TSA link collection

Just a reminder as you travel this holiday season: the TSA is a total waste of money.

The following lists are nowhere close to comprehensive. They are just the links I happened to save over time. The first two groups (Fools, Criminals) are only anecdotes and are a small sample over the course of many years. However, the third group (Incompetent) involves larger sample sets and speaks to the central question: Does the TSA keep us safe?

Fools:
TSA fires screener caught sleeping in Seattle – CNN, January 6, 2003
Florida teen detained because her purse had an image of a gun – Yahoo News, December 2, 2011
TSA subjects wheelchair-bound three-year-old to humiliating search – The Daily Mail, March 19, 2012
TSA Apologizes To Family After Clip of 3-Year-Old Girl in Wheelchair Goes Viral – Huffington Post, February 21, 2013 (Note this is a separate instance than the previous story.)
TSA Humiliated Double Amputee Marine – KTLA, March 22, 2013
TSA Agents Detained Nine-Year Old Boy Because He Had A Pacemaker – Reason, August 23, 2016
A panty liner triggers a TSA pat-down – Washington Post, March 30, 2017

Criminals:
3 ex-TSA workers plead guilty to theft – Seattle Pi, September 23, 2005
TSA Screener Arrested [after taking money from a passenger’s wallet] – TMJ4, October 14, 2006
Ex-TSA agent sentenced for role in pot smuggling scheme at LAX – Daily Breeze, March 25, 2013
6 Shockingly Childish Abuses of Power by Airport Employees – Cracked, April 22, 2014
Suit: Man held 20 hours after asking to file TSA complaint – San Diego Tribune, February 4, 2015
Video Shows Airport Security Tackling Cancer Patient With Disability – Huffington Post, August 12, 2016
A TSA agent who may have lied about a bomb threat can’t be sued – Los Angeles Times op-ed, August 26, 2017 (Passenger threatens to file a complaint against TSA agent, so TSA agent falsely tells police passenger made a bomb threat.)

Incompetent
Airport screeners fail to see most test bombs – Seattle Times, October 28, 2006
The Things He Carried – The Atlantic, November 2008 (Atlantic correspondent carries prohibited items on to multiple flights while investigating what the TSA can actually detect.)
TSA’s Program to Spot Terrorists a $200M Sham? – CBS, May 19, 2010 “The program is failing to catch terrorists. It’s never even caught one.”
Does the TSA Ever Catch Terrorists? – Slate, November 18, 2010
TSA Source: Armed Agent Slips Past DFW Body Scanner – NBC, February 21, 2011
The case for abolishing the TSA – Vox, May 26, 2014
Acting TSA director reassigned after screeners failed tests to detect explosives, weapons – CNN, June 2, 2015 (Note in both 2006 and 2015 the TSA failed to detect the relevant items over 90% of the time.)

The TSA is Still Really Bad at Evaluating Risk – Reason, December 21, 2017
Please, TSA Workers, Don’t Come Back – Reason, January 9, 2019

And just for fun:

See also the related DR post: TSA: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

Cancel Culture Is Real

Cancel, Social, Society, Culture, Stop, Pull Back

Last month, Harper’s published an anti-cancel culture statement: A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.The letter was signed by a wide variety of writers and intellectuals, ranging from Noam Chomsky to J. K. Rowling. It was a kind of radical centrist manifesto, including major names like Jonathan Haidt and John McWhorter (two of my favorite writers) and also crossing lines to pick up folks like Matthew Yglesias (not one of my favorite writers, but I give him respect for putting his name to this letter.)

The letter kicked up a storm of controversy from the radical left, which basically boiled down to two major contentions. 

  1. There is no such thing as cancel culture.
  2. Everyone has limits on what speech they will tolerate, so there’s no difference between the social justice left and the liberal left other than where to draw the lines.

The “Profound Consequences” of Cancel Culture

The first contention was represented in pieces like this one from the Huffington Post: Don’t Fall For The ‘Cancel Culture’ Scam. In the piece, Michael Hobbes writes:

While the letter itself, published by the magazine Harper’s, doesn’t use the term, the statement represents a bleak apogee in the yearslong, increasingly contentious debate over “cancel culture.” The American left, we are told, is imposing an Orwellian set of restrictions on which views can be expressed in public. Institutions at every level are supposedly gripped by fears of social media mobs and dire professional consequences if their members express so much as a single statement of wrongthink.

This is false. Every statement of fact in the Harper’s letter is either wildly exaggerated or plainly untrue. More broadly, the controversy over “cancel culture” is a straightforward moral panic. While there are indeed real cases of ordinary Americans plucked from obscurity and harassed into unemployment, this rare, isolated phenomenon is being blown up far beyond its importance.

There is a kernel of truth to what Hobbes is saying, but it is only a kernel. Not that many ordinary Americans are getting “canceled”, and some of those who are cancelled are not entirely expunged from public life. They don’t all lose their jobs. 

But then, they don’t all have to lose their jobs for the rest of us to get the message, do they?

The basic analytical framework here is wrong. Hobbes assumes that the “profound consequences” of cancel culture have yet to be manifest. “Again and again,” he writes, “the decriers of “cancel culture” intimate that if left unchecked, the left’s increasing intolerance for dissent will result in profound consequences.”

The reason he can talk about hypothetical future consequences is that he’s thinking about the wrong consequences. Hobbes appears to think that the purpose of cancel culture is to cancel lots and lots of people. If we dont’ see hordes–thousands, maybe tens of thousands–of people canceled then there aren’t any “profound consequences”.

This is absurd. The mob doesn’t break kneecaps for the sake of breaking knee caps. They break knee caps to send a message to everyone else to pay up without resisting. Intimidation campaigns do not exist to make examples out of everyone. They make examples out of (a few) people in order to intimidate many more. 

Cancel culture is just such an intimidation campaign, and so the “profound consequences” aren’t the people who are canceled. The “profound consequences” are the people–not thousands or tens of thousands but millions–who hide their beliefs and stop speaking their minds because they’re afraid. 

And yes, I mean millions. Cato does polls on that topic, and they found that 58% of Americans had “political views they’re afraid to share” in 2017 and, as of just a month ago, that number has climbed to 62%. 

Gee, nearly two-thirds of Americans are afraid to speak their minds. How’s that for “profound consequences”?

Obviously Cato has a viewpoint here, but other studies are finding similar results. Politico did their own poll, and while it didn’t ask about self-censoring, it did ask what Americans think about cancel culture. According to the poll, 46% think it has gone “too far” while only 10% think it has gone “not far enough”. 

Moreover, these polls also reinforce something obvious: cancel culture is not just some general climate of acrimony. According to both the Cato and Politico polls, Republicans are much more likely to self-censor as a result of cancel culture (77% vs 52%)  and Democrats are much more likely to participate in the silencing (~50% of Democrats “have voiced their displeasure with a public figure on social media” vs. ~30% of Republicans).

Contrast these poll results with what Hobbes calls the “pitiful stakes” of cancel culture. He mocks low-grade intimidation like “New York Magazine published a panicked story about a guy being removed from a group email list.” Meanwhile, more than three quarters of Republicans are afraid to be honest about their own political beliefs. We don’t need to worry about hypothetical future profound consequences. They’re already here.

What Makes Cancel Culture Different

The second contention–which is that everyone has at least some speech they’d enthusiastically support canceling–is a more serious objection. After all: it’s true. All but the very most radical of free speech defenders will draw the line somewhere. If this is correct, then isn’t cancel culture just a redrawing of boundaries that have always been present?

To which I answer: no. There really is something new and different about cancel culture, and it’s not just the speed or ferocity of its adherents.

The difference goes back to a post I wrote a few months ago about the idea of an ideological demilitarized zone. I don’t think I clearly articulated my point in that post, so I’m going to reframe it (very briefly) in this one.

A normal, healthy person will draw a distinction between opinions they disagree with and actively oppose and opinions they disagree with that merit toleration or even consideration. That’s what I call the “demilitarized zone”: the collection of opinions that you think are wrong but also reasonable and defensible

Cancel culture has no DMZ.

Think I’m exaggerating? This is a post from a Facebook friend (someone I know IRL) just yesterday:

You can read the opinion of J. K. Rowling for yourself here. Agree or disagree, it is very, very hard for any reasonable person to come away thinking that Rowling has anything approaching personal animus towards anyone who is transgender for being transgender. (The kind of animus that might justify calling someone a “transphobic piece of sh-t” and trying to retconn her out of reality.) In the piece, she writes with empathy and compassion of the transgender community and states emphatically that, “I know transition will be a solution for some gender dysphoric people,” adding that:

Again and again I’ve been told to ‘just meet some trans people.’ I have: in addition to a few younger people, who were all adorable, I happen to know a self-described transsexual woman who’s older than I am and wonderful.

So here’s the difference between cancel culture and basically every other viewpoint on the political spectrum: they can acknowledge shades of grey and areas where reasonable people can see things differently, cancel culture can’t and won’t. Cancel culture is binary (ironically). You’re either 100% in conformity with the ideology or you’re “a —–phobic piece of sh-t”.

This is not incidental, by the way. Liberal traditions trace their roots back to the Enlightenment and include an assumption that truth exists as an objective category. As long as that’s the case–as long as there’s an objective reality out there–then there is a basis for discussion about it. There’s also room for mistaken beliefs about it. 

Cancel culture traces its roots back to critical theory, which rejects notions of reason and objective truth and sees instead only power. It’s not the case that people are disagreeing about a mutually accessible, external reality. Instead, all we have are subjective truth claims which can be maintained–not by appeal to evidence or logic–but only through the exercise of raw power.

Liberal traditions–be they on the left or on the right–view conflict through a lens that is philosophically compatible with humility, correction, cooperation, and compromise. That’s not to say that liberal traditions actually inhabit some kind of pluralist Utopia where no one plays dirty to win. It’s not like American politics (or politics anywhere) existed in some kind of genteel Garden of Eden until critical theory showed up. But no matter how acrimonious or dirty politics got before cancel culture, there was also the potential for cross-ideological discussion. Cancel culture doesn’t even have that.

This means that, while it’s possible for other viewpoints to coexist in a pluralist society, it is not possible for cancel culture to do the same. It isn’t a different variety of the same kind of thing. It’s a new kind of thing, a totalitarian ideology that has no self-limiting principle and views any and all dissent as an existential threat because it’s own truth claims are rooted solely in an appeal to power. For cancel culture, being right and winning are the same thing, and every single debate is a facet of the same existential struggle

So yes, all ideologies want to cancel something else. But only cancel culture wants to cancel everything else.

Last Thoughts

Lots of responders to the Harper’s letter pointed out that the signers were generally well-off elites. It seemed silly, if not outright hypocritical, for folks like that to whine about cancel culture, right?

My perspective is rather different. As someone who’s just an average Joe with no book deals, no massive social media following, no tenure, nor anything like that: I deeply appreciate someone with J. K. Rowling’s stature trading some of her vast hoard of social capital to keep the horizons of public discourse from narrowing ever farther. 

And that’s exactly why the social justice left hates her so much. They understand power, and they know how crippling it is to their cause to have someone like her demure from their rigid orthodoxy. Their concern isn’t alleviated because her dissent is gentle and reasonable. It’s worsened, because it makes it even harder to cancel her and underscores just how toxic their totalitarian ideology really is.

I believe in objective reality. I believe in truth. But I’m pragmatic enough to understand that power is real, too. And when someone like J. K. Rowling uses some of her power in defense of liberalism and intellectual diversity, I feel nothing but gratitude for the help.

We who want to defend the ideals of classical liberalism know just how much we could use it.

Note on Critics of Civilization

Shrapnel from a Unabomber attack. Found on Flickr.

Came across this article in my Facebook feed: Children of Ted. The lead in states:

Two decades after his last deadly act of ecoterrorism, the Unabomber has become an unlikely prophet to a new generation of acolytes.

I don’t have a ton of patience for this whole line of reasoning, but it’s trendy enough that I figure I ought to explain why it’s so silly.

Critics of industrialization are far from new, and obviously they have a point. As long as we don’t live in a literal utopia, there will be things wrong with our society. They are unlikely to get fixed without acknowledging them. What’s more, in any sufficiently complex system (and human society is pretty complex), any change is going to have both positive and negative effects, many of which will not be immediately apparent.

So if you want to point out that there are bad things in our society: yes, there are. If you want to point out that this or that particular advance has had deleterious side effects: yes, all changes do. But if you take the position that we would have been better off in a pre-modern, per-industrial, or even pre-agrarian society: you’re a hypocritical nut job.

I addressed this trendy argument when I reviewed Yuval Noah Harai’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Quoting myself:

Harari is all-in for the hypothesis that the Agricultural Revolution was a colossal mistake. This is not a new idea. I’ve come across it several times, and when I did a quick Google search just now I found a 1987 article by Jared Diamond with the subtle title: The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Diamond’s argument then is as silly as Harari’s argument is now, and it boils down to this: life as a hunter-gatherer is easy. Farming is hard. Ergo, the Agricultural Revolution was a bad deal. If we’d all stuck around being hunter-gatherers we’d be happier.

There are multiple problems with this argument, and the one that I chose to focus on at the time is that it’s hedonistifc. Another observation one can make is that if being a hunter-gatherer is so great, nothing’s really stopping Diamond or Harai from living that way. I’m not saying it would be trivial, but for all the folks who sagely nod their head and agree with the books and articles that claim our illiterate ancestors had it so much better… how many are even seriously making the attempt?

The argument I want to make is slightly different than than the ones I’ve made before and is based on economics.

Three fundamental macroeconomic concepts are: production, consumption, and investment. Every year a society produces are certain amount of stuff (mining minerals, refining them, turning them into goods, growing crops, etc.) All of that stuff is eventually used in one of two ways: either it’s consumed (you eat the crops) or invested (you plant the seeds instead of eating them).

From a material standpoint, the biggest change in human history has been the dramatic rise in per-capita production over the last few centuries, especially during the Industrial Revolution. This is often seen as a triumph of science, but that is mostly wrong. Virtually none of the important inventions of the Industrial Revolution were produced by scientists or even my lay persons attempting to apply scientific principles. They were almost uniformly invented by self-taught tinkerers who were experimenting with practical rather than theoretical innovations.

Another way to see this is to observe that many of the “inventions” of the Industrial Revolution had been discovered many times in the past. A good example of this is the steam engine. In “Destiny Disrupted,” Tamim Ansary observes:

Often, we speak of great inventions as if they make their own case merely by existing. But in fact, people don’t start building and using a device simply because it’s clever. The technological breakthrough represented by an invention is only one ingredient in its success. The social context is what really determines whether it will take. The steam engine provides a case in point. What could be more useful? What could be more obviously world-changing? Yet the steam engine was invented in the Muslim world over three centuries before it popped up in the West, and in the Muslim world it didn’t change much of anything. The steam engine invented there was used to power a spit so that a whole sheep might be roasted efficiently at a rich man’s banquet. (A description of this device appears in a 1551 book by the Turkish engineer Taqi al-Din.) After the spit, however, no other application for the device occurred to anyone, so it was forgotten.

Ansary understands that the key ingredient in whether or not an invention takes off (like the steam engine in Western Europe in the 18th century) or dies stillborn (like the steam engine in the 15th century Islamic world) is the social context around it.

Unfortunately, Ansary mostly buys into the same absurd notion that I’m debunking, which is that all this progress is a huge mistake. According to him, the Chinese could have invented mechanized industry in the 10th century, but the benevolent Chinese state had the foresight to see that this would take away jobs from its peasant class and, being benevolent, opted instead to keep the Chinese work force employed.

This is absurd. First, because there’s no chance that the Chinese state (or anyone) could have foreseen the success and conseqeunces of mechanized industry in the 10th century and made policy based on it even if they’d wanted to. Second, because the idea that it’s better to keep society inefficient rather than risk unemployment is, in the long run, disastrous.

According to Ansary, the reason that steam engines, mechanized industry, etc. all took place in the West was misanthropic callousness:

Of course, this process [modernization] left countless artisans and craftspeople out of work, but this is where 19th century Europe differed from 10th century China. In Europe, those who had the means to install industrial machinery had no particular responsibility for those whose livelihood would be destroyed by a sudden abundance of cheap machine-made goods. Nor were the folks they affected down-stream–their kinfolk or fellow tribesmen–just strangers who they had never met and would never know by name. What’s more, it was somebody else’s job to deal with the social disruptions caused by widespread unemployment, not theirs. Going ahead with industrialization didn’t signify some moral flaw in them, it merely reflected the way this particular society was compartmentalized. The Industrial Revolution could take place only where certain social preconditions existed and in Europe at that time they happened to exist.

Not a particular moral flaw in the individual actors, Ansary concedes, but still a society that was wantonly reckless and unconcerned with the fate of its poor relative to the enlightened empires that foresaw the Industrial Revolution from end-to-end and declined for the sake of their humble worker class.

The point is that when a society has the right incentives (I’d argue that we need individual liberty via private property and a restrained state alongside compartmentalization) individual innovations are harnessed, incorporated, and built upon in a snowball effect that leads to ever and ever greater productivity. A lot of the productivity comes from the cool new machines, but not all of it.

You see, once you have a few machines that give that initial boost to productivity, you free up people in your society to do other things. When per-capita production is very, very low, everyone has to be a farmer. You can have a tiny minority doing rudimentary crafts, but the vast majority of your people need to work day-in and day-out just to provide enough food for the whole population not to starve to death.

When per-capita production is higher, fewer and few people need to do work creating the basic rudiments (food and clothes) and this frees people up to specialize. And specialization is the second half of the secret (along with new machines) that leads to the virtuous cycle of modernization. New tools boost productivity, this frees up new workers to try doing new things, and some of those new things include making even more new tools.

I’m giving you the happy side of the story. Some people go from being farmers to being inventors. I do not mean to deny but simply to balance the unhappy side of the story, which is what some people go from being skilled workers to being menial labors if a machine renders their skills obsolete. That also happens, although it’s worth noting that the threat to modernization is generally not to the very poorest. Americans like to finger-wag at “sweatshops”, but if your alternative is subsistence farming, then even sweatshops may very well look appealing. Which is why so many of the very poorest keep migrating from farms to cities (in China) and why the opposition to modernization never comes from the poorest classes (who have little to lose) but from the precarious members of the middle class (who do).

So my high-level story of modernization has a couple of key points.

  1. If you want a high standard of living for a society, you need a high level of per capita production.
  2. You get a high level of per capita production through a positive feedback loop between technological innovation and specialization. (This might be asymptotic.)
  3. The benefits of this positive feedback loop include high-end stuff (like modern medicine) and also things we take for granted. And I don’t mean electricity (although, that, too) but also literacy.
  4. The costs of this positive feedback loop include the constant threat of obsolescence for at least some workers, along with greater capacity to destroy on an industrial scale (either the environment or each other).

So the fundamental question you have to ask is whether you want to try and figure out how to manage the costs so that you can enjoy the benefits, or whether the whole project isn’t worth it and we should just give up and start mailing bombs to each other until it all comes crashing down.

The part that really frustrates me the most, that part that spurred me to write this today, is that folks like Ted Kaczynski (the original Unabomber) or John Jacobi (the first of his acolytes profiles in the New York Mag story) are only even possible in a modern, industrialized society.

They are literate, educated denizens of a society that produces so much stuff that lots of its members can survive basically without producing much of all. We live in an age of super abundance, and it turns out that abundance creates it’s own variety of problems. Obesity is one. Another, apparently, is a certain class of thought that advocates social suicide.

Because that’s what we’re talking about. As much as Diamond and Harai are just toying with the notion because it sells books and makes them look edgy, folks like John Jacobi or Ted Kaczynski would–if they had their way–bring about a world without any of the things that make their elitist theorizing possible in the first place.

It is a great tragedy of human nature that the hard-fought victories of yesterday’s heroic pioneers and risk-takers are casually dismissed by the following generation who don’t even realize that their apparent radicalism is just another symptom of super-abundance.

They will never succeed in reducing humanity to a pre-industrial state but they–and others who lack the capacity to appreciate what they’ve been given–can make enough trouble that the rising generation will, we hope, have a more constructive, aspirational, and less-suicidal frame of mind.

Hold Up Your Light

You’ve probably seen something like this meme in your own social media network feeds. 

I’m gonna do two things to this meme. First: debunk it. Not because it’s all that notable, but because it’s a pretty typical example of something scary and nasty in our society. And that’s what we’re going to get to second: zooming out from this particular specimen to the whole species.

This meme has the appearance of being some kind of insight or realization into American politics in the context of an important current event (the pandemic), but all of that is just a front. There is no analysis and there is no insight. It’s just a pretext to deliver the punchline: conservatives are selfish and bad. 

You can think of the pseudo-argument as being like the outer coating on a virus. The sole purpose is to penetrate the cell membrane to deliver a payload. It’s a means to an end, nothing more. 

Which means the meme, if you ignore the candy coating, is just a cleverly packaged insult. 

You see, conservatives don’t object to pandemic regulations because they would rather watch their neighbors die than shoulder a trivial inconvenience. They object to pandemic regulations (when they do; I think the existence of objections is exaggerated) because Americans in general and conservatives in particular have an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide. Anti-authoritarianism is part of who we are. It’s not always reasonable or mature, but then again, it’s not a bad reflex to have, all things considered.

One of the really clever things about the packaging around this insult is that it’s kind of self-fulfilling. It accuses conservatives of being stubborn while it also insults them. What happens to people who are already being a little stubborn if you start insulting them? In most cases, they get more stubborn. Which means every time a conservative gets mad about this meme, a liberal spreading it can think, “Yeah, see? I knew I was right.”

Oh, and if incidentally it happens to actually discourage mask use? Oh well. That’s just collateral damage. Because people who spread memes like this care more about winning political battles than epidemiological ones. 

Liberals who share this meme are guaranteed to get what they really want: that little frisson of superiority. Because they care. They are willing to sacrifice. They are reasonable. So reasonable that they are happy to titillate their own feeling of superiority even if it has the accidental side effect of, you know, undermining compliance with those rules they care so much about. 

I’m being a little cynical here, but only a little. This meme is just one example of countless millions that all have the same basic function: stir controversy. And yes, there are conservatives analogs to this liberal meme that do the exact same thing. I don’t see as many of them because I’m quicker to mute fellow conservatives who aggravate me than liberals. 

Why did we get here?

You can blame the Russians, if you like. The KGB meddled with American politics as much as they could for decades before the fall of the USSR and Putin was around for that. Why would the FSB (contemporary successor) have given up the old hobby? But the KGB wasn’t ever any good at it, and I’m skeptical that the FSB has cracked the code. I’m sure their efforts don’t help, but I also don’t think they’re largely to blame. 

We’re doing this to ourselves.

The Internet runs on ads, and that means the currency of the Internet is attention. You are not the customer. You are the commodity. That’s not just true of Facebook and it’s not just a slogan. It’s the underlying reality of the Internet, and it sets the incentives that every content producer has to contend with if they want to survive.

The way to harvest attention is through engagement. Every content producer out there wants to hijack your attention by getting you engaged in what they’re telling you. There are a lot of ways to do this. Clickbait headlines hook your curiosity, attractive models wearing little clothes snag  your libido, and so on. But the king of engagement seems to be outrage, and there’s an insidious reason why.

Other attention grabbers work on only a select audience at a time. Other than bisexuals, attractive male models will grab one half of the audience and attractive female models will grab the other half, but you have to pick either / or. 

But outrage lets you engage two audiences with one piece of content. That’s what a meme like this one does, and it’s why it’s so successful. It infuriates conservatives while at the same time titillating liberals. (Again: I could just as easily find a conservative liberal that does the opposite.) 

When you realize that this meme is actually targeting conservatives and liberals, you also realize that the logical deficiency of the argument isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. It’s just another provocation, the way that some memes intentionally misspell words just to squeeze out a few more interactions, a few more clicks, a few more shares. If you react to this meme with an angry rant, you’re still reacting to this meme. That means you’ve already lost, because you’ve given away your attention. 

A lot of the most dangerous things in our environment aren’t trying to hurt us. Disease and natural disasters don’t have any intentions. And even the evils we do to each other are often byproducts of misaligned incentives. There just aren’t that many people out there who really like hurting other people. Most of us don’t enjoy that at all. So the conventional image of evil–mustache-twirling super-villians who want to murder and torture–is kind of a distraction. The real damage isn’t going to come from the tiny population of people who want to cause harm. It’s going to come from the much, much, much larger population of people who don’t have any particular desire to do harm, but who aren’t really that concerned with avoiding it, either. These people will wreck the world faster than anyone else because none of them are doing that much damage on their own and because none of them are motivated by malice. That makes it easier for them to rationalize their individual contribution to an environment that, in the aggregate, becomes extremely toxic. 

At this point, I’d really, really like everyone reading this to take a break and read Scott Alexander’s short story, “Sort by Controversial“. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back? OK, good, let’s wrap this up. The meme above is a scissor (that’s from Alexander’s story, if you thought you could skip reading it). The meme works by presenting liberals with an obviously true statement and conservatives with an obviously false statement. For liberals: You should tolerate minor inconveniences to save your neighbors. For conservatives: You should do whatever the government tells you to do without question.

That’s the actual mechanism behind scissors. It’s why half the people think it’s obviously true and the other half think it’s obviously false. They’re not actually reacting to the same issue. But they are reacting to the same meme. And so they fight, and–since they both know their position is obvious–the disagreement rapidly devolves. 

The reality is that most people agree on most issues. You can’t really find a scissor where half the population thinks one thing and half the population thinks the other because there’s too much overlap. But you can present two halves of the population with subtly different messages at the same time such that one half viscerally hates what they hear and the other half passionately loves what they hear, and–as often as not–they won’t talk to each other long enough to realize that their not actually fighting over the same proposition. 

This is how you destroy a society.

The truth is that it would be better, in a lot of ways, if there were someone out there who was doing this to us. If it was the FSB or China or terrorists or even a scary AI (like a nerdier version of Skynet) there would be some chance they could be opposed and–better still–a common foe to unite against.

But there isn’t. Not really. There’s no conspiracy. There’s no enemy. There’s just perverse incentives and human nature. There’s just us. We’re doing this to ourselves.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doomed, but it does mean there’s no easy or quick solution. I don’t have any brilliant ideas at all other than some basic ones. Start off with: do no harm. Don’t share memes like this. To be on the safe side, maybe just don’t share political memes at all. I’m not saying we should have a law. Just that, individually and of our own free will, we should collectively maybe not

As a followup: talk to people you disagree with. You don’t have to do it all the time, but look for opportunities to disagree with people in ways that are reasonable and compassionate. When you do get into fights–and you will–try to reach out afterwards and patch up relationships. Try to build and maintain bridges. 

Also: Resist the urge to adopt a warfare mentality. War is a common metaphor–and there’s a reason it works–but if you buy into that way of thinking it’s really hard not to get sucked into a cycle of endless mutual radicalization. If you want a Christian way of thinking about it, go with Ephesians 6:12

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

There are enemies, but the people in your social network are not them. Not even when they’re wrong. Those people are your brothers and your sisters. You want to win them over, not win over them.

Lastly: cultivate all your in-person friendships. Especially the random ones. The coworkers you didn’t pick? The family members you didn’t get to vote on? The neighbors who happen to live next door to you? Pay attention to those little relationships. They are important because they’re random. When you build relationships with people who share your interests and perspectives you’re missing out on one of the most fundamental and essential aspects of human nature: you can relate to anyone. Building relationships with people who just happen to be in your life is probably the single most important way we can repair our society, because that’s what society is. It’s not the collection of people you chose that defines our social networks, it’s the extent to which we can form attachments to people we didn’t choose. 

What are the politics of your coworkers and family and neighbors? Who cares. Don’t let politics define all your relationships, positive or negative. Find space outside politics, and cherish it. 

Times are dark. They may yet get darker, and none of us can change that individually.

But by looking for the good in the people who are randomly in your life, you can hold up a light.

So do it.

In Favor of Real Meritocracy

The meritocracy has come in for a lot of criticism recently, basically in the form of two arguments. 

There’s a book by Daniel Markovits called The Meritocracy Trap that basically argues that meritocracy makes everyone miserable and unequal by creating this horrific grind to get into the most elite colleges and then, after you get your elite degree, to grind away working 60 – 100 hours to maintain your position at the top of the corporate hierarchy. 

There was also a very interesting column by Ross Douthat that makes a separate but related point. According to Douthat, the WASP-y elite that dominated American society up until the early 20th century decided to “dissolve their own aristocracy” in favor of a meritocracy, but the meritocracy didn’t work out as planned because it sucks talent away from small locales (killing off the diverse regional cultures that we used to have) and because:

the meritocratic elite inevitably tends back toward aristocracy, because any definition of “merit” you choose will be easier for the children of these self-segregated meritocrats to achieve.

What Markovits and Douthat both admit without really admitting it is one simple fact: the meritocracy isn’t meritocratic.

Just to be clear, I’ll adopt Wikipedia’s definition of a meritocracy for this post:

Meritocracy is a political system in which economic goods and/or political power are vested in individual people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than wealth or social class. Advancement in such a system is based on performance, as measured through examination or demonstrated achievement.

When people talk about meritocracy today, they’re almost always referring to the Ivy League and then–working forward and backward–to the kinds of feeder schools and programs that prepare kids to make it into the Ivy League and the types of high-powered jobs (and the culture surrounding them) that Ivy League students go onto after they graduate. 

My basic point is a pretty simple one: there’s nothing meritocratic about the Ivy League. The old WASP-y elite did not, as Douthat put it, “dissolve”. It just went into hiding. Americans like to pretend that we’re a classless society, but it’s a fiction. We do have class. And the nexus for class in the United States is the Ivy League. 

If Ivy League admission were really meritocratic, it would be based as much as possible on objective admission criteria. This is hard to do, because even when you pick something that is in a sense objective–like SAT scores–you can’t overcome the fact that wealthy parents can and will hire tutors to train their kids to artificially inflate their scores relative to the scores an equally bright, hard-working lower-class student can attain without all expensive tutoring and practice tests. 

Still, that’s nothing compared to the way that everything else that goes into college admissions–especially the litany of awards, clubs, and activities–tilts the game in favor of kids with parents who (1) know the unspoken rules of the game and (2) have cash to burn playing it. An expression I’ve heard before is that the Ivy League is basically privilege laundering racket. It has a facade of being meritocratic, but the game is rigged so that all it really does is perpetuate social class. “Legacy” admissions are just the tip of the iceberg in that regard.

What’s even more outrageous than the fiction of meritocratic admission to the Ivy League (or other elite, private schools) is the equally absurd fiction that students with Ivy League degrees have learned some objectively quantifiable skillset that students from, say, state schools have not. There’s no evidence for this. 

So students from outside the social elite face double discrimination: first, because they don’t have an equal chance to get into the Ivy Leagues and second, because then they can’t compete with Ivy League graduates on the job market. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you learn, your Statue U degree is never going to stand out on a resume the way Harvard or Yale does.

There’s nothing meritocratic about that. And that’s the point. The Ivy League-based meritocracy is a lie.

So I empathize with criticisms of American meritocracy, but it’s not actually a meritocracy they’re criticizing. It’s a sham meritocracy that is, in fact, just a covert class system. 

The problem is that if we blame the meritocracy and seek to circumvent it, we’re actually going to make things worse. I saw a WaPo headline that said “No one likes the SAT. It’s still the fairest thing about admissions.” And that’s basically what I’m saying: “objective” scores can be gamed, but not nearly as much as the qualitative stuff. If you got rid of the SAT on college admissions you would make it less meritocratic and also less fair. At least with the SAT someone from outside the elite social classes has a chance to compete. Without that? Forget it.

Ideally, we should work to make our system a little more meritocratic by downplaying prestige signals like Ivy League degrees and emphasizing objective measurements more. But we’re never going to eradicate class entirely, and we shouldn’t go to radical measures to attempt it. Pretty soon, the medicine ends up worse than the disease if we go that route. That’s why you end up with absurd, totalitarian arguments that parents shouldn’t read to their children and that having an intact, loving, biological family is cheating. That way lies madness.

We should also stop pretending that our society is fully meritocratic. It’s not. And the denial is perverse. This is where Douthat was right on target:

[E]ven as it restratifies society, the meritocratic order also insists that everything its high-achievers have is justly earned… This spirit discourages inherited responsibility and cultural stewardship; it brushes away the disciplines of duty; it makes the past seem irrelevant, because everyone is supposed to come from the same nowhere and rule based on technique alone. As a consequence, meritocrats are often educated to be bad leaders, and bad people…

Like Douthat, I’m not calling for a return to WASP-y domination. (Also like Douthat, I’d be excluded from that club.) A diverse elite is better than a monocultural elite. But there’s one vital thing that the WASPy elite had going for it that any elite (and there’s always an elite) should reclaim:

the WASPs had at least one clear advantage over their presently-floundering successors: They knew who and what they were.

What Anti-Poverty Programs Actually Reduce Poverty?

According to the Tax Policy Center,

The earned income tax credit (EITC) provides substantial support to low- and moderate-income working parents, but very little support to workers without qualifying children (often called childless workers). Workers receive a credit equal to a percentage of their earnings up to a maximum credit. Both the credit rate and the maximum credit vary by family size, with larger credits available to families with more children. After the credit reaches its maximum, it remains flat until earnings reach the phaseout point. Thereafter, it declines with each additional dollar of income until no credit is available (figure 1).

By design, the EITC only benefits working families. Families with children receive a much larger credit than workers without qualifying children. (A qualifying child must meet requirements based on relationship, age, residency, and tax filing status.) In 2018, the maximum credit for families with one child is $3,461, while the maximum credit for families with three or more children is $6,431.

…Research shows that the EITC encourages single people and primary earners in married couples to work (Dickert, Houser, and Sholz 1995; Eissa and Liebman 1996; Meyer and Rosenbaum 2000, 2001). The credit, however, appears to have little effect on the number of hours they work once employed. Although the EITC phaseout could cause people to reduce their hours (because credits are lost for each additional dollar of eanings, which is effectively a surtax on earnings in the phaseout range), there is little empirical evidence of this happening (Meyer 2002).

The one group of people that may reduce hours of work in response to the EITC incentives is lower-earning spouses in a married couple (Eissa and Hoynes 2006). On balance, though, the increase in work resulting from the EITC dwarfs the decline in participation among second earners in married couples.

If the EITC were treated like earnings, it would have been the single most effective antipoverty program for working-age people, lifting about 5.8 million people out of poverty, including 3 million children (CBPP 2018).

The EITC is concentrated among the lowest earners, with almost all of the credit going to households in the bottom three quintiles of the income distribution (figure 2). (Each quinitle contains 20 percent of the population, ranked by household income.) Very few households in the fourth quinitle receive an EITC (fewer than 0.5 percent).

Recent evidence supports this view of the EITC. From a brand new article in Contemporary Economic Policy:

First, the evidence suggests that longer-run effects[1]”Our working definition of “longer run” in this study is 10 years” (pg. 2).[/ref] of the EITC are to increase employment and to reduce poverty and public assistance, as long as we rely on national as well as state variation in EITC policy. Second, tighter welfare time limits also appear to reduce poverty and public assistance in the longer run. We also find some evidence that higher minimum wages, in the longer run, may lead to declines in poverty and the share of families on public assistance, whereas higher welfare benefits appear to have adverse longer-run effects, although the evidence on minimum wages and welfare benefits—and especially the evidence on minimum wages—is not robust to using only more recent data, nor to other changes. In our view, the most robust relationships we find are consistent with the EITC having beneficial longer-run impacts in terms of reducing poverty and public assistance, whereas there is essentially no evidence that more generous welfare delivers such longer-run benefits, and some evidence that more generous welfare has adverse longer-run effects on poverty and reliance on public assistance—especially with regard to time limits (pg. 21).

Let’s stick with programs that work.

Do Tariffs Cancel Out the Benefits of Deregulation?

In June, the Council of Economic Advisers released a report on the economic effects of the Trump administration’s deregulation. They estimate “that after 5 to 10 years, this new approach to Federal regulation will have raised real incomes by $3,100 per household per year. Twenty notable Federal deregulatory actions alone will be saving American consumers and businesses about $220 billion per year after they go into full effect. They will increase real (after-inflation) incomes by about 1.3 percent” (pg. 1).

David Henderson (former senior economist in Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers) writes, “Do the authors make a good case for their estimate? Yes…I wonder, though, what the numbers would look like if they included the negative effects on real income of increased restrictions on immigration and increased restrictions on trade with Iran. (I’m putting aside increased tariffs, which also hurt real U.S. income, because tariffs are generally categorized as taxes, not regulation.)”

But what if we did include the tariffs? A recent policy brief suggests that the current savings from deregulation will actually be cancelled out by the new tariffs. As the table shows below, the savings due to deregulation stack up to $46.5 billion as of June. However, the tariffs imposed between January 2017 and June 2019 rack up to a dead loss of $13.6 billion. By the end of 2019, however, the dead loss will rack up another $32.1 billion. If the currently planned tariffs are put into effect on top of the already existing ones, then we’re looking at a dead loss of up to $121.1 billion.

Maybe if economists start putting clap emojis in their work, people will finally get that tariffs aren’t good for the economy.

The Paradox of Trade Liberalization

From a brand new study in the Journal of International Economics:

Using household survey data for 54 low and middle income countries harmonized with trade and tariff data, this paper offers a quantitative assessment of the income gains and inequality costs of trade liberalization and the potential trade-off between them.

A stylized yet comprehensive model that allows for a rich range of first-order effects on household consumption and income is used to quantify welfare gains or losses for households in different parts of the expenditure distribution. These welfare impacts are subsequently explored by deploying the Atkinson social welfare function that allows us to decompose inequality adjusted gains into aggregate gains and equality (distributional) gains.

Liberalization is estimated to lead to income gains in 45 countries in our study, and to income losses in 9 countries. The developing world as a whole would enjoy gains of about 1.9% of real household expenditures, on average. These income gains are negatively correlated with equality gains, such that liberalization typically entails a trade-off between average incomes and income inequality. In fact, such trade-offs arise in 45 out of 54 countries, and are primarily the result of trade exacerbating income inequality. By contrast, consumption gains tend to be more evenly spread across households.

While trade-offs are prevalent, our findings also suggest that liberalization would be welfare enhancing in the vast majority of countries in our study: in a large part of the developing world, the current structure of tariff protection is inducing sizable welfare losses. Explaining what drives these patterns is beyond the scope of this paper but an interesting avenue for future research (pg. 16).

I’m sure this offers a bit of a conundrum for those who have conflated concerns over inequality with caring for the poor.

Does Trade Promote Economic Growth?

Earlier this year, I did a literature review for class on the effects of trade on poverty. One section in particular focused on the link between trade and growth. A new Peterson Institute working paper by Douglas Irwin performed a similar service and I’m disappointed that I hadn’t come across it in time for my own paper.

So what are his conclusions?

The findings from recent research have been remarkably consistent. For developing countries that are behind the technological frontier and have significant import restrictions, there appears to be a measurable economic payoff from more liberal trade policies. As table 1 reports, a variety of studies using different measures of policy have found that economic growth is roughly 1.0–1.5 percentage points higher than a benchmark after trade reform. Several studies suggest that this gain cumulated to about 10–20 percent higher income after a decade. The effect is heterogeneous across countries, because countries differ in the extent of their reforms and the context in which reform took place (pg. 21).

 

Glad to know my own research was on point.

How Does Occupational Licensing Impact Immigrants?

From a recent working paper out of the Center for Growth & Opportunity:

We use two sources of data—the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP)—to explore the differences in occupational licensing between natives and immigrants. Each dataset provides unique advantages, allowing us to paint a clearer picture of how occupational licensing differs between natives and immigrants than would be possible by using either dataset alone.

Though the CPS and SIPP differ in some key ways, where comparable our results are quite similar between the two datasets. We find that immigrants are significantly less likely to have an occupational license than natives; this gap is larger for men than for women and is especially large for the highest education level. The wage premium from having a license may not differ between natives and immigrants when controlling for English language ability, suggesting that though immigrants are less likely to have a license, they seem to benefit at least as much as natives from having one. Licensed workers tend to work more hours per week than otherwise similar unlicensed workers, so the wage premium understates the earnings premium.

Using the CPS, we find that the native/immigrant licensing gap declines with years since migration, consistent with immigrants assimilating toward natives. We also find large differences in licensing rates by region of origin; in particular, women from the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Africa have a higher probability of having a license than otherwise similar natives.

Using the SIPP, we find that a lack of English language proficiency lowers the probability that an immigrant has a license, even when controlling for other individual characteristics such as education level. Utilizing the richer set of occupational licensing questions available in the SIPP, we find no evidence to suggest that license characteristics differ between natives and immigrants, and thus we find no evidence that natives and immigrants are acquiring different types of licenses.

Our results suggest that occupational licensing disproportionately affects immigrants, especially male immigrants, those lacking English proficiency, and the most educated group. Indeed, insofar as occupational licensing helps to protect incumbent (largely native) workers in an occupation from competition, it is unsurprising that immigrants are particularly impacted (pg. 18-19).

They also find, “Skill-based immigration would favor immigrants with high levels of education. Our results indicate that it is precisely this group that exhibits the largest licensing attainment gap with natives. Increasing the flow of immigrants from this education level may lead to substantial occupational mismatch for this group of immigrants if they face difficulty in acquiring licenses needed to work in their pre-migration occupations” (pg. 20).

Regressive regulations like this are low-hanging fruit that can easily be changed.