Being wrong, and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong

A variety of somewhat big-deal econ bloggers have written about things they now believe they were wrong about. Looking back on changed opinions (which is a slightly more polite of saying “I was wrong”) is a useful exercise in intellectual honesty—a trait most people lack. I might be among them but like to think that I’m more intellectually honest than I actually am.

Still, here are some (unsorted) opinions on topics about which I’ve been wrong or at least not as right as I could be:

1) I basically believed that the stock market’s average rate of return would remain 10% per year over reasonable time periods. That it will still average somewhere close to 10% per year still seems probable, but the “reasonable time periods” (like two decades or so) no longer does, and in the long run, as a famous economist whose name escapes me observed, we’re all dead.

2) Like McArdle, the “Great Moderation” seemed real up until the last six months or so.

3) There are some things I was wrong about that turned out well: I didn’t think we’d see a black president in my lifetime. In 2004, if you’d told me that a black man would be president in 2008, I probably would’ve laughed at you.

4) I didn’t get why people liked Jane Austen until I read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, with its description of free indirect speech, and his examples from Austen. Now I do.

5) The iPhone? Nice, but a fad. I didn’t think it would be as important as it has been, or that other phone manufacturers would be so slow to respond.

6) I didn’t think Facebook would become and stay as popular as it is; I signed as an undergrad chiefly as a quick way of figuring out which girls already had boyfriends. Now I seldom log on, but evidently I’m in the minority.

7) I used to believe that it was possible to have rational discussions about religion and/or politics with most people. Now I don’t. Both subjects is are seldom subjected to empirical tests, so no feedback mechanism can demonstrate when or if a belief is wrong. Politics are (slightly) more subject to such tests, via election, studies, and the like, but the broadest political beliefs aren’t really. See Paul Graham’s “Keep Your Identity Small” for more on this subject, along with “What You Can’t Say.” At best one can have meta-conversations about religion and politics (“Why do people need religion?”)

8) During the ramp-up to the Iraq war, I was in college, and many of my professors were virulently against the war and thought that the government was perfectly capable of dissembling and distorting the debate about weapons of mass destruction; some had lived through Vietnam, with its phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the later Iran-Contra hearings. I hadn’t and thought it wildly implausible that so many people and institutions would be hoodwinked by faulty information, so I was more or less in favor of the war, like a lot of my equally gullible compatriots.

Oops.

9) On first reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, I didn’t appreciate many of its most impressive qualities, especially regarding the narrative, the dialogue, and the extent to which the novel combines post-modern games with immense readability. Now I do.

10) I used to think that the sexual double standard was primarily due to misinformation, the cruel application of religious principles to individual lives, ignorance, and malice. Now I think the sexual double standard is primarily due to daughter-guarding by parents and parents’ influence on culture, female efforts to guard men through slandering their potential competitors’ reputations, general female competitiveness, the fact that the choosier sex is always the one that invests more in offspring, and differing economic and pleasure incentives acting on children than their parents.

These forces help explain a great deal of our culture’s confusion about sexuality and its mixed messages—especially among the young. I used to think this confusion would eventually devolve into a more laissez-faire, I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude, which it still might, but now that day seems very far off.

(See my essay “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more” for details.)

11) A student question from two years ago prompted me to realized that, although I used to believe something close to the classical economic model of man in which behavior automatically reveals preferences and if someone does something, it must be because they rationally believe it will benefit them, now I’ve realized that context, framing effects, peer pressure, time preferences, and the like have a far greater effect than I once gave them credit for. Reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and The Time Paradox, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life contributed to my change in views.

It might not hurt for you to try this test for yourself: if you can’t think of anything you’ve been wrong about, does that mean that you’re consistently right about everything, or does that mean something quite different? If you need help, there’s an entire book on the subject by Kathryn Schulz named Being Wrong: Adventures on the Margins of Error, although I haven’t actually read said book yet.

Being wrong and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong

A variety of somewhat big deal bloggers in economics have written about things they now believe they were wrong about. Looking back on changed opinions (which is a slightly more polite of saying “I was wrong”) is an exercise in intellectual honesty—a trait widely lacked.

Some (unsorted) things I’ve been wrong about:

1) I basically believed that the stock market’s average rate of return would remain 10% per year over reasonable time periods. That it will still average somewhere close to 10% per year still seems probable, but the “reasonable time periods” (like two decades or so) no longer does, and in the long run, as a famous economist whose name escapes me observed, we’re all dead.

2) Like McArdle, the “Great Moderation” seemed real up until the last six months or so.

3) There are some things I was wrong about that turned out well: I didn’t think we’d see a black president in my lifetime. In 2004, if you’d told me that a black man would be president in 2008, I probably would’ve laughed.

4) I didn’t get why people liked Jane Austen until I read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, with its description of free indirect speech, and his examples from Austen. Now I do.

5) The iPhone? Nice, but a fad. I didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it has been, or that other phone manufacturers would be so slow to respond.

6) I didn’t think Facebook would become and stay as popular as it is; I signed as an undergrad chiefly as a quick way of figuring out which girls already had boyfriends. Now I seldom log on, but evidently I’m in the minority. Pictures of dogs, food, babies… I don’t care but the evidence shows many, many people do.

7) I used to believe that it was possible to have rational discussions about religion and/or politics with most people. Both subjects are seldom subjected to empirical tests, so no feedback mechanism can demonstrate when or if a belief is wrong. Politics are (slightly) more subject to such tests, via election, studies, and the like, but the broadest political beliefs aren’t really. See Paul Graham’s “Keep Your Identity Small” for more on this subject, along with “What You Can’t Say.”

8) During the ramp-up to the Iraq war, I was in college, and many of my professors were virulently against the war and thought that the government was perfectly capable of dissembling and distorting the debate about weapons of mass destruction; some had lived through Vietnam, with its phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the later Iran-Contra hearings. I hadn’t and thought it wildly implausible that so many people and institutions would be hoodwinked by faulty information, so I was more or less in favor of the war, like a lot of my equally gullible compatriots.

9) On first reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, I didn’t appreciate many of its most impressive qualities, especially regarding the narrative, the dialogue, and the extent to which the novel combines post-modern games with immense readability. Now I do.

10) I used to think that the sexual double standard was primarily due to misinformation, the cruel application of religious principles to individual lives, ignorance, and malice. Now I think the sexual double standard is primarily due to daughter guarding by parents and parents’ influence on culture, female efforts to guard men through slandering their potential competitors’ reputations, general female competitiveness, and the fact that the choosier sex is always the one that invests more in offspring.

These forces help explain cultural incoherence about sexuality, especially among the young. A laissez-faire, I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude seems very far off.

(See “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more.”)

11) A student question from two years ago prompted me to realized that, although I used to believe something close to the classical economic model of man in which behavior automatically reveals preferences and if someone does something, it must be because they rationally believe it will benefit them, now I’ve realized that context, framing effects, peer pressure, time preferences, and the like have a far greater effect than I once gave them credit for. Reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and The Time Paradox, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life contributed to my change in views.

Try the “What I’ve been wrong about” test for yourself. If you can’t think of anything you’ve been wrong about, does that mean that you’re consistently right about everything, or does that mean something quite different? If you need help, see Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures on the Margins of Error, although I haven’t actually read said book yet.

Don’t rent an apartment from Navid Abedian in Tucson, Arizona, or, how I learned to be wary of lawsuits

In 2008 I moved in Tucson for grad school and rented a condo that turned out to be a decent place to live, except for the landlord and a neighbor universally referred to as “Crazy Nick” (he was not crazy in a good way). When my roommate and I moved, the landlord kept about $500 of our deposit after promising that he wouldn’t and saying that he’d refund it. Stealing our security deposit violated Arizona’s Residential Landlord & Tenant Act, which regulates the usual tenant-landlord problems.

Because I’m such a smart guy and was both unhappy about his lies and interested in our money, I decided to sue him in small claims court, where I eventually won a $1,350 judgment. He paid $350 after a debtor’s hearing in January and promised to pay the rest; in June I sought another debtor’s hearing to compel him to pay at which point he threatened to come over to my apartment and kill me. For those of you keeping score, this marks the second time someone has done so in one summer, up from zero times previously in my entire life.

I filed a police report, stayed at friends’ houses for a few days, and canceled the hearing: improbable though Abedian’s threat might be, it’s not worth shooting or being shot over $1,000. He’s also a cipher to me: all I know is that he works in a carpet store, bought a condo in Tucson near the height of the ’00s real estate boom and, according to a Google search, might have his house foreclosed on. In other words, he might be desperate, and people have killed each other over far less than $1,000.

Although running away sets a bad precedent—will he just threaten to kill the next tenant who comes along? am I not doing the right thing for my fellow man—I still think capitulating wiser than continuing.

What originally seemed to mostly be entertainment (i.e. going to court and pontificating), began to suck up way too much mental energy. In the Hacker News discussion of Paul Graham’s “The Top Idea In Your Mind,” grellas wrote, “There is a lesson here about lawsuits, which will drain you of both money and peace of mind all at the same time. Sometimes you can’t turn the other cheek, much as you would like to do so, and have no choice but to fight. Having the guts to stand up for yourself (or for your company) is in itself a virtue and there are times when it is best not to walk away.”

He’s right, and a lawsuit I’d imagined as entertainment and teaching a useful lessons that might turn into dividends for the next tenants backfired. It also occupied way too much space in my mind—space that I should’ve spent writing or doing research. Instead I worried about the sanity and desperation of a guy I didn’t know and who was probably armed.

In Francine Prose’s novel Touch, the protagonist is a 14- or 15-year-old girl named Maisie, who tells her preening stepmother, Joan, a version of what happened on a bus when two or three boys touched her breasts in somewhat murky circumstances. It isn’t clear at the narrative’s start whether she consented, but the event as narrated to us is also one in which the characters act without enough culpability to call what they did anything beyond adolescent horseplay and power struggles.

Joan wants to meet a lawyer, which makes Maisie think that “I was filled with dread. Pure dread. It felt like icy water trickling down my back.” Joan says, “It would be a matter of principle.” Most people don’t lead their lives solely according to principle; pragmatics matter too. Few of us want to be martyrs for a cause, and if we do, that cause better be worth it. Most of us want to get along. Altruistic punishment is real but can be overrated. Maisie would be harming her own well-being and self-interest. I thought I was standing up for the principle of tenants’ rights and for fairness, but I chose to give up that principle when Navid threatened to kill me. Pragmatics won.

Like Maisie, I’m choosing pragmatism—which I probably should’ve learned in the first place. I’ve started Bleak House a couple of times (I’m not a Dickens fan) and understand Jardyce vs Jardyce well enough to know that lawsuits are often vehicles for mutually assured destruction more than they are about fairness or rights. When in doubt or when it’s avoidable, don’t get the law involved. And, apparently, be ready to write off your security deposit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEDIT: It’s 2014 and I’d mostly forgotten about Navid, but I just got a letter saying that he declared bankruptcy. I’m a) somehow listed as a creditor and b) the Department of Justice somehow got my current address, in order to c) invite me on some kind of creditors’ committee. I wish I couldn’t say that I don’t feel a little schadenfreude, but, alas, I’m too small a person. Apparently his wife or ex-wife, Linda Kay Abedian Stevens—or Linda Kay Stevens? the wording is unclear—was also on the lease and on the property deed.

Since leaving Tucson I have been threatened with death zero times.

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