29 June 2020

Conspiracy Theorists or Believers?

Joe Uscinski on reasoning with conspiracy theorists. (And I'm paraphrasing.)
"People like to imagine that reasoned dialogue changes minds. I'm not so sure. Lock a Jew and a Catholic in a closet for two hours and tell me that they'll come out with some compromise on their beliefs."
We call them conspiracy theorists but of course theories are subject to test and revision. Might be more honest to call them conspiracy believers.

28 June 2020

It's All Made Up (but the consequences are very real)

There seems to be a dawning realization that our social inventions - institutions, norms, culture, processes - are invented just as our products are. At that point of realization, some people become a nihilist, believing that because it is all made up, none of it matters. I feel very differently.

777s are just made up. I was at Boeing in one of the rooms that had file cabinets with various designs for this jet that could carry 400 people 7,000 miles. The complexity is mind boggling. And they have to get it all right to make it successful. A jet is just made up, just invented, but it matters a great deal that designers, builders and operators get it right.

Churches, states, banks, schools, and corporations, even marriage is just made up. But it takes a lot to get them right. And they really do make us different people.

Polygamy and monogamy are completely made up. At different times and in different places, communities embrace one or the other. But the consequences are very real. The 10 most violent nations in the world practice polygamy. When swaths of young men can't get a partner, the community is more violent.

Theocracy and democracy are completely made up. Voice of God or voice of the people? It's all social invention. But the consequences are very real. The 10 most prosperous countries in the world are democracies. Better truths come out of debate and multiple perspectives than from dictates from a religious elite.

About 100, 150 years ago we got much better at product invention. (Edison may have "invented" the first R&D lab. He died with over 1,000 patents in his name partly because he was an inventive genius but more so because he was one of the first to hire people to turn out inventions the way that others hired people to turn out products.)

We are learning more about social invention. One of the things we are learning is that most progress is incremental. A gain of 2% a year in income will double incomes every 35 years. The American revolution that gave religious freedom went much better than the French revolution that outlawed religion. We experiment our way into the future and while we challenge everything we pause before we blow up institutions. (We blew up the monarchy. We did not blow up the nation-state.)

The most important thing we are learning about social invention is that social constructs are like products, like other tools. They make our lives better but they are our tools, we are not theirs. You can love the creative genius of Karl Benz and Henry Ford without wondering whether they would approve of cup holders in a car or marvel at the genius of Jefferson and Hamilton without wondering whether they'd approve of a law banning child labor.

Social invention is at least as hard as designing, building and operating a 777 and it is even more important. If you mess up on a 777, only 400 people die. Errors in social invention kill millions.

So yes, it's all made up. And that should make you take it all the more seriously rather than be more flippant, more nihilistic about it.

27 June 2020

How Narratives Define Racism - even for the victims of racism

Narrative plays a big part in not only how we look at others but how we look at ourselves. Finding a narrative that is both positive and honest is an important trick. Positive - being kind to ourselves - gives us courage to try new things, which is key for development. Honest gives us feedback about what is and what is not working - which is also key for development. Change your narrative about others and they might become someone different. Change your narrative about yourself and you might become someone different.

Here is a revealing excerpt from Good Economics for Hard Times by the most recent Nobel Prize in Economics winners, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. It turns out that the narratives of racism are not just something we apply to others but actually something we apply to ourselves.


What is strange about these self-fulfilling prophecies is just how predictable they are. It is always a traditionally disadvantaged person who ends up as the victim of a biased, but self-fulfilling prediction; you never hear about white males being systematically underestimated in anything except sports. The bias stems from a stereotype rooted in the social context.

A study of African American and white Princeton undergraduates shows how deep this runs. The students, who had no prior experience of golf, were asked to perform a series of golf exercises of increasing difficulty. In a first experiment, half of them were asked to indicate their race in a questionnaire before they played (the standard way to “prime” race; that is, to bring group identity to the top of the mind), and half were not. All students were then presented the golf exercises as a test of “general sports performance.” When race was not primed, white and black students performed very similarly. But once race was made salient, the fact that golf is a “white” sport (this was before Tiger Woods) made the African Americans worsen their performance and the white students improve theirs, creating a large gap between the two.

In a second experiment, researchers did not prime race, but instead the students were randomly assigned to one of two treatments. In both groups, the instructions said the exercises would become increasingly challenging. In one group, the instructions said the test was designed to measure personal factors correlated with natural athletic ability. Natural athletic ability was defined as “one’s natural ability to perform complex tasks that require hand-eye coordination, such as shooting, throwing, or hitting a ball or other moving objects.” In the other, the same test was presented as measuring “sports intelligence,” or “personal factors correlated with the ability to think strategically during an athletic performance.” In the “natural ability” condition, the African Americans did much better than the whites. In the “sports intelligence” condition, the whites did much better than the African Americans. Everyone, including the blacks themselves, had bought into the stereotype of the African American natural athlete and the white natural strategic player. And this was at Princeton…

Banerjee, Abhijit and Duflo, Esther, Good Economics for Hard Times (pp. 116-117). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

16 June 2020

Our Policy Penalizes Women for Creating the Next Generation

Given how much we tax women to give birth to and raise the next generation, women who have graduate or professional degrees are twice as likely to be childless as women who are high school dropouts. Women with a Bachelor's degree are 30% more likely to be childless than a woman with only a high school diploma. We penalize women for creating the next generation and the penalty comes in the form of lost income.

(You can find the data for these calculations here:
https://www.census.gov/…/de…/fertility/women-fertility.html… )

We could change these results with a change in policy.

Make the rash assumption that you want someone to give birth to and raise the next generation. Further, rashly assume that you'd like those people to reflect the current workforce - people from the 1st to 99th percentile of income. That is, you don't want only the poor or very rich to be able to afford to take the time and afford the income cut that comes with having babies.

A wise society might not just minimize the cost for having a baby but actually provide a bonus to women who choose to become mothers.

As it is, women's wages first fall when they have a baby and then begin to rise again. But, "While this recovery is encouraging, it is not large enough to return women to their pre-birth earnings path." That is, women not only lose income at the time a baby is born but never quite get back to the same income trajectory they were on. An economist might tell you that the more something costs, the less of it people will buy. As crude as it sounds, the data suggests that this is even true for babies.


Even As COVID Cases Remain Steady, COVID Deaths Drop. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson Explains

Curious stats and theories from Derek Thompson at the Atlantic.

In the last 30 days, COVID cases per capita have remained steady but deaths per capita have fallen by 50%.

Thompson offers a few theories.

1. We're getting better at treating COVID.

2. Policy is more focused on protecting the vulnerable in places like nursing homes.

3. Knowing that the elderly are more vulnerable than the young, the elderly are generally not taking as many risks and not getting sick as often while the young are taking more risks and are the ones who make up a greater percentage of the new cases. If 100 people at random (let's say 33 young and 33  middle aged and 33 elderly and 1 person who would not tell us their age) get COVID, 5 might die. If 100 mostly young people (let's say 55 young and 35 middle aged and 10 elderly) get COVID, 2 might die. Bars filled with young people sharing COVID result in fewer deaths than COVID spreading through rest homes filled with old people.

Data from Florida supports Thompson's third theory: back in early April, people over 50 and under 50 were equally likely to get COVID. More recently, about 75% of the new cases have been among those under 50.

This is good news in that we are figuring out who most needs to protect themselves through physical isolation. It also suggests that 2020 is going to be a very long year for older people for whom shelter-in-place is still the right choice even in a world where things are gradually opening up.

His twitter thread on this is linked here.

14 June 2020

Nationalism vs. Economic Excellence

It still boggles my mind that nationalism has any support.

Here are two pie charts. It shows that the US has 3X as many top-tier AI researchers as it has produced. 

There is no country where mothers' wombs magically enable their children to excel at AI. These children are randomly born around the world. Of late, those babies tend to grow up to come work in the US. Our anti-immigrant, anti-trade policies are reversing that. It's nonsense.

Over the last decade, the US has led in the number of Nobel Prize winners: half of whom were born in other countries.

The US gets so many perks for being the place people come to work and research. The ripple effect of this is so great and goes in so many directions. Short-term, it creates jobs for American restaurant workers, dry cleaners, teachers, nurses ... Long-term, it creates new knowledge, technology, products, companies and industries.

My experience is that the more demanding the field, the greater the percentage of foreigners. It is about as hard for a product development team to be among the best in the world without immigrants as it is for a basketball, baseball or football team to play championship games without any players of color. Among their many evils, racism and nationalism lower levels of performance by creating artificial barriers to contribution and collaboration.

What the Right Gets Wrong About Voting by Mail

My friend Robert was very excited about voting by mail. This surprised me because he never really struck me as the kind of guy who was a big fan of more democracy. In fact, he seems to tilt authoritarian. A bit.

"Finally the left has come to its senses," Robert said excitedly.
"What brought this on," I asked.
"They're talking about voting by mail!"
"You're for that," I inquired.
"Of course! I think it's brilliant. Have you seen the polls that suggest how much that would change things? We would rock these elections!"
I paused a while, trying to process this.
"Robert," I finally responded. "You know that they are talking about voting by mail, M-A-I-L, not voting by male, M-A-L-E, right?"
He grew silent. About a minute later he muttered, "Stupid liberals."

13 June 2020

The Summer of Baby Boomers and Presidents: Trump, Bush and Clinton born w/in 66 days of each other

Tomorrow - 14 June - is Donald Trump's birthday.

14 August 1945, Japan surrendered and 10 months later, Trump was born. Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton were all born within 66 days, classic baby boomers.

When Bill was born, his father had recently died in a car accident and his mother was working as a hair dresser.

When George was born, his grandfather (who would become a US senator) was a partner at a prestigious bank and his father (who of course went on to become president) was a student at Yale.

Curiously, George and Bill's lives weren't as different as you might think. The house George W. Bush grew up in (in Midland, TX) was fourteen hundred square feet. Both Laura and Hillary wore off-the-rack dresses at their wedding to a future president.

The three baby boomers became president in reverse birth order: Clinton at 46, Bush at 54, and Trump at 70.

Obama, too, gets the designation of baby boomer even though he was born 15 years after Clinton (and at 47, was a year older than Clinton when he became president).

As of inauguration day 2021, baby boomers will have served as president for 28 years in a row, and 20 of those years by three men all born in the same summer.

09 June 2020

How Trump Has Made Police and Protesters Feel the Same: Powerless, Angry, and Alienated

Trump's work isn't done until he's managed to divide everyone. His worldview is "us vs. them," whether the them is Chyna or blue states or guys who served in the military but weren't real heroes because they were captured or ...

He is addicted to conflict and does all he can to stir it up. He still has at least half a year left. He's not done dividing the country because his route to getting all the power he wants is to make everyone else - from protesters who are literally taking over streets to the police who can literally arrest people - feel frustrated and powerless.

"Us vs. them" is the construct. "Us" is the reality. If you want to keep engaging in the fiction of division, well there is drama in that, as there so often is with fiction. Some people who haven't figured out a purpose for their lives need that kind of shallow drama to substitute for a deeper meaning. But it comes with turmoil.

The reality is that you can't escape "us." The argument for globalization isn't to create a world where we impact each other; the point of globalization is to adapt to that world, to that reality. You can't have a great home in a bad neighborhood, or a peaceful, prosperous country in world in turmoil. Progress comes from regularly creating new partners, not new enemies. The reality is that all of us affect all of us.

In the short video in this link, a New York police leader says, "Stop treating us like animals and thugs and start treating us with some respect ... Our legislators abandoned us. The press is vilifying us. It's disgusting."

Those of you who have been paying attention have heard Black protesters say very similar things with a very similar mix of anger and sadness.

You either go all in on "us" or you prepare for a life of conflict and manufactured scarcity. Because down the route of "us vs. them" are protesters and the police united by only one thing: a focus on how alienated and angry and unappreciated they feel. It's not just the police and protesters. The point is for everyone to feel this way. Because when normal people feel powerless, Trump feels powerful. That's the world Trump and a few chaos junkies thrive in. Normal, healthy people don't.

Tweet with video here.

06 June 2020

Podcasts Are Changing Politics Now the Way that Talk Radio Changed Politics in the 1990s

I visited Reagan's Presidential Library about a year ago. I was so struck by the obvious: Reagan had mastered radio and TV before he entered politics. He'd been an radio announcer, then movie star, and then had a radio commentary program before running for office. He was an incredibly effective politician in large part because he had mastered mass media. (He won re-election with nearly 60% of the popular vote and with 98% of the electoral vote.)

He left office with early onset dementia and talk radio came in to fill the gap that this communicator had left. Reagan left office in 1989, the year that Rush Limbaugh's radio career took off.

What talk radio did for politics after Reagan's presidency, podcasts are now doing for politics in the years after Obama's presidency.

Radio fractures attention with lots of ads and artificial deadlines (news at the top of the hour, traffic reports every 15 minutes, etc.). To keep you tuned in, it has to provoke. To get callers, it has to create controversy.

By contrast, podcasts don't have to fit any time slot. The same podcast could be 26 minutes one week and 66 minutes the next, depending on the guest and conversation. No one calls in, so they can explore ideas without feeling the need to make them argumentative. People have time to explain nuance, explore causes, and talk about possibilities. Concise is nice but inadequate for some conversations. Conservatives on talk radio simply have to defend the past and that lends itself to concision; progressives on podcasts are trying to define a new future and that process lends itself to long digressions rather than quick quips. Some issues have taken a long time to develop, will probably take a long time to resolve, and might - just might - take more than 3 minutes to discuss. Oh, and some topics have more than two sides, more than two options for moving forward. Podcasts lend themselves to exploration and not just advocacy and I think they were a big influence on what happened in the 2018 election and what will happen in this year's election.

I enjoy Ezra Klein's podcasts. This conversation of his with Ta-Nehisi Coates is really timely and also a good example of what is possible in a longer conversation that isn't perpetually interrupted by ads and is more intent on manufacturing possibilities than dissent. You may enjoy it.

04 June 2020

How Our Inequality in Educational Policy Drives Inequality in Income

Our country's most elite are beneficiaries of extraordinary investments. Our poor and middle class, not so much. This huge difference in educational investment makes for huge difference in lifetime earnings.

If you are in the top 1% of households in this country, your annual income would translate into $18 million in lifetime earnings. If you are in the 25th percentile, your lifetime earnings will be about a million dollars. This difference of 18 to 1 in lifetime earnings begins with a difference of about 10 to 1 in early investment.

It starts with public schools.

In K-12, Connecticut invests an average of $18,000 per student whereas Mississippi invests $8,000. Wealthy school districts spend even more than the state average. One wealthy school district in New York invests $27,000 per student.

Private, elite schools will invest about $75,000 a year in students.

It's no wonder that by the eighth grade, students from rich families are four grades ahead of students from poor families. A gap of 4 years by year 8.

The investment gap continues at university. $92,000 per year is invested in students at the most selective universities compared to $12,000 a year at the least selective.

"A 2004 study of the most selective private universities found more freshmen whose fathers were medical doctors alone than whose fathers were hourly workers, teachers, clergy, farmers, and soldiers combined." "More distressingly still, across the Ivy League, the University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke, more students come from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half."

In 1967, the ratio of subsidies at the most selective colleges to the subsidies at the least selective was 3 to 1. By 2007, that ratio had grown to 15 to 1. That is, even among the minority of citizens whose university education we subsidize, the disparity has become 5X greater in the last half century.

[All these stats on education are from Daniel Markovits' The Meritocracy Trap.]

What is the punchline? I think it won't be long before Americans insist on equal investments. For our brightest it may come in the form of education. For our most clever it might come in the form of capital equipment. For our most bold, it might come in the form of startup capital. For others it might simply come in the form of a bond or stock that pays an annual dividend or compounds during their working career. Narrowing the gap in investments could do a great deal to narrow the gap in income and wealth.

02 June 2020

Property, Protest and American Traditions

I'm feeling somewhat vindicated this week. My great (a bunch of times) grandfather moved to Boston about 150 years before the Boston Tea Party - in which radicals threw valuable Davison tea into the harbor.
We Davisons protested at the time but were largely - like our tea - drowned out by political activists who supported this looting.
It has taken a long time but finally those so-called "patriots" have come around to understand that property matters more than progress - a pretty surprising insight for a nation of coffee-drinking heathens.