Be Like Pete

Pete Buttigieg is the Secretary of Transportation in the Biden administration. He has made an interesting habit of going on Fox News and willingly submitting himself to what his interlocutors clearly anticipate to be difficult “gotcha” questions that will leave their liberal target squirming on camera. Secretary Buttigieg seems to always come out the clear winner and I think there is something to be learned from it.

The easy answer is that Buttigieg is smarter and more polished than the Fox News interviewers, which he is, but I thank that’s easy to overrate. There is no shortage of smart people who wouldn’t fair half as well as the Secretary does. Part of it is his calm and poise, but credit should also go to just being nice. That niceness really puts people on the back foot. The secret sauce, in my estimation, is that he never for a second sounds like he is arguing. There’s no sense that he is interested in a back in forth. He never gives anyone an opening to raise their voice, to seem attacked.

But it’s not just being nice. The interviewer in the first clip quickly realizes that his question has failed to get the desired reaction, and subsequently tries to interrupt him at multiple points. The Secretrary simply ignores him and proceeds with his answer without missing a beat or raising his voice. He’s the G-d— Secretary of Transportation. He doesn’t have to be deferential to some teleprompter anchorman trying to raise points of political decorum and social norms with a member of the opposition party that has been given no quarter on their network for 20 years.

So how do you be like Pete?

  1. Be nice.
  2. Know your stuff.
  3. Never defer to anyone who isn’t nice and doesn’t know their stuff.

Being nice is inclusive of being polite, but there is more to it. It means being generous in the motives you assume in others, including those who are questioning or arguing with you. It means using tones of voice and choices of language that don’t imply you are dealing with an enemy or a fool, even when dealing with a foolish enemy.

Knowing your stuff means that you can explain choices and positions clearly and concisely in a manner than allows the people listening to you to actually learn something. Knowing you stuff, however, also confers on you the right to finish your thoughts. If others prefer your conversation be more akin to a verbal brawl, that’s their prerogative, but that doesn’t mean they get to dictate where your thoughts begin and end just because they’ve lost control of the outcome. Knowledge should confer some privleges, be them however limited.

And finally, being like Pete means never deferring to people who don’t want to play by the rules of basic civility and have nothing to contribute to the conversation. You’ve got a job to do and being nice will help you do it all the better. So be nice, until it’s time to not be nice.

The Third Act of American Prohibition

As you know, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, effectively giving states the ability to legislate the conditions, if any, under which abortion is legal. Many states had trigger laws in place, meaning that abortion became partially, mostly, or entirely illegal immediately. While some states already had laws in place protecting the right to an abortion, others are expected to pass new legislation restricting abortion access in the near term.

So, to summarize, there is a medical service for which there is significant demand. That demand, at the micro level of an individual consumer, comes with time pressure in a heightened emotional context. The supply of the service will vary geographically. Given the clustering of states that are prohibiting abortion in the south and midwest, there will be considerable heterogeneity in legal abortion access based almost entirely on physical distance and access to transportation.

Advocates for the banning of abortion are aware of this and have responded in some states by adding heavy punishments for aiding and abetting abortion access, some going as far as granting access to civil lawsuits or offering rewards for third-parties who tip off authorities to those who have received an abortion.

Prohibition of a good with strong demand, heterogeneous legal supply, and heavy punishments for those seeking to enable arbitrage across state lines. This is not a new story. First alcohol, then narcotics, now abortion. This might feel different because abortion is a service good, but it’s not. Why?

Because of mifepristone and misoprostol, often referred to as “The abortion pill”:

As it stands, a state cannot ban a drug with FDA approval, but access is nonetheless thin. There will also be, with similarly little doubt, efforts to quickly ban mifepristone and misoprostol, with accompanying heavy punishments. Eleven weeks is a long enough window that it will cover the majority of abortions. It’s small and portable, which means it will be easily transported and resold. It will also remain perfectly legal in a number of states bordering those prohibiting abortion. There will be, with nearly zero doubt, a booming black market in mifepristone and misoprostol within a matter of months.

But this isn’t a medical procedure provided in a fixed building with identifiable practitioners. These will be pills that will be exchanged in school bathrooms and college dorms, purchased by professional women who drove 300 miles in a Lexus and came back with enough to give to their professional friends who want to be proactive and prepared for daughters who may be sexually active. Further, these aren’t addictive products: there won’t be weekly customers whose symptoms will create patterns of consumption and the kinds of collateral damage that attract attention. Passive enforcement of these laws will be highly ineffective.

In some places, enforcement on pill restrictions will simply be weak, meaning anyone whose pregnancy can be terminated in the short run will retain some meaningful access. The price will be elevated like any good where suppliers incur legal risk, which means access to abortion will correlate heavily with income, resources, and social privilege. This will also shift the effective burden of abortion restrictions towards the later term “abortions” that only account for 1.3% of terminated pregnancies, but are more heavily associated with medical emergencies, incomplete miscarriages, and the kinds of pregnancy events associated with trauma and shame (e.g. rape or incest) where a women is not necessarily in a position to take decisive early action. Given that the majority of Americans averse to abortion are principally concerned with late term abortions, but also believe abortion should always be an option when the health of the mother is in jeopardy, it is expecially vexxing that laws that reduce access to early term abortions will increase the previously miniscule demand for late term abortions.

I expect some states will attempt to enforce prohibitions or limitations on mifepristone and misoprostol with a war-on-drugs like zeal. How do you heavily enforce a ban on a small pill that is easily hidden, not regularly used, legally manufactured in other states, and has a viable market with high income individuals? Experience tells us the answer is to dedicate lots of resources while carrying little regard for individual rights or public safety.

Marijuana legalization has spread rapidly across the country. District attorneys are increasingly uninterested in prosecuting minor possession charges of nearly any drug. In 1993 state and local governments spent $15.9 billion on the criminal justice of drug enforcement, $26 billion by 2003. Now it’s probably closer to $40 billion (I couldn’t easily find a good current estimate). That’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of government jobs, with government job security, many of whom might be wondering what their job is actually going to be in five years. They needn’t worry. When one prohibition closes a door, a new one opens a window.

Local governments have been seizing property, charging fines and fees, and generally subsidizing their local tax bases on the back of the drug war for decades now. Cracking down on a new banned substance might not work for a variety of reasons already listed, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try, particularly if trying means getting a lot of political attention while hosting photo ops with seized contraband next to local police and publicly shaming perpetrators as unforgivable monsters.

Prohibition of alcohol failed in large part because it made nearly everyone a criminal. Alcohol appealed across every strata of American life. Most Americans had a hidden liquor cabinet, a favored speakeasy, or even a backyard still. That breadth and depth of demand brought tremendous profits to those who could supply it outside of the law and, eventually, tremendous violence from those eager to capture those profits.

Demand for abortion access, whether for discretionary reasons or medical necessity, appears randomly in lives, but those rolls of the dice are inclusive of nearly every woman and every family. With that breadth and depth of demand will come a black market. Possibly even a highly profitable market. Materially profitable for suppliers. Politically profitable for those legislating to suppress it. Budgetarily profitable for those working every day to destroy it. These prohibition rents will appear, they will be fought for, and they will sustain themselves through a process that will destroy lives. Mostly women.

The third act of American Prohibition is here and it will hurt us all. Mostly women.

Labor market tournaments and the cost of almost making it

Two weeks ago Tyler Cowen observed the increasing presence of family lineages in the NBA. The post is without much commentary, so I won’t impute any theory on Tyler’s behalf, but I suspect most people would observe this as the a product of genetics combined with the increased ability of NBA teams to precisely identify the attributes and aptitudes they want. There could also be a component of nepotism i.e. 2nd generation players are given greater leeway and time to develop, but given the revenues on the line in professional sports and the dependence on labor to compete, those effects are likely to be weak.

I’d like to offer an alternative theory to genetics that I refer to as “Better last than second”. There are certain lines of work, such as athletics, acting, music, or twitch streaming that are best thought of as winners-take-all labor tournaments. Any occupation where the concept of “making it” is well understood by its participants as an elusive but desirable goal can be considered a labor tournament.

There are lots of labor tournaments (academia for instance), but in most of them 2nd, 3rd, or Nth place are reasonably tolerable outcomes because the rewards correlate fairly linearly with any success level beyond abject failure. Nobody worries about being the 27,342nd ranked accountant in the world – that person likely makes a good living. Even if they can’t get a job as an accountant, they have skills that readily translate to a variety of other well-paid occupations. Winning is merely a (highly remunerative) cherry on top of an already pretty good oucome.

Basketball players worry a great deal about being the 474th best in the world.

The NBA at any given moment has 450 employees on their rosters. A couple dozen more float in and out on short term contracts to fill in for injuries and other player absences. The league minimum salary is $925k per season. The NBA developmental league (the G League) pays about 37k per season. That already makes it sound like the earnings dropoff from being the 449th best player to the 474th player is enormous, but it’s actually much, much worse.

It’s worse because basketball skills translate to the tiniest sliver of other jobs. Television acting, DJing house music, colorfully live streaming a Castlevania speed run: these are all skills that can pay large sums of money if you cross some imaginary threshold and “make it.” The catch that distinguishes “better last than second” markets from other winner-take-all labor tournaments is that participation requires the dedication of tens of thousands of hours building human capital whose rewards are skewed almost entirely towards a selected few. Those thousands of hours play out over the course of a survival game where, month by month, year by year a new round of “losers” is selected out.

The irony being that losing first is better than than getting the silver medal. Losing first means rebooting your life early and building up your human capital in something else (hopefully in something more forgiving of merely being very, very good). The silver medalist is, in fact, the biggest loser. The opportunity cost of time and energy they will never get back and never be rewarded for. I don’t worry about players that don’t get NCAA scholarships or drafted for the NBA. I worry about the guys hanging around in the G league until they’re 34 only to get released from their contract over a text message. I worry about the actors who’ve spoken 15 lines across 24 television guest spots and 3 commercials in 11 years based mostly on aesthetics, only to wake up at 34 and find themselves in the uncastable valley of normalcy. I worry about the members of all the bands I like but none of my friends have ever heard of.

Which brings us back to NBA lineages and why they seem to be becoming more common. If your father was in the NBA in the 80s or 90s, you probably come from upper-middle class or better means and, in turn, have the backing to tolerate the financial risk of not making it. Second, almost making it is likely to be less costly for you because you are part of a basketball family. Your name will grant you far greater access to the small number of basketball-adjacent jobs that will value your skills (i.e. coaching, scouting, recruiting, commentary, etc). Being part of a lineage makes that silver medal a lot more valuable. Maybe just as importantly, your family is likely to be a lot more supportive and tolerant of the risk you are taking. If your one of your parents had a six year run on Dynasty or made a living on the LPGA tour, they’re that much more likely to see a path to success for you.

As athletics become more lucrative, they become better understood. As they become better understood, the body of highly specific tacit knowledge grows as well. Lineage players will have access to this tacit knowledge through their parents. Dell Curry knew his son wasn’t going to particularly tall (Steph Curry is listed as 6′2", and official NBA heights are notoriously generous). This lead him to entirely reinvent his son’s shooting form in a manner that rendered him unable to shoot from any distance at all for months, entirely based on his understanding as a former NBA player that his son’s lack of genetic predisposition to play in the NBA required a motion that would catapult shots over much taller players. Even if lineage players do have genetic advantages in the high school and college stages of the tournament, the value of these advantages pale in comparison to the advantages of tacit knowledge precisely because of the stage of the game at which they are leveraged.

One could even argue that any genetic advantages that correlate to success at the early stages of a “better last than second” tournament (i.e. being 6’8″) are akin to a resource curse, giving the false impression of a non-trivial probability of “making it.” Conversely, a lack of genetic gifts (i.e. being 6’2″) while having access to the tacit knowledge valued at the last stage of the tournament truly are a blessing. If you survive the tournament until the last round without the obvious endowments other players have, you probably have a rich portfolio of other skills which, combined with the previously mentioned late-stage tacit knowledge, means you’ve been playing the game with less risk and greater expected value than others.

“Better last than second” labor tournaments are common in high prestige entertainment fields, but they aren’t limited to them. Any academic field that produces PhDs with little to no demand in the private market shuttle thousands of students through exactly such a tournament. The only difference is that the gold medal is a $87k a year job with the job security of tenure and “almost making it” often includes crippling student loans. It shouldn’t be much of a surpise that academia is full of lineages, too. And with those academic parents will come the knowledge of how decisions made in high school, college, grad school, and beyond will determine they win their respective labor tournaments. Or lose and have to settle for saving the world.

The story of social media isn’t over

Saturday I opened twitter and was immediately confronted with bad news that threatened to turn tragic.

This was horrible. “That’s horrible” I said. I spent a moment’s thought reflecting on what might have happened and then continued down my feed.

Within seconds of continued scrolling, I was confronted with this:

My mentality changed immediately. This was no longer a tragic event happening to an anonymous person in a context I had no capacity, nor obligation, to offer assistance. This was a problem and time was a factor. I started thinking about who I knew in Florida. Did I have any friends holding a position through which they could offer assistance? Was there a social cluster I was connected to I could reach out to through social media? Hospitals, law enforcement, travel. Who did I know? I became despondent when it became clear I had nothing to offer but a retweet.

After a few seconds I returned to reading what I realized was a thread of tweets only to be given the relief of wonderful news, a happy ending that was directly a product of sharing on twitter:

The arc of drama (from the privilege of my physical and personal distance from actual events) was over in less than 30 seconds. What I was left with was a simple truth: I was sympathetic, but comfortably detached from a tragic event actively unfolding. It wasn’t my problem nor was it something I could do anything about until I found out I knew someone involved.

Barely knew. I had exchanged a couple messages with Omar about a year ago. A handful of polite thoughts about something Omar tweeted that was of mutual interest. That’s it. That’s the totality of our interactions. But with it came a completely different framing, a level of connection that elevated an evocation of standard sympathy to a potential call to action.

Twitter, that engine of animosity and toothless rage, had made me care more about a stranger through the simplest of social connections.

Comedians and other entertainment professions often tell the same simple story about online trolls that goes something like this:

  1. Someone writes something mean about the entertainer on twitter
  2. The entertainer responds to the troll in a polite and controlled manner that invites them to more civil engagement or simply reveals that the trolls comments are hurtful.
  3. The troll evaporates, replaced by a person excited to re-acknowledge the basic humanity and worth of their previous target.

A moment of direct interaction transforms, in the eyes of the troll, a previously two-dimensional narrative prop into a flesh and bone person worthy of dignity. We’re awash in the denigration of targeted individuals by detached opportunists seeking status and approbation through targeted cruelty. What is underappreciated is the opportunity in this moment for the target to reach back and give the troll what they actual want: to be seen.

This next part is probably not the leap you are expecting, but there is a long history of media radically changing how we acknowledge and internalize the humanity of others. In this vein, there is arguably no more famous and impactful image than the seal of the The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787), asking “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Not to be glib about such an important and horrifying part of our history, but this image blew people’s minds. In David Levy’s amazing history of how economics came to be referred to as “The Dismal Science”, he relates the efforts of Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and other figures in English literature to deny the basic humanity of non-White men and women, particularly those from Africa and Ireland. Key to their efforts were stories, particularly those coupled with drawings, that explicitly portrayed the targets of their denigration as something far removed from humanity as a species. It was to their chagrin that the “Man and Brother?” image went the 18th century equivalent of viral.

It not only shocked households all over England to learn that the victims of the slave trade were clearly human in every sense of the word, it sparked an undeniable chain of logic. If these are men and women, then they can learn to read. If they can read, then they can come to know the Bible and their souls can be saved. If they can be saved then we have an obligation to teach them to read, offer them a Bible, and welcome them as brothers and sisters.

This image forced the reconsidered worth of others and with that reconsideration a calling for their liberation and salvation. This image, and others like it, changed who was human.

Social media is currently how many of us stay on the bleeding edge of news. It’s a way for us to promote ourselves and our work. It’s also a hellscape of acrimony, bad faith arguments, bullying mobs, and malicious propaganda. That’s what it is today. But that doesn’t mean that’s all it can ever be. Film and television changed the world as entirely passive, one-directional media. Most of the downsides of social media are born of interactions that, by little more than the inertia of the mob, often behave as if it were a one-directional media, carrying the masses along in the tidal wave of an irresistible narrative. There remains the possibility, the hope, that the capacity to interact meaningfully will eventually reclaim it as a multi-directional discourse, where the people we interact with become more real. More human. Where calls to serve can overwhelm and displace calls to destroy.

The story of social media isn’t over. There is still time for it to become something more. Where the people on the other side of claims and jokes and accusations become more human, not less. Where we broaden the ranks of who we offer our best to and shrink those whom we condemn with our worst.

It’s nice going to the movies again

Everything Everywhere All at Once is one of those truly great movies that manages to be high and low art at the same time. It is beautiful, absurd, timeless, and inspiring. It is without question my favorite expression of positive nihilism in popular art I’ve ever come across. There is no intrinsic meaning to life, but in that absence there is the opportunity to fill that empty vessel with meaning of your own design. As the characters ponder their own designs on how to impose meaning on the shifting and chaotic ocean of the multiverse, they present theories of strength, weakness, destiny, and fashion. I loved this film.

I also saw the new Top Gun film. I consumed a heroic amount of popcorn and diet pepsi. I learned absolutely nothing. I’m not sure I ever had a serious thought during it’s entire run time. I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it. I’m just so terribly happy to be going to the movies again.

The Political Economy of Crazy

The Ohio State House of Representative has passed an absolutely insane law granting adults the option to challenge the gender of children participating in youth sports. This thread has the details, read at your own emotional peril:

Now, let’s keep a few things in mind. First, it hasn’t passed the Senate yet, which won’t make a decision until November. Second, there is no guarantee the governor would sign it into law if it passes the Senate. Third, the likelihood that such a law would hold up in court seems slim, though I’m certainly not a legal expert. Fourth, it strikes me as extremely unlikely the Republican party has any interest in having the legally prescribed violation of children as something they have to defend in subsequent elections.

So then what the hell just happened? Why have state houses of representatives become places where the lunatic fringe not only can get an institutional toehold, but actually push legislation through?

Let me answer my own question with a different question.

Can you name your state house representative? Name you name any representative from your state house? Can you name anyone who has been a representative in your state house that didn’t subsequently gain fame in national politics?

I can’t either.

The simple fact seems to be that voters don’t pay much attention to state representatives. Voter turnout is dependent on the draw of elections for national offices, and subsequent voter decisions largely leverage party brand. But that doesn’t mean candidates don’t have options. There are, of course, brands within parties (progressive Democrats, Trumpist Republicans, etc), which are particularly important in primaries. There are campaign platform choices that may resonate with informed voters, as well. The notion that informed voters can swing an election depends depends on the Miracle of Aggregation and the Law of Large Numbers. Simply put, if the voter errors are random, then completely ignorant voters should cancel out, leaving the outcome to be determined by the minority of informed voters.

What happens with a vanishingly thing number of people are informed, though? Candidates could inform them, but this is a state house election. Candidates don’t have any campaign money to inform them with. What they need is free campaign advertising. What they need is attention.

You know what gets attention? Crazy. Crazy gets attention.

Proposing and passing legislation to allow strangers to demand that children be physically inspected to determine their gender, that will get attention. That the “legitimacy” of a childs physical appearance be publicly brought into doubt, in front of peers and a crowd of peers. The shock, the tears, they chumming of the waters for the angriest parents and the most unhinged theories, that gets people to write articles and tweets. Articles and tweets that might include a candidate’s name. And if people know a candidate’s name, they might check their box come election time.

Social media gives the impression that everyone is paying attention to everything, but I suspect it is exactly the oppositve. We’ve never bored anymore, which means that the price of grabbing our attenion is higher than ever. For shoestring campaigns, the only way to get over the top is to offer somethings so irresistible that voters will be compelled to grant them a moment’s thought. Which isn’t to say that all of this insanity is pure pantomime. Sure, there are incentives to acting crazy. But causality can go the other way as well. The less we pay attenion to state politics, the more that elections will select for crazy.

This is all a long way of saying that I don’t see any reason it won’t keep getting even dumber.

What Moved My Priors: Homicide in London

I’ll write about violence and gun control at a later date, but I thought I’d share the moment that levered my position on gun control. It was about 5-6 years ago when I looked up crime statistics in London out of little more than curiousity.

London is a city of 9 million people, larger than any US city. It is an economically, religiously, and racially diverse city. Londoners struggle with soaring rents like people in most major cities. You will not be shocked to learn that London has crime rates commensurate with any other major city, including violent crime.

Except for homicide.

I spent the day looking up statistics trying to see if London had “solved” crime, but it certainly had not. It’s a crowded city full of people who are occasionally desperate and exhausted. Of course there is crime. Just not homicide. It’s one city, but it’s more than an anecdote. As far as comparisons go, it’s like someone made a synthetic control for US cities, but will strict gun control laws. And I don’t want to give the impression that I was staunchly laissez faire with regard to firearms only to have a few London statistics lift the scales from my eyes. But it was certainly a moment when a single set of sylized facts created a chain reaction in my mind, when things fell into place. It’s a complicated issue that I have deeper thoughts on, but there remains the fact that the citizens of London do not live in fear of their government or their neighbors for want of firearms, but they appear to be a lot safer for it.

Whether or not you personally want to own firearms is a different question. But limits on firearms does appear to have significant postive effects. London homicide is a fraction of the safest US city. The country as a whole has (I believe) not had a mass shooting since the tragedy that lead to nationwide gun restrictions 26 years ago. The US has had more mass shooting events in the last month than the UK has had in 26 years. And it’s not just mass shoootings. There’s a potentially coincidental, but nonetheless pronounced, drop in London violent crime since gun restrictions went into effect.

London violent crime since 1981

US citizens increasingly live under the watchful eye of armed professionals in our schools and places of business, with little or no positive effect save the knowledge that we are surrounded by firearms. I see little reason we are safer or more independent of government supervision for it. Conversely, places with less armed supervision, but also fewer firearms, are experiencing better outcomes. There are arguments to be had about what constitutes optimal firearm policy. But “firearms restrictions don’t work” simply doesn’t appear to be true.

7 Quick Takes of Undeniable Insight, Absent Evidence or Significant Explanation

  1. Over-fraternization within a line of work leads to all kinds of pathologies as social networks become too insular. If you’re a police officer and you spend your days constantly interacting with civilians having the worst day of their life, it’s really important you spend your free time with people who are having a perfectly normal and safe week. Same goes for politics, academia, entertainment, etc. This is not a “pop your bubble to improve the quality of your opinions” take. This is purely advice for your own personal mental health. Academics and entertainers need people in their life that they are rightfully embarrassed to complain in front of, to keep perspective on what the stakes of their decisions actually are. Cops and soldiers need reminders that the world is not constantly coming apart at the seams. Most of us will call the cops maybe once in our lives, and it probably won’t be because something good happened. Not a week goes by in a beat cop’s life where they don’t interact with someone who had to call the cops. They need to fill their set of observed experiences with stories uncorrelated with events where someone had to call the cops.
  2. The distribution of people’s opinions of Elon Musk needs to be compressed. Everyone with an above 75th percentile opinion needs to downgrade their estimation of him as a thoughtleader or agent of positive chaos/liberty. Everyone with a below 75th percentile opinion needs to upgrade their appreciation of him as an engineering genius committed to building tangible infrastructure innovations.
  3. The current political era we are living through isn’t defined by extremism, it’s defined by gambles on different sides of the “median voter vs institutional inertia” coin. The Democratic Party is struggling to hold together a coalition of progressives and moderates with nothing but bubble gum and reproductive rights because they believe the median voter remains an irresistible force. The Republican party, on the other hand, continues to bet the entire franchise on an activated base of extremists and gerrymandering. This bet is not ignorant, or in denial, of the median voter. It’s a bet that institutional inertia combined with potentially two decades of control of the Supreme Court will yield benefits greater than the costs of eventually losing control of all three branches across multiple elections.
  4. The best super hero movies are the ones where they take an auteur with at least 5 movies under their belt and say “make the most ‘you’ movie possible, but with our characters in our universe”. Why is “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” so good? Because they hired Sam Raimi and gave him the greenlight to make “Evil Dead 4”.
  5. Even the people who *know* that crypto and blockchain technology will create enormous value – even those people aren’t sure if the coins that currently exist will have significant commodity value down the road.
  6. There are lots of right wing political positions that I view as wrong or costly, but most of them I view as “deviations from an uncertain optimal state of the world” which is to say I don’t worry about them in the slightest. The embrace of White replacement theory and increased framing of their opposition as enabling of sexual predation of children, on the other hand, scares me a lot because there is no action or option that is taken off the table for the people who believe them. Say what you will about corporate conspiracy theories and other intellectual pathologies of the current progressive left, they consistently keep terrorism and violence of the table. It can be hard to pin down the intellectual center of a political party or coalition, but the moral center is always composed of the voices that keep violence out of the choice set. I’m don’t know who those voices currently are in the Republican political and media coalition.
  7. The key to popular support for capitalism is the continued to expansion of mint-chocolate flavored options in our choice sets.

The propaganda premium puzzle

Beliefs I currently hold:

  1. In the past we have been surprised by the capacity of blatantly false information to persuade large groups of people.
  2. In the future we will continue to be surprised by the ability of blatantly false information to persuade large groups of people.

From the point of view of classic economic theory, this is almost a two-way paradox. First, why aren’t people rationally updating their beliefs to be more skeptical of the information presented to them by state and private media with fairly transparent agendas? If we accept the premise of the first, though, it invites a second question: why is anyone surprised by the efficacy of propaganda and the credulity of large swaths of the public? Shouldn’t we, the meta-observers, also be updating our beliefs?

My preferred explanations, as they stand, are:

  1. Preference Falsification i.e. people are not fooled, they just happen to believe that at the moment it is safer and more rewarding to appear as though they believe the lies.
  2. Social coordination i.e. narrowly held false beliefs make more better coordination mechanisms for solving collective action problems than broadly held truths

The first is a classic theory that originated with Timur Kuran’s seminal work. Whenever the median voter, or median would-be voter in an autocracy or failed democracy, seems to be held in sway by particularly transparent propaganda, I usually start from the default assumption of preference falsification. These people know the media regime they live within is a menagerie of lies that exist solely to flatter leadership and disrupt any opposition, but they also know that their short run futures remain more secure if they not only publicly accept, but actively parrot the lies.

For now at least. Preference falsification is an inherently fragile equilibria. As effective and impenetrable as propaganda can appear at a given moment, public support for those lies can collapse in the blink of an eye, a dynamic only intensified by modern communication technology.

The ability of false beliefs to solve coordination problems is more subtle, but no less salient to the propaganda premium puzzle, particularly when a regime is dependent on a small subset of a society to hold on to power (a “selectorate“) or the support of a political “base” who would otherwise have difficulty signaling their identity to one another. The reality is that obvious or widely shared truths have almost no value when trying to signal mutual affinity and trustworthiness to individuals trying to solve collective action problems. Patently ridiculous beliefs, on the other hand, work precisely because the only people who would publicly commit to holding such beliefs are those who are committed to the collectively produced club good.

So why does propaganda continue to work better than we think it should? Because we’re using the wrong metrics. Or, more precisely, because the right metrics aren’t available to us. We can ask people what they believe, but we can’t make them tell us the truth. And even if we could make them tell us the truth, we can’t measure the benefits motivating their reasoning, the value of the club goods they are gaining access to because they’ve performed the mental gymnastics necessary to hold those beliefs. Sure, it was cognitively costly to convince yourself the earth is likely flat, but those costs are trivial in the face falling out of the tightest network of friends you’ve ever been a part of.

All of this armchair theorizing is really just a long-winded way of suggesting that fighting propaganda is decidedly not about curing people of their false beliefs. If you want to unravel preference falsification, people don’t need the truth. They already know the truth. What they need are safe channels to express it to one another. If subgroups are forming around false beliefs, the answer is not to shame them for their beliefs. That will only strengthen their group and members’ committment to one another. Rather, the answer is to provide superior substitutes for the club goods they are currently receiving. When in doubt, if you want to break a social equilibrium, you’re better off giving people what they need rather than demeaning what they have.

Come to think of it, that’s probably pretty good life advice in general.