Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America — Emily Dufton

Grass Roots is about marijuana, yes, but it’s also about what it means to live in society and what it means to be:

The battle over the drug has always been about much more than whether individuals have the right to smoke, eat, or vape it for effect. Instead, questions about marijuana have long been tied to ideas about freedom and liberty, safety and security, and the rights of an individual versus the collective good—themes that are at the core of many other historical debates.

Much of the book is new to me: I didn’t know how much decriminalization happened in the ’70s, when 11 states decriminalized weed. I didn’t realize how much anti-drug hysteria occurred in the ’80s. I didn’t know the specific mechanisms that drove drug policy back and forth. Now I do, but I’ll warn that the book is often more detailed than most readers want. There is a lot of organizational discussion (“Given his former affiliation with the NFP, Turner encouraged the first lady to work specifically with that organization. PRIDE and FIA did good work, Turner knew, but the NFP was led by social conservatives…”); be ready to skip parts, unless you are uncommonly engaged by bureaucratic jousting—you may be. You may also read the book in conjunction with Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. And of course the subtitle of Grass Roots is clever.

Evidence and knowledge play small roles in the periods that see relatively legal weed and relatively illegal weed. Dufton notes:

Despite its popularity, Just Say No did little to actually decrease youth drug use. In 1988 … the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” survey found that, although rates of adolescent drug use in the United States had dropped over the past seven years, they were still “the highest in the industrialized world.”

The United States is an outlier in many respects, and this is, or was, apparently one of them. I got “Just Say No” drug education in schools and it seems to have been, at least anecdotally, not productive. It’s also not productive to lump all illegal drugs together, as many “education” programs do: drugs vary considerably in their danger and uses. Michael Pollan’s new book, for example, describes the many ways psychedelics may be therapeutic. And thinking about actual danger is important; I don’t know that there are any documented cases of overdosing on marijuana, but the opioid epidemic is well-known and is killing tens of thousands of people per year. Why do we treat weed, LSD, and morphine and heroin similarly? They’re not.

Other aspects of ignorance drove and still drive drug policy. “A 1917 report from the Treasure Department noted that in Texas, only ‘Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites’ smoked marijuana for pleasure and warned that ‘drug-crazed’ minorities could harm or assault upper-class white women.” Then, “films like Reefer Madness, released in 1936, associated marijuana use with murder, miscegenation, and suicide.” Which could only be convincing to someone who has never seen a person high on weed: they are dangerous only to pizza and other snack foods.

Money and sex play major roles in the Grass Roots story. The desire for tax revenue entices some states. And the desire to sell paraphernalia entices entreprenurs. Playboy offers some grants to marijuana-focused organizations; it exists at the nexus of sex and money. And some of the early advocates for marijuana have, uh, personal problems that retard their advocacy:

Two months after moving in with Stroup, Newman and Stroup’s wife took MDA, a powerful psychoactive amphetamine known for enhancing sex, and spent the night together while Stroup was visiting the Playboy Foundation in Chicago to solicit funds.

By 1978, we saw “a flood of additional states passing new marijuana laws and the president decriminalizing the drug at the federal level.” But “the downfall of Peter Bourne and the subsequent downfall of Keith Stroup brought the country’s first experiment with decriminalization to a close.” Sort of like Parnell and Kitty O’Shea in nineteenth-century Ireland. I wonder if anyone has yet written the definitive book on the role of sex scandals in world political history.

Another pro-pot politico working for the Carter administration got in media trouble through sex, or a perceived connection with sex; he was a doctor whose secretary was “struggling emotionally,” and

To help Metsky relax, Bourne wrote her a prescription for fifteen Quaaludes, a mild tranquilizer that, though often used to treat insomnia, was also known socially to enhance sex.

This eventually got to the press. My impression, too, is that, regardless of what is “known socially,” Quaaludes just make people sleepy or lethargic, which would not seem to offer the erotic boost that they apparently did in the popular imagination—another example, maybe, of the small role played by knowledge and evidence in the marijuana saga.

Dufton also writes, “Cannabis was believed to be so safe [in the late 1800s] that the drug was marketed to women through romantic postcard campaigns that showed concerned mothers applying a cannabis salve to soothe the gums of teething babies and relieve children’s colds. As a pain reliever, marijuana worked wonderfully.” Does it work better and more safely than Tylenol (which is extremely dangerous, though not addictive)? I wonder if we know that, today: conducting the research may itself be illegal.

Two things strike me as odd or missing (or I missed them). One is the absence of any discussion of lead in gas in the rise of drug use. This may sound esoteric, but leaded gas has been implicated in “violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.” Leaded gas may also have led to higher drug use in the ’60s and ’70s. The other is the absence of any discussion of age cohorts. In the ’60s and ’70s, baby boomers were teens and young adults—ages at which drug experimentation is common and favoring drugs is common. By the ’80s, many were parents themselves—and parents are much more conservative, especially about their own children (several chapters of Grass Roots focus intelligently on the role of parent movements), than experimental 21-year olds. I don’t think and wouldn’t argue that either factor is dispositive, and both can coexist with Dufton’s other work.

“The Storm Before the Storm” and parallels to modern American history

The Storm Before the Storm is a history of ancient Rome, and it’s explicit about its purpose: to draw parallels between then and contemporary American history. For obvious reasons, “how democracies die” is a salient question right now. The book is successful in its task and, beyond being good in itself, it makes a nice companion to Helen Dale’s Kingdom of the Wicked.

Still, I’m going to do the opposite and look at ways the current United States is not like ancient Rome. For one thing, ancient Rome was a largely agrarian society and we’re not agrarian today and haven’t been for a long time. For another, passages like this are common: “Norbanus instigated a riot that physically drove the rival tribunes out of the Assembly. Caepio was duly prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to exile. Violence once again proved to be the last word in Roman politics.” In recent decades political violence has been mostly absent from American life, and that’s good. Political violence was very bad in ancient Rome and is very bad in many circumstances; consider, for example, “Rule by Fear: A new one-volume book offers an updated history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich:”

Childers is absolutely clear that this tactic was combined at all times with intense and pervasive violence on the streets, particularly from the brown-shirted stormtroopers, the strong-arm wing of the movement.

Right now there are many bad things happening in American politics, with widespread efforts at voter suppression of particular and underappreciated importance, but violence in the streets and private goon squads aren’t yet among them—and, one hopes, they never will be. But so many things have happened that I never thought would happen that I’m reluctant to say this one never will.

Ancient Rome was also relentlessly at war; after Hannibal invaded Italy, “the great hero of the war, Scipio Africanus, led an invasion of the Carthaginian homeland in North Africa.” The last time the U.S. all-out invaded a country, it did not go well, and American military leaders are notably absent in politics or political power. The current president is notable mostly for draft dodging, not effective command.

The U.S. is also not currently seeing problems based on slaves; “the continuous run of successful foreign wars brought slaves flooding into Italy by the hundreds of thousands.” Many were then made to work “growing estates.” If anything, the biggest problem the U.S. faces is too few people, not too many. Bryan Caplan may write books like Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, but most people do not take his advice. Articles like, “The historically low birthrate, explained in 3 charts.”

There are others, but the absence of violence in American politics is likely the most significant. I’m not writing this piece to argue for complacency—the Roman Republican saw a long period of declining democratic norms, and the U.S. is also seeing just that—but it’s tempting to follow Duncan’s narrative and think the abyss is near. Whenever one looks at a metaphor or other comparison, however, it’s useful to ask, “How are these things alike, and how are they not alike?” Many forget to ask the latter questions, including me.

We have no or very few political murders; the article on the history of the Third Reich notes that “Childers’s view of the ill-fated liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic is correspondingly gloomy, stressing the continuity of political murders (376 from 1918 to 1922 alone).” We have many problems, but, again, it’s worth stressing the problems we don’t have—and why it’s important to oppose violent rhetoric when it is used. Violence, once unleashed, becomes practice by precedent, and even those who would think to use it for temporary advantage do not have the foresight necessary to understand where it will go.

It is notable, too, that the Third Reich seized the machinery of the state and then deployed it to terrorize the rest of the population, which was too cowed, disorganized, or simply inattentive to do anything. Is there any doubt that, today, the many ground-level aspects of the security and police apparatus wouldn’t resist decrees to do horrible things in the United States? Watching the response to some of the awful decrees coming out of the capitol now makes the answer clearer than I once believed.

Duncan writes that, “If history is to have any active meaning there must be a place for identifying those interwoven elements, studying the recurring agencies, and learning from those who come before us.” I agree, but it appears many voters do not. In 2016, “about a quarter of people said they read zero books, in any format.” One out of four. Contemplate that as you go about your day. The same survey finds the median “American has read 4 books in the last 12 months.” Can history have much active meaning in our situation?

Everybody Lies — Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Stephens-Davidowitz is right:

One more important point that becomes clear when we zoom in: the world is complicated. Actions we take today can have distant effects, most of them unintended. Ideas spread—sometimes slowly; other times exponentially, like viruses. People respond in unpredictable ways to incentives.

Yet we seem to like simple stories and seem to believe that our actions will have simple, easy-to-understand consequences. Data complicates or invalidates many of those stories, so we ought to seek it whenever we can. Stephens-Davidowitz does just this in Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. An alternate sub-title could be, “Why most of us are full of shit.” You may suspect, intuitively, that most of us are full of shit, but it’s nice seeing it confirmed. The miracle of aggregation gives us a lot of new tools to look at human nature.

This book can be read as part of a series, as it’s congruent with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and especially Jon Birger’s Date-onomics, which doesn’t discuss data from porn, as Stephens-Davidowitz does, but it could have (albeit at the risk of making it longer and perhaps turning off some of its readers). We’re going to see a lot more books like Everybody Lies as the Internet allows us to aggregate huge amounts of data that tell us something about what we do—as opposed to what we say. What we say seems to be a very poor guide to understanding what we really think; while this has been obvious on some level for a long time, it’s useful to see the specific ways action and speech are mismatched.

Take one sensitive area:

Somewhat surprisingly, porn data is rarely utilized by sociologists, most of whom are comfortable relying on the traditional survey datasets they have built their careers on. But a moment’s reflection shows that the widespread use of porn—and the search and view data that comes with it—is the most important development in our ability to understand human sexuality in, well . . . Actually, it’s probably the most important data ever.

“Ever” might be an overstatement (what about Masters and Johnson’s live observations?), but calling it “very important” and perhaps most importantly “novel” is legitimate. While the observation is useful, it’s also useful to remember that what people want in a fantasy setting may be different from what they, or we, want in a reality setting. Many people like watching people get shot in movies without thinking we should shoot more people in real life.

Or, in the same domain, there is this, with the data from the General Social Survey:

when it comes to heterosexual sex, women say they have sex, on average, fifty-five times per year, using a condom 15 percent of the time. This adds up to about 1.1 billion condoms per year. But heterosexual men say they use 1.6 billion condoms every year. Those numbers, by definition, would have to be the same. So who is telling the truth, men or women?

Neither, it turns out. According to Nielsen, the global information and measurement company that tracks consumer behavior, fewer than 600 million condoms are sold every year. So everyone is lying; the only question is by how much.

A meta lesson may be, be very wary of survey data.

(If you recognize some of these ideas, you’ve probably read A Billion Wicked Thoughts or my essay on it.)

Other problems, this time outside the realm of sexuality, include estimation:

When relying on our gut, we can also be thrown off by the basic human fascination with the dramatic. We tend to overestimate the prevalence of anything that makes for a memorable story. For example, when asked in a survey, people consistently rank tornadoes as a more common cause of death than asthma. In fact, asthma causes about seventy times more death. Deaths by asthma don’t stand out—and don’t make the news.

Still, I wonder what would happen if researchers paid survey respondents for right answers. In surveys, people have little incentive to try to be right. In some other parts of life, they do.

Much of the data comes from Google, and we should remember something important: “Google can display a bias toward unseemly thoughts, thoughts people feel they can’t discuss with anyone else.” Which makes sense: before Google or the Internet more generally, many of those thoughts would never have left the mind in a way that in turn left a residue on the rest of the world. Now they do. Perhaps one lesson of Everybody Lies is that more of us should use Duck Duck Go, the search engine that famously doesn’t record its users’ search terms. I infer, from the prevalence of Google search and Gmail, that most people don’t give a damn about privacy—regardless of the numerous article about privacy one sees in the media. People’s revealed preferences seem to indicate they want convenience and familiarity far more than privacy.

Then there is this, which may be most useful for people doing Internet marketing:

The lesson of A/B testing, to a large degree, is to be wary of general lessons. Clark Benson is the CEO of, a news and entertainment site that relies heavily on A/B testing to choose headlines and site designs. “At the end of the day, you can’t assume anything,” Benson says. “Test literally everything.”

By the way, the school(s) you attend also seems to matter little for any measurable life outcomes. The money spent on expensive private schools seems to be largely wasted, or, if not wasted, then at least should be considered a consumption expense, rather than an investment expense. The entire education industry has worked hard to convince you otherwise, but the papers Stephens-Davidowitz cites are convincing and congruent with similar research I’ve seen on the issue.

Stephens-Davidowitz ends by saying that data from the Amazon Kindle indicates that few people read to the end of books. This one is worth reading in full.

Skin in the Game – Nassim Taleb

Skin in the Game is congruent with Tom Ricks’ book The Generals. Almost all generals and high-ranking officers in the U.S. military are now exempt from real risk, as Ricks argues—they are exempt even the risk of being fired or reassigned for simple incompetence (or being ill-suited to a role). Almost all enlisted men and junior officers, however, are heavily exposed to real risk, like being killed. That risk asymmetry should give pause to someone contemplating joining. The risk profile for generals prior to the Korean war, while not as a great as the risk profile for regular soldiers, was more reasonable than it is today. Military contractors are arguably the greatest beneficiary of the military today. If more people knew (and acted like they knew) this, we might see changes.

In Skin in the Game Taleb has many, many unusual examples, many of them good; he reads more like an old-fashioned philosopher (that is: one who wants to be read, heard, and understood, as opposed to one who wants tenure), and I mean that as a compliment. One of his rules is, “No person in a transaction should have certainty about the outcomes while the other one has uncertainty.” I wonder how this rule could be applied to colleges, especially under a student-loan system, in which the college is certain to be paid by the student, the student’s family, or the student’s bank (which is really to say, the bank’s student), while the student may see a variable return on investment—especially if the student is ill-equipped in the first place. Colleges may be selling credentials more than skills. But almost no one thinks about those things in advance.

Skin in the Game will, like Antifragile, frustrate you if you demand that every single sentence be true and useful. Some of Taleb’s micro-examples are bad, like his thing against GMOs:

In my war with the Monsanto machine, the advocates of genetically modified organisms (transgenics) kept countering me with benefit analyses (which were often bogus and doctored up), not tail risk analyses for repeated exposures

This view is incoherent because virtually every food eaten today has been “genetically modified,” inefficiently, through selective breeding. If you wish to learn just how hard this is, see The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. Transgenics speed the process. See this sad tale, and the links, for one researcher in the field who is giving up due to widespread opposition. He points out that, over and over again, transgenic have been shown to be safe.

Taleb is right that there are tail risks to transgenics… but that’s also theoretically true of traditional cross-breeding, and it’s also true of not engaging in transgenics. The alternative to high-efficiency transgenics is environmental degradation and, in many places, starvation. That’s pretty bad, and there’s a serious, usually unstated, environmental trade-off between signaling environmental caring and opposite transgenics (nuclear energy is the same).

Despite incorrect micro-examples, Skin in the Game is great and you should read it. It is less uneven than Antifragile. It’s also an excellent book to re-read (don’t expect to get everything the first time through) because Taleb gives so many examples and is overflowing with ideas.

Like: “If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life.” Something easily and frequently forgotten, or never considered in the first place. Look at what people do, not what they say. One of the many charming parts of Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy is the apparently wide gap between what many philosophers wrote and how they appeared to live. Maybe the truest philosophers don’t write but do.

Or consider:

the highest form of virtue is unpopular. This does not mean that virtue is inherently unpopular, or correlates with unpopularity, only that unpopular acts signal some risk taking and genuine behavior.

A very Peter Thiel point: he asks what popular view is wrong and what unpopular views a given person holds.

Or consider:

The only definition of rationality that I’ve found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival.

This may be true, but most of us in the West now survive, unless we do something truly stupid, dangerous, or brave. So our wealth and comfort may enable us to be irrational, because we’re much less likely to pay the ultimate penalty than we once were. Darwin Awards aside, we mostly make it. We can worry more about terrorism than the much more immediate and likely specter of death in the form of the car, which kills far more people every year in the United States than terrorism.

To his credit, though, Taleb does write:

The Chernoff bound can be explained as follows. The probability that the number of people who drown in their bathtubs in the United States doubles next year [. . .] is one per several trillions lifetimes of the universe. This cannot be said about the doubling of the number of people killed by terrorism over the same period.

He’s right that the number who could be killed by terrorism is massive, especially given the risk of nuclear and biological weapons. But the disproportionate focus on terrorism takes too much attention from risks that seem mundane, like getting into cars. Everyone expects to get into car crashes. Perhaps we should be thinking more seriously about that. Too bad almost no one is.

Junkyard Planet — Adam Minter

I wish I’d read Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade when it came out: it’s both informative and, sometimes, strangely lyrical, which I wasn’t expecting in a book about the scrap metal business. You may think a book titled “Junkyard Planet” is boring, and I anticipated precisely that and was proved wrong. For Minter the scrap business is tied up with his family: he grew up in in the industry, so, like a writer from a restaurant family, he gets things most journalists don’t, or wouldn’t (“Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of wandering among the family junk inventory, often with my grandmother, finding treasures:” a sentence few of us can utter).

He’s also refreshingly direct about costs and benefits; many writers want to condemn the global recycling trade because of the obvious pollution produced in China. But Minter goes the extra step and asks: why do things exist as they do? Will exist this way in the future?

This book aims to explain why the hidden world of globalized recycling and reclamation is the most logical (and greenest) endpoint in a long chain that begins with the harvest in your home recycling bin, or down at the local junkyard. There are few moral certainties here, but there is a guarantee: if what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably.

It turns out that “Huge, mind-bending, Silicon Valley-scale fortunes have been built by figuring out how to move the scrap newspapers in your recycling bin to the country where they’re most in demand.” Did you know that? Me neither. I learned from every page. It also turns out that for a couple decades following World War II, most dead cars were simply discarded in vast junkyards or chucked wherever they could be concealed. It took China decades in turn to go through all that American scrap (“the world’s most recycled product (by weight) isn’t a newspaper, a notebook computer, or a plastic water bottle—it’s an American automobile, most of which is metal”).

By the way, there are many important reasons to choose electric or plug-in electric cars, but one of them is the car’s valuable battery. Even in a decade or two, when the battery is likely to be too depleted for automotive use, it’s still likely to be valuable as grid storage. Seriously: “
Why Used Electric Car Batteries Could Be Crucial To A Clean Energy Future
.” Individual choices today are going to matter a decade or two from now.

For now, though, there are two major ways to get raw materials for new goods:

Digging mines was one way to obtain those raw materials; the other was to go to the United States, the place that many scrap traders call the Saudi Arabia of Scrap, the land where there’s more scrap than the people can handle on their own. It’s a funny nickname, Saudi Arabia of Scrap, but it’s not meant as a compliment. Rather, it’s an opportunity to exploit.

Think about this quote, too, every time you hear about a “shortage” of some commodity (nickel, cobalt, poorly named “rare earth” metals). A “shortage” usually means that someone doesn’t want to buy at a given price. You’ll know there’s really a shortage of something when you can sell old laptops, phones, or computers to Best Buy for a couple bucks. Right now, it’s not profitably enough to pay for out-of-date electronics. If and when it is profitable enough, you’ll be able to sell them—and profit will likely motivate more than green signaling.

By the way, what China is doing now is what the U.S. did more than a century ago; in the nineteenth century,

The U.S. was not yet scrapping its old infrastructure, [. . .] so it looked abroad to Europe [. . .] for raw materials. According to data culled by Carl Zimring, U.S. imports of scrap iron and steel grew from 38,580 tons in 1884 to 380,744 tons in 1887—a tenfold increase during, not coincidentally, a railroad building binge.

There are many more points of interest in the book. The total amount of recycling going on is much greater than I imagined, but it’s primarily happening behind the scenes and far behind the headlines.

In some ways, Junkyard Planet tells a circular story: each developing country goes from poor and a tremendous importer of “junk” (which is not actually junk), then moves up the value chain towards wealth and producing more apparent junk than it consumes. The obvious question is, “When will the world run out of poor, developing countries?” One hopes the answer is, “Soon.”

The Case Against Education — Bryan Caplan

The Case Against Education is a brilliant book that you should read, though you’ll probably reject its conclusions without really considering them. That’s because, as Caplan argues, most of us are prone to “Social Desirability Bias:” we want to say things that are popular and make people feel good, whether or not they’re true. Some true things may be socially desirable—but many false things may be too; the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” exists for a reason, as does the myth of Cassandra. We like to create scapegoats, and messengers are handy scapegoats. Simultaneously, we don’t like to take responsibility for our own ideas; and we like to collectively punish iconoclasts (at first, at least: later they may become idols, but first they must be castigated).

Caplan is an iconoclast but a data-driven one, and that’s part of what makes him unusual and special. And, to be sure, I myself am prone to the biases Caplan notes. Yet, as I read The Case Against Education, I couldn’t find many holes to poke in the argument. The book blends data and observation / anecdote well, and it also fits disturbingly well with my own teaching experiences. For example, Caplan notes that students find school boring and stultifying: “Despite teachers’ best efforts, most youths find high culture boring—and few change their minds in adulthood.” While “school is boring” seems obvious to most people, it’s also worth asking why. Many of the reasons Caplan gives are fine, but I’ll also add that “interesting” is often also “controversial,” and many controversial / interesting instructors will take heat, as I argue in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent:”

Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students.

It’s easy for outsiders to say that teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized.

Despite the fact that no one actively wants school to be boring, the collection of forces operating on the school experience pushes it towards boredom. Many people, for example, are very interested in sex and drugs, but those topics also excite many students and parents, such that it’s difficult to say much that’s true about them in school.

As Caplan says, however, boredom is almost a feature, not a bug. Boring classes allow students to signal traits that employers value, like conscientiousness, intelligence, and conformity. Even if reading Ethan Frome is boring, being willing to tolerate Ethan Frome is important to people who would not themselves read Ethan Frome.

Caplan argues that most education is actually about signaling, not skill development. It’s notable how little we in as a society have improved education in the last two decades, when the Internet has opened up many new learning and signaling opportunities. Caplan has a theory about why: using weird counter-signaling efforts itself signals non-conformity and general weirdness (“‘alternative’ signals of conformity signal nonconformity”). So we’re stuck in a negative equilibrium.

He might be right. That said, I wonder if we’re just seeing a lag: twenty years is a long time by some standards, but in the history of education it’s a relatively short time. The problems with contemporary education also seem to argue that many employers would be well-served to ignore the signals sent by degree and search for alternate signals instead. Google claims to be doing this, but I don’t know of any researchers who’ve audited or studied Google’s internal data (if you do, please leave a pointer in the comments).

The people who most need to read this book are probably educators and high school students. The former probably won’t read it because it punctures some of the powerful myths and beliefs that keep them motivated. The latter probably won’t read it because high school students read very few books, and the ones most likely to read The Case Against Education are probably also likely to gain the most from higher education. So it’s another of these books that’s caught in a readerly catch-22.

Here is a Claudia Goldin paper, “The Race between Education and Technology: The Evolution of U.S. Educational Wage Differentials, 1890 to 2005;” as one person said on Twitter, “I agree with @bryan_caplan that the wage premium from education mainly comes from signaling, rather than learning vocational skills. But – I also believe widespread, generalist, higher ed can be a very good thing (as explained in [“The Race Between…”]).”

I also wonder about this: “employers throughout the economy defer to teachers’ opinions when they decide whom to interview, whom to hire, and how much to pay them.” Do they? Do most employers require transcripts and then actively use those transcripts? It seems that many do look for degrees but don’t look for grades.

One question, too, is why more people don’t go into various forms of consulting; smaller firms are less likely to be interested in credentials than larger ones. I do grant writing for nonprofits, public agencies, and some research-based businesses. Zero clients have asked about educational credentials (well, a few public agencies have superficial processes that ask about them, but the decision-makers don’t seem to care). Clients are much more interested in our experience and the skills demonstrated by our website and client list than they are in credentials. And when we’ve hired various people, like website programmers or graphic designers, we’ve never asked about education either, because we don’t care—we care if they can get the job done. In restaurants, I’ve never stopped a server or hostess to ask if the chef went to cooking school. So smaller firms may offer some respite from degree madness; if there is a market opportunity for avoiding expensive college and the credentials race (for individuals), it might be there.

Yet at the same time, I feel (perhaps wrongly) that school did help me become a better writer. “Feel” is a dangerous word—it’s hard to dispute feelings but easy to dispute data—yet I don’t know how else to describe it. When I read other people’s writing, especially other people’s proposals, I often think, “This helps explain why I have the job I do.” It’s possible to get through college and learn very little about writing. Occasionally managers will learn that I teach writing and say, “Why can’t college graduates write effectively?” An excellent question and one that requires 10,000 words of answer or no answer at all. But the alternative—not taking any writing classes—often seems worse.

Caplan also conducts many fascinating thought experiments, of sorts, although perhaps “contextualizes common practices and ideas” may be more accurate:

The human capital model doesn’t just imply all cheaters are wasting their time. It also implies all educators who try to prevent cheating are wasting their time. All exams might as well be take-home. No one needs to proctor tests or call time. No one needs to punish plagiarism—or Google random sentences to detect it. Learners get job skills and financial rewards. Fakers get poetic justice.

Signaling, in contrast, explains why cheating pays—and why schools are wise to combat it. In the signaling model, employers reward workers for the skills they think those workers possess. Cheating tricks employers into thinking you’re a better worker than you really are. The trick pays because unless everyone cheats all the time, students with better records are, on average, better workers.

Makes sense to me. I sometimes tell students that, if they manage to get through college without learning how to read and write effectively, no one comes back to ask me why. No college offers partial refunds to the unemployable who nonetheless graduate. The signal is the signal.

Many of you will not like The Case Against Education too because it is thorough. Caplan goes through his arguments, then many rebuttals, then rebuttals to the rebuttals. If you want a book that only goes one or two layers deep, this is the wrong book for you and you should stick to the Internet.

Many books also fail to convincingly answer the question, “What should we do about the problem identified?” Caplan doesn’t. He argues that public spending on education (or “education:” as much of what seems like education should be called signaling) should be eliminated altogether, while simultaneously acknowledging that this is only slightly more likely than someone jumping to the moon.

Caplan fulfills many of the conditions of myth, but probably not enough people will read this book to truly hate him. Which is a pity: as I said in the first line, the book is brilliant. But socially desirable persons will reject it, if they consider it at all. And the education machine will press on, a monstrous juice press squeezing every orange that enters its maw. Once I was the orange; now I am the press.

One other answer to “What education does?” may be “to keep options open” and “provide a base from which to build later.” Without some writing and numeracy skills, it’ll be hard to enter many careers; while school may do a lousy job of building them (as Caplan demonstrates), if the alternative to school nothing (i.e. Netflix, hanging out, and partying), school may be a better option than nothing.

As for optionality, I think of my friends, many artistically inclined, who got to their mid or late 20s and around that time got tired of working marginal jobs, struggling to pay rent, working in coffee shops, crashing on friends’ couches, etc. Things that seem glamorous at age 20 often seem depressing five or ten years later. Many of them have gone back to school of various kinds to get programming or healthcare jobs. In the former case, math is important, and in the latter case, biology and some other science knowledge is important. Those who blew off math or bio in high school or college struggle more in those occupations. So maybe education is about keeping at least some options open—or more options than would be open for someone who quits school or begins vocational ed in 8th grade.

Finally, education might be an elite phenomenon. We educate everyone, or, more realistically, attempt to educate everyone, in order to get a relatively small number of elite people into position to drive the entire culture forward. The people at the pinnacle of the scientific, technical, artistic, and social elites got there in part because they had access to education that was good enough to get them into the elite spheres where it’s possible to make a real difference.

I’m not sure I’m in those elite spheres, but I may be close, and at age 15 I probably didn’t look like such a good bet. Yet education continued and here I am, engaging in the kinds of conversations that could move the culture forward. If I’d been tracked differently at age 15 that might not’ve happened. Yes, the process is horrendously wasteful, but it’s useful to give many people a shot, even if most people go nowhere.

To be sure, I buy Caplan’s argument, but I’ve not seen this angle pursued by others, and it at least seems plausible. I also don’t know how one would measure the “education as elite phenomenon” argument, which is another weakness of my own point.

Still, I’ve become more of an elitist because of my involvement in the educational system, which shows that most students are in fact bored and don’t give a damn. When I started grad school I thought I could help students become more engaged by changing the nature of the short journal assignments: instead of just writing for me, students would start blogs that they would read and comment on. Education would become more peer-driven and collaborative. The material would seem relevant. Right?

After a semester or two of reactions that ranged from indifference at best to massive hostility at worst, I stopped and went back to the usual form of short written responses, printed, and handed in. That was easier on me and on the students, and it still at least exposed students to the idea of writing regularly. A few may have continued the practice. Most probably didn’t (and don’t). I learned a lot, maybe more than students, and I also learned that I’m a weirdo for my (extreme) interests in writing and language—but my own time in the education system and my own friend set had to some extent hidden that from me. Now, however, it’s so apparent that I wonder what 24-year-old me was thinking.

Caplan helps explain what I was thinking; many people who go into various kinds of teaching are probably optimists who themselves like school. They’re selected for being, in many cases, passionate weirdos. Personally, I like passionate weirdos and misfits and the people who don’t fit well into the school system (I’ve been all three). But I seem to be unusual in that respect too, though I wasn’t so weird that I couldn’t fit into the convention-making machine. A good thing, too—as Caplan notes, it’s individually rational to pursue educational credentials, even if the mass pursuit of those credentials may not be so good for society as a whole. Correlation is not causation, as you no doubt learned from your statistics classes and still understand today.

Slutever — Karley Sciortino

This passage is representative of Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World:

My first attempt at nonmonogamy was while I was living in London, soon after my relationship with Sam ended. I was twenty-three, and fell really hard for this beardy Scottish musician. He lived in Glasgow but came to London a couple times a month with his band. I met him while high on ecstasy at a squat rave, obviously.

“Obviously;” where else does one meet a beardy Scottish musician? I say it’s representative because of the odd, jangly alliteration, “was while I was,” which sounds not quite right, especially due to the repeat of the word “was;” the unneeded comma in the second sentence; and obviously that “obviously” at the end. But I still laughed, and laughter is probably the best test for a book like this. It’s easy to condemn the frequent use of “honestly,” “whatever,” and “obviously,” but try not to do that. Yes, you will read “shout out to Hester Prynne, OG high priestess of slut-shaming.” The jokes redeem the book and the language is part of the joke. People in coffee shops looked at me not just because of the book’s eye-catching cover but because I was laughing.

You will find paragraphs with incongruous markers stacked up against each other:

When I arrived at Colette and Dan’s beautiful hilltop home on a Saturday morning in the spring of 2016, Dan answered the door wearing silk pajama pants. “Colette’s in the orgy room, meditating,” he said with a smile. They’d hired a rent-a-shaman to come up from Mexico that afternoon, to dose a handful of their friends with a psychoactive toad venom containing the powerful hallucinogen 5-MeO-DMT, known to induce divine revelation or, in Colette’s words, “ego death.” (Think Ayahuasca but without the puking.)

Who hasn’t rented a shaman from Mexico for the afternoon? But this kind of repeated incongruity is what makes the memoir-manifesto novel—more novel than many superficially high-status novels. And despite the admiration for hallucinogens and their uses, Sciortino also makes fun of Burning Man, which is, I hear, ground zero for doing such things, or doing such things in large groups of collaborators.

Sciortino writes, “Like, my goal isn’t to be good or normal or accepted. My goal is to be free. (And maybe also to troll society a bit in the process, for good measure).” Yet I wonder what freedom is; I used to think I knew and now I’m not so sure.

Slutever is not for all of you who may be reading this, but it is for some of you, and probably for more of you than you’d admit in a public setting.

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