerful. They will drive us to bear torture, fight and die on battlefields, even detonate ourselves as suicide bombs. When we talk about “religion” or “ideology” motivating people to do things, really what we are talking about is social norms. While some weaker norms can be overridden, no amount of economic incentive can ever override a social norm at its full power. Moreover, most of our behavior in daily life is driven by social norms: How to dress, what to eat, where to live. Even the fundamental structure of our lives is written by social norms: Go to school, get a job, get married, raise a family.

Even academic economists, who imagine themselves one part purveyor of ultimate wisdom and one part perfectly rational agent, are clearly strongly driven by social norms—what problems are “interesting”, which researchers are “renowned”, what approaches are “sensible”, what statistical methods are “appropriate”. If economists were perfectly rational, dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models would be in the dustbin of history (because, like string theory, they have yet to lead to a single useful empirical prediction), research journals would not be filled with endless streams of irrelevant but impressive equations (I recently read one that basically spent half a page of calculus re-deriving the concept of GDP—and computer-generated gibberish has been published, because its math looked so impressive), and instead of frequentist p-values (and often misinterpreted at that), all the statistics would be written in the form of Bayesian logodds.

Indeed, in light of all this, I often like to say that to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms.

How does this affect buying and selling? Well, first of all, there are some things we refuse to buy and sell, or at least that most of us refuse to buy and sell, and who use social pressure, public humilitation, or even the force of law to prevent. You’re not supposed to sell children. You’re not supposed to sell your vote. You’re not even supposed to sell sexual favors (though every society has always had a large segment of people who do, and more recently people are becoming more open to the idea of at least decriminalizing it). If we were neoclassical rational agents, we would have no such qualms; if we want something and someone is willing to sell it to us, we’ll buy it. But as actual human beings with emotions and social norms, we recognize that there is something fundamentally different about selling your vote as opposed to selling a shirt or a television. It’s not always immediately obvious where to draw the line, which is why sex work can be such a complicated issue (You can’t get paid to have sex… unless someone is filming it?). Different societies may do it differently: Part of the challenge of fighting corruption in Third World countries is that much of what we call corruption—and which actually is harmful to long-run economic development—isn’t perceived as “corruption” by the people involved in it, just as social custom (“Of course I’d hire my cousin! What kind of cousin would I be if I didn’t?”). Yet despite all that, almost everyone agrees that there is a line to be drawn. So there are whole markets that theoretically could exist, but don’t, or only exist as tiny black markets most people never participate in, because we consider selling those things morally wrong. Recently a whole subfield of cognitive economics has emerged studying these repugnant markets.

Even if a transaction is not considered so repugnant as to be unacceptable, there are also other classes of goods that are in some sense unsavory; something you really shouldn’t buy, but you’re not a monster for doing so. These are often called sin goods, and they have always included drugs, alcohol, and gambling—and I do mean always, as every human civilization has had these things—they include prostitution where it is legal, and as social norms change they are now beginning to include oil and coal as well (which can only be good for the future of Earth’s climate). Sin goods are systematically more expensive than they should be for their marginal cost, because most people are unwilling to participate in selling them. As a result, the financial returns for producing sin goods are systematically higher. Actually, this could partially explain why Wall Street banks are so profitable; when the banking system is corrupt as it is—and you’re not imagining that; laundering money for terroriststhen banking becomes a sin good, and good people don’t want to participate in it. Or perhaps the effect runs the other way around: Banking has been viewed as sinful for centuries (in Medieval times, usury was punished much the same way as witchcraft), and as a result only the sort of person who doesn’t care about social and moral norms becomes a banker—and so the banking system becomes horrifically corrupt. Is this a reason for good people to force ourselves to become bankers? Or is there another way—perhaps credit unions?

There are other ways that social norms drive prices as well. We have a concept ofa “fair wage”, which is quite distinct from the economic concept of a “market-clearing wage”. When people ask whether someone’s wage is fair, they don’t look at supply and demand and try to determine whether there are too many or too few people offering that service. They ask themselves what the labor is worth—what value has it added—and how hard that person has worked to do it—what cost it bore. Now, these aren’t totally unrelated to supply and demand (people are less likely to supply harder work, people are more likely to demand higher value), so it’s conceivable that these heuristics could lead us to more or less achieve the market-clearing wage most of the time. But there are also some systematic distortions to consider.

Perhaps the most important way fairness matters in economics is necessities: Basic requirements for human life such as food, housing, and medicine. The structure of our society also makes transportation, education, and Internet access increasingly necessary for basic functioning. From the perspective of an economist, it is a bit paradoxical how angry people get when the price of something important (such as healthcare) is increased: If it’s extremely valuable, shouldn’t you be willing to pay more? Why does it bother you less when something like a Lamborghini or a Rolex rises in price, something that almost certainly wasn’t even worth its previous price? You’re going to buy the necessities anyway, right? Well, as far as most economists are concerned, that’s all that matters—what gets bought and sold. But of course as a human being I do understand why people get angry about these things, and it is because they have to buy them anyway. When someone like Martin Shkreli raises the prices on basic goods, we feel exploited. There’s even a way to make this economically formal: When demand is highly inelastic, we are rightly very sensitive to the possibility of a monopoly, because monopolies under inelastic demand can extract huge profits and cause similarly huge amounts of damage to the welfare of their customers. That isn’t quite how most people would put it, but I think that has something to do with the ultimate reason we evolved that heuristic: It’s dangerous to let someone else control your basic necessities, because that gives them enormous power to exploit you. If they control things that aren’t as important to you, that doesn’t matter so much, because you can always do without if you must. So a norm that keeps businesses from overcharging on necessities is very important—and probably not as strong anymore as it should be.

Another very important way that fairness and markets can be misaligned is talent: What if something is just easier for one person than another? If you achieve the same goal with half the work, should you be rewarded more for being more efficient, or less because you bore less cost? Neoclassical economics doesn’t concern itself with such questions, asking only if supply and demand reached equilibrium. But we as human beings do care about such things; we want to know what wage a person deserves, not just what wage they would receive in a competitive market.

Could we be wrong to do that? Might it be better if we just let the market do its work? In some cases I think that may actually be true. Part of why CEO pay is rising so fast despite being uncorrelated with corporate profitability or even negatively correlated is that CEOs have convinced us (or convinced their boards of directors) that this is fair, that they deserve more stock options. They even convince them that their pay is based on performance, by using highly distorted measures of performance. If boards thought more like economic rational agents, when a CEO asked for more pay they’d ask: “What other company gave you a higher offer?” and if the CEO didn’t have an answer, they’d laugh and refuse the raise. Because in purely economic terms, that is all a salary does: it keeps you from quitting to work somewhere else. The competitive mechanism of the market is supposed to then ensure that your wage aligns with your marginal cost and marginal productivity purely due to that.

On the other hand, there are many groups of people who simply aren’t doing very well in the market: Women, racial minorities, people with disabilities. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which might go away if markets were made more competitive—the classic argument that competitive markets reward companies that don’t discriminate—but many clearly wouldn’t. Indeed, that argument was never as strong as it at first appears; in a society where social norms are strongly in favor of bigotry, it can be completely economically rational to participate in bigotry to avoid being penalized. When Chick-Fil-A was revealed to have donated to anti-LGBT political groups, many people tried to boycott—but their sales actually increased from the publicity. Honestly it’s a bit baffling that they promised not to donate to such causes anymore; it was apparently a profitable business decision to be revealed as supporters of bigotry. And even when discrimination does hurt economic performance, companies are run by human beings, and they are still quite capable of discriminating regardless. Indeed, the best evidence we have that discrimination is inefficient comes from… businesses that persist in discriminating despite the fact that it is inefficient.

But okay, suppose we actually did manage to make everyone compensated according to their marginal productivity. (Or rather, what Rawls derided: “From each according to his marginal productivity, to each according to his threat advantage.”) The market would then clear and be highly efficient. Would that actually be a good thing? I’m not so sure.

A lot of people are highly unproductive through no fault of their own—particularly children and people with disabilities. Much of this is not discrimination; it’s just that they aren’t as good at providing services. Should we simply leave them to fend for themselves? Then there’s the key point about what marginal means in this case—it means “given what everyone else is doing”. But that means that you can be made obsolete by someone else’s actions, and in this era of rapid technological advancement, jobs become obsolete faster than ever. Unlike a lot of people, I recognize that it makes no sense to keep people working at jobs that can be automated—the machines are better. But still, what do we do with the people whose jobs have been eliminated? Do we treat them as worthless? When automated buses become affordable—and they will; I give it 20 years—do we throw the human bus drivers under them?

One way out is of course a basic income: Let the market wage be what it will, and then use the basic income to provide for what human beings deserve irrespective of their market productivity. I definitely support a basic income, of course, and this does solve the most serious problems like children and quadriplegics starving in the streets.

But as I read more of the arguments by people who favor a job guarantee instead of a basic income, I begin to understand better why they are uncomfortable with the idea: It doesn’t seem fair. A basic income breaks once and for all the link between “a fair day’s work” and “a fair day’s wage”. It runs counter to this very deep-seated intuition most people have that money is what you earn—and thereby deserve—by working, and only by working. That is an extremely powerful social norm, and breaking it will be very difficult; so it’s worth asking: Should we even try to break it? Is there a way to achieve a system where markets are both efficient and fair?

I’m honestly not sure; but I do know that we could make substantial progress from where we currently stand. Most billionaire wealth is pure rent in the economic sense: It’s received by corruption and market distortion, not by efficient market competition. Most poverty is due to failures of institutions, not lack of productivity of workers. As George Monblot famously wrote, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” Most of the income disparity between White men and others is due to discrimination, not actual skill—and what skill differences there are are largely the result of differences in education and upbringing anyway. So if we do in fact correct these huge inefficiencies, we will also be moving toward fairness at the same time. But still that nagging thought remains: When all that is done, will there come a day where we must decide whether we would rather have an efficient economy or a just society? And if it does, will we decide the right way?

Why building more roads doesn’t stop rush hour

JDN 2457362

The topic of this post was selected based on the very first Patreon vote (which was albeit limited because I only had three patrons eligible to vote and only one of them actually did vote; but these things always start small, right?). It is what you (well, one of you) wanted to see. In future months there will be more such posts, and hopefully more people will vote.

Most Americans face an economic paradox every morning and every evening. Our road network is by far the largest in the world (for three reasons: We’re a huge country geographically, we have more money than anyone else, and we love our cars), and we continue to expand it; yet every morning around 8:00-9:00 and every evening around 17:00-18:00 we face rush hour, in which our roads become completely clogged by commuters and it takes two or three times as long to get anywhere.

Indeed, rush hour is experienced around the world, though it often takes the slightly different form of clogged public transit instead of clogged roads. In most countries, there are two specific one-hour periods in the morning and the evening in which all transportation is clogged to a standstill.

This is probably such a familiar part of your existence you never stopped to question it. But in fact it is quite bizarre; the natural processes of economic supply and demand should have solved this problem decades ago, so why haven’t they?

There are a number of important forces at work here, all of which conspire to doom our transit systems.

The first is the Tragedy of the Commons, which I’ll likely write about in the future (but since it didn’t win the vote, not just yet). The basic idea of the Tragedy of the Commons is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, but expanded to a large number of people. A Tragedy of the Commons is a situation in which there are many people, each of whom has the opportunity to either cooperate with the group and help everyone a small amount, or defect from the group and help themselves a larger amount. If everyone cooperates, everyone is better off; but holding everyone else’s actions fixed, it is in each person’s self-interest to defect.

As it turns out, people do act closer to the neoclassical prediction in the Tragedy of the Commons—which is something I’d definitely like to get into at some point. Two different psychological mechanisms counter one another, and result in something fairly close to the prediction of neoclassical rational self-interest, at least when the number of people involved is very large. It’s actually a good example of how real human beings can deviate from neoclassical rationality both in a good way (we are altruistic) and in a bad way (we are irrational).

The large-scale way roads are a Tragedy of the Commons is that they are a public good, something that we share as a society. Except for toll roads (which I’ll get to in a moment), roads are set up so that once they are built, anyone can use them; so the best option for any individual person is to get everyone else to pay to build them and then quite literally free-ride on the roads everyone else built. But if everyone tries to do that, nobody is going to pay for the roads at all.

And indeed, our roads are massively underfunded. Simply to maintain currently-existing roads we need to spend about an additional $100 billion per year over what we’re already spending. Yet once you factor in all the extra costs of damaged vehicles, increased accidents, time wasted, and the fact that fixing things is cheaper than replacing them, in fact the cost to not maintain our roads is about 3 times as large as that. This is exactly what you expect to see in a Tragedy of the Commons; there’s a huge benefit for everyone just sitting there, not getting done, because nobody wants to pay for it themselves. Michigan saw this quite dramatically when we voted down increased road funding because it would have slightly increased sales taxes. (Granted, we should be funding roads with fuel taxes, not general sales taxes—but those are hardly any more popular.)

Toll roads can help with this, because they internalize the externality: When you have to pay for the roads that you use, you either use them less (creating less wear and tear) or pay more; either way, the gap between what is paid and what is needed is closed. And indeed, toll roads are better maintained than other roads. There are downsides, however; the additional effort to administrate the tolls is expensive, and traffic can be slowed down by toll booths (though modern transponder systems mitigate this effect substantially). Also, it’s difficult to fully privatize roads, because there is a large up-front cost and it takes a long time for a toll road to become profitable; most corporations don’t want to wait that long.

But we do build a lot of roads, and yet still we have rush hour. So that isn’t the full explanation.

The small-scale way that roads are a Tragedy of the Commons is that when you decide to drive during rush hour, you are in a sense defecting in a Tragedy of the Commons. You will get to your destination sooner than if you had waited until traffic clears; but by adding one more car to the congestion you have slowed everyone else down just a little bit. When we sum up all these little delays, we get the total gridlock that is rush hour. If you had instead waited to drive on clear roads, you would get to your destination without inconveniencing anyone else—but you’d get there a lot later.

The second major reason why we have rush hour is what is called induced demand. When you widen a road or add a parallel route, you generally fail to reduce traffic congestion on that route in the long run. What happens instead is that driving during rush hour becomes more convenient for a little while, which makes more people start driving during rush hour—they buy a car when they used to take the bus, or they don’t leave as early to go to work. Eventually enough people shift over that the equilibrium is restored—and the equilibrium is gridlock.

But if you think carefully, that can’t be the whole explanation. There are only so many people who could start driving during rush hour, so what if we simply built enough roads to accommodate them all? And if our public transit systems were better, people would feel no need to switch to driving, even if driving had in fact been made more convenient. And indeed, transportation economists have found that adding more capacity does reduce congestion—it just isn’t enough unless you also improve public transit. So why aren’t we improving public transit? See above, Tragedy of the Commons.

Yet we still don’t have a complete explanation, because of something that’s quite obvious in hindsight: Why do we all work 9:00 to 17:00!? There’s no reason for that. There’s nothing inherent about the angle of sunlight or something which requires us to work these hours—indeed, if there were, Daylight Savings Time wouldn’t work (which is not to say that it works well—Daylight Savings Times kills).

There should be a competitive market pressure to work different hours, which should ultimately lead to an equilibrium where traffic is roughly constant throughout the day, at least during the time when a large swath of the population is awake and outside. Congestion should spread itself out over time, because it is to the advantage of all involved if each driver tries to drive at a time when other driver’s aren’t. Driving outside of rush hour gives us an opportunity for something like “temporal arbitrage”, where you can pay a small amount of time here to get a larger amount of time there. And if there’s one thing a competitive economy is supposed to get rid of, it’s arbitrage.

But no, we keep almost all our working hours aligned at 09:00-17:00, and thus we get rush hour.

In fact, a lot of jobs would function better if they weren’t aligned in this way—retail sales, for example, is most successful during the “off hours”, because people only shop when they aren’t working. (Well, except for online shopping, and even then they’re not supposed to.) Banks continually insist on making their hours 9:00 to 17:00 when they know that on most days they’d actually get more business from 17:00 to 19:00 than they did from 9:00 to 17:00. Some banks are at least figuring that out enough to be open from 17:00 to 19:00—but they still don’t seem to grasp that retail banking services have no reason to be open during normal business hours. Commerce banking services do; but that’s a small portion of their overall customers (albeit not of their overall revenue). There’s no reason to have so many full branches open so many hours with most of the tellers doing nothing most of the time.

Education would be better off being later in the day, when students—particularly teenagers—have a chance to sleep in the way their brains are evolved to. The benefits of later school days in terms of academic performance and public health are actually astonishingly large. When you move the start of high school from 07:00 to 09:00, auto collisions involving teenagers drop 70%. Perhaps should be the new slogans: “Early classes cause car crashes.” Since 25% of auto collisions occur during rush hour, here’s another: “Always working nine to five? Vehicular homicide.”

Other jobs could have whatever hours they please. There’s no reason for most forms of manufacturing to be done at any particular hour of the day. Most clerical and office work could be done at any time (and thanks to the Internet, any place; though there are real benefits to working in an office). Writing can be done whenever it is convenient for the author—and when you think about it, an awful lot of jobs basically amount to writing.

Finance is only handled 09:00-17:00 because we force it to be. The idea of “opening” and “closing” the stock market each day is profoundly anachronistic, and actually amounts to granting special arbitrage privileges to the small number of financial institutions that are allowed to do so-called “after hours” trading.

And then there’s the fact that different people have different circadian rhythms, require different amounts of sleep and prefer to sleep at different times—it’s genetic. (My boyfriend and I are roughly three hours phase-shifted relative to one another, which made it surprisingly convenient to stay in touch when I lived in California and he lived in Michigan.)

Why do we continue to accept such absurdity?

Whenever you find yourself asking that question, try this answer first, for it is by far the most likely:

Social norms.

Social norms will make human beings do just about anything, from eating cockroaches to murdering elephants, from kilts to burqas, from waving giant foam hands to throwing octopus onto ice rinks, from landing on the moon to crashing into the World Trade Center, from bombing Afghanistan to marching on Washington, from eating only raw foods to using dead pigs as sex toys. Our basic mental architecture is structured around tribal identity, and to preserve that identity we will follow almost any rule imaginable. To a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms.

And indeed I can find no other explanation for why we continue to work on a “nine-to-five” 09:00-17:00 schedule (or for that matter why it probably feels weird to you that I say “17:00” instead of the far less efficient and more confusion-prone “5:00 PM”). Our productivity has skyrocketed, increasing by a factor of 4 just since 1950 (and these figures dramatically underestimate the gains in productivity from computer technology, because so much is in the form of free content, which isn’t counted in GDP). We could do the same work in a quarter the time, or twice as much in half the time. Yet still we continue to work the same old 40-hour work week, nine-to-five work day. We each do the work of a dozen previous workers, yet we still find a way to fill the same old work week, and the rich who grow ever richer still pay us more or less the same real wages. It’s all basically social norms at this point; this is how things have always been done, and we can’t imagine any other way. When you get right down to it, capitalism is fundamentally a system of social norms—a very successful one, but far from the only possibility and perhaps not the best.

Thus, why does building more roads not solve the problem of rush hour? Because we have a social norm that says we are all supposed to start work at 09:00 and end work at 17:00.
And that, dear readers, is what we must endeavor to change. Change our thinking, and we will change the norms. Change the norms, and we will change the world.