GDPs, Feelings, and Mountains

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Human Progress, cont’d

The media is pretty good at reporting the most attention-grabbing headlines: popularity contests, controversies, and catastrophes. This part is fine. Companies should try to generate profits within reasonable moral bounds, and selectively reporting news stories that are the most interesting does not feel unethical.

But this causes us to miss the tiny incremental changes that have resulted in a better world, and instead focus on the seemingly endless problems that pop up every day. One would naively think, from things like the Flint water crisis, the popularized incidents of police brutality, random shooting deaths, terrorism worldwide, stagnant wages, and the growing rift of income inequality, that the United States and the world are eroding away. But this narrative misses all the positive things.

Remember 10 years ago? That’s not even the 1990s. That’s the early 21st century. In these dark ages of 2006, there was no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Twitter. There was neither Tumblr nor Tinder nor Uber, while Facebook and Youtube were in their infancy. 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while only 35% were in support; today, those numbers have flipped. New art and new science have developed. The US emits less CO2, and global wind power capacity has increased by a factor of 6. Global poverty has continued to decline, infectious diseases take fewer lives, US cancer mortality rates have fallen, global childbirth mortality and child mortality rates are down, and even as the world population goes up the number of people undernourished is decreasing.

(And for computer geeks: The laptop I had in 2006 had 1 GB RAM and a 40 GB non-SSD hard drive. The one I am using to write this post costs about the same and has 16 GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD. )

So it is very puzzling that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have engaged so many people by essentially ignoring progress and calling on their followers to ignore it as well. The very idea of “Make America Great Again” is based on the narrative that the US has declined, yet there has not been a better time for the US or for the world. And the “capitalism has failed you” narrative from the other side of the spectrum is no better. Get rid of your iPhone first and then talk about capitalism produces nothing of value. Hillary Clinton understood this when she stated, “America never stopped being great.”

And here is The Economist:

Which would you prefer to be: a medieval monarch or a modern office-worker? The king has armies of servants. He wears the finest silks and eats the richest foods. But he is also a martyr to toothache. He is prone to fatal infections. It takes him a week by carriage to travel between palaces. And he is tired of listening to the same jesters. Life as a 21st-century office drone looks more appealing once you think about modern dentistry, antibiotics, air travel, smartphones and YouTube.

The question is more than just a parlour game. It shows how tricky it is to compare living standards over time. Yet such comparisons are not just routinely made, but rely heavily on a single metric: gross domestic product (GDP). This one number has become shorthand for material well-being, even though it is a deeply flawed gauge of prosperity, and getting worse all the time […]. That may in turn be distorting levels of anxiety in the rich world about everything from stagnant incomes to disappointing productivity growth.

And my favorite part from the ad at the top is, “Even use on your boat,” as if everyone had boats back then.

“I Feel Like”

Here is Molly Worthen, whose article in the NYT is titled “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’“:

In American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition. “I support Donald Trump because I feel like he is a doer,” a senior at the University of South Carolina told Cosmopolitan. “Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida. At a Ted Cruz rally in Wisconsin in April, a Cruz fan declared, “I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.”

These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

Hedging my written remarks is pretty useful when I say things on the internet that are archived permanently. It is so easy to take things out of context that I preemptively qualify statements to avoid misunderstanding.

On the other hand, I agree with all the reasons against over-hedging as discussed in the article. I am in favor of things that are rational and encourage discussion, and I detest things that shut down debates.

Yet here is the paradox: “I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.

When people cite feelings or personal experience, “you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,” Ms. Chai told me.

“It’s a way of deflecting, avoiding full engagement with another person or group,” Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a historian at Syracuse University, said, “because it puts a shield up immediately. You cannot disagree.”

This is also the primary reason why recent campus social justice movements go too far: they stifle debate rather than encourage it.

That said, there is a difference between hedging a statement and expressing an opinion:

  • If I recall correctly, the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s.
  • I feel like Ted Cruz would make a bad president.

The first statement makes a factual claim but also expresses some uncertainty as to whether it is true. It doesn’t deflect engagement.

But the second is an opinion, and technically speaking, the claim is not that “Ted Cruz would make a bad president,” but that “I feel like Ted Cruz would make a bad president.” In this sense, you can’t really argue with the statement even if you miraculously provided evidence that Ted Cruz would make a good president, because that would not affect the person’s feelings that Ted Cruz would be a bad president.

So hedge more, “feel like” less.

Misc

NYT on Margot Robbie:

“It’s always a hustle,” she said. “I thought it would be a mountain, where you get to the top, and then it’s like: ‘Wheeee! It’s so easy after this.’”

Instead, Ms. Robbie said: “Any time I get near the top, I’m like, ‘There’s another mountain!’ The hustle continues.”

WSJ on making friends:

People with higher I.Q.s were less content when they spent more time with friends. Psychologists theorize that these folks keep themselves intellectually stimulated without a lot of social interaction, and often have a long-term goal they are pursuing.

Harvard on young people:

Sanders remains most popular candidate for America’s 18- to 29-year-olds; Nearly half believe today’s politics are unable to meet the country’s challenges; Majority reject both socialism and capitalism.

 

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