The Good Old Days of the Internet (Circa 2010)

I made a claim recently at a dinner that the Internet was clearly good for the world up to 2010, and it was bad after that. And I’m wondering if this actually has any truth.

The main argument is that in the (relatively) early days of the Internet, you were generally an individual interacting with random strangers. This was good because you were exposed to new ideas, beliefs, and cultures you never knew even existed. And because people are naturally curious and empathic, you got to understand one another and could see where they were coming from. Then around 2010, social media achieved dominance and we now live in polarized bubbles where you are roughly never exposed to new ideas, beliefs, or cultures. Or when you do, you are making fun of them with your group of like-minded individuals. To reach out across the aisle would draw ostracism from your group. I would guess the primary cause of this recent polarization and tribalism comes from how people interact on social media.

The Internet used to be a technology that, in addition to providing services like email and information searching, also fostered a global understanding of ideas. Now it is a tradeoff between the services which are clearly positive and the societal effect which at this point is probably negative.

Today I stumbled upon an chatroom that really reminded me of the old days. There were random people talking about philosophy and heatedly debating questions of existence. This is what the Internet was and could be. But really, we made a wish to feel secure about our beliefs. And it was granted.

Relative vs Absolute Wealth

There’s a stat I often hear in economics, but people rarely see the takeaway. The saying is that even though the annual income threshold to be in the top 1% in the US is around $400,000, for global income it is only $32,000 (Investopedia for US and world). Therefore the US middle class ought to feel like they are doing very well compared to the rest of the world.

While this is partly true, it ignores things like purchasing power and different costs of living in different countries. And people often get bogged down in the details of these objections rather than admiring the giant wealth gap that exists between countries and how well off Americans are who claim they are not.

To demonstrate the point better, I think there are two better comparisons to make. The first is to make the comparison across time and also within countries. The second is to make the comparison in simulated/virtual environments where people all start off on the same footing—video games. People usually care more about relative wealth than absolute. And maybe we should be thinking more about absolute.

Historical Economic Growth

I’ve previously written about human progress over time, and it’s still the case that this is underestimated. People generally think of growth as additive, but in reality it is exponential. Life isn’t just somewhat better than it was 300 years ago. It is orders of magnitude times better:

gdp_per_capita_slide

And yet, people often claim that things are worse than before (e.g., Make America Great Again). We’ve made this exponential curve of progress, and many problems of the past we now don’t ever think about—the diseases that have been conquered, a scientific understanding of the world, advances in healthcare, access to modern technology, democratic society, much lower chance to be murdered, not taking months to communicate with someone on a different continent, looking up information from the sum total of human knowledge from a device in your pocket, and so forth.

We only think about the problems that face us now, never thinking about the problems that have already been solved and the things that didn’t exist before. And when we compare ourselves to people, we take all the above for granted and point out most absurd of differences (like claiming how in a hunter-gatherer society, you obtained some food and then had leisure time, therefore we should go back to being hunters and gatherers.).

Social Comparison

Among the most useful ideas to understand human interactions is that of keeping up with the Joneses. People strive to keep up in material wealth with their neighbors and friends. This is why one common response to the global 1% statistic is “why don’t I feel rich”? Because they are not comparing to the average human; they are comparing to their other global 1% neighbors.

A study by researchers at the University of Warwick and Cardiff University has found that money only makes people happier if it improves their social rank. The researchers found that simply being highly paid wasn’t enough — to be happy, people must perceive themselves as being more highly paid than their friends and work colleagues.

The researchers were seeking to explain why people in rich nations have not become any happier on average over the last 40 years even though economic growth has led to substantial increases in average incomes.

Lead researcher on the paper Chris Boyce from the University of Warwick’s Department of Psychology said: “Our study found that the ranked position of an individual’s income best predicted general life satisfaction, while the actual amount of income and the average income of others appear to have no significant effect. Earning a million pounds a year appears to be not enough to make you happy if you know your friends all earn 2 million a year.” (ScienceDaily)

This effect has become bigger in recent years, as it has been exacerbated by social media. People are now much more likely to see the day-to-day of people more well off than they are—not just the super rich, but the person you thought you were clearly superior to in high school who is now doing much better than you, and being reminded of this constantly on Facebook. And people show off their best on social media, so if everyone compares their average life with what they see on social media, everyone could be unhappy.

One of the most memorable essays from The Occupy Handbook is one precisely on relative vs absolute wealth, specifically on the idea of “last-place aversion”, and I’m not sure it actually makes the reader more or less supportive of the Occupy movement. The authors write:

We also documented last-place aversion outside the laboratory by surveying a sample of Americans about their attitudes toward an increase in the minimum wage. The minimum wage obviously affects low-income workers disproportionately, and thus it is reasonable to expect that most low-wage workers would support an increase. Indeed, we generally do observe this pattern, with one major, and telling, exception: those making just above the minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, are far more likely to oppose an increase than those making $7.25 or below or those making more than $9.00. That is, people making $7.50 per hour would rather forgo a small raise than take the chance that an increase in the minimum wage will cause them to earn the “last-place” wage themselves—and to be tied with workers previously below them. (“Where Is the Demand for Redistribution?” from The Occupy Handbook)

So it’s more important to make more money than other people, rather than to just make more money in absolute terms.

Video Games

Now let’s talk about Diablo 3. This game, as originally released in 2012, was an item-grinding game, where you kill monsters to get powerful items, so that you can kill even stronger monsters to collect even more powerful items, and so forth. The following is basically all anecdote, so be warned (I’m not aware of any literature on this).

This game was done very well, but was highly controversial at launch. Its Metacritic rating was 88% from critics but only 40% from site users (averaged from some good ratings and many 0’s).

diablo3_metacritic

I claim the controversy came from economics. The central core of the game is described above, where random items drop for you to collect, and you collect better and better items as you play more. This was all fine, except Diablo 3 did one thing that other games did not: have a massively available public online exchange for trading items.

Without trading, the game felt very good. To abstract it a bit for the sake of argument, suppose there are 10 difficulty stages in the game, 1-10, 1 being the easiest and 10 being the hardest. Most people breezed through the easier difficulties got to somewhere 4-7 on their own without much trouble. But the game ramped up in difficulty significantly once you got to 8, 9, and 10, and most people started struggling as soon as they got to 8. I claim this was still fun because the point of the game was to play the game, get better items over time so you can defeat 8 and go to 9, and then beat 9 and 10 eventually. However…

The most hardcore gamers, including many famous streamers on Youtube and Twitch, could get to 8, 9, and 10 very quickly (arguably partly from skill in playing video games, and also from just spending lots of time on the game or spending money on items), and one person even did 10 on a “hardcore” mode where any death is permanent and your character doesn’t respawn.

(For people who know the game, 8 refers to Act 1 Inferno, 9 = Act 2 Inferno, 10 = Acts 3&4 Inferno, and the one person who beat Act 4 Inferno before nerfs was Kripparrian.)

There were millions of players at launch, and they weren’t satisfied struggling in difficulty 8 while streamers were doing well in 9 and 10. And from the social aspect of the game, they weren’t satisfied being stuck on 8 while their real-life friends were on 9 and 10.

Remember the item exchange from earlier? Now all the people stuck on 8 could amass in-game currency and buy items obtained by the people on 9 and 10, and thus move themselves to 9 and 10. They basically bypassed the game itself, skipping the gameplay process of fighting monsters to get better items. And when a critical mass of people did this, the keeping up with the Joneses effect really kicked in. Now all of your friends are trying to take down the boss for 9 and 10, but you’re still stuck on 8 and can’t play with them. So you also go out and buy some items to keep up. The difficulty level you played on was your social status. (Why are you stuck on 8? Are you bad at the game?)

The whole game was a microcosm of economics. There were many different “builds” or strategies that characters could use, but the game soon degenerated into 3-4 common hyper-efficient builds that were borderline exploitative. It should have been that most builds seemed ok and a few were really good. But since everyone else was using the best-possible builds, using any other build was basically crippling yourself and your party. Instead of trying out cool, unique builds on level 8, everyone went to the degenerate builds on levels 9 and 10, which is why the game effectively had no variety. It was a case where buying a really good item made you more powerful in absolute terms, but since you then just went to a higher difficulty level, you didn’t become relatively more powerful, and now you have less flexibility of strategies. This made the game less fun despite being your character being objectively more powerful.

In addition, the more people bought items from the exchange, the lower the chance they would ever find a relatively better item naturally. If you have a 50th percentile item to start, you’ll in expectation find an upgrade in the next two items. But if you go to the exchange and buy a 99.9th percentile item off the bat (as most people did), then it will take 1000 items drops in expectation for you to find a better item naturally. (I think I was one of the people who figured this out at the time, and I wrote a popular forum post on the official Diablo 3 forums. Since then, the game has actually done both suggestions, to remove the exchanges and trading in general, and to soft-reset the items every few months, so people aren’t stuck in the situation where they have the 99.999th percentile items and can’t feasibly get better ones.)

Anyway, this experience in 2012 is why I think about the topic a lot. It’s nice for people to move up and improve their standard of living, but the improvement should be on a personal level and not to be keeping up coworkers and Facebook friends.

Trump

Like many Hillary Clinton supporters, I was stunned upon learning that Donald Trump won the election. How could the so much obviously worse candidate win? How did the vote go to the candidate who promised to reverse decades of progress in international relations and is openly racist and sexist?

My very very blue Facebook feed was a deluge of people talking as if the apocalypse had just occurred. It was a funeral of collective mourning. Reassurances were made as if to calm the nerves after a global tragedy in which millions had perished. Some people felt that, because of aspects of their identity, they would now be demoted to second class citizens. I saw the hashtag spring forth: #notmypresident. Moving to Canada was on the table. People suddenly cared about how stupid the electoral college was. People were in shock. It was the beginning of the end of America.

And it went deeper than that. To the Left half, it was inconceivable that Trump would gain the vote of a single person, let alone half the American electorate. One person asked who are you, Trump voters? One can blame the social media echo chambers for this, but that is not the point. The real question is, for a liberal who values the rights and dignities of minorities, women, and LGBT people, how can one even begin to empathize with the other half of the nation, the Trump supporters?  The deporables? The racists, bigots, and homophobes?

In this small pocket of the electorate in my Facebook feed, I saw the great disconnect. It was an implicit assumption, an overriding narrative in almost all the posts, that anyone who voted for Trump must be all of these deplorable things: racists, bigots, and homophobes. And then I remembered why, despite voting for Clinton, I am becoming disillusioned with being a liberal. In previous posts I talked about being against the “safe space”/”social justice warrior” movement. Among the many reasons is the following. One of the tenets of of the current social justice movement is that “all white people are racist.” I’ve seen that phrase almost verbatim many times scrolling through Facebook in the past few years. I understand what it actually means, and I can definitely see where someone is coming from if they use that phrase. However, you can see the problem with this approach, right?

I try to imagine I am a random white person who just heard this statement for the first time. And then I am asked by the Left to join them, to sign on the dotted line under the phrase, “I AM A RACIST.” Sound appealing? Didn’t think so. It worries me a lot that the Left’s extreme faction is, for all its good intentions to combat racism and sexism and homophobia, building a wall that shuts out precisely the people who need most to be exposed to some liberal ideas or people. After vilifying big groups of people for so long, you’ve finally alienated them, leaving the alternative of Trump.

Most of the responses I saw after the election will only further this divide. Not everyone did this, but many people wrote off Trump supporters as the basket of deplorables: racists, bigots, misogynists, and homophobes. Can you see how this is a discussion ender, not a starter?

*

This was my attempt to empathize with a Trump voter. The story is not as simple as “all Trump supporters are deplorables.” In the CNN exit polls, for instance, Trump had the vote of 21% of non-white people, 42% of women, and 43% of college graduates. These are all considerably higher than zero.

In this post I pointed at the backlash against the recent social justice movement, but this is clearly not the only reason Trump was elected. I am also still optimistic that Trump won’t be that bad for the world, and I agree with Clinton’s plea that we keep an open mind.

Postmodernism, Progress, and Social Justice

My very simplified story of human progress is this:

Humans have improved their conditions over time, with incremental growth for most of history and exponential growth in modern times. These improvements have been made in all aspects of human life: technological, economic, cultural, social, political, medical, and ethical. There were grave setbacks along the way but we now live in the best time there ever was for our species.

I think this roughly applies to America as well, which makes the platforms of Trump and Sanders puzzling. As I wrote previously, the slogan “Make America Great Again” presumes that it is not already so, and the idea of “capitalism has failed you” coming from the other end of the spectrum is not much better. Between Trump, Sanders, and Clinton on this topic, only Clinton possesses a sane view, that “America never stopped being great.”

Anyways, I have wanted to write a longer post on human progress for a long time, ever since the bizarrely hostile responses to this 2014 post on social progress. Some people do not accept progress, and I feel like it is mostly because it doesn’t fit their narrative. If you start off with “The West is evil because colonialism,” etc., then it is difficult to also keep in mind all the progress made through human history, largely by the Western world.

The main points are:

  • We made progress.
  • It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress.
  • How postmodernism is related to this.
  • How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this.
  • How the presidential campaigns are related to this.

Once again, in anticipation of the response to later sections, I want to disclaim that I fully consider myself a liberal on social issues. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminist, pro-gun-control. I plan to vote for Hillary Clinton.

We made progress

I feel like this section is unnecessary but I also know there are people who deny progress. So let’s do a history refresher. In a prior post I wrote about a few pieces of progress in the last 10 years:

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.

That was actually the hard part, limiting progress to just the last 10 years, with a start time of just before a global financial crisis. If you go back further, say since the dawn of agriculture, it is hilariously easy to come up with progress. Every item around you, from your clothing to electric lights to the smartphone or computer on which you are reading this post, could not have been created in earlier times. But you don’t have to worry about that, as there was a 25%-33% chance you died before reaching age 5. And if you did survive, you better hope you don’t succumb to illness, as death rates for some diseases were 70-80% and you didn’t have the luxury of modern science and medicine. Tribal warfare often killed a quarter of a tribe’s total population, a figure that makes even World War II seem tame. Assuming you survived, you were overwhelmingly likely to be in a position of no political power, a slave or peasant. The standard of living was, by modern standards, approximately zero for thousands of years.

[Graph 1, Graph 2Graph 3]

gdp_long_term

gdp_per_capita_slide

gdp_growth

The things continued for thousands of years, and then some different things happened in the 1500s–1700s. A Renaissance, a religious Reformation, a Scientific Revolution, an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution lifted the Western world out of the darkness and into modern times. And the standard of living took off, alongside huge decreases in violence and big expansions in human rights.

It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress

It’s so much easier to think of current problems than to think of problems that we have already solved. For example, we used to (and in some backwards regions of the world, still do) accuse neighbors we didn’t like of witchcraft and stone them to death.  We used to engage in ritual animal and even human sacrifice. We used to engage in fatal duels to defend our “honor.”

Regarding torture, here is Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death.

And from another post quoting the same book, on the decline in rape:

“Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.

I point this out not to say “Tada, progress!” but to put these issues in historical context. Pointing out that things have gotten better does not mean that the status quo is acceptable. Much of it is not, and there is so much progress yet to be made. But it is delusional to want to return to the good old times because they were free of violence and conflict. They simply weren’t. They were far more violent and intolerant than today (see Pinker’s book).

In addition, we now have social media, where grievances that would have been considered trivial in the past can now instantly rile up thousands of people (perhaps rightfully). This creates a situation where fewer bad incidents cause the world to look worse.

Given how widespread the pessimistic view is, I don’t fault anyone for thinking things have gotten worse, but at the same time, I find the numbers quite startling. Some 46% of Americans believe life has gotten worse since half a century ago, versus 34% better and 14% same (via Pew Research). “By contrast, 88% of economists said the U.S. is better today than in 1960 and 87% see today as better than 1980” (source).

How postmodernism is related to this

One way to deny progress is to argue that progress as a concept is impossible. Progress implicitly assumes an objective measuring stick; thus, it cannot exist as there is no objective truth, only subjectivity—progress is nothing but a social construction. Another way is to argue that progress is a colonialist ideology developed by Western nations to oppress non-Western nations, and that anyone who argues for progress must be automatically racist.

That is my caricature of postmodernism, but I’m honestly not sure what else postmodernism is (as used in popular rhetoric).

Here are some passages from Edward R. Friedlander’s “Why I am Not a Postmodernist“:

The “postmodern” university gurus talk about the “dead white males” who produced the canon of literature that we have treasured over the centuries as cruel, oppressive, stupid, and deeply wrong-headed. But a fair reading of the classics — even before the enlightenment — will reveal a huge range of ideas — many of them far ahead of their times — about the rights of minorities, women, and the poor. There are many deeply sympathetic portrayals of LGBT culture and people, and appeals both for religious tolerance and religious skepticism. And no culture other than the much-maligned “European” (including America and Australia/New Zealand) has ever made a systematic effort to understand and value the other cultures of the world. Anyone who tells you otherwise is taking an obviously false political stance to deceive you.

And:

Postmodernists complain that science is a cultural prejudice, and/or a tool invented by the current elite to maintain power, and/or only one “way of knowing” among many, with no special privilege. For postmodernists, science is “discourse”, one system among many, maintained by a closed community as a means of holding onto power, and ultimately referential only to itself.

[…]

We still hear a great deal today about “multiculturalism” and “relative values”. But everybody that I know, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion, seems to want the same basic things. This begins with health, reasonable personal liberty and security, and a reasonable chance to have one’s initiative rewarded. Postmodernists talk about being “dehumanized” by science and technology. If they really believed this, they would trade their academic positions for the lives of subsistence farmers in the world’s poor nations, or (if they could) the short, sickly, miserable lives of chattel-serfs in the ages “before technocracy”. There they will discover that what people want isn’t “cultural integrity” or “multicultural sensitivity”, but health, food, safety, and a reasonable opportunity to choose one’s own course through life. Those who would deny them these basic human needs aren’t the scientists. It is the tyrants and ideologues of the right and the left.

And:

Science isn’t a conspiracy of power-hungry monsters against the human race. The real enemy is superstition, ignorance, and silly lies. And if you live in America, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, or Western Europe, most people in the world would gladly trade places with you.

In the twentieth century, Norman Borlaug developed new agricultural techniques in wheat that are often credited with saving the lives of a billion or more people. Yet almost no one has heard of him. I’m guessing it might have something to do with the fact that despite his huge steps in solving world hunger, his life-saving results appear numeric rather than anecdotal. And his doing this while being a white male Westerner certainly did not fit the postmodernist narrative. I would bet someone has already complained that teaching about him in school is “problematic.”

Postmodernism the movement might be long dead, but its specter continues to haunt us. All of the following can be rooted to the postmodernist style:

  • Science is just another way of knowing, no different from emotion, etc.
  • The great counternarrative, that progress is a myth, that the Western world is evil.
  • The rise of New Age wisdom versus Western science and medicine.
  • The study of STEM fields is often considered inhuman/cold, whereas currently it probably has the highest benefit for humanity.
  • Over-sensitivity to criticizing other cultures.

The last point has to do with criticizing anything that is not Western. Here is an anecdote. (Anecdotes are inherently more valuable than statistical data because the latter implies a tacit Eurocentrism.) My very liberal Facebook feed contains lots of “social justice” posts. Yesterday there was a disturbing CNN headline that read, “Pakistani men can beat wives ‘lightly,’ Islamic council says.” Being someone in a civilized country that cares about the plight of others, I was pretty offended by this and expected a lot of outrage on my Facebook feed, but instead, I saw none. I’m guessing it has something to do with how the typical post fits the narrative of “The West/white people are evil,” and this story, about how an “Islamic council” of non-Whites in a non-Western country has been/is doing something evil, does not fit that narrative and is thus rejected.

How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this

Still one of the greatest articles on this is “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I fully encourage everyone to read that if they have not already. And earlier this week, Nathan Heller wrote in The New Yorker a piece called “The Big Uneasy“:

Aaron Pressman, a politics and law-and-society major, told me that he has always felt free to express his opinions on campus, but has faced “a lot of social backlash.” One of his ambitions is to become a public defender, and he has studied the free-speech work of the A.C.L.U. Last year, when he noticed a broadly worded clause about flirtatious speech in Oberlin’s new sexual-harassment policy, he advocated for more precise language. (His research told him that such broad prohibitions were often used to target ethnic groups.) “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male,” Pressman recalled. He feels that his white maleness shouldn’t be disqualifying. “I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand—your culture has never been oppressed.’ ” Pressman laughed. “I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?’ ”

And:

How, then, to teach? Two years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement took off, “it felt like it was going to be a moment when we were really going to have a national conversation about police brutality and economic inequality,” Kozol said. She was excited about her students’ work in Cleveland and elsewhere. “But then, at some point, it became really solipsistic.” A professor who taught a Comparative American Studies seminar that was required for majors went on leave, and, as she was replaced by one substitute and then another, Kozol noticed something alarming: the students had started seating themselves by race. Those of color had difficulty with anything that white students had to say; they didn’t want to hear it anymore. Kozol took over the class for the spring, and, she told me, “it played out through identity politics.” The class was supposed to be a research workshop. But students went cold when they had to engage with anyone outside their community.

Seriously, what is happening? Have tribalism and postmodernism returned?

Don’t get me wrong—social justice is one of the best things ever to happen, one of the few parts of history that can be universally viewed as good. The affirmation of human dignity for every person regardless of circumstance is the most important one that can be made. But the contemporary movements resemble one-sided yelling more than discussion.

Questions of justness and fairness are hard, but you do not gain voice by preventing others from voicing theirs. A democratic society should not base its decisions on whose echo chamber is bigger, or by whichever group can frame the narrative to disqualify the other group on the basis of race or sex or other identity. The way to counter a bad idea is to present a good idea, not to call for tribal hatred and witch hunts against its proponents. Some of the most intolerant people are those who preach tolerance the loudest.

One paradox here is that as more progress is being made in social equality, the bigger an issue it becomes. From “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” (Campbell and Manning 2014):

According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes in stratification, intimacy, and diversity cause conflict. Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as “overstratification.” Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. […] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality. As women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly deviant. The taboo has grown so strong that making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno, Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013).

Basically, places that have progressed the furthest toward equality are precisely where further microagressions feel like they matter most.

In this sense, one might be delighted that the university ruckuses are going on as evidence of increasing equality. But it is also the dangerous arm of postmodernism where feeling is regarded as highly as fact.

I am frightened that this movement is not only ignoring progress, but also actively trying to reverse it. You saw the self-imposed seating segregation from earlier. Freedom of speech is gradually receding in favor of oversensitivity, especially of criticizing cultures that are blatantly regressive compared to the Western world. Diversity of ideas is frowned upon, and even the idea of democracy is now considered part of a sinister colonialist agenda.

How the presidential campaigns are related to this

Here is Bernie Sanders yesterday:

As cited before, 88% of economists disagreed, saying that living standards are better than they were in the 1960s (and 87% say better than in the 1980s). Yet from popular sentiment, it would seem like Sanders is right.

To be fair, Sanders supporters are still more grounded in reality than any group of Republican supporters. Here is a poll via Pew Research on whether life has gotten better or worse than 50 years ago:

pew_better_worse

Basically, Republicans generally are more pessimistic than Democrats, with Trump supporters the most pessimist. Democrats are more optimist, with Clinton supporters the most optimist.

This is kind of surprising as everyone I know who is against the progress narrative is Democrat, but then again, I don’t know many Trump supporters, nor do I expect many people reading this to be Trump supporters. The one I really want to address is Sanders and the tendency to pin all of society’s problems on capitalism.

Two years ago, when I graduated from college, I never thought I would quote a former hedge-fund manager on capitalism non-ironically. But here is Andy Kessler to college graduates [via WSJ]:

Those of you I hear gagging in the humanities section are going to have to unlearn a few things. Harvard recently released a survey showing that over half of Americans ages 18 to 29 do not support capitalism. Ouch. You can almost feel the Bern.

Don’t be fooled. Capitalism is what allowed you to wander around this leafy campus for four years worrying about finals instead of foraging for food. It delivered the Greek yogurt to your cafeteria and assembled your Prius. The basic idea is to postpone consumption. Then invest in production to supply goods and services that delight customers. Next, generate profits. Rinse and repeat.

It’s widely known that Sanders supporters tend to be young people. I feel out-of-place as a 24-year-old that supports Clinton, but in 2012 I voted for Jill Stein, whose platform is essentially identical to that of current-day Sanders. I definitely felt the Bern (the Stein?) when I was in college, so I can understand where all the Sanders supporters are coming from. I learned a lot about economics and capitalism since 2012, and I no longer support the Stein/Sanders camp. When you look at those three graphs from earlier where the line is roughly zero for most of human history and then skyrockets to the current day, that is the force of capitalism in action. That is progress. That is the constant exchange of bad ideas, systems, tools, governments, and moralities for better ones.

It is difficult to talk so much about what seems so obvious, but yes, humans have made lots of progress, especially in the very recent past. It is easy to forget about this progress with the 24-hour news cycle and social media, but it happened. We may live in the best time there ever was, but we have to be careful to not seek return to a false mythical world of the past. Instead, we should work to better the very real world of the future.

GDPs, Feelings, and Mountains

vintage-phone-ad

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.

 

Brains, Stories, and Yelling

Cognitive Styles

I’m always skeptical of any explanation that involves “culture,” but here is Jennifer Richler in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind:

Previous research has shown that people from cultures that are Western,educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD,” in psychological parlance) tend to think analytically, using logical rules, whereas those that are non-WEIRD process information more intuitively. They even perform differently on problem-solving tasks: Americans, who are more analytical, remember individual components of a complex visual scene better than East Asians, who are more holistic.

They compared the minds of liberals and conservatives by giving them three words, e.g. “panda”, “monkey”, and “banana”, and asking which two were most related:

Liberals acted more like Westerners, pairing items that belonged to the same abstract category (for instance, two animals), whereas conservatives tended to pair items that were functionally related (monkey and banana), as non-Westerners do. One other classic test of holistic thinking also suggested that liberals tended to use a more typically WEIRD cognitive style.

The finding that conservatives think more like those from collectivistic cultures might sound counterintuitive. Aren’t liberals, who favor safety-net programs for the needy, the collectivist ones? Thomas Talhelm, now a professor of behavior science at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study, explains that true collectivism “doesn’t mean general sharing with other people. It’s about social ties and responsibilities to those within your group.” Antipoverty programs usually serve to help individuals get a leg up rather than strengthening groups—thus aligning with WEIRD cultures’ focus on individuality.

This confuses me a little because when I think about recent “liberal” examples in individualism vs collectivism, the thing that jumps out is the “check your privilege” movement, which is ultra anti-individualist. You belong to X racial group or Y social class? Privileged! Your “identity” is based on pre-defined groups (often which you did not make a choice to join) and not on your individual experience.

The counterintuitive story, that liberals are the individualistic ones, makes more sense after some thought. If you go through liberal vs conservative stances on social issues, it does seem like liberals in general favor the individual. The most glaring example is abortion, with the liberal position literally called “pro-choice.”

Here is a passage about where libertarians fit in this framework, from this article:

Historically, libertarians and modern liberals share an ideological ancestry, both tracing our roots to the classical liberal tradition of Locke, Hume, Smith, Mill, and others. In the 19th century, the classical liberals triumphed by advocating the primacy of the individual against the status quo of monarchy, mercantilism, aristocracy, theology, slavery, and the like. While the progressive movement stole our liberal terminology in the early 20th century, modern liberals and libertarians today still share that same valuation of the individual in society. This is most easily seen today in the issue of marriage equality, where social conservatives try to use the power of the state to control marriage because it is an important social institution, while liberals and libertarians focus on the importance of marriage in the lives of all individuals. It is the same core conflict between a holistic worldview that emphasizes tradition against a more analytic worldview that prioritizes the individual.

Oh, and I’m totally on team panda+monkey rather than monkey+banana. I would guess most people I know (liberals and math people) would pick the two animals as well.

Bonus: Here is a chart from the Scientific American Mind article on political party and Twitter language. It does further the story that “liberals are the real individualists”:

twitter_democrat_republican_language

Stories

Saw this on Tyler Cowen’s blog, so here is the story within a story. Just to be clear, I am quoting Tyler Cowen quoting Marti Leimbach:

“A question of privilege”

An excellent short essay by Marti Leimbach.  Here is the opening:

My university-aged daughter is always telling me about the “privilege” that people like me have and how it makes it impossible for me to understand and empathise with those whose lives are without such privilege. I do see her point. I’ve never been black or gay or trans or gender queer or mentally ill. I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a derelict building in a dangerous neighbourhood, to have drug addicts for parents, to fear for my safety while walking to school, to be openly despised for being female, denied education or refused employment based on my skin colour or gender. And while I have been poor enough not to be able to afford a car or health insurance, I have never been so poor I had to steal food. Clearly, I’ve not suffered the worst of what society can throw at a person.

Nonetheless, this whole notion of “privilege” vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.

The story continues…it is hard to excerpt with its various twists and turns, definitely recommended…

As advertised, Leimbach paints two widely differing narratives of the same set of events. It is definitely worth a read. (It also reminds me of the underrated movie Vantage Point, which shows the same plot unfold several times from the perspective of different characters.)

The power of narrative is strong. You can take the same set of facts and wind up with opposite interpretations, as was the case in Leimbach’s story. For very different example, here is a graph of US stock market investment, via Gallup:

gallup-stock-market

So should you buy into the market?

  • Story 1: “It is obviously a time to buy stocks. When the number of investors in the stock market recovers and comes back to normal levels near 60%, tens of millions of Americans will have bought stocks, making the market much higher than it is now.”
  • Story 2: “It is obviously a time to sell all your stocks. Fewer Americans are investing in the market than ever before, and this trend will only continue. Combined with the market near all-time highs, a crash is imminent.”
  • (Meta-story: “The markets are efficient and have priced in both stories 1 and 2, so it is not obviously a time to buy or to sell.”)

Do violent video games increase crime? [from this post]

  • Story 1: “People who play violent video games are likely to imitate the characters they play, thus becoming more aggressive in real life.”
  • Story 2: “People who would otherwise commit violent crimes satisfy their urges in video games and not in real life, thus decreasing the crime rate.”

So unless you have numbers to back you up or comprehensive explanations for complex issues, stay away from explaining things via simple stories.

These kinds of narratives make me skeptical of many political movements as well, whether from the right (e.g. the “war on Christianity” narrative) or from the left (e.g. the “privilege” narrative mentioned in Leimbach’s article).

Here is Cowen again, really hammering the point in a TED talk on narratives.

Basically, make sure you understand as much of the situation as you can, not just some simplified narrative.

How to Social Activism

Earlier this week, The Huffington Post on President Obama on Black Lives Matter:

President Barack Obama on Saturday praised the work the Black Lives Matter movement has done to highlight racial inequality, but also strongly cautioned activists that they needed to be realistic about their proposals and be willing to compromise.

Speaking at a town hall in London, the president mentioned Black Lives Matter specifically as he laid out his vision of how activists can achieve social change.

As a general rule, I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers, has been really effective in bringing attention to problems,” Obama said.

But the president went on to say that activists needed to be realistic about what could be achieved immediately and sometimes needed to compromise to achieve long-term goals.

One of the things I caution young people about, though, that I don’t think is effective is once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” Obama said.

Thanks Obama! And no, that was not sarcastic. As a rationalist and individualist, I generally disapprove of schemes in which your identity is based on something that you had no control over, such as race.

I’m on team Clinton and I think many of Sanders’s plans are insane. However, I fully support Sanders’s right to speak at his own rallies, especially with so many supporters there to see and listen to Sanders, not some random people who hijacked the podium, which happened in Aug. 2015.

Things like this just alienate would-be allies. I was generally favorable towards Black Lives Matter before this and certainly had a lower view of the group after the event. And it’s not like Sanders did anything horrible to them before or during the event. I am glad President Obama was not afraid to address this.

2015 and What I’m Thinking About

effective_altruism1

Effective Altruism

One thing I’ve never discussed on this blog is effective altruism. It is basically a movement to optimize doing good, and it does so by number crunching rather than by random donating. Here are a couple of main results:

  • Certain charities are 10 or 100 times more efficient than others. The most effective of them all is to distribute mosquito nets to sub-Saharan Africa, according to the famous site GiveWell, which ranks charities in effectiveness.
  • A high income earner can create more social impact than a social worker. The idea is that a software engineer earning $100,000 a year and donating 50% of it (to efficient charities like above) can generate a lot more good than a non-profit worker. The site 80,000 Hours has more about this.

I am fine with this movement and I really enjoy the discussions it causes. I would defend effective altruism against many of its usual criticisms.

But I am still personally skeptical for now. Which brings me to…

Markets

One thing about working in trading is that I now see everything in terms of markets. (Tyler Cowen’s blog often highlights “markets in everything“.) I naturally think about the cost and value of everyday things and decisions. This mindset probably makes effective altruism become more understandable. If every $3000 in mosquito nets saves one life, why would I ever donate to my alma mater?

Yet the same market mentality also raises some questions. I believe people are generally good, that markets are generally efficient, and that companies are generally beneficial to society. So when billions of dollars go into a tech company like Facebook (market cap of $300 billion as of this post) instead of anti-mosquito nets, there is probably a lot of hard-to-measure good that Facebook is providing and which is widely ignored.

Disenchantment with the Left

I wrote only 3 blog posts this year, and sadly two of them were about terrorist attacks in Paris. Back in college I blogged about atheism, and I kind of want to get into this again considering the Paris tragedies, and I believe that combating religion is still important.

That is also why I am becoming disillusioned with being a liberal. Both in the media and on my Facebook feed, people are too afraid (of being called racist or worse, Islamophobic) to criticize Islam and its role in the attacks. The Koran says to do horrific things to infidels, and it is emphatically not a tiny minority that believe this literally.

Liberals do a great job standing up for women, LGBT people, and religious minorities—in America and Europe. But in entire swathes of Islamic countries, in both the Middle East and Africa, women are considered second-class, legally beaten by their husbands, and even sentenced to 200 lashes for the crime of being raped. And we liberals just look the other way because it would be racist and colonialist to criticize their culture. (That last sentence is just out of anger, I hope nobody actually thinks that.)

Here is a very graphic New York Times video from just yesterday, showing a woman literally beaten and stoned to death by a mob, in a public space in broad daylight, because of rumors she burned a Koran. Can you really watch that and claim Islam had nothing to do with it?

My other disillusionment with being a liberal is the whole safe-space/microaggression/trigger-warning/check-your-privilege movement, which I talked about previously.

Anyway, I want to make a hobby out of writing in 2016, and I’m not sure if I should stick with tame topics like effective altruism and markets, or also include charged ones like religion and politics.

Bonus: My 2015 Reading List

  • The Occupy Wall Street Handbook, Various Authors: This is a compilation of essays written on the Occupy movement. I read this to challenge my positive views towards Wall Street, but I was mostly unpersuaded. The essays presume that you are against Wall Street and then talk about the movement or stats about inequality, without much attempt at persuasion.
  • A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton G. Malkiel: A decent chronicle of the rise of finance and Wall Street.
  • The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko: An eye-opening book about American attitudes on saving, spending, and the accumulation of wealth. It provides so many instances where two households have the same income yet have vastly differing net worths, even when age, location, education, previous incomes, etc. are similar.
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: I expected Atlas Shrugged to be pure evil based on so many peoples’ hatred of Ayn Rand and this book, but I actually enjoyed it. At least within the story, I cheered at the end. Does this make me a bad person? I definitely agreed with the reverence of scientists/inventors/creators.
  • On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: We are all familiar with classics in literature, so why not in science? Its force and detail are impressive.
  • Average is Over, Tyler Cowen: The title says it all. Jobs will increasingly cluster towards high-wage and low-wage, with little in between.
  • The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen: Good discussion of low hanging fruit in economic growth.
  • The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan: Excellent treatise on voter rationality and the public’s views on economic issues, and how frighteningly different they are from economists’ views.
  • The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham: I didn’t find it very useful.
  • The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker: A useful writing-style guide.
  • The Price of Inequality, Joseph Stiglitz: I had a similar reaction as to the Occupy handbook. It basically listed some facts but wasn’t that convincing. I mean, I agree that too much inequality is bad, but this book somehow made the case weaker for me. It had at least one “are you kidding me” moment.
  • Humans Are Underrated, Geoff Colvin: An interesting take on the idea that machines will take over even more jobs than today and that jobs will be all about human-to-human interaction.
  • Islam and the Future of Tolerance, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz: A very refreshing, actual dialog between an unapologetic atheist and a pro-reform Muslim. More discussions like this need to exist.
  • Brief Candle in the Dark, Richard Dawkins: Full of captivating and often humorous tales of Oxford, science, and atheism.
  • You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day: Really, thank you so much for creating The Guild and this memoir. It also feels good to read another person’s experience with World of Warcraft.

Caplan’s book discusses anti-market bias, and I feel like I did had lower expectations for books that were pro-market and higher expectations for ones that were anti-market. Both sides surprised me.