Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Arnold Kling On Naive Realism

 Arnold Kling introduced me to a useful concept in a recent post: naive realism:

[Ross Douthat] is responding to the views of his newspaper’s writers and readers that the United States suffered many more COVID deaths because Donald Trump was President. I think that this view is very widespread and very wrong.

A lot of research suggests that non-pharmaceutical interventions made little or no difference in cross-regional and cross-country comparisons. Statistical comparisons aside, tell me what policies the President could have put in place that would have made a large difference. Show your work, keeping in mind how many deaths seemed to stem from New York subways and nursing homes.

Jeffrey Friedman introduced me to the term naive realism, which is an important concept with a misleading name. I would explain naive realism as follows.

A first-order naive realist believes that he knows enough to solve a problem if he were in charge.

A second-order naive realist admits that he does not know the solution, but he is sure that someone could solve the problem if that person were put in charge.

It seems to me that there are a lot of naive realists about the pandemic.

Multiple times in just the past week, I have heard people criticize Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic by citing the full death toll. (It is all over my Facebook feed, and it always seems to come up in phone calls with my parents.) It's fine to suggest that the death toll is higher than it would be under an optimal policy regime (maybe one that Hilary Clinton would have put in place, if that's what people are suggesting?). Or maybe people are implicitly conceding that, yes, we'd have a comparably large death toll under any regime (my view), but even if the president is only responsible for a small percentage of what happens in the world (also my view), a small percentage of hundreds of thousands of death is still thousands of deaths. That would be perfectly reasonable, too. But it is slightly sloppy to say "Two-hundred thousand people have died!" in the middle of an anti-Trump screed, as if there is any reasonable counterfactual where that number is near zero. 

I second Kling's observation that there seems to be little correlation between policy response and death toll if you look world wide. I also second his observation that there has been a wide range of state and local policy responses. A switch flipped right around March 15th, when the world suddenly decided to stop dismissing the virus and started implementing extreme policy responses. As buffoonish as Trump is, it's hard for me to see him as uniquely responsible for our problems. 

I have my own list of desired policy responses. Call it "naive realism" if you want. Don't get me wrong, I certainly blame Trump for failing to implement these. (Fast track FDA approval for viral tests, mask production, and new treatments; suspend the price controls known as "anti-gouging laws" at least insofar as these affect interstate commerce; set a better example regarding personal safety and hygiene protocols; allow the non-vulnerable to acquire some kind of herd immunity.) All that said, I don't think it's obvious that some counterfactual president would have implemented these, or some other slate of good policy responses that don't occur to me. 


The exchange between Peter Suderman and Nick Gillespie in this Monday's Reason podcast echoes my own inner dialogue about Trump's responsibility for the pandemic. (It is only an inner dialogue, because TDS has made an outer dialogue on "the performance of the Trump administration" all but impossible.) Suderman is, in my opinion, sloppy about placing too much of the blame on Trump, and Gillespie calls him out for it. I say this all as someone who does not like Trump. It feels awkward to be "defending" a president whose platform and style I completely despise. (Scare quotes because I'm really not defending him, just pushing back against sloppy arguments.) But it's important that we not pretend that our problems will be solved the day Trump leaves office. Misdiagnosing the problem leads to fixating on the wrong solution and can lead to false optimism when that "solution" is implemented. I am seeing a lot of first and second-order naive realism right now. At this point, I'm hoping Trump goes away just so some semblance of rational policy discussion can resume. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Libertarianism: a Philosophy of Discipline and Self-Control

Libertarians seem to have something of a branding problem. Many people confuse libertarianism with libertinism. The first is a political philosophy that insists on strong justification for any government intervention in our lives. The second is a lifestyle characterized by a total lack of self-control and indulgence of all pleasures. It's easy for someone who isn't thinking very clearly to slip from one to the other. That is, casual observers assume libertarians want drugs and prostitution to be legal because they assume we want to indulge these vices. A well crafted argument in favor of drug legalization can be simply derailed by some moron saying, "Huh huh, you sure do love drugs." (Literally, my first experience with the term "libertarians" was someone saying, "They're like insane Republicans who love drugs!")

Sometimes libertarians play along with this. It's usually humorous, done as an intentional joke. I do it, to. When someone makes a joke at the expense of libertarians, my response is usually, "I laughed so hard, I accidentally blew the rock out of my crack pipe and it scared the hooker!" (Sometimes followed up with, "She dropped the copy of Atlas Shrugged she was holding, which I was paying her to read to me.") There is a Facebook page I follow called Jo Jorgensen's Dank Meme Stash. Many of the posts there have the following theme: some impressive looking piece of military hardware (like a tank-copter) and a caption that says "Daddy Joe and Donald won't let me have one? Can I have one, Mama Jo Jo?" Occasionally this manages to still be funny. But I'm afraid it plays into people's dumb stereotypes about libertarianism. 

There's basically zero chance of uniting libertarians around a brand (we are a fractious bunch), but serious libertarians in the public eye should at least be trying. We need to counter the perception that we think everyone should do whatever they want all the time. There certainly are some libertarians who just don't like following rules, any rules, no matter who promulgates them. This is "libertarianism as a cultural attitude." "Fuck it, I'll do what I want." This is distinct from "libertarianism as a political philosophy." The latter deals solely with what the government should be doing and is mostly silent on what kinds of private institutions people can (or should) form. Libertarianism as a political philosophy says you can form very restrictive, exclusive institutions, perhaps specifically designed to inhibit and constrain your behavior. A neighborhood association restricts who can leave their giant boat or camper parked on the goddamn street (also when they can park their giant obstruction to traffic and visibility), to the benefit of all. A church might place restrictions on your personal behavior, even when you're not attending church. It is a way for like-minded people to congregate, and perhaps a way for people to discipline their own behavior, a pre-commitment device. A martial arts school, like the one that I attend, actually allows us to relax rules that normally apply to people in polite society: I get to assault someone, who is simultaneously trying to assault me. But only under very specific rules and conditions. I do not get to assault those very same people if I see them on the street. A company employs workers and watches them work to monitor their productivity. Workers tolerate this because they wouldn't bother to be productive if nobody were monitoring them. (Under such "zero monitoring" conditions, everyone would slack, and there would be no revenue out of which to pay the workers. An implicit understanding of this dynamic underlies the worker-employer relationship.) People will voluntarily join institutions that discipline their behavior, and libertarianism is a philosophy that says we should have the broadest possible freedom to explore these institutional forms. It's not "Fuck it, I'll do whatever I want." It's more like, "I can form a strict religious commune that harshly disciplines its members and expels the non-compliant ones, and the government shouldn't be allowed to stop me."

In terms of government policy, libertarians are practically the only ones calling for a disciplined vetting of public policy. Laws that limit our personal choices, such as laws against drugs, prostitution, and (at one point) homosexuality, are often called "paternalistic". I think this is a misnomer, because it implies a wise parent setting restrictions on a child's behavior. No, the psychology of "paternalists" is more like the scolding of a sibling by a slightly older sibling. When my 9-year-old scolds my 6-year-old, or when my 6-year-old enforces rules against my 4-year-old, it is not out of altruistic concern for the younger sibling's well-being. I remember being a kid. I remember how awesome it feels to be "morally superior" to someone. Some people carry this attitude into adulthood, and it ends up infecting their politics. It takes real self-control to restrain the urge to "fix" someone else's dumb decisions. It's the paternalists, not the libertarians, who are indulging a childish impulse.  I liken it to someone who lacks the self-control to resist scratching a mosquito bite. There are right-wing puritans, who don't want you to have the kind of drugs or sex you want. There are also left-wing puritans, who would not allow you to make your own decisions regarding pharmaceutical consumption or labor contracts. (It is interesting that both tribes agree that we shouldn't have free choice with respect to pharmacology or association. They only differ slightly on the details.) They are indulging in the childish scolding that a 6-year-old dishes out to a 4-year-old. We should call them out using this language and not let them get away with thinking they are the "adult in the room."

Libertarians are also the only ones calling for any kind of fiscal restraint. Neither party is serious about cutting the size of government, or even about paying or bills for the stuff the government buys. The stereotype is that Republicans run up massive deficits by cutting (or failing to increase) taxes, while Democrats create the need for higher taxes with massive spending programs. All this spending is hidden from the taxpayer. It is financed with borrowing rather than tax increases, which would more quickly alert the citizenship to the real cost of government. On top of that, the true burden of taxation is hidden from the taxpayer via tax withholding. It would be more honest to present the taxpayer with the full bill once a year. ("Tax return" is such a disgusting euphemism for this childish deception.) Governments also love to use pensions and other long-term liabilities to obfuscate the true level of spending from taxpayers. (A pension plan might use an out-of-date life table that overstates mortality, thus understating total liabilities. Or it might make an overly generous assumption about the discount rate, discounting at the market's average rate of return rather than the risk free rate. Obligations like these are eventually owed by the taxpayer, but they are foisted upon them with subterfuge and fraudulent accounting.) The libertarian take on all of this is that we should be much more honest about what we're spending. There should be almost no debt financing, unless it's a true emergency. The taxpayers should be confronted with the true cost of government. Government employees should be given real pay increases, funded by current tax increases, so the public has a chance to say, "No, it's not worth it." It takes real adult-grade discipline to say: 

If I had my druthers, I would love to re-shape the world to match my grand designs. But alas, that would be unduly costly. We'll just have to live with the imperfect world we were given.


I think we should spend public money on Program X, because in my own estimation it passes a cost-benefit test. But if taxpayers saw the true cost reflected in their current taxes, they would balk. We need to rule with the consent of the governed, not trick them into doing what we think is best for them. Program X should be scrapped.

Self-discipline means not doing some of the things that you would like to do because of prudent consideration of the costs and consequences. I see almost no sign of this kind of restraint on the current American political stage. The right wing has been taken over by reactionary nationalists. They want to remold the nation to match their vision of "greatness." This is after decades of a right wing populated by "nation builders", who imagined they could re-shape the world with the surgical application of military force. (Much like a child playing with his toy soldiers, not at all like the "mature-adult-in-the-room" image that many chest-thumping militants wish to project.) The left wing has its own unconstrained vision of reality. They imagine they can simply dissolve and re-constitute long standing institutions, as if the application of sheer reason and good intentions would bend reality to their whims. Libertarians should be out in front pointing out the childishness of this na├»ve utopianism. We're not bong-smoking hippies doing whatever the fuck we want whenever the fuck we want to. We're actually the suit-and-tie-wearing-adult-in-the-room pointing out that we are already living beyond our means. The candy being promised by Uncle Joe has to be paid for, and we are already in serious debt. And contra Uncle Donald, we do have to pay for all the stuff we buy, even if he won't be here when the bills come due. Everything has a cost. Mama Jo Jo needs to be the voice of restraint on an undisciplined political stage. Other libertarians need to put on their serious face once in a while and swat away the ridiculous sneer that we're a bunch of self-indulgent libertines. Sometimes that means reminding other libertarians that they are in fact bound by certain rules, and would be so bound under any just system of government. (Including a system of no government; you are still bound by the rules of private institutions in such a world.) Once in a while, Mama Jojo needs to say,

No, you can't have a tank-copter, because it would make your property uninsurable. It would make you uninsurable! The sheer scale of the liability create by private ownership of military-grade firepower makes it cost-prohibitive, government or no government, 2nd Amendment or no 2nd Amendment. 


I wanted to say something about mask-wearing, more specifically the resistance to it, but it didn't quite fit into the flow of the post above. There is nothing libertarian about being mask non-compliant. If a private residence or business has a rule that insists on mask-wearing, you should agree to their rules prior to entering. Respect for private property is a very libertarian idea, at a basic level. Mask non-compliance may seem "libertarian" in a crude "fuck-it-I'll-do-what-I-want" sense, but by this standard so is theft. Protesting a government mandate to wear masks is a very different story. 

I also wanted to say something about religious practices and codes of behavior. Do the most successful cults and communes say "Come on in and do whatever the fuck you like!"? No, they impose some sort of discipline on their members, based on a set of shared values. Some of this is instrumental, like control of one's alcohol consumption for the sake of healthy community life. But some of it is arbitrary. It's discipline for the sake of discipline, which is ultimately for the sake of community building. Physically or emotionally punishing ordeals create a shared experience, which binds community members together. (Two books I've recently read, Influence by Cialdini and The Mystery of the Kibbutz by Abramitzky, have long passages about the importance of initiation rites.) Not that anyone is trying to set up a libertarian commune, and we're too fractious a bunch to form much of a cult. But clearly "Join us and you can do whatever you want" is not a compelling message. It's not going to draw people in. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Thomas Sowell on Disarming Marines Holding Loaded Pistols

 From Thomas Sowell's autobiography A Personal Odyssey. It is well worth reading in full.

Safety is much more a problem on a pistol range than on a rifle range, simply because it is so much easier to accidentally point a loaded pistol at someone. While we stressed safety to everyone, we learned from experience that there were great differences in the extent to which safety rules were observed. Combat veterans were the safest shooters. They needed no reminder that firearms were dangerous. Next in safety were Marines from units trained for combat, like the Second Marine Division. When you got to people who had civilian-like jobs, things got lax and dangerous if you didn’t stay on top of them. Then when you had shooters who were in fact civilians – reservists - things got dicey, as you would find them casually pointing the pistol in all directions, gesturing with it, and in general being a menace. More than once, I had to take a loaded .45 from some reservist’s hands – a somewhat delicate operation-because he was paying no attention at all to where he was pointing it.

Emphasis mine. I wonder what he actually did. I can picture him gently reaching for the gun with outstretched arms and splayed fingers and plucking the gun from a confused reservists' hands. I can also picture him doing a krav maga style gun disarm, trapping the side of the gun against his body and forcefully twisting it out of the reservist's hands. Presumably it was not the latter, as this would seem to have a high chance of spooking the trainee and making him pull the trigger. 

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Path To Herd Immunity

 The profile of Covid-19's mortality by age suggests an obvious strategy for achieving herd immunity: let the relatively young and invulnerable mix freely, isolate and protect the vulnerable. Obviously I'm not the first person to say this. I am very confused as to why such a strategy hasn't been tried. 

I am a libertarian, and I don't particularly like the government telling people either that they must or must not commingle. Any version of "You must return your children to public school" or "You must report to your college campus" completely creeps me out. People who aren't comfortable with exposing themselves to the virus should be free to arrange their lives so they aren't exposed. (In fact, people who don't want to send their children to public school shouldn't have to, ever, under any conditions.) Some children or parents of children are vulnerable. They may be immune-compromised or have other risk factors. It certainly makes sense that they should be able to keep their households out of any herd immunity strategy that involves a controlled spread of the virus. But I also think people shouldn't require a doctor's note to make these decisions about arranging their lives. Maybe someone has no risk factors whatsoever. The other risks they assume in the normal course of their daily lives might be orders of magnitude larger than their mortality risk from Covid-19. They should be able to exclude themselves and their children from any government plan, for whatever reason or for no reason at all. 

With all that said, infectious disease control is a legitimate role for government. It is a classic externality problem. Your individual efforts to stem the spread are a public good. The benefits are non-rivalrous (everyone gets them; someone's benefiting doesn't preclude someone else's benefiting from the same quantity of spread-mitigation). They are non-excludable (you cannot prevent someone from benefiting from your efforts of spread-mitigation, hoping perhaps to extract a fee from them). I'm an anarcho-capitalist (at least on even days), and even I have to admit that there is a compelling reason to have government do something in this space. (Assuming your particular government can do so competently...admittedly that qualifier is often not satisfied.). Governments should not have the power to close down businesses, but they should be collecting information, issuing guidance and making decisions about how and when to open schools and other institutions that it directly controls. (If a purer anarchocapitalist wants to get mad at me for saying this, fine. But given where we are today, the government "public health" institutions that currently exist are the only game in town. I'm speaking to what they should do assuming they will continue to exist, which they certainly will.)

From the paper linked to above:

The estimated IFR is close to zero for children and younger adults but rises exponentially with age, reaching 0.4% at age 55, 1.3% at age 65, 4.5% at age 75, and 15% at age 85. We find that differences in the age structure of the population and the age-specific prevalence of COVID-19 explain 90% of the geographical variation in population IFR. Consequently, protecting vulnerable age groups could substantially reduce the incidence of mortality.

That paper was apparently posted in late August, but some version of this was known since March, when the lockdowns began. The elderly are vulnerable, and "elderly" is really a proxy for "has underlying conditions." (As in, some elderly people with good lung capacity are not really at risk, just as some young people with respiratory issues are at elevated risk.) There is no excuse for not using this information to guide public policy. The risk to children and young adults is minuscule, orders of magnitude smaller than other risks that they assume (or that their parents subject them to, presumably with their best interests in mind). If we had simply protected the vulnerable populations but allowed the virus to spread among the young and healthy, we'd have some degree of herd immunity by now. We'd have these epidemiological fire-breaks in our public schools and universities. The virus might get in, but it would find few new hosts and ultimately have nowhere to go. 

I understand why people don't like this strategy. The objection is usually some version of, "If young people get the virus, they will spread it to vulnerable people." It's hard for me to put into words just how much I have lost patience with this line of argument. It never made much sense. First off, we need to treat "tolerance of lockdown policy" as a depletable resource. (Robin Hanson says it well in this post. Hanson also has some posts from early March arguing, and backed with numerical simulations, that it makes sense to expose the vulnerable.) People eventually tire of living like prisoners, being shut-ins, being denied the services they're used to for arbitrary reasons. They begin to spontaneously disobey the law, then eventually they demand policy changes for a return to normality. Bearing this point in mind, I think we have actually wasted a tremendous amount of time. From mid-March through May, I think most people were extremely diligent about staying isolated. It's only since then that workers started returning to offices, senior citizens started venturing out more, etc. My in-laws spent two months inside their house, not even venturing out for a walk. My wife brought them groceries. That was the time to let our small children return to school. So what if there was an outbreak of Covid-19 in schools and universities? The virus would have spread within a resilient population while the vulnerable were being fully isolated from them. (I wonder how many college students were sent home to live with their elderly parents, or non-elderly parents who comingle with the elderly grandparents. College dorms should have stayed open to give these kids an option to isolate themselves from the vulnerable, but that was botched.) There is even an argument for not closing down the school and not being overly strict about mask-wearing and temperature-checking. (As in, are we going for herd immunity or aren't we?) The vulnerable were being isolated and were, for the time, tolerating it. At this point, my in-laws are making no effort to keep their distance from their grandchildren. People are slipping out of their habits of scrupulous caution, even the ones who are very adamant about lockdowns and mask-compliance. Sheer exhaustion is setting in. 

(Call this anecdotal, but I saw large numbers of graduations parties in late May and early June. Unmasked young adults were comingling, eating together, conversing, and presumably doing other things young people do together. One night I could hear high schoolers partying in a nearby back yard. This matches basically what I've heard from parents with teenage children and news stories of Covid outbreaks spawned by wild parties. The parties are happening. We need to construct public health policy assuming that there will be non-compliance. Paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld, we implement public health policy with the public we have, not the public we'd like to have. And, once again, it's really not a big deal if these young people themselves get sick, unless of course they spread it to the vulnerable.)

We may have missed the best opportunity to go for herd immunity, but it's still an option. (In my opinion, the best option.) It may require asking the vulnerable to return to levels of isolation and precaution they were experiencing in March through May. 

Someone could dissuade me of the "herd immunity" strategy being a good idea. But it would take some kind of quantitative argument. Perhaps someone could model the "mixing" of vulnerable and non-vulnerable populations and demonstrate clearly that, under reasonable assumptions, there's too much leakage? (I believe this Twitter thread is trying to quantify the leakage issue, so is this one.) Even then, someone would have to articulate a clear path out of this mess. They'd have to answer philosophical questions about what the non-vulnerable's duty is to the vulnerable. What do the vulnerable even want (as in, are they even asking their children and grandchildren to halt their lives)? And what's the point of preserving a virus-free "commons" that nobody is supposed to be using? Even if it doesn't confer significant herd immunity, unleashing the young and relatively healthy is the right thing to do for these other reasons. Focusing mitigation efforts specifically on the vulnerable is rational public policy. You want to allocate resources and efforts to where they're doing the most good. The flip-side of that is that we don't want to incur excessive costs "protecting" people who aren't really threatened. 

There are other objections to a "protect the vulnerable, unleash everyone else" strategy. To many people, I'm sure it sounds like "Let's intentionally subject people to viral infection." But this is the wrong framing. We're talking about allowing people to return to their normal lives, where the virus will be one of many risks they encounter. If that's "intentionally infecting people with the virus", then allowing people to drive is "intentionally subjecting people to fatal traffic accidents." (More to the point, allowing 16-year-olds to drive, knowing they must start learning somewhere, is "intentionally subjecting children to fatal traffic accidents." I have this same "We need to start somewhere" reaction towards people who want us to stay locked in forever.) This isn't just an objection to going for herd immunity, it's an objection to letting anyone take any risks for any reason. It's not serious. There really is an important moral difference between an act of commission and an act of omission. 

Another possible objection is that we shouldn't even subject children to the risk of the coronavirus. (I'm not sure anyone is actually saying this, but it seems to be implicit in some of the arguments I have heard with respect to lockdown policy.) I think this is kind of silly, because we subject children to much larger risks all the time, usually without even thinking about it. They face mortality risks from auto accidents, swimming pools, and trampolines. Put in it's proper context, the risk they face from the coronavirus is a rounding error. It is perfectly appropriate that we are inured to certain background risks, which we have implicitly or explicitly chosen to accept as a fact of life. 

Yet another objection is that we can simply sit tight and wait for a vaccine. Why bother with the carnage of hard-to-control viral spread when a vaccine will ultimately save us? I personally don't think this is reasonable. A working vaccine is still months out by almost any sensible projection. And who knows how effective it will be? A vaccine is a means of generating herd immunity based on extremely mild to asymptomatic infections. Same with "protect the vulnerable, unleash everyone else." Some small number of young people would get extremely ill and die under an "unleash the young" policy, but then again any vaccine could subject recipients to similar risks. (When you get a vaccine, there is usually a liability waiver listing several warnings about who should and shouldn't get it. There's always the chance that someone misjudges which category they're in, or that the vaccine has unknown defects. See the CDC's list of real and imagined vaccine safety concerns.) I also have this "boiling the frog" reaction to the notion of waiting for a vaccine. It might seem like one is in reach at this point, but if you'd told people in March to "live like this until a vaccine comes out in 2021" they would have rightly revolted. 

(Somehow variolation and isolation is off the table? Again, here is Robin Hanson, who was right about many things very early on. Is that another example of people getting squeamish about "intentionally" doing something that's basically inevitable anyway? As if controlling who gets the virus and when is somehow worse than the "non-deliberate" alternative that kills a comparable or larger number of people?)


I know that "herd immunity" doesn't actually mean what it sounds like. It doesn't mean the virus can't infect anyone. It basically means there are enough immune people in the population that the virus stops spreading at an exponential rate. It can still be spreading at a linear rate. I am using the term loosely in this post to mean "some kind of benefit is conferred by having large numbers of immune individuals." I am not referring to a specific phase transition that happens in epidemiological models when exactly 71.5% of the population has immunity. As many commentators have pointed out, this is a squishy concept anyway. It can exist in some  places but not in others, and it is dependent on behavioral responses to the virus, it's not a property of the virus in and of itself. I don't particularly care what exact threshold we need to reach for herd immunity. Quite simply, more immunity is better than less immunity, particularly when it's simply a by-product of doing the right thing (unleashing the young). 

I am seeing atrociously bad faith treatment of the herd immunity concept in the media. See this piece in The Atlantic (or listen to the associated episode on the Social Distance podcast). There is no mention of the "protect the vulnerable" part of the plan, which is crucial. I follow a few lockdown skeptics in my podcast and blog feeds, and they are all constantly criticizing our inability to protect nursing homes from outbreaks. Practically nobody (short of out-and-out virus deniers) is advocating a "let 'er rip" or "yank off the band aid" approach, in which no mitigation measures whatsoever are taken. The attempt to associate a herd immunity strategy with "the right wing" and to smear Scott Atlas are pretty clear evidence of the Atlantic piece's agenda. I may do a longer post dealing specifically with this piece. It was near the top of my Google search, and it seems pretty typical of the language I'm hearing on this topic. So it presents a good foil. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Mystery of the Kibbutz

 Only once in history did democratic socialists manage to create socialism. That was the kibbutz. And after they had experienced it, they chose democratically to abolish it. 

-Joshua Muravchik. 

This is the chapter 9 intro in The Mystery of the Kibbutz

I wrote this post a few months ago about the kibbutzim (the plural of "kibbutz"), the Israeli experiments in private socialism (very much ongoing experiments). At the time, I had listened to the Econtalk episode featuring Ran Abramitzky, the author of The Mystery of the Kibbutz. Since then, I have read the book, and it's excellent. I will say, having listened to the podcast multiple times, that it captures the major themes of the book. Reading the book fills in interesting details, but Ran discusses all the major arguments with Russ Roberts. 

The book is quite charming. It starts with Ran asking some annoying questions of his uncle, a kibbutznik (a member of a kibbutz). Ran was not naive to the concept. Many of his close family members were also raised in a kibbutz. But Ran was studying economics at the time that he (unwittingly) picked a fight with his uncle. His economics training raised some serious questions. If everyone gets the same pay regardless of effort, wouldn't there be slacking? On a related note, wouldn't there be a "brain drain" problem and also an "adverse selection problem"? In other words, a society that gives equal pay regardless of actual contribution would repel highly productive individuals, who could earn more on the private market, and attract slackers, whose poor work ethic would limit their market earnings? Wouldn't the kibbutzim be left with the "dregs" (brain drain + adverse selection), who inhabit a society that facilitates slacking (the incentive problem)? How do the kibbutzim survive at all given these seemingly insurmountable problems? (Thus the "mystery" in the book's title.)

It turns out there isn't much of a mystery here. The kibbutzim were always a small proportion of the Jewish population of Israel. At their height, they made up about 7% of the Jewish population. (Abramitzky points out that the kibbutzim were mostly an Ashkenazi phenomenon; very few if any Arabs or Sephardi were members of these institutions. Thus the qualifier about the percent of the Jewish population.) The book includes a graph tracking this over time (note that the points are annotated with the total population, while the axis shows the percent of the Jewish population). Asking why the kibbutz can exist in the face of economic incentive problems is like asking why people upload random videos to Youtube. Most people don't, but there are just enough who do that we can find almost any random clip we remember from old, obscure cartoons. In the Econtalk interview, Russ Roberts offers the example of Wikipedia. We don't need to reconcile Wikipedia with economic theories that say we're self-interested, that we will under-produce public goods. We only need to posit that there are a few charitable, public-goods-producing individuals in the world. A small fraction of the population being so inclined means we get Wikipedia. By similar reasoning, a small fraction of Israel's population live in functioning communes that have lasted a century. 

The book gives an origin story of the kibbutzim and an account of how they began to decline. It turns out that Abramitzky had the right insight when he pestered his uncle with rude questions. The kibbutzim began to break down in ways that a hard-headed economist would predict. It was not so easy to create a new "socialist man," not even when the commune begins its life with willing volunteers who are ideologically committed to the enterprise. Human nature is not infinitely malleable, it turns out. The kibbutzim made concessions, compromising on the purest form of their ideology, to keep their members from leaving. 

The brain drain and adverse selection problems were very real, it turns out. Abramitzky presents evidence that low-income individuals were more likely to enter, and high-income individuals more likely to leave, the kibbutzim. The kibbutzniks implicitly understood these problems, because they designed their institutions to counter them. It turns out the kibbutzim were rather exclusive. You could not simply show up and join. They were wisely suspicious of any would-be members trying to join their community. I don't know if they were explicitly asking, "What if this guy joins our commune, becomes eligible for an equal share of our production, but just slacks off all day?" But they were surely aware that this was a potentially fatal threat to their community. There was a long, intrusive interview process for people wanting to join. There were also long trial periods, after which members could be rejected. According to Abramitzky:

Applicants also had to go through a lengthy interview, fill out forms about their own and their children’s physical and mental health, and submit a curriculum vitae. The committee even sent a sample of applicants’ handwriting to be analyzed by a graphologist, with the hope of gaining more insight into applicants’ character and intentions. Finally, applicants had to answer a long questionnaire meant to assess whether they were suited to living in a kibbutz.

Emphasis mine. If private socialism has to be this exclusive to function, it is just completely absurd to think that it would work out fine if it were imposed on everyone, all at once, as a political system. Historical examples of political socialism get dismissed as "not real socialism" by its proponents. Okay, fine, but here we have an example of real socialism in practice. It goes to great lengths to keep the riff raff out, so to speak. Maybe the lesson here is that this doesn't work, except for a very small and highly committed subset of the population. It certainly doesn't scale up very well. The book discusses at length the average size of a kibbutz and the (unrealized) possibility of having one big kibbutz rather than a few hundred small ones. 

Note also the part about screening for the health of family members. The kibbutzniks knew what insurance companies know about adverse selection: keeping a safety net viable means screening out expensive liabilities. 

Abramitzky discusses at length how the kibbutzim solved the incentive problem (the tendency of an existing member to slack), the brain drain problem, and the adverse selection problem. Some of these solutions trade off against each other, such that solving one makes other problems worse. For example, one solution to the adverse selection problem is to have a very strong sense of community with shared, deeply-felt norms of behavior. The stricter, the better. If the vetting process for a new member is a months-long ordeal of ascetic living and strict adherence to religious principles, that will surely deter slackers who just want to free ride on their neighbors' community spiritedness. The book discusses many American communes, reaching all the way back to early colonial times, that used similar "trial periods" to see if would-be members were truly committed. In addition to weeding out bad applicants, this process also fosters a sense of community and solves the incentive problem. Someone who has sacrificed to acquire this shared sense of community will feel bad about slacking off at the expense of his neighbors. Losing the esteem of your colleagues means losing something that you fought hard for. ("Sunk cost" nothing; you value something quite highly when you pay for it with blood and sweat.) People are inherently social creatures. They will feel the sneers of their neighbors who notice them not working to their full potential, and their meals at the communal dining hall will be awkward, possibly lonely. Social censure was a strong incentive not to slack off. 

The trade-off here is that strict religious orders, work protocols, and always-prying eyes of your neighbors will drive out the marginal member, who aren't fully committed to the cause. That is, it exacerbates the brain drain problem even as it solves the incentive and adverse selection problems. In the kibbutzim, this trade-off was most evident in the grown children of kibbutzniks. The founders of kibbutzim were extremely committed individuals who opted in voluntarily. Their children had made no such choice; the "opting in" was decided for them. They often realized that the kibbutz life was too strict for them, and many of them ultimately opted out. Given the decline in the kibbutz population over time (at least in percentage terms), it looks like the "exit option" was a serious threat to the kibbutz's long-term viability. Kibbutzim made many concessions, compromising on socialist ideals, in order to keep their members from leaving. (Abramitzky mentions his mother's exasperation with the lack of privacy. She had been raised in a kibbutz and decided to leave. Whenever anyone asked, "Mother, where are you going?" she would respond, "I stopped answering that question thirty years ago when I left the kibbutz!") 

The book highlights the many concessions the kibbutzim made to retain their members. Early on in the history of the kibbutzim, children were raised together communally, living and spending most of their days with the other children but separate from their parents. This practice arose from their communitarian ideology. Children who grew up together with other children would have a shared experience, in a way that children raised individually by their own parents would not. It might foster a sense of community that would ensure the long-term survival of the community. This fought an uphill battle against human nature: parents like to raise their own children. By the early 70s and 80s, all kibbutzim had abandoned the practice of separating children from their parents. 

The kibbutzim were compelled to institute further market-style reforms in the 80s. Part of this was a continuation of a pre-existing pattern, but it was partly brought on by financial shocks in the mid- to late-1980s. (The book calls this a "debt crisis". Apparently these socialist mini-utopias saw fit to tap into capitalist financial markets?) Kibbutzniks felt the hit. They were suddenly poorer than they thought they were, and they felt the decline in their material standards of living. The exit problem reared its ugly head. Why live poorly in a kibbutz when you can go live in the city and earn a better living as a software engineer or a derivatives trader? The more talented individuals would feel particularly compelled to leave. They would see the highest gains in material standards of living by opting out. There were some fierce ideological battles over this, but the kibbutzim ultimately compromised on the notion of complete communal sharing. Early kibbutzniks didn't personally handle any money at all, but gradually the kibbutzim started paying small salaries to their members. And, more and more, they began paying those salaries in accordance with productivity. Abramitzky includes a useful chart:

There were other market-style reforms. Initially the kibbutzim had communal dining halls. People simply came to them and ate at meal time. This was ultimately discovered to be wasteful, and kibbutzim implemented a practice of paying for one's own meals. On the one hand, this killed an important source of community. Kibbutzniks ate at home rather than in the dining hall. On the other hand, it fostered frugal use of scarce resources. Quoting Daniel Gavron, the book gives the following passage:

[T] he kibbutzim were living beyond their means was an acknowledged fact, but there were also several endemic weaknesses in communal life, one of which was wastage. Food was “free,” so members took more than they needed. Huge quantities were thrown away, and expensive items were fed to domestic animals. Electricity was paid for by the collective, so members left their air conditioners on all day in the summer and their heaters on all winter.

Any libertarian or conservative-leaning economist would tell you that this is perfectly predictable. Put simply, people respond to incentives. They will overuse resources when the costs of those resources are socialized, and they will discover restraint and frugality when they're financially responsible for the costs of their actions. 

On the privatization of salaries and living expenses, Abramitzky writes:

Under the reformed system, private allowances to members were extended, and members used these allowances to pay for their own electricity consumption. In 1990, less than 10 percent of kibbutzim had adopted this reform, but by 2001 about 80 percent had done so. Kibbutzim even started to turn their dining halls into cafeterias where members paid for their meals. Whereas in 1990, no kibbutz charged its members for meals, 70 percent did so by 2001.

These tiny socialist paradises eventually discovered the need for management expertise:

On the production side, kibbutzim started to privatize many of the kibbutz production and service branches by turning them into independent centers, whose goal was solely to reduce costs and maximize profits. Importantly, they were now able to make decisions without having to consult kibbutz members. This change was in part motivated by the 1989 negotiations between the government, banks, and kibbutzim to settle the debts of kibbutzim, which called for kibbutzim to increase accountability for costs and profits. The kibbutz federations required their member kibbutzim to introduce reforms but left it to the discretion of each kibbutz to pick which reforms to adopt. For that purpose, many kibbutzim set up “innovation teams” to identify appropriate reforms. But kibbutzim went further in this process than simply improving the transparency of their balance sheets. Besides turning the dining hall into a restaurant and the branches into businesses, kibbutzim hired outside managers to run their economy and paid high salaries to these professionals. By 1997, more than half of the kibbutzim adopted this reform. These reforms achieved a clear separation between kibbutzim’s economy and community. Outside managers, all with university degrees and considerable professional experience, were hired to run kibbutzim’s economy without consideration of whether they cared about the kibbutz way of life; kibbutz members in leadership positions, such as the kibbutz secretary, were in charge of running the kibbutz community.

One could try to tell an "economic duress" story, in which they were compelled by insidious capitalist forces to implement market-style reforms. But it seems pretty clear that they took on debt voluntarily, and not necessarily irrationally, and were simply dealing fairly with their creditors. Someone who wishes to tell the economic duress narrative can fill in the counter-factual: What should have happened? What would they have done if they hadn't been tempted by the fruits of capitalism? 

I found this next part truly interesting. They discovered the classic insights of David Ricardo:

Kibbutzim also discovered the economic principle of comparative advantage: “A lawyer who was also a skilled cowman could be replaced relatively cheaply, and his monetary value to the kibbutz was much greater as a lawyer than as an agricultural worker” (Near 1997, p. 353). Kibbutzim began encouraging members to seek high-paying jobs outside the kibbutz and to establish small businesses within the kibbutz.

In other words, put someone to work at their highest valued task, even if that means earning income on the open market and sharing that income communally. 

The book discusses other market-style reforms. Some of the janitorial and food-service work were done by contractors rather than kibbutz members. Clothing had initially been subject to communal sharing, in a "just grab a suit off the rack" sense, if I'm reading the book correctly. But people wanted to own their clothes, maybe even have an individual sense of style. 

Abramitzky tells an "incentives trump ideology" story in Chapter 9. What's perhaps more interesting than the market reforms is their correlation with a kibbutz's wealth. Kibbutzim differed in their material endowments: productivity, land-wealth, debt, total population, etc. A very wealthy kibbutz with a large endowment might weather a financial hit better than one that is closer to bankruptcy. The less endowed kibbutzim were quicker to institute market reforms (though, as hinted at above, virtually all kibbutzim ultimately implemented these to some degree or another). Once again, incentives matter. A kibbutzim whose immediate survival depends on making market-style reforms will implement them sooner. One with a financial buffer has the luxury of indulging ideology. Ideology matters, but incentives matter, too.

The following wasn't a major theme of the book, but the extremely hard work required to run a kibbutz bears mention. Chapter 5 begins with a quote from Jerry Seinfeld:

I worked in the banana groves.  .  .  . I couldn’t take it any longer! It was hard work; you guys work hard in Israel. I didn’t like the kibbutz. Nice Jewish boys from Long Island don’t like to get up at six in the morning to pick bananas. At six in the morning you should be sleeping! And bananas? All summer long I found ways to get out of work.

In the Econtalk interview with the author (linked above), Russ Roberts discusses his own experience on the kibbutz. He had to clean irrigation lines with a pin and pick peaches:

I think I've mentioned this to listeners before--picking fruit and cleaning out irrigation lines with a pin. Squatting on the ground every 18". They are just far enough apart so that if you crouch down to get one, you can't reach the next one. So you have to get up, crouch down again. It's a fantastic motivator to actually stay in school.

Roberts also picked peaches, he says, which he found mind-numbingly boring. Maybe some people can do that all day and feel fulfilled, seeing the literal fruits of their labor accumulate after a long day. But I can see how some people would start to fantasize about their options and think of an exit plan. Maybe being a derivatives trader doesn't sound so bad to someone who picks peaches in the hot sun all day. There is an inherent appeal to using your brain, your creativity and imagination, to solve business problems. Hearing these anecdotes gives one a visceral understanding of why the kibbutzim had trouble keeping its members from leaving. 

The kibbutzim didn't scale up very well. They never did, even before the market reforms began to take place in earnest. Abramitzky puts it this way:

Kibbutzim have always been relatively small. They vary in size from about 100 to just over 1,000 members, with an average of 440 members (as of 1995). The majority of kibbutzim have between 200 and 600 members. Why are kibbutzim so small? Why not create a single kibbutz with 100,000 members that would be more self-sufficient instead of many small ones? Kibbutzim have struggled with the issue of size from the very beginning, recognizing the trade-off between returns to scale, on the one hand, and the strong social ties and idealistic core, on the other. 

This is an important piece of information for anyone who wishes to impose socialism on an entire society via the political system, or for anyone who wishes to resist such efforts. Indeed, why not have just one large kibbutz? The various levers of control over the slacking, brain drain, and adverse selection problems would not be as effective in a large, relatively anonymous commune. Social censure against slackers is harder when you aren't intimately involved in each neighbor's business (which becomes impossible when the population gets too large). And why bother to punish slackers when so little of the benefits of enforcement accrue to you? A larger collective means the costs of profligate consumption and the benefits of work effort are more diffuse, less likely to be noticed or remedied by any individual. Re-read the paragraph above about the exclusivity of the kibbutzim. Kibbutniks coldly knew that they could not simply scale up their tiny paradise to an entire society. Presumably some of them went a step further and realized that you couldn't simply throw together the rejects, those who wished to join a kibbutz but weren't allowed in, into their own commune and expect success. Successful kibbutzim required tremendous amounts of labor from ideologically dedicated individuals, tapping from the most talented and highly educated pool of applicants in human history. The suggestion that an entire nation could be run in this way is almost a sick joke. 

This book undeniably has some lessons for the age old debate on "socialism versus capitalism." When someone who is skeptical of socialism tries to point to the many, many examples of socialism being tried in the 20th century, they are typically rebuked with "But that's not real socialism!" "Real socialism" supposedly doesn't use coercion or have dominance hierarchies, so the many failed examples of politically imposed socialism aren't seen as legitimate specimens. It would be harder to rule out the example of the kibbutzim. These were voluntary societies of ideologically committed socialists, with plenty of material endowments and human capital to keep them going. They still broke down, declining in number and discarding their ideals in a trajectory that any cold-hearted capitalist could have predicted. 


I found this part interesting:

Kibbutzim did not make use of external pension funds, because this seemed redundant given the system of mutual aid. However, as many skilled members started to leave their kibbutz, there was no one left to support the older generation. To get a sense of the magnitude of the problem— as of 2010 about 30– 50 percent of kibbutz members were retired. In an attempt to provide a decent standard of living for the retired population, in 2005 the government required kibbutzim to pay a pension of 35 percent of the average wage.

Catch that? The government told the kibbutzim that they had to increase the compensation paid to their retired members. Were the elderly kibbutzniks inadequately cared for? Or was the government of Israel simply wrong about the necessity of this measure? It is just surreal to me that the government would observe all this community and "equal sharing" and rule it inadequate. 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Differentiate Positive Claims and Normative Claims

Something that has annoyed me in recent months is the unwillingness to distinguish between positive and normative statements. A positive statement is a claim about how the world actually is, a factual claim. It is either true or false, and some evidence can be brought to bear on whether it's true or not. A normative statement is a claim about what we ought to do, a "should" statement. Famously, you can't get an "ought" from an "is." Of course, you can inform your normative statements with facts and evidence and logical arguments. But facts and logic don't do anything by themselves. They require some kind of value judgment to get to a statement of what we ought to do.  

For a clear example of people missing this distinction, think about the people who were talking about "the science" or "the experts", possibly "the facts", with respect to lockdown policy. It wasn't always clear what was being claimed, but the insinuation was always that "the Science (TM)" supported government policy that shut down schools and businesses. This isn't actually possible. Science alone can certainly inform policy. It can highlight trade-offs. An epidemiologist can tell you what's likely to happen under different scenarios, given different models of how a virus is likely to spread under different sets of policies. A virologist might be able to tell you whether a particular vaccine is likely to work, or she might be able to tell you if a vaccine might be unlikely for this virus. But in the end, picking policy depends on some kind of value judgment, which is inherently beyond the realm of the scientific. 

In rare cases, it might be the case that some policy is so overwhelmingly favorable compared to another. Suppose the options were: "With no lockdown, 99.9% of us die. With a strict lockdown, 99.9% of us live." In this case it might be a no-brainer. Basically everyone's values would pick the strict lockdown. In the real world, policy questions are more complex. There is vast uncertainty about the effectiveness of various policies. How much do people modify their own behaviors in the absence of an official government-approved lockdown? What is the effect at the margin of governments making it illegal to do certain activities? Those are still positive questions, even though the answer is shrouded in uncertainty. There is an answer, even if we can't know it. But then we get into normative questions. How should we weigh the loss of freedom against loss of life? People can adjust their own levels of caution, indulging or eschewing risky activities. What is the duty of the non-vulnerable (who are likely to take risks and possibly spread the virus) to the vulnerable (who are more likely to isolate themselves)? Can the vulnerable impose restrictions on the non-vulnerable, using the political system? This is a question of values, not of science. "The Science" does not give policymakers such stark, simple choices as the hypothetical above. 

Very recently, a group of health professionals signed a statement saying it was alright to protest the George Floyd killing, but not okay to protest the lockdown itself. (I already expressed my frustration over this in a recent post.) It's fine for someone to hold this opinion, but they are abusing their credentials as experts, as doctors, as public health professionals. By signing this letter "as health professionals" they are inherently appealing to scientific expertise, but they are using that expertise to make value judgments (normative claims). They need to be clearer about the distinction between a value judgment, which they are no more qualified to make than anyone else, and a scientific judgment about how the world is, which they are particularly qualified to make. Lay people will use their letter as a voice of authority to justify various policy responses, in this case shutting down some kinds of protests and permitting others. But no such authority to exists to make that distinction. As I said before:

I'm just noticing this now, but they were actually still condemning the prior protests in the statement that supported the new ones. This is bizarre. The virus does not care if the thing you're protesting is a worthy cause or not, so the public health recommendation for both should be the same. One possibility is that public health professionals got together and conducted a thorough cost-benefit analysis. They determined that precise effect of both kinds of protests on public health, somehow quantifying the likelihood of each protest to affect public policy and also quantifying the effect of those new policies on various morbitities and mortalities. No such study was ever done, of course.

Another example that applies to recent months is the question of surge pricing, sometimes referred to as "price gouging." I wrote this post pointing out the asymmetric outrage over some prices falling (like gas prices) and others rising (as face masks and soap and toilet paper should have). I shared it on social media, and got a blathering response from a relative who utterly missed the point. It might be more productive to separate this into two different propositions.
  1. If we repeal anti-gouging laws and allow prices to rise, it will solve the shortages.
  2. We should repeal anti-gouging laws.
The first is a positive statement. It's a statement about how the world works. I think people who respond viscerally to price increases need to be confronted with this as a purely factual question. Get them to answer the simple question: Would an economy with freely adjusting prices mean there are more essential goods available? First establish a framework for how the world is. If someone says "No", they are claiming something absurd. They are claiming that producers won't respond to a price increase by supplying more. Aren't these the greedy business people we all hear about, for some reason foregoing the option to make more money? Wouldn't the resulting increase in supply eventually bring the price back down to a manageable level? Likely, close to the pre-crisis level? Given that you have to either ration via price or via queuing (waiting in line), isn't it better to use the method that results in more people getting the goods and services (pricing)? They are repealing the laws of economics in their own minds. (And, in this case, it's not "economics" as some abstruse mathematical science, but common sense restated with some scientific rigor.) 

The second statement is a normative statement. Note the "should". You could in principle agree with 1) and still disagree with 2). Maybe someone believes that the perceived unfairness leads to so much resentment it would cause civil unrest. Or maybe someone is so committed to equality as a matter of values that they don't tolerate obnoxious price increases, even if it means fewer people die from the pandemic (because of less availability of masks, less available soap and hand sanitizer, etc.). That's fine, we could then have a discussion about values. We could hold that person's values up to a mirror and question whether they really believe them. We should ask questions that gauge the person's values. How many lost lives are you willing to tolerate for the sake of equality? (Another positive question has snuck into this conversation. Suppose this person thinks high prices means "only the rich" will get essential supplies. That is a proposition about how the world is. The proposition that "such a state of affairs is unfair" is a value judgement. In my opinion, this "the rich buy everything" scenario is implausible in the extreme. As I point out in the previous post about price gouging, I have never seen evidence that the extra money spent on the higher-priced goods represents a substantial fraction of anyone's household budget. There's plenty of room to adjust other expenditures. "Adjust your behavior and spending patterns" is exactly what changing prices tell us what to do. Censoring the information necessary to make those adjustments, as anti-gouging laws do, is incredibly destructive.)  

We might take a similar approach with the minimum wage, which is yet another example of government price fixing. There is a positive question: "Does a higher minimum wage cause some low-wage workers to lose employment?" The best research with the most detailed data set of workers' actual wages suggests a clear "Yes," consistent with economic theory and common sense. If you read them carefully, even pro-minimum wage economists answer this question with a qualified "Yes." But some people answer "No." They've heard the state of minimum wage research inaccurately summarized as "minimum wages don't cause unemployment." If that's you're starting point, it's probably hard to be against the minimum wage. But the positive question is separate from the normative question: "Should we raise (or lower) the minimum wage?" You can think that minimum wages cause some job loss, but that the winners win more than the losers lose. It's a value judgment to say that justifies such a policy change. (In the crude version of this argument, the minimum wage is a perpetual motion machine.) Or you could conceivably admit that all the negative employment effects of the minimum wage are very real and very nasty, but that offering a wage below some level is inherently immoral. In my experience, people shift so freely between the positive claims and the normative claims that it's impossible to nail them down. But it's worth trying to inject this distinction into the conversation. If you can first get someone to admit that a likely effects of a policy (the positive question) are X, Y, and Z, and that X, Y, and Z are widely agreed to be bad (the normative question), that's a good start. 


I will briefly try to defend the experts who make "should" claims. It's possible that, for example, a doctor has an advantage over his patients in integrating all of his knowledge into a single decision. She could simply state all the likely consequences of the patient undergoing a given surgery, give various statistics about recovery rates and financial costs, and leave the patient to think it through for himself. But she could also make basic assumptions about the person's desires and values, perhaps assuming the patient is typical. "If I were the  patient..." or "If it were my child..." (In my own life, I recently had a veterinarian say, "If it were my cat...", and I found her frank advice useful. She was in effect telling me what I should do, in addition to informing me about possible treatment options.) This might be a good way to integrate a lot of information that the average patient finds hard to digest. The patient might be in a mood to say, "Don't give me a literature review. Should I have the surgery or not?" 

That's all fine. What I object to is the public health establishment deciding what outcome they want and then framing their presentation of "the science" to get that outcome. (Or, just as bad, taking their cue from political leaders and framing the science to suggest we "should" pursue an already chosen policy.) The public health ideology is often one of ignoring any trade-offs and increasing life expectancy at all costs. The only thing this cartoon gets wrong is the caption. They often sneak normative judgments into their recommendations, overruling our actual preferences. They are inherently opposed to opioids, smoking (vaping even), trampolines, and any other way of converting life-years into fun. They should at least be self-conscious about it. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Elephant Rider On Full Display

Jonathan Haidt has an excellent metaphor for how people form their political opinions. (Also their opinions on moral and cultural questions.) People mostly see themselves as introspecting, logical creatures, able to consume information, synthesize, and craft opinions. If I'm telling you something, one might pontificate, it's because I've thought about it at length, and what I'm explaining to you is my well-considered answer. 

Haidt has a different story. His metaphor is the elephant and the elephant rider. The perceiving self is the elephant rider. That is the conscious entity you are interfacing with if you are communicating on social media with an opinionated friend, relative, or stranger. He sees himself a the helm of this mighty beast, steering him this way or that after considering the optimal course of action. In Haidt's story, though, the stubborn elephant is not so easily controlled. The elephant might be nudged this way or that, but the ornery beast basically goes where it wishes. The elephant rider is not deeply introspective after all, but tells himself a little fib. Rather than actually steer the elephant, and rather than admitting he is not in control, the elephant rider tells himself, "This is exactly what I wanted to do." It's not done consciously or cynically. In fact, there doesn't necessarily need to be any Orwellian editing of the past. It's rather that the elephant rider's mental model of what he wants, what he actually wishes to accomplish, is incomplete. It isn't fully articulated ahead of time. He finds himself being dragged in this direction by a power outside his control, so he steers it as best he can and convinces himself that this is where he really wanted to go. 

I see this all the time, but recent events have really brought it into stark relief. Prior to May 26th, the "correct" opinion of all right-thinking people (left-thinking people?) was that protesting was too dangerous at a time like this. (If anyone is reading this in the far-off future, note that I am posting during the coronavirus epidemic of 2020.) There were some people protesting prior to May 26th, but they were mostly protesting the government lockdowns themselves. Opinions neatly fell into the right-left paradigm, and the reaction of outspoken people was predictable based on their politics. The protesters tended to be right-leaning, some of them actually wearing "MAGA" hats holding pro-Trump signs. (David Henderson, a libertarian who organized such a protest, described his annoyance at some of the protesters for wearing MAGA hats. Something to the tune of, "Don't make this about something it's not. You're pushing away potential sympathizers.") Some protesters were openly carrying firearms. The left-leaning viewpoint was that everyone should be strictly observing the lockdown, and that these protests were potential "super-spreader" events for the virus. Then everything flipped. Suddenly it was okay to protest. It was not even okay to question the wisdom of the protest. Public health officials issued statements in support of the BLM protests. I'm just noticing this now, but they were actually still condemning the prior protests in the statement that supported the new ones. This is bizarre. The virus does not care if the thing you're protesting is a worthy cause or not, so the public health recommendation for both should be the same. One possibility is that public health professionals got together and conducted a thorough cost-benefit analysis. They determined that precise effect of both kinds of protests on public health, somehow quantifying the likelihood of each protest to affect public policy and also quantifying the effect of those new policies on various morbitities and mortalities. No such study was ever done, of course. If those same public officials had been asked about the wisdom of massive protests before they were actually happening, I'm sure most of them would have advised against it. And of course it's not just public health people, it's everyone. Enormous numbers of people flipped their opinions simultaneously, without much discussion or thought, certainly without any ability to explain the flip after the fact. No, the elephant riders found themselves being suddenly jerked in one direction, opposite the one they intended. Swept away by an overwhelming force beyond their control, they simply rationalized the direction they were being pulled. 

No doubt, this was happening in both directions. I saw a hilarious post on Facebook pointing out the hypocrisy of a right-wing supporter of lockdown protests, who'd Tweeted in support of the first set of protesters but insisted after May 26th that everyone should stay home because "it's not safe yet." The contradictory Tweets by the same person were shown side-by-side. I doubt if the person posting this noticed the irony. They they had flipped too, and they were just as much a hypocrite. 

It seems that you can have one of two opinions: protests are justified or they aren't. If they are, then the early protesters are owed a debt of gratitude. They were fighting for the right to protest before it was cool and trendy. The right to protest during a pandemic is a hard-won right...the result of the prior protests! If protests aren't justified during a pandemic because of public health concerns, then both the first and second set of protests are unjustified. 

There is an attempt to justify the different treatments by appealing to the importance of the things being protested. Read the letter linked to above, which couches justification for the latter protests in the language of public health. Paraphrasing: White supremacy and racism being great evils, protests against them are therefor justified. I'm not buying it. It's not the magnitude of the problem you're protesting that justifies the protest, it's the balance of costs and benefits. If protesting had no effect whatsoever on culture or policy, and we end up back to where we are now in a few months, we would have had a few super-spreader events for no benefit. Some people are claiming to possess an almost god-like command of the relevant social science and epidemiology, most of which is not known. As I alluded to above, justifying or precluding a protest on the basis of public health requires a sort of "bank-shot." One would need to know the effect of protests on policy and then the effect of policy on the health outcomes, and weigh these benefits against the increase in COVID-19 cases. (That's assuming the expected benefits are positive, which might not be the case because of blow-back.) The knowledge required to adjudicate this does not even exist. 

I am not against either set of protests. I think the government was overplaying its hand when it locked down businesses too strictly and for too long. It has also been overplaying its hand with respect to overly aggressive policing, and we are seeing the nation convulse in moral outrage over this going on for far too long. Still, I am disturbed by the ability of people to get so thoroughly swept away that they can completely contradict themselves without even noticing that they're doing it. I see the exact same things happening with respect to the "Abolish the Police" movement. I was told that it means "exactly what it sounds like" and that it means "abolish the police, and then reconstitute the police", by the same person on the same day. (Sorry, that's not what "abolish" means.) 


If you're reading this an think, "Yeah, I hate it when people do this," then you missed the point. We're all doing it. I do it. I'm probably doing it right now. It's something we all have to be extremely vigilant about. If you see the "elephant rider" phenomenon as something that happens to other people, you haven't usefully absorbed the lesson. 

I'm thinking of two recent experiences where I showed people their own printed words that contradicted what they were saying to me at the moment. I have a long, unforgiving memory. People get apoplectic when you do this. It's a disturbing thought to realize you aren't steering the elephant.