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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tax Demagoguery

Image Courtesy of

        Robert Frank, in The Darwin Economy, begins with the premise that having a government is both desirable and unavoidable, and that to have a government we must raise revenue somehow. He then goes on to argue that since taxes act as disincentives to whatever behavior is being taxed we should tax behaviors that harm citizens. The U.S. government currently taxes behaviors we as citizens ought to encourage, like hiring workers and making lots of money through productive employment. Frank’s central proposal is to impose a progressive consumption tax. He believes this is the best way to discourage “positional arms races,” those situations in which trying to keep up with the Joneses leads to harmful waste with no net benefit as everyone's efforts cancel each other out. One of his examples is house size:

“The explosive growth of CEO pay in recent decades, for example, has led many executives to build larger and larger mansions. But those mansions have long since passed the point at which greater absolute size yields additional utility. Most executives need or want larger mansions simply because the standards that define large have changed” (61).

The crucial point here is that this type of wasteful spending doesn’t just harm the CEOs. Runaway spending at the top of the income ladder affects those on the lower rungs through a phenomenon Frank calls “expenditure cascades”:

“Top earners build bigger mansions simply because they have more money. The middle class shows little evidence of being offended by that. On the contrary, many seem drawn to photo essays and TV programs about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But the larger mansions of the rich shift the frame of reference that defines acceptable housing for the near-rich, who travel in many of the same social circles… So the near-rich build bigger, too, and that shifts the relevant framework for others just below them, and so on, all the way down the income scale. By 2007, the median new single-family house built in the United States had an area of more than 2,300 square feet, some 50 percent more than its counterpart from 1970” (61-2).

This growth in house size has occurred despite the stagnation of incomes for median earners. In the wake of the collapse of the housing market, it’s easy to see how serious this type of damage can be to society.

           Frank closes a chapter titled “Taxing Harmful Activities” with a section whose heading poses the question, “A Slippery Slope?” You can imagine a tax system that socially engineers your choices down to the sugar content of your beverages. “It’s a legitimate concern,” he acknowledges (193). But taxing harmful activities is still a better idea than taxing saving and job creation. Like any new approach, it risks going off track or going too far, but for each proposed tax a cost-benefit analysis can be done. As I’ve tried over the past few days to arrive at a list of harmful activities that are in immediate need of having a tax imposed on them, one occurred to me that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else before: demagoguery.

Wouldn't want to appear partisan.
Image courtesy of
           Even bringing up the topic makes me uncomfortable. Free speech is one of the central pillars of our democracy. So the task becomes defining demagoguery in a way that doesn’t stifle the ready exchange of ideas. But first let me answer the question of why this particular behavior made my shortlist. A quick internet search will make it glaringly apparent that large numbers of Tea Party supporters believe things that are simply not true. And, having attended my local Occupy Wall Street protest, I can attest there were some whacky ideas being broadcast there as well. The current state of political discourse in America is chaotic at best and tribal at worst. Policies are being enacted every day based on ideas with no validity whatsoever. The promulgation of such ideas is doing serious harm to our society—and, worse, it’s making rational, substantive debate and collectively beneficial problem-solving impossible.

           So, assuming we can kill a couple of birds with a tax stone, how would we go about actually implementing the program? I propose forming a group of researchers and journalists whose task is to investigate complaints by citizens. Organizations like and have already gone a long way toward establishing the feasibility of such a group. Membership will be determined by nominations from recognized research institutions like the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the Pew Research Center, to whom appeals can be made in the event of intensely contended rulings by the group itself. Anyone who's accepted payment for any type of political activism will be ineligible for membership. The money to pay for the group and provide it with the necessary resources can come from the tax itself (though that might cause a perverse incentive if members' pay isn't independent of their findings) or revenues raised by taxes on other harmful activities.

         The first step will be the complaint, which can be made by any citizen. If the number of complaints reaches some critical mass or if the complaints are brought by recognized experts in the relevant field, then the research group will investigate. Once the group has established with a sufficient degree of certainty that a claim is false, anyone who broadcasts the claim will be taxed an amount determined by the size of the audience. The complaints, reports of the investigations, and the findings can all be handled through a website. We may even want to give the individual who made the claim a chance to correct her- or himself before leveling the tax. Legitimate news organizations already do this, so they’d have nothing to worry about.

           Talk show hosts who repeatedly make false claims will be classified as demagogues and have to pay a fixed rate to obviate any need for the research group to watch every show and investigate every claim. But anyone who is designated a demagogue must advertise the designation on the screen or at regular intervals on the air—along with a link or address to the research groups’ site, where the audience can view a list of the false claims that earned him or her the designation.
Individuals speaking to each other won’t be affected. And bloggers with small audiences, if they are taxed at all, won’t be taxed much—or they can simply correct their mistakes. Demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore will still be free to spew nonsense; but they’ll have to consider the costs—because the harm they cause by being sloppy or mendacious doesn’t seem to bother them.

Image Courtesy of
         Now, a demagogue isn't defined as someone who makes false claims; it's someone who uses personal charisma and tactics for whipping people into emotional frenzies to win support for a cause. I believe the chief strategy of demagogues is to incite tribalism, a sense of us-vs-them. But making demagogues pay for their false claims would, I believe, go a long way toward undermining their corrosive influence on public discourse.

      Finally, I refer you, dear reader, to a video that highlights the problem. It's from a liberal - whose show I don't watch, so I can't say how much of a demagogue she is - but I'm sure she'd find some whoppers on her own side of the divide were she inclined to look.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What's Wrong with The Darwin Economy?

          I can easily imagine a conservative catching a glimpse of the cover of Robert Frank’s new book and having his interest piqued. The title, The Darwin Economy, evokes that famous formulation, “survival of the fittest,” but in the context of markets, which suggests a perspective well in keeping with the anti-government principles republicans and libertarians hold dear. The subtitle, Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, further facilitates the judgment of the book by its cover as another in the long tradition of paeans to the glorious workings of unregulated markets.

            The Darwin Economy puts forth an argument that most readers, even those who keep apace of the news and have a smidgen of background in economics, have probably never heard, namely that the divergence between individual and collective interests, which Adam Smith famously suggested gets subsumed into market forces which inevitably redound to the common good, in fact leads predictably to outcomes that are detrimental to everyone involved. His chief example is a hypothetical business that can either pay to have guards installed to make its power saws safer for workers to operate or leave the saws as they are and pay the workers more for taking on the added risk.

            This is exactly the type of scenario libertarians love. What right does government have to force businesses in this industry to install the guards? Governmental controls end up curtailing the freedom of workers to choose whether to work for a company with better safety mechanisms or one that offers better pay. It robs citizens of the right to steer their own lives and puts decisions in the hands of those dreaded Washington bureaucrats. “The implication,” Frank writes, “is that, for well-informed workers at least, Adam Smith’s invisible hand would provide the best combinations of wages and safety even without regulation” (41).

            Frank challenges the invisible hand doctrine by demonstrating that it fails to consider the full range of the ramifications of market competition, most notably the importance of relative position. But The Darwin Economy offers no support for the popular liberal narrative about exploitative CEOs. Frank writes: “many of the explanations offered by those who have denounced market outcomes from the left fail the no-cash-on-the-table test. These critics, for example, often claim that we must regulate workplace safety because workers would otherwise be exploited by powerful economic elites” (36). But owners and managers are motivated by profits, not by some perverse desire to see their workers harmed.

"Mobility isn’t perfect, but people change jobs far more frequently than in the past. And even when firms know that most of their employees are unlikely to move, some do move and others eventually retire or die. So employers must maintain their ability to attract a steady flow of new applicants, which means they must nurture their reputations. There are few secrets in the information age. A firm that exploits its workers will eventually experience serious hiring difficulties" (38).

This is what Frank means by the no-cash-on-the-table test: companies who maintain a reputation for being good to their people attract more talented applicants, thus increasing productivity, thus increasing profits. There’s no incentive to exploit workers just for the sake of exploiting them, as many liberals seem to suggest.

            What makes Frank convincing, and what makes him something other than another liberal in the established line-up, is that he’s perfectly aware of the beneficial workings of the free market, as far as they go. He bases his policy analyses on a combination of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle—whereby the government only has the right to regulate the actions of a citizen if those actions are harmful to other citizens—and Ronald Coase’s insight that government solutions to harmful actions should mimic the arrangements that the key players would arrive at in the absence of any barriers to negotiation. “Before Coase,” Frank writes,  
"it was common for policy discussions of activities that cause harm to others to be couched in terms of perpetrators and victims. A factory that created noise was a perpetrator, and an adjacent physician whose practice suffered as a result was a victim. Coase’s insight was that externalities like noise or smoke are purely reciprocal phenomena. The factory’s noise harms the doctor, yes; but to invoke the doctor’s injury as grounds for prohibiting  the noise would harm the factory owner" (87).

This is a far cry from the naïve thinking of some liberal do-gooder. Frank, following Coase, goes on to suggest that what would formerly have been referred to as the victim should foot the bill for a remedy to the sound pollution if it’s cheaper for him than for the factory. At one point, Frank even gets some digs in on Ralph Nader for his misguided attempts to protect the poor from the option of accepting payments for seats when their flights are overbooked.

            Though he may be using the same market logic as libertarian economists, he nevertheless arrives at very different conclusions vis-à-vis the role and advisability of government intervention. Whether you accept his conclusions or not hinges on how convincing you find his thinking about the role of relative position. Getting back to the workplace safety issue, we might follow conventional economic theory and apply absolute values to the guards protecting workers from getting injured by saws. If the value of the added safety to an individual worker exceeds the dollar amount increase he or she can expect to get at a company without the guards, that worker should of course work at the safer company. Unfortunately, considerations of safety are abstract, and they force us to think in ways we tend not to be good at. And there are other, more immediate and concrete considerations that take precedence over most people’s desire for safety.

            If working at the company without the guards on the saws increases your income enough for you to move to a house in a better school district, thus affording your children a better education, then the calculations of the absolute worth of the guards’ added safety go treacherously awry. Frank explains

"the invisible-hand narrative assumes that extra income is valued only for the additional absolute consumption it supports. A higher wage, however, also confers a second benefit for certain (and right away) that safety only provides in the rare cases when the guard is what keeps the careless hand from the blade—the ability to consume more relative to others. That fact is nowhere more important than in the case of parents’ desires to send their children to the best possible schools…. And because school quality is an inherently relative concept, when others also trade safety for higher wages, no one will move forward in relative terms. They’d succeed only in bidding up the prices of houses in better school districts" (40).

Housing prices go up. Kids end up with no educational advantage. And workers are less safe. But any individual who opted to work at the safer company for less pay would still have to settle for an inferior school district. This is a collective action problem, so individuals are trapped, which of course is something libertarians are especially eager to avoid.

            Frank draws an analogy with many of the bizarre products of what Darwin called sexual selection, most notably those bull elk battling it out on the cover of the book. Antler size places each male elk in a relative position; in their competition for mates, absolute size means nothing. So natural selection—here operating in place of Smith’s invisible hand—ensures that the bull with the largest antlers reproduces and that antler size accordingly undergoes runaway growth. But what’s good for mate competition is bad for a poor elk trying to escape from a pack of hungry wolves. If there were some way for a collective agreement to be negotiated that forced every last bull elk to reduce the size of his antlers by half, none would object, because they would all benefit. This is the case as well with the workers' decision to regulate safety guards on saws. And Frank gives several other examples, both in the animal kingdom and in the realms of human interactions.

            I’m simply not qualified to assess Frank’s proposals under the Coase principle to tax behaviors that have harmful externalities, like the production of CO2, including a progressive tax on consumption. But I can’t see any way around imposing something that achieves the same goals at some point in the near future.

            My main criticism of The Darwin Economy is that the first chapter casual conservative readers will find once they’ve cracked the alluring cover is the least interesting of the book because it lists the standard litany of liberal complaints. A book as cogent and lucid as this one, a book which manages to take on abstract principles and complex scenarios while still being riveting, a book which contributes something truly refreshing and original to the exhausted and exhausting debates between liberals and conservatives, should do everything humanly possible to avoid being labeled into oblivion. Alas, the publishers and book-sellers would never allow a difficult-to-place book to grace their shelves or online inventories.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Anti-Charm - Its Powers and Perils

           It’s the most natural thing: you like someone, you want that person to like you, so you give him or her a compliment. You may point to some quality you genuinely admire. You may comment more generically. The basic idea, though, is to make this person feel good because you want them to associate feeling good with you—you say nice things because you want to be liked.

            If you’re someone who tends to make people you talk to feel good about themselves, or just good in general, you’ve likely been accused of being charming—and rightly so. And charm is considered a good quality to have. But there are a few ways it can go wrong. Attempts at charm can be construed as manipulative, in which case you’ve got more smarm than charm. You may try to charm someone who has already been subjected to numerous, nearly identical charm offensives, in which case your compliments will sound like clichés.

            Charm can also fail in a way that’s more subtle than coming across as insincere or unoriginal. The desire for another person to like you suggests that you have lower status than that person. By approaching him or her with offers of gifts—“Can I buy you a drink?”—or compliments—“You have the prettiest eyes.”—you’re effectively saying, “You’re more important than I am, so I’m going out of my way to curry favor with you.”

            If you send out this signal of lower status, your attempt at charm will probably backfire. By and large, people want to associate with others who are of equal or higher status than themselves. And there are all kinds of negative emotions that get triggered when we’re in the presence of someone who doesn’t measure up. We also have all kinds of nasty labels for people like this.

            The plain fact, however, is that status can be faked. It’s difficult to behave in a way that's incongruent with our feelings, but once you understand what types of behavior signal higher status you can deliberately perform them. And the signals of status are easily—even automatically—mistaken for the real thing. The signals are so powerful in fact that they won’t just work on other people; by behaving as if you have higher status, you’ll begin to feel like you have higher status.

            The sense that you’re raising your relative value and authority is inherently rewarding. So every behavior that has this result is seductive. This is especially the case with anti-charm. Charm entails making people feel good so they’ll like you; anti-charm, then, is making people feel bad so they’ll recognize you as someone who doesn’t give a damn whether they like you or not. In the same way charm often backfires by making the charmer seem unworthy, anti-charm often has the counter-intuitive effect of signaling high status and so making the anti-charmer seem eminently worth winning over.

            I first began to understand this dynamic as a restaurant server. At wits end some nights, I’d get gruff or sarcastic or even a little mean with my customers. Not only did I not get stiffed, as I often anticipated I would, I actually developed some mutually respectful relationships with regulars. It was as if by letting them know I wouldn’t be pushed around I was showing them I was worth knowing. (I like to think my natural wit had something to do with it too.) (Click here for some interesting science that backs up the idea that rudeness or even bad service can lead to bigger tips.)

            Sometime later, the point was reinforced for me when I read Neil Strauss’s book on pickup artists, The Game. A useful strategy for arousing an attractive woman’s interest, it turns out, is to upset expectations and say something that, while not overtly insulting, isn’t at all complimentary. “Nice nails—are they real?” Or “That wig is amazing.” As the interaction proceeds, you continue giving her signs that you’re not interested in her, prompting her to put increasing effort into getting your attention. She’s a beautiful woman after all; she’s not used to being neglected or dismissed or teased.

            The danger is that, once you get that first taste of the fruits of anti-charm, you respond to the seemingly miraculous reversal in hierarchical roles by overdoing it. Apparently, using too many “negs” or “indicators of disinterest” is a common mistake for beginning pickup guys. And the problem extends far beyond the realm of men attracting women in bars.

            What pickup artists and salespeople call qualifying is an even more powerful way of controlling status dynamics. If done a certain way, it can make people feel good about themselves—it can be charming. How it works is you make a case for some quality you look for in friends or lovers. “I try to surround myself with creative people because they’re always finding new ways to look at things, and they’re always finding new things to look at.” Now it’s your interlocutor’s turn to speak. Most people, if they like you at all, will explain at this point why they believe they meet your criterion. They’ll qualify themselves.

            Anti-charmers can also use this tactic. There are some qualities almost everyone likes to think they possess: intelligence, kindness, good looks, sexual prowess, professional competence. So even if someone doesn’t know you, he or she can make you feel bad by suggesting you lack one or more of these qualities. Why would anyone want to do that? Because many people will respond by trying to redeem themselves in the eyes of the person who has just insulted them. They bend over backward qualifying themselves. And the anti-charmer enjoys the attendant boost in status.

            Qualification gets even more sinister when the anti-charmer focuses on qualities central to her target’s identity. Say you know someone prides himself on his fashion sense. In an offhand way, you can suggest you don’t like the way he dresses. (This will probably work better, for obvious reasons, if you’re a woman.) Or, if you know someone who prides herself on her intuition about people, you can make subtle comments about how dense she is when it comes to understanding social interactions. They’ll hate you. But they’ll make a special effort to convince you you’re wrong about them. Their intense feelings about you may even turn to obsessive lust.

            A lot of people who like to think of themselves as especially authentic and genuine, more substance than flash and gimmick, find anti-charm to be an appealing social strategy. And they definitely come across as more honest, courageous enough to be who they are no matter who they offend and no matter who they may have to confront. It can even work if the fault you find in a person is moral, which is precisely why so many people fall prey to self-righteousness.

Image courtesy of
            The scary thing, though, is that we may feel certain that we are merely representing our true selves, telling the honest truth, or legitimately indignant over some moral outrage, when in reality all we’re doing is power-tripping. Anytime we find fault, we’re placing ourselves above the person we’re finding fault with. Sometimes calling people out is appropriate—sometimes not calling them out would make you complicit. But we simply cannot rely on our natural intuitions to discern legitimate from trumped-up charges; we need some set of guiding principles. We also need, more often than we like to admit, to reference the perspectives of disinterested parties.

            When it comes to game, there’s a point when you either become much more subtle in your indicators of disinterest or you quit using them altogether. Pickup guys call this moving from the attraction phase to the comfort phase. The recognition that anti-charm has its place, but that it can be taken too far, clung to long after its usefulness is exhausted, is an important insight. Hierarchical relationships are inherently stressful. Spending too much time with an anti-charmer is a good way to make yourself miserable.

Gravitating Toward Tribal: The Danger of Free-Floating Ideologies

Image from the movie Zardoz. Courtesy of
          Ideologies are usually conceived through a coupling of comfortable tradition with a calculation of self-interest. But they can also be borne of good faith efforts at understanding. More important than their origin and development is the degree to which they are grounded. If you work out a comprehensive and adequately complex ideology that serves to explain an otherwise incomprehensible phenomenon and possibly even offers some guidance for dealing with an otherwise chaotic and frightening dynamic, you’ve created a theory that will appeal to human minds desperate for understanding and a sense, no matter how meager, of control. But does the ideology match up with reality? That’s an entirely different question.

            Free-floating ideologies, those that persist solely owing to the comforts they provide and the conveniences they secure, survive confrontations with reality and subsist despite vast lacuna in empirical support because human perception operates through a process of cross-referencing sensory inputs with prior knowledge. What we see is largely determined by what we’re looking for, and how we see it by what we believe about it. Patterns arising in what ought to be random incidents often sustain beliefs—even though in most contexts humans are terrible at calculating probabilities. A natural confirmation bias has us perceiving and remembering all the times predictions arising from our theories come to fruition while missing or forgetting all the times they fail. We tend to enjoy the company of like-minded others, and rather idiotically have our convictions bolstered by their common acceptance by those with whom we’ve chosen to associate.

            Unmoored ideologies gravitate toward certain predictable tracks in human cognition. We like to think there’s some sort of agency behind everything, an intelligence governing the universe. To think that no one’s in charge of all the swirling and colliding galaxies is variously unsettling and terrifying to us. So we take in the sublime beauty of quiet sunsets and wonder at the beneficence of the creator. Or we note coincidences in our lives, the way they fall together in a meaningful, beneficial way, and we feel a need to express gratitude to the guiding divinity. This is mostly innocent. Though it can lead to complacence and willful ignorance of entire regions where this supposedly beneficent guide has deigned never to set foot, and it can add an extra layer of grief in response to catastrophe, the comfort of believing in an invisible protector and guide has little immediate cost.

            Much more worrying is the gravitation of free-floating ideologies toward tribalism. The pseudo-scientific cult that has arisen around certain varieties of psychotherapy has bequeathed to our culture the horrifying belief that an unknown portion of the population, predominantly male, can induce the modern equivalent of demonic possession, severe psychological trauma, through an inverted laying-on of hands. The ideology has made monsters of men. The fetishizing of free markets likewise entails a belief in a loathsome variety of sub-humans. The economy, true believers assert, is a battle between the makers and the moochers, the producers and the parasites. As a conservative friend put in, in a discussion of healthcare reform, “Giving insurance to the slugs will just make them bigger slugs.”

            If you challenge someone’s beliefs by suggesting theirs is an ideology divorced from reality, as everyone does who advocates for one set of beliefs in opposition to another, the proper response is to insist that the ideology emerged from an awareness of facts through inductive reasoning. But sunsets, no matter how sublime, don’t really provide any evidence for the existence of an intelligent agency behind the curtain of the cosmos. Troubled young women with histories of abuse don’t prove that sexual experiences in childhood cause a wild assortment of psychological maladjustments. And the higher incarceration rate for impoverished groups doesn’t in any way establish some fundamental divide between good and bad types of people.

            Once ideologies reach a certain stage of development, they become all but immune to contradictory evidence. When the facts cooperate, they are trumpeted. When they don’t, the devout have recourse to principles. I’ve referred advocates of particular varieties of psychotherapy to evidence that they’re ineffective. In response, I didn’t get references to other bodies of evidence supporting the beliefs and practices in question; rather, I got an explanation of how the therapeutic techniques were supposed to work. Present a free market purist with evidence that market competition doesn’t led to innovation, or leads to detrimental innovations, and you’ll likely get a lecture explaining the principles behind how it’s supposed to work, according to the free market ideology, rather than evidence that it does, in fact, work in the theorized way. This convenient toggling back and forth between inductive and deductive reasoning literally allows us to explain away disconnects between our ideologies and the world.

            It is the tendency of free-floating ideologies toward tribalism that leads me to advocate a strict adherence to science in matters of public concern. It wasn’t merely coincidence that the enlightenment represented the inception of both the traditions of science and universal human rights, which have suffered through a traumatic childhood of their own, and are now living out a tumultuous adolescence. The tendency toward tribalism is also why I’m wary of commercial fiction which almost invariably makes characters represent ideas and personal qualities, only to pit the good guys against the bad. J.K. Rowling can claim all she wants that the Harry Potter books teach kids the evils of bigotry, but any work with goodies and baddies taps into tribal instincts. Literary fiction, on the other hand, at its best, is an exercise in empathy.