We need to adjust to the technology that puts our intimate world and our remote world on the same screen

Tuesday, October 19th, 2021

Before the Internet and smart phones, there was a clear difference between what Arnold Kling calls the intimate world and the remote world:

The intimate world included the people with whom you interacted regularly — family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, the bowling team. The remote world was the world of celebrities, sports stars, politicians, criminals (am I repeating myself?). You followed them on television and in magazines.

On our smart phone, these two realms are indistinguishable. Your friends show up like celebrities, as they show off on social media. Swipe or scroll down, and now someone in the remote world is sharing a tweet with you.

Somehow, we need to adjust to the technology that puts our intimate world and our remote world on the same screen. Either we have to develop the instinct to keep these worlds separate from one another or else we have to adopt a set of cultural norms that allows us to live comfortably in a world in which the intimate world and the remote world are blended.

If the process is meritocratic, it is a good idea to trust the people at the top

Monday, September 6th, 2021

Humans are social learners, Arnold Kling reminds us:

We have to trust other people in order to gain knowledge and to make decisions. Our social epistemology will not get better by simply showing less deference to people who have a reputation for expertise.

I believe that the fundamental issue in social epistemology is the process by which people climb the status hierarchy. If the process is meritocratic, as in a chess tournament, it is a good idea to trust the people at the top. If the process is corrupted, by rules that are unfair or easily gamed. then the high-status people are not so worthy of our trust. But the solution to corruption is to improve the process, not (just) to belittle high-status people.

[…]

How do I determine that you are knowledgeable in a field? If I knew enough to independently verify your knowledge, then I would not need your expertise. Since I cannot personally evaluate your knowledge, I rely on a signal. The fundamental social challenge is to make sure that these signals are accurate.

Incumbents with high status in a field usually participate in setting up and operating the signaling system in their field. To at least some degree, this is desirable. You want doctors involved in the system that decides the qualification for who becomes a doctor.

But you also need a system that is open to innovation and capable of discarding conventional views that turn out to be wrong. If there is insufficient competition, an entire field can decay. I saw this happen in macroeconomics in the 1980s, as Stanley Fischer all but monopolized the placement at prestige universities of young macroeconomic specialists. Students who did not want to conform to Fischer’s approach ended up avoiding macroeconomics and/or accepting low-status placements. The result, in my opinion, was the atrophy of macroeconomics.

Affirmative action in higher education is supposed to be a free lunch

Wednesday, March 24th, 2021

Arnold Kling discusses the academic corruption from affirmative action:

Taking the pool of high school graduates as given, it is very hard to give African-Americans the comfort of being fully qualified for admission to a selective college as part of a large cohort of qualified African-American students. They can either be part of a small cohort or part of a large cohort that includes less-qualified students.

[...]

But my view is that college is not the place to try to fix racial inequalities. The attempt to fix these inequalities has to take place much earlier in young people’s lives, so that more black students graduate high school with strong educational backgrounds.

Affirmative action in higher education is supposed to be a free lunch. You can reduce social inequality and improve race relations without corrupting our standards. My guess is that you corrupt your standards without reducing social inequality, and you make race relations worse. If I am correct, then the unintended consequences of affirmative action have been severely adverse.

College no longer helps men to make the transition to adulthood

Monday, March 22nd, 2021

One source of academic corruption, Arnold Kling notes, is our emasculated culture, which Joyce F. Benenson and Henry Markovits discuss in Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes:

She and Roy Baumeister are the rare social scientists who see that (a) men and women differ on average in their behavioral tendencies and (b) male tendencies are not all bad.

Her book is grounded in observations of young boys and girls. My memories of my boyhood align perfectly with her picture of boys, and with the song lyrics above. We played team sports without supervision, put a lot of effort into setting rules, and competed to demonstrate skill. When we weren’t playing sports, we imagined ourselves fighting the “bad guys,” either in the Old West or in World War II.

One of her ideas is that men have a social strategy that works well in war: organize unrelated males, fight other groups overtly according to rules, then reconcile after battle. Women have a social strategy that works well for protecting their individual health and the health of their children: emphasize safety, covertly undermine the status of unrelated females, and exclude rivals rather than reconcile with them.

This leads me to speculate on the consequences of adding a lot of women to formerly male domains. Over the past several decades, a number of important institutions that were formerly almost exclusively male now include many women: academia, journalism, politics, and management positions in organizations. These institutions increasingly are discarding the values that sustained them when the female presence was less.

1. The older culture saw differential rewards as just when based on performance. The newer culture sees differential rewards as unjust.

2. The older culture sought people who demonstrate the most competence. The newer culture seeks to nurture those who are at a disadvantage.

3. The older culture admires those who seek to stand out. The newer culture disdains such people.

4. The older culture uses proportional punishment that is predictable based on known rules. The newer culture suddenly turns against a target and permanently banishes the alleged violator, based on the latest moral fashions.

5. The older culture valued open debate. The newer culture seeks to curtail speech it regards as dangerous.

6. The older culture saw liberty as essential to a good society. The newer culture sees conformity as essential to a good society.

7. The older culture was oriented toward achievement. The newer culture is oriented toward safety. Hence, we cannot complete major construction projects, like bridges, as efficiently as we used to.

[...]

College no longer helps men to make the transition to adulthood. It keeps them sheltered and controlled, and after graduation they end up living with their parents.

Teaching is emotionally rewarding only if your students want to learn

Saturday, March 20th, 2021

Government money has played a role in the decline of quality in academia, Arnold Kling argues:

Programs like the GI bill and student loan programs have swelled the ranks of college students. Programs like the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities have dumped huge amounts of money into higher education. The net effect has been harmful.

The conventional wisdom, which comes from college professors, is the exact opposite. They argue that we should be putting more young people through higher education than we do. That funding for research produces great positive externalities and we should do more of it. The same with funding for the humanities.

Average returns to higher education have gone up. But some of this has been due to government-engineered regulations that require firms to be bureaucratized for compliance purposes. Both the regulators and the corporate bureaucrats have college degrees.

More important, at the margin, we are sending people to college who do not belong there. This is demonstrated by low graduation rates as well as a significant number of graduates working at jobs that do not use anything they learned in college. Credentialism is out of control. Somebody could learn to be a physical therapist as an apprentice, but instead many states require a Ph.D for new PT’s.

The expansion of higher education increased the demand for professors. In the 1960s and 1970s, graduate schools cranked up the volume of post-graduate degrees. The results were excessive, in two senses. A lot of mediocre intellects acquired advanced degrees. And a lot of people with advanced degrees could not obtain full-time academic positions.

Expansion also lowered the quality of classrooms at all but the very top colleges. Teaching is emotionally rewarding only if your students want to learn. But most of the students that we send to college these days are not highly motivated learners. Below the top tier in higher education (the best 150 colleges, plus or minus), a typical class has poorly motivated students in a class taught by disappointed professors.

If W. Bentley MacLeod and Miguel Urquiola are correct that the U.S. already had the leading research universities before World War II, then the postwar government programs were not necessarily responsible for the growth of research. Instead, it is plausible that government money bureaucratized and homogenized research. Of course, now that government provides so much of the funding for research, professors are loathe to bite the hand that feeds them.

We should avoid the nirvana fallacy

Monday, January 11th, 2021

We are nowhere close to utopia, Arnold Kling reminds us, and we cannot see how to get there:

A major reason for this is lack of knowledge. We know today much more than we knew one hundred years ago. It seems reasonable to expect that in another hundred years, today’s level of knowledge will seem low. If we look at all of the past beliefs that today seem wrong-headed, we should be hesitant to commit to what we believe now.

[...]

1. We should be humble about predicting the consequences of public policies. In an economics textbook, a single “market imperfection” is shown in isolation, with the implicit assumption that everything else is perfect. Under those assumptions, the right tax, subsidy, or regulation can reliably produce improvement.

Most economists are familiar with the “theory of the second best,” which points out that trying to fix one problem, when there are other problems or constraints, can make things worse. This is a useful concept, but it only scratches the surface of strong imperfection.

2. We should welcome trial-and-error learning. The economic and social progress we have made is largely due to trial and error, not central planning. Because of strong imperfection, we know that many flaws and problems still exist. It is likely that solutions will come from trial and error going forward, just as in the past.

3. We should try to limit the number of personal flaws that we see as inexcusable. Both as a society and as individuals we should try to extend tolerance and forgiveness. Given our current state, I do not think we can do away with prisons, but I think we should be aiming in the direction of limiting their use. I also think that we should be reducing the number of “firing offenses” in the work place, not adding to them. As individuals, we should aim to reduce the set of excuses for cutting people off as friends.

4. We should avoid the “nirvana fallacy,” which involves comparing the current state to a perfect state. The most realistic change is likely to be from an imperfect current state to another imperfect state.

5. We should resist becoming Manichean. The motives of opponents are usually not as bad as we are inclined to make them out to be.

What if the virus had made its appearance in 1990

Sunday, October 4th, 2020

Arnold Kling asks, What if the virus had made its appearance in 1990?

  • I don’t think people would have self-quarantined. We didn’t have the infrastructure for low-cost direct-to-home delivery. We didn’t have the technology to allow people to work from home.
  • I don’t think we would have had lockdowns. We didn’t have a generation of people raised to believe that it was unsafe for children to play without adult supervision. Shelter-in-place orders from the government would have been too unpopular for elected leaders to contemplate.
  • We would not have been promised a vaccine. No one could have announced “We already sequenced the virus genome!” as if that meant a vaccine was coming any day now.
  • We would not have had all of the treatment options available today.
  • Our population would have had a lower proportion of high-risk individuals — fewer elderly, obese, and diabetic individuals.
  • We would not have had social media to fill our heads with statistics and model forecasts and expert pronouncements to keep the virus foremost in our minds.

Can the demise of democracy and free markets be far behind?

Saturday, August 15th, 2020

Arnold Kling foresees the Twilight of the Bourgeoisie and The Coming of Neo-Feudalism:

Overall, Kotkin’s thesis that the bourgeoisie is in decline is persuasive and disturbing. It is persuasive because the importance of education in social status is everywhere evident. In the 1950s, there were many corporate leaders who had only a high school education, and there were few with graduate degrees. Today, that is reversed.

The consolidation of economic power in Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google has been sudden and striking. It has confounded those of us who looked at the Internet revolution as a phenomenon that would empower smaller enterprises by decreasing the importance of physical capital.

The first wave of the Internet boom, in the late 1990s, was characterized by feverish entry and vigorous competition in the realms of Internet search, on-line shopping, and the hardware and software that consumers would use to access the World Wide Web. In contrast, the current tech boom seems to have entrenched the leaders in their respective positions.

Deirdre McCloskey has argued persuasively that bourgeois virtues raised the status of innovation and commerce, paving the way for our modern economic and political systems. If, as Kotkin argues, the status of the bourgeoisie is in the process of decline, can the demise of democracy and free markets be far behind?

Demonization becomes a winning Darwinian strategy

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

We learn by paying attention to what others attend to, which is why, Arnold Kling speculates, in-class learning works better than watching a lecture on line:

When I am in a classroom, others are paying attention to the speaker. This makes my attention to the speaker instinctive. I don’t have to use so much willpower to pay attention. But when it’s just me sitting in front of a computer, I have to will myself to pay attention. It uses up more effort and takes more out of me.

That’s not his main point though:

In the twentieth century, watching television or listening to the radio were often social activities. TV and radio could command our attention the way the speaker in a classroom would, through people paying attention to what others were attending to.

But we use 21st-century media in isolation. That means that the media need other means to command our attention. They cannot rely on our use of social cues. Instead, they have to rely on dopamine hits. Porn. Games. And demonization.

We get a dopamine hit by seeing the demonization of people with whom we disagree. So demonization becomes a winning Darwinian strategy in the age of contemporary media.

The whole point of writing The Three Languages of Politics was to describe demonization rhetoric under the assumption that people would not want to demonize. I thought that if you recognize the rhetoric, you would back away from it.

Instead, the religion that persecutes heretics justifies demonization. To criticize demonization is to be a heretic. In a world where people consume media in isolation, an ideology that justifies demonization has an advantage.

This is now called conservatism

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

American politics can be considered a tale of three liberalisms, George Will argues, in The Conservative Sensibility:

[T]he first of which, classical liberalism, teaches that the creative arena of human affairs is society, as distinct from government. Government’s proper function is to protect the conditions of life and liberty, primarily for the individual’s private pursuit of happiness. This is now called conservatism. Until the New Deal, however, it was the Jeffersonian spirit of most of the Democratic Party.

FDR’s New Deal liberalism was significantly more ambitious. He said that until the emergence of the modern industrial economy, “government had merely been called upon to produce the conditions within which people could live happily, labor peacefully and rest secure.” Now it would be called upon to play a grander role. It would not just provide conditions in which happiness, understood as material well-being, could be pursued. Rather, it would become a deliverer of happiness itself. Government, FDR said, has “final responsibility” for it. This “middle liberalism” of the New Deal supplemented political rights with economic rights.

The New Deal, the modern state it created, and the class of people for whom the state provided employment led to the third liberalism, that of the 1960s and beyond. This “managerial liberalism” celebrates the role of intellectuals and other policy elites in rationalizing society from above, wielding the federal government and the “science” of public administration, meaning bureaucracy.

The apotheosis of the first phase of liberalism, in Will’s view, was the American Founding, as Arnold Kling explains:

Madison and the other Founders took at as given that human nature made us sufficiently equal to deserve identical treatment under the law, sufficiently different to benefit from liberty and autonomy, sufficiently bellicose to require a government that could resolve disputes peacefully, and sufficiently factional that preventing one coalition from dominating the rest required a system of checks and balances.

Read the whole thing.

You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Arnold Kling shares his thoughts on the saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with:

Right now, I don’t have five close friends.

[...]

My social friends and my intellectual friends would not get along with one another.

[...]

Typically, someone matters to me very intensely for a few years, but hardly at all apart from that. In the late 1990s, I talked with my main business partner several times a day. Now we communicate about once a year.

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If I were to say that my intellectual life is an average of other people, I would list my father (a political science professor), Bernie Saffran (who was an economics professor at Swarthmore), and Russ Roberts. All three rank much higher in wisdom than their place in the academic hierarchy would indicate. All I would describe as much more open-minded, capable of lifelong learning, and able to change their mind more than typical academics. In general, I have found that people in business (such as Collison) are much more oriented toward learning than are academics. Many professors by age 30 have narrowed their intellectual world to a few peers that operate within their narrow sub-field. In business, you fail if you do that.

[...]

At all points in my life, the key people in my life have been very high in conscientiousness. Compared with others around them, they have been far more averse to recreational drugs or sexual adventures. You might accuse them of being inhibited. They are very conservative with personal finances and could live on much less than what they have. They would never allow career ambition to jeopardize family cohesion. They have a strong sense of agency – they would never celebrate victimhood. (In new-age jargon, they are “at cause” as opposed to “at effect.”)

I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Arnold Kling found Russ Roberts’ recent interview with Bryan Caplan to be one of his favorite EconTalk episodes, “because Russ pushes back so hard and of course Bryan debates effectively.” I also enjoyed both the Caplan quotes he cited:

I would say if there is no designable test that can show that people learn something, then they haven’t learned it. You might say the test is bad, in which case I would say, ‘Fine. Design a better test, and then show it to me.’ But, if you want to say that people have been transformed but it’s a way that no one can actually show, no matter how hard they try, then I’m going to say, ‘No. That just sounds like wishful thinking.’

[...]

I’m weird in this way, in that when I read something that seems true to me, like I just feel this incredible, this weight on the world: ‘I must repent. I can’t keep living the way I used to live anymore. I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions, day after day. And, I’m a sinner if I don’t.’ But even that is such a weird response to a book. Most people read Tetlock’s Superforecasting and say, ‘Oh, yeah. So interesting. Some people are really great at this stuff. Yeah. Right.’ And then they go back and live their normal lives.

Intellectual indoor plumbing and toxic ideas that spread like wildfire

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Glenn Reynolds has been reading James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, and he notes how fragile early civilizations were:

A bunch of people and their animals would crowd together in a city, and diseases that weren’t much of a threat when everybody was spread out hunting and gathering would suddenly spread like wildfire and depopulate the town almost overnight.

As Scott writes, an early city was more like a refugee resettlement camp than a modern urban area. He observes that “the pioneers who created this historically novel ecology could not possibly have known the disease vectors they were inadvertently unleashing.”

Then I ran across this observation on Twitter: “The Internet is rewiring brains and social relations. Could it be producing a civilizational nervous breakdown?” And I saw another article noting that depression in teens skyrocketed between 2010 and 2015, as smartphones took over. It made me wonder if we’re in the same boat as the neolithic cities, only for what you might call viruses of the mind: Toxic ideas that spread like wildfire.

[...]

Likewise, in recent years we’ve gone from an era when ideas spread comparatively slowly, to one in which social media in particular allow them to spread like wildfire. Sometimes that’s good, when they’re good ideas. But most ideas are probably bad; certainly 90% of ideas aren’t in the top 10%. Maybe we don’t know the mental disease vectors that we’re inadvertently unleashing.

It took three things to help control the spread of disease in cities: sanitation, acclimation and better nutrition.

[...]

We don’t know much about the spread of ideas, or what would constitute the equivalent of intellectual indoor plumbing. (Censorship isn’t enough, as it often just promotes the spread of bad ideas that people in power like). Over time we’ll learn more. Maybe we’ll come up with something like the germ theory of disease for ideas.

And perhaps people will acclimate. Twitter is still new, and amplifies crazy opinions. People may learn to spend less time on social media or to avoid them altogether. (In Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, the elites of the future consume their news on paper, and send each other handwritten notes; electronic communication is for the plebes.) But that will take time.

Where we can do something right away is with the equivalent of nutrition. Traditional training in critical thinking — the sort of thing the humanities used to revolve around, before they became focused on “social justice” — seems like it would be a useful protective. A skepticism regarding groupthink, ad hominem arguments and virtue signaling would likely offer considerable protection against the sort of mass hysteria we seem increasingly vulnerable to. Likewise, a social consensus on important ideas — the kinds of things we used to teach in civics classes — would help.

The Diamond Age is definitely one of those novels that stuck with me. (Dune is another.)

Arnold Kling points out that this ties in nicely with the recent talk between Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt, where they discuss how the sense of disgust evolved to protect people not just from disease:

We tend to feel an instinctive disgust toward groups with customs and manners that differ from our own. If you can overcome this instinct to feel disgust when you are around foreigners, then you can benefit from their ideas and culture. But you increase somewhat your risk of contracting disease. Peterson describes Adolf Hitler as operating on the theory that having Jews or Gypsies in a population was like having rats in a factory. He was so concerned about the disease that might be spread by such creatures that he wanted them eradicated.

A cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Arnold Kling sees politics as religion, defining religion as a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe:

A broad set of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices constitutes culture. Narrow that down to a subset of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices that clearly define who is or is not a member of the tribe. Focus on that subset. For example, Jews eat gefilte fish, observe Yom Kippur, and don’t pray to Jesus. But only a subset of those (observing Yom Kippur and not praying to Jesus) are tribally definitive. The rabbis won’t question your Jewish identity if you turn down gefilte fish.

No tribe is perfectly defined by a precise list of cultural characteristics. But bear with me and think in terms of tribally defining cultural subsets.

A tribally defining cultural subset will (a) tend to empower adherents to obey, enforce, and regularly re-affirm tribal norms, and (b) lead its members to fear and despise people who are not members of the tribe.

Further comments:

1. Cosmopolitans (including progressives, libertarians, and conservative intellectuals) would say that, yes, historically, “fear and despise” was part of religion, but that is a bug, not a feature. Ironically, cosmopolitans start to look like a tribe that fears and despises people who espouse traditional religions. And yes, there does seem to be a fourth axis here: cosmopolitan vs. populist, or Bobo vs. anti-Bobo.

2. The role of a transcendent being is to help motivate members to obey tribal norms, for fear of being punished by the transcendent being (See Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods). However, belief in a transcendent being is not necessary to have a modern large-scale tribe. But it does seem necessary to have an out-group that you fear and despise.

3. Historically, major religions have usually fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe.

4. Usually, modern nation-states have fit this notion. There are those who say that nation-states were a better tribal bonding technology (so to speak) than belief in a transcendent being, and hence they made religion relatively unnecessary.

5. Finally, to the commenter’s point, I think that some political ideologies have come to fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe. The current progressive ideology seems to me to fit the notion particularly well. But the three-axis model suggests that conservatives and libertarians are tribal, also. Again, the emergence of the Bobo vs. anti-Bobo conflict has scrambled things quite a bit.

The null hypothesis is not an iron law

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

Statistically, educational interventions tend to affect resource allocation much more than outcomes, Arnold Kling reminds us, so, for educational interventions within roughly the current institutional setting, the null hypothesis is not an iron law, but it is an empirical regularity. This led me to add:

What stands out to me is just how little variation we see between schooling options. Public schools are all run on the same basic plan. Catholic schools are too, but with stricter discipline. Private schools aren’t much different, but with a wealthier clientele.

Only a few niche alternatives, such as Montessori and Waldorf, offer something truly different, and they obviously attract unusual families.