17 September 2019

A Curious Explanation as to Why Europe's Population Fell During the Dark Ages

Learned something curious from Berkowitz's Sex and Punishment, a book I picked up from the Harvard Bookstore a week ago.

Medieval priests used penitentials to define rules and punishment. A lot of prohibitions involved sex and some were odd. (To be fair, in an age before cars, guns, and corporations there wasn't much other behavior to regulate.) In a few regions, the penalty for performing fellatio on one's husband was greater than the penalty for killing him.

The penitentials offered a labyrinth of penalties and prohibitions. Among other things, it left only about 4 days a month during which it was "legal" to have sex. Even those limits weren't enough: married couples could be prosecuted if they were known to enjoy sex too much. Pope Gregory (~540 to 604) declared that marital sex was blameless only when there was no pleasure involved.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, during the period of the Dark Ages when these penitentials had the most influence - from about 500 to 1050 - Europe's population actually shrank.

So that's kind of interesting.

14 September 2019

Beyond Win-Win or Win-Lose into the Strange Mind of Donald Trump

Stephen Covey's 4th habit is the building block to relationships. It also gives us a way to better understand the danger of Trump.

Think Win-Win is how we approach others. It's a belief that relationships make things better for us and them, for you and me, whether the you is a romantic or business partner or simply a friend.

Covey's 5th habit is Seek first to understand and then to be understood. You have to understand their perspective and their win and then communicate your own. His 6th habit is Synergize which could be stated more clumsily as, Create a solution that will not just give you your win and them theirs but might actually result in something extra that neither of you could have anticipated, a solution that encompasses both of your wins in a manner that might actually create wins you hadn't anticipated - whether for you or people outside the relationship.

Back to the 4th habit of Think win-win, the approach to take into a relationship or even a quick encounter.

To get to win-win, one needs both courage and consideration. You need courage enough to articulate and fight for your own win. You need consideration enough to listen and fight for the other's win. 

If you have only courage but no consideration, you'll likely become either a win-lose person who must beat the other while getting your own win or simply a win person who doesn't care at all whether the other person gets a win or a loss as long as you get your win.

If you have only consideration but no courage, you'll likely become a lose-win person who takes on the role of martyr, simply swallowing your own needs and dreams and deferring to the needs and dreams of others.

I think one obstacle to win-win is that it isn't natural to both be willing for combat for our own win and willing for empathy to understand the other's win. We tend to toggle into either courage or consideration rather than try to encompass both.

Trump introduces a new variable in this model that I hadn't really considered before: the role of comparison or status. It takes him to a new and odd place.

Trump's trade wars seem to have played a factor in the fact that Germany and China's economies are now stuttering. Automobile production has fallen dramatically in Germany. China's growth has slowed. In response to these sorts of issues, bond markets suggest there is a higher probability of a global recession. None of this seems to deter Trump from his trade war.

Part of Trump's bulldoggery of course is related to the fact that Trump has never once admitted to a mistake of any kind. I suspect, though, that it actually points to something else that is so defining of Trump: his quest for status above all else. In the wake of the 9-11 tragedy he called in to announce that with the collapse of the World Trade Center, his building was now New York's tallest. There was a tragedy but it gave him more status and that was what he wanted to talk about. Trump cares less about living in time of antibiotics and internet than being the top dog and if he had to choose between being Attila to the Huns or middle-class guy in a wildly affluent future, he'd choose to be Attila. What matters most is to be at the top.

China's economy has grown more rapidly than ours for the last 20+ years. This makes perfect sense given their relative stage of economic development. (It takes the average Chinese all week to make as much as the average American makes by the end of the day Monday.) This contrast outrages Trump who wants to be better.

I get the very real sense that given the choice between winning less than China wins (for instance, our economy grows 3% and theirs grows 6%) or losing less than China loses (our economy contracts only 1% while China's economy contracts 3%), he would choose losing less. It doesn't matter nearly as much that we're winning as it does that our position is better than our rivals.

Trump's little graph is not about win-win or win-lose quadrants. It is simply this: we're doing better or worse than the other guy. Better can include a loss in real terms as long as our loss is not as bad as the other guy's loss.

The probability that the US economy tips into recession goes up every time Trump's Twitter Tourettes drives him to spew out trade war nonsense. Remarkably, the probability of recession still seems considerably less than 50%; recession within the year is unlikely. In any case, our economy will likely be doing worse in 2020 than it was in 2016 but China and Germany's economies will likely be doing even worse even than ours. The global economy doesn't matter to him. Our relative position does. I'm not even sure what to call Trump's mindset. (Who cares about winning as long as we're doing better than than the other guy?)

Trump's 2020 campaign slogan could simply be, "You should see the other guy."  

07 September 2019

The Economics Behind the 3 Waves of Feminism

Robert Wright's Nonzero forms one of the foundations to my worldview. The other day he interviewed Kat Rosenfield and Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the Wright Show. One of the topics that came up was the three waves of feminism. As Rosenfield and Maltz Bovy defined it, it seemed to me that these three waves of feminism could be defined through economics.

1. Wave one feminism most easily characterized by a woman's right to vote came in the wake of industrialization. (It was 100 years ago that women got the right to vote.)  As labor was less about muscle and more about the mind, women could less easily be ignored as equals.

2. If wave two feminism came after the Pill - approved in 1960 - maybe it was about pointing out that with family planning a woman had even more control over how she timed her entry and engagement in the job market. She had the option to take a role more traditionally associated with men. Her biology no longer kept her home raising children.

3. If wave 3 feminism is happening now, it may be coincident with what I see happening: the beginning of the shift from an information to entrepreneurial economy. If the early 1900s was about a rise in product invention, I think that the early 2000s will be seen as a time of a rise in social invention: changing and inventing institutions to accommodate who we are or aspire to be. The old quip about the Model T, "You can have any color you want as long as it is black," in the early 1900s has given way to UX research that tailors the product to the customers. We judge products by how they perform when we use them; curiously, we still judge students and employees by how well they use schools and workplaces rather than judging schools and workplaces by how well they perform for students and employees. What does this have to do with anything? There are institutional changes that need to be made to accommodate (most? some?) women and it's not enough to say to women, "You just adapt to these institutions and social norms that have been made for men." The most obvious of these is that a woman who does want to raise a couple of children will find herself carrying a heavier load in child raising than a man simply because of the biological reality of pregnancy and nursing, etc. One option is to pretend this away, another is to say that women should just revise their ambitions to accept the fact that they can't engage in the same way as men and a third way is to insist on change to institutions to accommodate both their biological realities and their ambitions.  I think one element of social invention will be intentionally adapting our institutions to the people we are rather than the people our grandfathers imagined themselves to be. What I'd call social invention or entrepreneurship. 

Put more succinctly,
3. Wave 3 feminism is not just about women's right to participate fully but changing defining institutions to adapt to who women are and aspire to be. It's about shifting the burden of adaptation from women to institutions and social norms.

01 September 2019

The Future of Politics Might Be Culture, Not Policy

One of the things that neo-nationalism might signal is a hunger for common culture. We all listen to different music, read and watch different stories and worship at different holy sites.

We share an economy but not a culture. What is economics? A study of how we depend on strangers for our lifestyle. Some people find that unsettling. 

Peter Drucker supposedly said "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." A variant on that is "Culture eats policy for breakfast." Culture excites people and policy makes their eyes glaze over. One of the more enduring elements of culture is music.

It takes less time to listen to a song than read a book or watch a movie. This might be why 4 of the top 5 people (counted by followers) on Twitter are musicians. (Obama tops the list, followed by Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift.) Music might be the most effective cultural glue we have.

Prediction? Eventually politics will devolve into a people - bored with policy and disappointed by politicians - voting on what song will be the national anthem for the next couple of years. 

Then politics will really get ugly.