Why Labels Matter

We’ve talked a bit about the “conservative” and “liberal” labels, but you might be wondering why they matter. Indeed, why wouldn’t a politician just eschew labels and say “I’ll do what’s best for the country in all situations”?  Wouldn’t that be great?

The problem is that politicians have to get elected, and to do so they have to engage in a form of marketing.  They have to “position” themselves to voters.  When voter sees a politician’s name in a commercial or in the voting booth, that voter needs to think, “Oh yeah, this is the conservative (or liberal)…” followed by “…and this person will (or will not) support the things I think are important.”

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from mounting a political campaign by saying, “I have no political inclination either way! I’m just smart, and good-intentioned, and I’ll make good decisions!”  This sounds great in theory, but the problem is that no one would vote for you.

This is because most voters want simplicity. Life is complicated, so the average American voter wants to categorize things as easily as possible.  We like it when things fit into nice little boxes, and when things bleed over the lines, we get annoyed. If we can’t fit something into a box, we tend to not want that thing to exist.

Furthermore, we don’t want a politician to handle just the issues we know about right now. They’re going to be in office for two, four, or six years, so we want to know that they will be able to handle issues in the future in ways that we think are appropriate. These are issues that we don’t know about, and might not even be able to speculate on. We’re trying to put people in office to project our views into the future. The only way to know how to do this is to consider their overall philosophy on governing, and do this, we want to know their label.

Additionally, many American voters categorize themselves.  They apply a “conservative” or “liberal” label to themselves, and they want to vote for someone that matches that label. They want to send themselves to Washington, essentially, and they want to do this by voting for someone who thinks the same way they do.

Even better, they want to vote for an entire block of people who match that label.  Many voters would simply like to vote for a political party, not an individual candidate, and just sent a whole mess of people to Washington that they believe agree with them more-or-less and will support the issues in the same ways.

There are “straight ticket voters” who simply check all the Republican or Democrat boxes on the ballet without knowing anything about the actual candidates. These voters are voting for a party, or more abstractly, a philosophy they think that party represents.

(Indeed, in many countries, this is how it’s done – you vote for a party, not a person, then the party elects the people who will actually serve.)

It should be obvious by now that political parties are the easiest way for a politician to position themselves. By becoming a Republican or a Democrat, they instantly align themselves with a philosophy, and thus with a huge block of voters. Being the Republican or Democratic candidate can almost guarantee election in some parts of the country. Democrats don’t do well in Texas, and Republicans don’t do well in Chicago because of the demographics of those regions.

This is also why non-aligned candidates (“Independents”) have such a tough time getting elected.  Running as an independent automatically gives you an identity crisis with the voters. They don’t know how to categorize you. To understand what philosophy you espouse, they would have to listen to all the different things you say or write, analyze them, and make a decision. Most people don’t want to do this.

I’m not saying that politicians don’t have personal beliefs and philosophies that they use to make decisions. I have no doubt that there are many very principled people in Washington.  (For example, I’ve heard from several people I trust that both our senators – Tim Johnson and John Thune – are genuinely good, honest men who act in ways that align with their personal beliefs of what is the right thing to do. Good for us.)

What I am saying is that politicians have to embrace a public persona in order to get elected.  They have to market themselves to voters in such a way that the voter identifies with them, thinks they will represent that voter’s interest, and will therefore check their name in the voting booth.

The easiest way to do this is to apply a label to yourself publicly, and then promote yourself in that way.

Labels and Contexts

When discussing labels like “conservative” and “liberal,” it needs to be acknowledged that there are different contexts in which they apply. People can be both conservative and liberal at the same time, about different things.

There are three major contexts in which you might apply these labels:

  • Fiscal policy: things which affect the economy and taxes
  • Social policy: things which affect how citizens relate to and regulate the behavior of one another
  • Foreign policy: things which affect how the U.S. relates to other countries

When it comes to fiscal policy, conservatives believe in minimal government involvement in the economy and keeping taxes and regulation low. Keeping the government out of business affairs allows the market to regulate itself. Liberals believe that the market needs regulation,and that when left to itself it tends to be unfair to lower income classes through income inequality. Liberals believe in increasing taxation in order to exact policies and programs to make society better.

In social policy, conservatives believe in what they would call “traditional values,” which generally means they oppose laws allowing gay marriage, support laws restricting abortion, support the death penalty for certain crimes, are against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and support the freedom to own and carry firearms. Liberals tend to be on the opposite side of those issues – abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage should be legal; the death penalty and gun ownership should be restricted.

In foreign policy, conservatives believe in a strong national defense, and in the leadership of the United States around the world by projecting our power where necessary to protect our interests and the interests of our allies. Liberals believe in less defense spending, more cooperation with other countries, and more emphasis on the United States as an equal member of the global community.

You can slip from one label to another, depending on the context, or the laws and policies under discussion.

It’s not unusual, for example, to be a “fiscal conservative and a social liberal.” This would indicate that you support conservative policies when it comes to the economy, but you don’t care so much about people’s personal behavior so long as they’re not harming anyone else. As such, you can’t be pinned down under a single label.

Obviously, there’s no enforcement of labels.  You can generally be considered liberal, but have strong opposing views in one particular area. You might be very fiscally conservative in general, but support more funding for the food stamp program because you were raised by a single mother and never had enough to eat as a kid. Everyone has personal idiosyncrasies that cause them to waffle a bit on various issues.

A more practical example: it’s quite common for Democratic politicians in South Dakota to strongly support gun ownership, giving our hunting traditions. In fact, during election season, most Democrats in this state make a specific point to release pictures of themselves hunting, just to counter the natural political assumption that they’re anti-gun.

The bottom line: labels are not absolute. Someone who absolutely doesn’t step out of the traditional boundaries of how they label themselves is probably trying very hard not to, perhaps in order to prove a point.

However, given that these positions usually tie back to a philosophical basis and worldview (remember our discussion of The Individual vs. the Community), people often fall into general groups about issues.  If someone describes themselves as a “conservative,” you can usually make some accurate assumptions about the issues they support and the positions that they take.

On the Interestingness and Usefulness of Books

I’m reading more now than at any time in my life.  I set a 2014 goal of one book per week (52 in all), and as of the second week in November, I’m at 58.

Additionally, I’ve been keeping track of my reading at Goodreads, and I try to write a short review of each book when I finish it. This has the effect of forcing me to think critically about each book and what I might have gained from it.

More and more, I’m encountering a phenomenon where a book is “interesting but not useful.” These are books that are very entertaining, and that I enjoy reading, but that don’t stay with me in any meaningful sense.

This has laid bare the fact that I read for two reasons:

  1. fun
  2. education

I enjoy the process of reading – working through new chapters of 2-3 books each morning over coffee is truly one of the great joys of my life.  But I also enjoy the legacy of reading, which is the hope that reading a book makes me a better person in some way – that it leaves “footprints” on my life, and develops me mentally and emotionally.

The best books are both “interesting and useful.”  These are books which you love to read, and that educate you at the same time.  I thinking now of Where Good Ideas Come From and The Innovators and Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea – three books I couldn’t wait to read every morning, and that have extended me as a person. I refer back to ideas and concepts from both books often.

Books that are “interesting but not useful” are books that are fun to read, but have no lasting impact on your life.  Malcolm Gladwell is famous for this. He writes books which are essentially collections of fascinating anecdotes wrapped around some flimsy premise that ostensibly ties them all together (but which usually doesn’t).  I love to read Gladwell, but he doesn’t effectively make a case for anything, and I can’t say I come away from any of his books better educated than when I started.

Right now, I’m reading The 20% Doctrine, which is about the idea of “20% projects” as a source of innovation. It’s a collection of business stories which ostensibly prove that 20% projects can be a source for great ideas.  The stories are great – for example, the last chapter was about the Off the Bus project that HuffPo did for the 2008 campaign.  But can I draw any larger premise out of it?  Is there a lesson to be learned?  Can I say I’m better off for having read it? …. No, sadly, I really can’t.

Can a book be “useful but not interesting”?  Maybe a textbook or something else that’s extremely information-dense. Perhaps we don’t enjoy reading it, but we learn a lot.  However, for me, learning a lot makes me enjoy it, so this would be a harder sell. (There are, however, books which are so dense that I get frustrated because I find the topic entertaining, but there’s just so much information to absorb that I can’t take it all in.)

How about fiction?  Can it be both? Mostly, fiction is about entertainment (interest), but it can be useful. Historical fiction, for instance, can teach you a lot about how the world works. So-called philosophical fiction can make you think about the world in new ways (sadly, I abandoned Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a quarter of the way through).

Additionally, fiction can give you points of cultural reference that you might not have otherwise. I’ve gotten through five of the seven Harry Potter novels, both because they’re fun reads, but they’re also cultural touchstones of the last decade-and-a-half. I can’t count the number of references to Harry Potter that I notice now which I wouldn’t have before (“Ten points to Gryffindor!”).

I’m currently reading War and Peace.  I’ve actually gotten into the story quite a bit (which surprised me), but it’s manifesting other benefits as well.  It forced me to research the Napoleonic era and the things Napoleon did in Russia just after the turn of the 19th century. Additionally, it’s introduced me to the vagaries of Russian naming, which is critical to understanding all the characters, and I’m beginning to understand the social protocols of a bygone era, which are considerable (and seemingly arbitrary).  I’m looking forward to the second half of the book (I’m precisely at 50% right now) when I’m told that Tolstoy expounds on several philosophical concepts about war and life.

So, is “interesting but not useful” all bad?  I don’t know.  Obviously, I’d rather have both interesting and useful, but perhaps the former category is useful, but just over a longer term. I absorb something from everything, and perhaps these books resonate later in my life in various ways. Perhaps I absorb small things that bounce around in my head and come out somewhere down the line, in some morphed form, when combined with other ideas.

Without a clear answer, the only reasonable strategy is to read as much as possible, of all types of books, at all times. That’s a burden I’m happy to live with.

(And before anyone complains about the title — I checked, and both “interestingness” and “usefulness” are legit words, even if my spellchecker disagrees. Wikipedia even has a page on interestingness discussing how the concept is not a valid measure for if something gets page on the site.)

The Individual vs. The Community

Your personal political philosophy is highly influence by how you view the way individuals relate to their larger community.

For example:

  • Conservatives view the individual as the prime mover. The individual is the engine of the economy and the engine of the community as a whole.
  • Liberals view the aggregate of individuals – the community itself – as the prime mover. The community that individuals create together is the engine that moves us forward.

This belief drives to what extent you believe the community (the government, in some form) should influence the actions of the individual:

  • Conservatives believe in individual liberty above all else. Leave the individual to themselves, and they will work things out to the general betterment of the larger community – their individual actions will work toward advancing the aggregate.
  • Liberals believe that the community should assist individuals to achieve greater things and that individuals themselves tend to act in their own self-interest to the detriment of the community. The community has a responsibility to enforce the fair rules of the game.

So a person’s political philosophy often comes down where their natural focus rests: on the individual or on the community?

This parallels the results of a survey by Pew Research.  People were asked what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.”

The results:

  • United States: 58% freedom, 35% guarantees
  • Britain: 38% freedom, 55% guarantees
  • Elsewhere in Europe: 62% guarantees

Roger Cohen from the NY Times sums it up:

This finding gets to the heart of trans-Atlantic differences. Americans, who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are hardwired to the notion of individual self-reliance. Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency.

Last year, I read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, which was an examination of exactly this concept – why people can have such profoundly different views of politics. What Haidt stated was something similar to what I said above – it largely comes down to how people view the individual in relationship to the community.

In fact, Haidt recounted a study which revealed how fundamentally different this view can be, based on your personal culture or background. Given a picture of a living room, someone from Culture/Background A might see the room itself in aggregate (“this is a living room”; the community), while someone from Culture/Background B might see the things that comprise the room (“this is a couch, a table, and a lamp in a room”; the individuals). One person immediately extrapolates the individuals to a larger community and that’s the thing he’s looking at. The other sees the individuals and stops there – he is, of course, aware that they comprise a living room together, but that’s not what he’s looking at.

So, do we view ourselves first as independent actors operating in the world, or do we think of the world first as something we are a part of?

These subconscious inclinations are ingrained in us as children and explain why some countries accept things like single-payer health care as natural and completely reasonable, and other countries damn-near go to war over it (ahem, us).

Effort and Potential

Almost everybody has heard of “The 10,000 Hour Rule,” which says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything.  I actually read the original study (PDF) last year.

But I’ve often wondered about the limits of this theory. Does there exist people who simply will never master something, no matter how much they practice?

I wondered this quite a bit when trying to teach my late mother how to use her computer. We managed to get basic things, sure, but I found myself wondering if I could make my mother an expert computer user, or even a programmer, if I had to.  Would she have the temerity for it?  The ability to think abstractly and in analogy? That just wasn’t the way my mother’s mind worked.

And what of people who just, well, aren’t smart?  We hate to talk in terms of pure, genetic intelligence, but it’s silly to pretend this doesn’t exist. Some people are just born smarter than other people. Somehow, it’s acceptable to say someone is “naturally athletic” (and thus imply the opposite – some people are not naturally athletic), but it’s rude, even sinister, to say some people are just not naturally intelligent.

Uncomfortable or not, it’s sadly true. There are people who are just not gifted with good memory, advanced reasoning, abstract thought, pattern recognition, etc.  These are the things that make up what we’d call “intelligence.” They exist in people in varying degrees – some people have a lot of them, some people have very little.

At the very lower ends of the intelligence scale are people for whom life is going to be difficult. These are people that can have the biggest hearts in the world, the most willpower, and a genuine desire to better their circumstances, but there’s an upper limit to what they might be able to accomplish.  For them, holding down a job stocking shelves at Walmart might be a huge victory.  (And, sure, there are people who suffer from actual mental disabilities, but hovering right above this group are people who might not have a diagnosable mental defect, but who clearly just aren’t all there.)

Do I think these people can absolutely better their circumstances through hard work and persistence? Yes, absolutely. Are they ever going to become college professors or make a six figure income?  Probably not.  Is applying the 10,000 rule going to allow them to become an expert at anything they choose?  Nope.

(It feels elitist even writing this.  But don’t shoot the messenger.)

A study this year called The 10,000 Hour Rule into question:  Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions

We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.

So, what is the rest of the difference?  Likely some form of natural ability.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized The 10,000 Hour Rule in his book Outliers.  But even he has since said that he was misunderstood.  In a Reddit AMA, he said this:

The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.

So, practice only amplifies natural ability, which has to exist first.

This article in Slate essentially echos the same point, and puts a political spin on it: The 10,000 Hour Rule Is Wrong and Perpetuates a Cruel Myth

Societal inequality is thus justified on the grounds that anyone who is willing to put in the requisite time and effort can succeed and should be rewarded with a good life, whereas those who struggle to make ends meet are to blame for their situations and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. If we acknowledge that people differ in what they have to contribute, then we have an argument for a society in which all human beings are entitled to a life that includes access to decent housing, health care, and education, simply because they are human. Our abilities might not be identical, and our needs surely differ, but our basic human rights are universal.

Essentially, if we blame everyone for their situation – as if their current circumstances are based solely on their effort and nothing else – then we can justify economic and social inequality.  If we acknowledge that people are successful in some degree because they were gifted with great genes, then it gets tougher.

As with everything, there’s a fine line.  It’d be wonderful if we could easily determine to what percentage someone is living up their potential, where we consider “potential” to be the highest possible circumstance they could achieve with the natural gifts they’ve been given. Then this would be easy – someone living up to 100% of their potential is to be admired no matter what that potential looks like on an absolute scale.  Someone at 10% of their potential is to be scorned, even if Mommy and Daddy paid for Harvard and a Mercedes.

In the end, are we looking for results, or genuine effort (meaning effort in an absolutely honest attempt to get better, not just effort to make it look like you’re trying hard)?  In my mind, genuine effort is the correct yardstick.  I have great admiration for someone who has overcome any limitation over which they had no control – be it intelligence, athletic ability, childhood upbringing, physical catastrophe of some kind – and achieved some level of success in spite of that.

But this isn’t easy to measure. You don’t know everyone’s story, so I have no idea that the weathered lady riding the bus is actually doing phenomenally well despite the fact that she was sexually abused as a child, has never been naturally intelligent, and had a husband who ran off leaving her with three kids to feed.

Instead, we admire the idiot in the sharp suit and BMW, not knowing that he dropped out of three colleges, got the BMW for Christmas from his parents last year, and is managing to hide a thousand-dollar-a-week cocaine habit because his Daddy gave him a cushy job in the family business to essentially just occupy an office for eight hours a day.

Eight hours a day means he should master being a lazy douchebag in about five years.

The Human Tie and the Lack of Corporate Morality

I own 25% of my company, which is a significant percentage. This chunk of ownership binds me to this company, in the sense that I see the company as a sort of extension of myself in many ways.  I’m not a minor owner – I’m a significant part of the day-to-day operations, and my input goes a long way towards steering the company.

Thus, if Blend started doing things that were morally objectionable, my personal persona would take a hit. If Blend suddenly did something bad to our employees – cancelled their health care, for example, to increase our profit – word would get around, and people would think, “Wow, Deane is jerk.”

I stand to benefit from the profits of Blend, so if I do something to increase those profits at a human cost to someone, then I am placing money above human welfare.  Conversely, if I reduce my personal profit in exchange for a human good, then I’m placing humanity above money. Good for me.

This is a check and balance of my moral leadership of Blend. I am compelled to guide Blend to act morally (sometimes in opposition to profit) in part because it is a reflection of me as a 25% owner. Put another way, there is a significant “Human Tie” to Blend. Blend is less a company by itself, and is rather a very direct aggregation of the morals and ethics of the four owners.

With such direct ownership, humanity shows through. I do not think Blend has any morals itself — it’s a legal entity, and thus knows nothing of morals. Any morals it appears to have are just the morals of its owners, reflected by what the company does.

Now, let’s contrast this to, say, IBM. That company has almost 1 billion shares outstanding. Thus, “ownership” of IBM is almost theoretical.  I can own a single share, and say I’m an owner of the company, but I have no real ability to steer it anywhere.

As of this writing, the largest single owner of IBM shares is Berkshire Hathaway, which owns 7% (just over 70 million shares). Berkshire is, of course, a holding company, putatively owned by Warren Buffet, but in which you can also buy shares. Berkshire has 1.6 million shares outstanding, of which Buffet himself is the largest owner, having about 32%. This effectively means that, filtered through Berkshire, the person of Warren Buffet owns about 2% of IBM.

The largest direct owner of IBM shares is a guy by the name of Steve Mills (he’s also one of their VPs).  He owns about 153,000 shares, or .2% of Berkshire’s ownership, and only .01% of the company as a whole.

What this means is that there’s much less of a Human Tie to IBM.  What IBM does as a company really isn’t a reflection of anybody.  Buffet is the most influential single owner, and even he owns only 2% of it, and he would have to wield that 2% to the benefit of Berkshire and its other shareholders.

When a company like this does something bad – screws its employees, burns the rain forest, ignores human rights abuses, whatever – I find it a little funny that people say, “IBM should be ashamed itself!”, because this means nothing. IBM is a legal entity, incapable of shame.

What they mean to say, I think, is “The decision makers at IBM should be ashamed of themselves!”  In this, they likely mean the managers and directors.  But they’re not the ultimate decision makers. They simply have to reflect the wishes of the owners.

So, let’s say this: “The owners of IBM should be ashamed of themselves!”  Here we have the truth. But without a strong Human Tie, there’s really no way to enforce this shame.  The only way for this shame to reflect on a human is for some human to identify with this company as an extension of their morality.

If I’m Steve Mills, I own .01% of IBM.  Even as an officer, I doubt he looks at IBM In any way as an extension of himself. It doesn’t reflect his values or morals or ethics.  He’s just a tiny owner in the big picture (even if he is the largest direct shareholder). He doesn’t own enough of this company to possibly feel shame at anything it does beyond his personal decisions in his position.

In this way, the U.S. economy has devolved into ownership by proxy.  At scale, few people really “own” anything in the sense that it reflects them as humans and that they feel a driving personal need to operate the company according to their private moral code. Even if any owner wanted to exercise their personal ethics, they would have limited ability to do so.

Large, publically-held corporations have essentially become automatons, beheld to nothing but their share price.  Any why wouldn’t they be?  The vast majority of their ownership only relates to the company through that number – if it’s up, things are good, if it’s down things are bad. For most of their ownership, that is the sole barometer of success.

I believe that as any financial market evolves, it will gradually strip out pesky problems like morals and humanity. Financial markets are designed to evolve in service of profit, and they do this very well.

Yes, yes, companies have charitable giving programs and employee benefits, but how much of this is in service to PR and employee retention?  Consider this article in the Wall Street Journal: “The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility

Very simply, in cases where private profits and public interests are aligned, the idea of corporate social responsibility is irrelevant: Companies that simply do everything they can to boost profits will end up increasing social welfare.

I feel like this sums up the thinking of most of corporate America – trickle-down economics works, and if we simply create as much profit as possible, it will all work out.

Here’s another line of thinking: “When Corporate Theft is Good

Shareholders tolerate a certain amount of what looks like corporate philanthropy because some customers like to see it, and so become more inclined to buy the company’s products. Used in this way, philanthropy is simply part of a firm’s marketing. And it must be justified in the same way as any other marketing effort: Does it increase revenues by more than it does costs?

So, charitable giving is marketing, essentially.  We’ll do it so long as it benefits us, but not just because it’s the right thing to do.

In 2002, the WSJ did a survey of corporate recruiters, asking what traits they look for in MBA candidates. The results were obvious: corporate citizenship was last.  Worse:

Recruiters might even regard good deeds on a resume as a negative factor. “If an M.B.A. student spent a summer building houses for Habitat for Humanity, that person could be seen as soft and not ready for the rough-and-tumble world of investment banking,”

And this makes sense, because notions of objective right and wrong – an absolute moral standard – exist only in the minds of humans: we are the only true things that contain morals.  To a corporation, the only objective standard it knows is profit, so deciding it’s cheaper to allow 180 people to burn to death rather than fix a fuel system problem (PDF; see page 6) is a perfectly valid action when compared against that standard.

In the end, corporations are inherently greedy by design, and they will act in the interests of the only standard they can be held to: their bottom line.  This is not their fault – these are just the rules of the game we created.

What we hope is that their owners will have a strong enough Human Tie that they desire to operate the company as an extension of their humanity.  Sadly, the chances of this become more and more remote as the number of owners increases. More owners means that each individual human – each container of morality, inasmuch as only humans can be true moral actors – gets further away from the company. With dilution of actual ownership comes dilution of the Human Tie, and with that, the dilution of any need to act toward the good of anyone or anything else.

As with a lot of things in life, there is no real solution to this, short of artificial legal rules that may or may not work, but would be a constant source of legislative turmoil either way. This is just how markets evolve, and this is a price we pay for freedom and liberty and the other (considerable) benefits that provides.

I’ll conclude with a quote from Ron Paul’s book, Liberty Defined, which I read a couple years ago:

We need to become tolerant of the imperfections that come with freedom, and we need to give up the illusion that somehow putting government in charge of anything is going to improve its workings, much less bring on utopia.

Why Marketing Bothers Me

I was thinking about marketing this week while I was on a trip, and two things occurred to me that I find distasteful about the discipline. I’m not claiming all marketing is like this, but I’d call it a majority, certainly.

  • Marketing is often about lying. A lot of marketing is simply overstating your product and positioning it in a space or claiming that it fills a need that it does not in fact fill, or can only be considered appropriate at the very edges of imagination. Call it “marketing by wishful thinking.”  We hope that you’re buying this overpriced thing because you have disposable income and are making a prudent fiscal choice, but we’re quite sure that 99% of the time, it’s a huge mistake for anyone. And, of course, Super Sugar Smacks can be part of a well-balanced breakfast, but they hardy ever are.
  • Marketing is often about making people feel badly about themselves. We sell things by filling a need, and when that need doesn’t exist, marketing creates that need by making people feel badly about their current situation. Hell, pretty much every women’s fashion magazine is predicated on this entire idea – page after page of people prettier than you are. We know you thought you looked fine, but after closing this magazine, we’re hoping you feel like a troll and go out and buy our makeup. And sure, your car is practical and reliable, but it sucks compared to this new thing, so come out and spend more than you can afford to make yourself feel better.

I absolutely concede that marketing doesn’t have to be this way, and my hats are off to companies that avoid these two traps. But it’s rare, and society is worse for it.

The Relationship of Faith to Education

Compulsory Schooling Laws and Formation of Beliefs: Education, Religion and Superstition: This paper is behind a pay wall, but this quote was provided by the FiveThirtyEight where I read about it:

One additional year of schooling reduces individuals’ propensity to pray every day by about 10 percentage points. Likewise, an additional year of full-time education reduces the propensity to attend religious services at least once a week by 10 percentage points. We also find that schooling reduces the propensity to believe in the protective power of lucky charms, and it decreases the tendency to consult horoscopes, and to take into account horoscopes in daily life.

Gratifying Narrative Syndrome

As human beings, we chronically suffer from what I call “Gratifying Narrative Syndrome,” or a desire to confirm narratives that we find emotionally or psychologically gratifying.

You see these all the time – stories and paradigms that click with us for some reason, and that we very much want to be true. To this end, we interpret evidence in support of them and discount evidence that contradicts them.

  • To lose weight, eat many smaller meals. (Nope)
  • Lowering taxes will actually increase tax revenue. (Uh uh)
  • You need to drink eight glasses of water a day. (A myth)
  • Organic food is better for you. (No evidence)
  • The United States gives large amounts of money away in foreign aid. (Maybe in absolute terms, but not relative to the budget)

This is clearly confirmation bias at work.

Confirmation bias, also called myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way.

Politics and health are two great sources for this, because they both involve hard truths that we just don’t want to admit are true. We’re emotionally seeking some exception to the rules that we don’t like, so we hold out hope there’s a hidden secret. When we see or hear something which confirms it, we seize it and hang on for dear life.

(Yes, we’re actually always looking for that “one weird trick” that the banner ads promise us. We love this, because we love the idea that a thorny problem can be unlocked by a secret key.)

Additionally, sometimes these narratives subconsciously confirm other paradigms that we hold dear. Thinking that the U.S. gives away a lot of money in foreign aid (in truth, it’s less than 1% of the budget) might secretly make us happy because we like to remain convinced of our relevance to world politics, or that other countries couldn’t function without us, or perhaps that our budget woes are because we’re benevolent to other countries through some form of the Christian work ethic. Story A confirms Story B. If A isn’t true, then neither is B, and we don’t want this.

Another factor: we just love contrived stories that neatly explain something in an interesting way.  The world is full of questions, so we take comfort in the idea that there are explanations for them all. Consider this explanation for the phrase “rule of thumb”:

The expression “rule of thumb” did not originate from a law allowing a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and there is no evidence that such a law ever existed.

This story does several things: (1) it neatly explains a phrase that never really made sense to us, (2) it stokes our sense of moral outrage, and (3) it’s interesting in a morbidly curious way.  We imagine telling this story at dinner parties and people nodding in agreement as we have just sagely confirmed a Gratifying Narrative for them.

That quote on the “Rule of Thumb” is from an entire Wikipedia page on common misconceptions. Go read that and see how many you’re heard and that you thought were true.  And then ask yourself why you thought they were true. If you trace back, it’s probably because someone else told you, it sounded reasonable and interesting or perhaps it helped confirm some other mental paradigm you were holding onto, so you labeled it as accurate and didn’t seek any confirmation lest the boat get rocked.

I’m suddenly wondering is Gratifying Narratives are viral. Do they seek out their own survival by being interesting enough to pass on? Do they need to be contagious to survive?  This is the classic definition of a meme, as coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins:

A meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.

Is this why we seek to confirm Gratifying Narratives?  Do we secretly want to ensure their survival?

Clearly, that gets a little far-fetched. I think the truth lies somewhere nearer what Doris Graber described in Processing the News. In order to make sense of the world, we’re essentially assembling a large puzzle. Every new piece of information is a new piece in that puzzle. When we can fit that piece into a larger framework somewhere, it goes in with a gratifying “click.”

We love that click. We seek it out, and we avoid any inconvenient details that prevent it from happening.

The Rich and Their Effect on the Cost of Living

I’m not an economist, but I’m fairly confident in a couple of economic principles. 

  • Inflation tells is that when there’s more money chasing the same amount of goods, prices will go up.
  • Supply and demand tells us that when demand increases, prices will also go up.

I read an article (How the ‘creative class’ is dividing U.S. cities) that I think illustrates an end result of that: the relatively well-heeled “knowledge workers” are demanding more and more residential living in the downtown core, which is raising rents and pushing the lower class out of downtown.

The housing options of the disadvantaged are invariably defined by what’s left over. If the wealthy want to live on the waterfront, the poor are driven inland. If high-paid professionals want to live close to the subway — picture the popular orange-line corridor in Arlington — then low-paid cashiers are pushed farther from transit. If upper-class college graduates want to live downtown, as is increasingly the case in many big cities, the poor are priced out to the periphery.

I recently saw this same thing in Sioux Falls.  Across from the only downtown grocery store, several low-rent homes were torn down to build new loft apartments.  I assume those homes had people living in them – eyesores that they were, the houses still fit the economic needs of someone.  I further assume those people can’t afford the apartments which replaced their homes, and that they were therefore evicted and pushed somewhere else.  (As of this writing, you can still see the homes on Google Maps.)

I think there’s a secondary concept at work here – the existence of people with far more wealth ends up indirectly draining the finances of the lower-class.

The fact that someone can afford $2,000/month in rent means there’s a  market for that type of apartment, and its existence will eventually come at the expense of more affordable housing and bring average rents up.  The willingness of the upper class to pay large sums of money for things has the tendency to drag costs up overall – they inject more money into the system and increase demand.

This isn’t a problem if the people below them on the wealth ladder are moving up too – inflation raises costs overall, for everyone. The real problem comes when the the cliché becomes true – “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” When this happens, the rich getting richer drag costs up with them. Even if the poor stay where they’re at, their costs go up. If they’re not advancing economically, they’re worse off by just staying in place.

Put another way, Bob the Banker’s willingness to drop $1 million on a house has a negative, trickle-down effect on finances of Mike the Meatpacker. Mike’s rent edges up in response to the demand and the excess money injected into the local economy by Bob. If Mike doesn’t get a raise, he has a problem.

(But Mike might get a raise. Bob’s money goes into the local economy, and – if trickle-down economics is true – that means there’s more money floating around to pay Mike. Yay, capitalism!)

Assuming Mike gets screwed, is this Bob’s fault?  Not really. He’s not doing this intentionally, and his role in this drama is just as accidental as Mike’s.

And what’s the solution?  I honestly have no idea.