Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives — Joseph Heath

There is something futile about this otherwise consistently interesting book, and Heath says as much towards the end:

It should go without saying that writing books about the decline of reason is not the sort of thing that is likely to slow the decline of reason. It is simply preaching to the choir. Anyone who makes it to the end of a three-hundred-page book on the subject is obviously not part of the problem. Furthermore, the project of reversing the trend is too big and too complicated for any one person to accomplish much.

Enlightenment_heathNonetheless I enjoyed and recommend Enlightenment 2.0; here is Alex Tabarrok’s review, which introduced me to the book. Its subjects and sources seem eclectic at first: Hollywood movies, Fox News, politics, 18th Century writers, philosophers, economists. Not all its examples are plausible. But the single golden braid of what rationality means runs through the book, and Heath identifies patterns I’ve inchoately felt but never quite described. Readers who are familiar with the extensive irrationality literature—Thinking, Fast and Slow is perhaps the best, though not the only, example—may find sections repetitive. Yet the overall impact is strong.

Reading the irrationality shows how rational, logical people are proving that people are irrational and illogical. Yet it takes rationality to demonstrate how we aren’t, and that alone may justify rationality (the existence of the contemporary world shows that it is possible for rationality to flourish). In most domains, too, individuals suffer most of the consequences of irrationality: If you spend more than you make, you suffer more than me; if you sleep with people you shouldn’t, you suffer more than me. The exception comes from voting; I don’t see Bryan Caplan cited in the index but Heath points to many of the themes Caplan does in The Myth of the Rational Voter, another recommended and yet depressing book because it posits a problem to which there is no good solution. Comedy is one partial solution, as Heath says about liberal comedians attacking conservative lunatic initiatives, and so is setting up the right systems, or right sort of systems:

To the extent we are able to achieve something resembling rationality, it is usually because we have good kludges. As productivity expert David Allen put it, ‘To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. I know that’s true of me. The smart part of us sets things for us to do that the non-so-smart [sic] part responds to almost automatically, creating behavior that produces high-performance results. We trick ourselves into doing what we ought to be doing.’

I would call myself a “high-performing person” and would not call myself a productivity expert, but one of my most-used programs prevents me from using other programs effectively: Mac Freedom. For ten dollars, this program will turn off your Internet access for a specified period of time (you can get it back by rebooting, should you really need it). The Internet is amazing but can also be noxious and distracting. Freedom reminds me that I should pursue my long-term goals and that most “news” is total garbage and that my life (and the world) is not going to get better based on whether I inhale someone else’s intellectual garbage. I’d argue Facebook is even worse than news in this respect, and, now that everyone is on Facebook, the quality of Facebook has declined further: people are worried about what their moms and bosses and employers will think, so they shunt the real parts of their lives to pseudonymous services.

Still, much news is superficially attractive and has that dangerous quality of feeling like learning even when it isn’t. I’m susceptible to it and, even before reading about Allen, I’d developed some strategies for resisting. Those strategies aren’t perfect and depending on what I’m working on I may genuinely need the Internet, but most of the time concentration is the scarcest resource, rather than information. And well-structured information is scarcer than “information,” which makes books more valuable than many articles. Still, I need to trick myself into remembering this.

Heath notes that some concepts are not intuitive, don’t make us “feel” correctly, and yet are essential for the workings of modern life. But it’s easy for demagogues or just plainly ignorant politicians to appeal to feelings that are popular but simplistic and wrong. Heath says that liberals have a harder time with this, as their preferred policies require coordination and complex understanding of multiple moving parts.

I like the observation in “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup,” in which Scott Alexander observes that Team Red and Team Blue seem more often to decide on issues based on opposing whatever the other one wants, rather than initial dispassionate analysis followed by decision.

My favorite issue that works along these lines is housing policy, which is especially interesting because both Team Red and Team Blue tend to oppose sensible, affordable housing policies, but for slightly different reasons. As I wrote here (and have written elsewhere), housing affects everything from schools to the real power of money (which may be different from “income”) to the environment to intellectual growth and development. Yet housing policy has devolved in the last forty or so years and is barely on most people’s radar. Markets are dysfunctional due to land-control uses. Team Blue is concerned about incomes, and sometimes even real incomes, and housing policy is hugely important in this domain. Team red is concerned about markets, at least superficially, and yet housing and land development is widely distorted. (Team Red often opposes markets when markets don’t produce their desired social outcomes, which is a topic for another time.)

As a side note regarding the subtitle, I’ll say that I don’t feel my life to be insane or not sane. I’ll also say that this is not true only of politics, but also some weirdly large swaths of the humanities:

[Harry] Frankfurt’s important contribution [via the book On Bullshit] was to have distinguished between lying and bullshitting. What characterizes the bullshitter is that, unlike the liar, who at least maintains the pretense of telling the truth, the bullshitter has simply opted out of the truth-telling game. There is no pretense with the bullshitter. Although producing ordinary declarative sentences that would normally be evaluated under the categories of truth and falsity, the bullshitter is not even trying to say something that sounds true.

When someone has opted out of the truth-telling game there is almost no reason to talk to them.

Much of Enlightenment 2.0 is distressing to those of us who like to imagine ourselves as rationalists. Yet the world is still by many metrics improving. I’m tempted to start a new series in which every December I post “Good news in review,” since most news is biased towards problems, deaths, fuck-ups, and the like. Yet overall by most metrics people are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives. That’s a huge but under-emphasized point. Many of the big, preventable killers in the United States—like cars and guns—could be better dealt with through policy, as long as people understand just how many other people die from those causes. Most of us don’t attend to them, however, and prefer salient deaths like shark attacks and terrorism.

Links: “Mate” is coming, “Pimp,” learning to speak lingerie, disconnection, tea, and more!

* The Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller book, Mate: Become the Man Women Want, now has an Amazon pre-order page. You should pre-order it, though note that I now know Tucker well enough to not be an unbiased critic.

* “The Ex-Pimp Who Remade Black Culture:” On Iceberg Slim, whose book Pimp I read a couple years ago. I see why it resonates despite technical flaws and repetitions: it has style, and although I wouldn’t endorse everything in it it is willing to speak of truths that most high-brow discourse flattens, or pretends don’t exist.

* “Learning to Speak Lingerie: Chinese merchants and the inroads of globalization.” Interesting throughout, and it’s about more than you think it’s about.

* “The Miracle of SolarCity: Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX are impressive. But the solar company he founded with his cousins could be transformational.”

* “We Don’t Really Care About Car Accidents: Driving is horrifyingly dangerous. It doesn’t need to be this way.” One fun game if you’re an annoying person like me is to ask people who are worried about terrorism or plane crashes or kidnapping or shark attacks how many people die in car accidents every year in the U.S. If they don’t know they’re just signaling.

* “Struggling to disconnect from our digital lives;” the fact that many people have problems with this is one of my competitive advantages as a grant writing consultant.

* “Is Britain falling out of love with tea? Brits are drinking 22pc less tea than they were five years ago as a coffee shop culture and the death of the biscuit turn customers away from the cuppa.” I hope not; perhaps they need something like TeaBOT?

Life: Interpretation and the work edition

Hamlet is not a masterpiece; it’s a muddled tragedy, which fails to bring its disparate sources into a coherent whole. But that’s also why it has become an enigma that continues to fascinate and provoke debate all over the world. Hamlet isn’t a masterpiece on account of its literary qualities; it has become one precisely because it resists our interpretation. Sometimes it’s the weirdness that makes a text go down in history.”

—Umberto Eco, from This is Not the End of the Book (a book that demands to be read in gorgeous hardcover, given the many comments about the physicality of books within). I wonder if the observation about enigma and failure to cohere could apply too to this season of True Detective, which is only charitably coherent. Sadly, though, it is much less linguistically interesting than Hamlet and much less visually interesting than much of what else is in the media.

Links: Ancillary Justice, TeaBOT, myth, solar, condoms, and more!

* The Subterranean Press edition of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has been released; unfortunately it’s already sold out.

* “teaBOT Makes Customized Cups Of Tea With The Touch Of A Button.” This is great. I’m slightly more a tea person than a coffee person, but good coffeeshops dominate good tea shops in the U.S. One of the very, very few things I miss about Tucson is The Scented Leaf, which had everything I was looking for and opened right before I left. Something like teaBOT may make tea shops more competitive and enable smaller tea shops to open.

* Mass Transit Doesn’t Cause Gentrification.

* “Unraveling The Myth Of The Alpha Male.”

* “Roughly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism,” which also helps explain why it’s so hard to make money as a generic writer: you are competing with all of these pieces, all of which are online, for free.

* Two months with Soylent. My guess is that Soylent may replace one meal a day somewhat effectively, especially when made into a more conventional, palatable smoothie. That being said it has too many sugars in it to appeal to me.

* Woman attempts to divorce-rape another woman, although that is not the actual title; one could profitably read this story against Real World Divorce, by Alexa Dankowski, Suzanne Goode, Philip Greenspun, Chaconne Martin-Berkowicz, and Tina Tonnu. Incidentally, if any literary agents are reading this blog they should contact the authors.

* Rooftop solar is booming. But it may be more vulnerable than you think.

* “We’ve been cheated out of condoms that actually feel good during sex.” Another of these very important yet totally underrated issues.

* “The incredible shrinking megacity: How Los Angeles engineered a housing crisis: Los Angeles used to be the promised land for America’s homeowners. Now it’s tearing at the seams.”

* “Rising Rents Outpace Wages in Wide Swaths of the U.S.;” national policy focuses on ownership while facts-on-the-ground demand more planning for renting.

* “ Warren Buffett’s Family Secretly Funded a Birth Control Revolution: In the past decade, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation has become the most influential supporter of research on IUDs and expanding access to the contraceptive.”

Briefly noted: The Pattern Scars – Caitlin Sweet

It took half the novel for me realize the problem with The Pattern Scars: It contains virtually no interesting sentences. None that say something unexpected or have unusual musicality or that are patterned in uncommon ways. It’s sentence after sentence of “The footsteps stopped. I could feel someone behind me, but I did not turn.” Or “He was still squeezing my wrist; I wrenched it free.” There are moments that are almost interesting—”I walked quickly so that he would not see my sudden tears, and so that I might outpace my confusion”—but they’re rare. That line works because we normally can’t outpace a mental state—the mental state resides within us—but we get that Nola is trying to clear her mind by walking, and by letting her mind process what’s happening to her and around her.

Sweet has so much potential. She needs only style. None of the boring sentences cited above are offensive on their own, of course, and my own work is filled with unspectacular descriptive sentences that are important for basic understanding. An entire book of voiceless sentences is boring. The promise of something interesting was enough to keep me going; so too was the fact that the novel starts with a child’s point of view, and often simple children develop into sophisticated adults. That doesn’t happen for Nola. The realization, three quarters through the book, that that promise would be dashed made me start skipping pages. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the few reviews of The Pattern Scars I’ve found quote little or not at all from the novel. The story, rendered better, is fine. The attention to the details of words and sentences is lacking.

Links: Evil Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), electric cars, book reviewers, and more!

* “The Pecking Disorder: Social Justice Warriors Gone Wild: Culture wars over ‘social justice’ have been wreaking havoc in many communities, including universities and science fiction fandom.” Social Justice Warriors don’t matter outside of academia and government, but inside they can wreck a lot of havoc. Always be wary of zealots.

* Related to the above: “It’s worse than Jerry Seinfeld says: PC is undermining free speech, expression, liberties.” I’ve definitely felt these currents throughout my time as a professor. Only from a tiny minority of students, but that tiny minority is vicious, humorless, and vociferous.

* The Electric Car: “The electric car is going to take over the world. Soon. Let me explain.” Linear versus discontinuous effects are underappreciated. Everyone who has driven a Tesla says it’s the best car ever. The mass-market version is supposed to arrive in 2017. See also “How Tesla Will Change The World,” which is long but clever. Good news, too: Electric vehicle batteries are getting cheaper much faster than we expected. The spoils of technical innovation gets turned into the spoils that politicians fight over surprisingly fast.

* “Book Reviewing’s Grunt Squads,” interesting throughout and especially to me for its discussion of Kirkus, whose Indie division I hired to review Asking Anna. My guess is that they produce few truly negative reviews, and, based on the many indie books I’ve been sent, most books are as bad as literary mandarins imagine.

* Jeff on why I’m wrong about poetry and pop music.

* “The rush from judgment,” or, how being superficially non-judgmental can be barbaric and foolish.

* YC Fellowship: “Ten years ago, Paul Graham said there could be ten times as many startups if more people realized they could try.” And: “YC Fellows will receive $12,000 per team as a grant (though if this continues past this test run, we will probably do a more traditional investment with equity for future Fellows) and access to advice from the YC community.” YC is trying to solve the problems people who can’t get $10K together have.

* Uber: twice as fast, half as expensive for poor people.

* Sea levels will rise much more rapidly than anticipated.

* “The old suburban office park is the new American ghost town.” Too many parking lots and too few interconnections to rail.

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