Archive for the ‘musing’ Category

Envy, greed, and the American Dream #OWS

I was sent this Falkenblog post entitled Why Envy Dominates Greed a while back (hat tip David Murrell). The post suggests an interesting thought experiment which I’d like to discuss this morning.

Namely, it asks us to examine the extent to which our economic assumption that “everyone is working in their own self-interest” can be replaced by the assumption that “everyone is working to improve their relative ranking” and whether you’d get more clarity from economics that way.

I’ve done myself the favor of ignoring everything author Eric Falkenstein actually says about the economic theory, because he’s focusing on investing in the stock market, which honestly only a minority of people ever do even once. Even so I’d like to consider this idea of envy versus greed and try to make sense of it.

First of all, I do think that a certain kind of relativity combined with proximity is deeply important to humans. When members of my Occupy group talk about living on $2 a day while sleeping at homeless shelters in New York City, surrounded by men in suits with chauffeurs, it is very relevant that the privations described are combined with with a deep sense of humiliation of their understanding of their relative position. These are highly intelligent people who know how things look and they feel it keenly.

Similarly, when I think about poor people in other countries, it’s a different level of destitution than we see here, and yet it doesn’t make me want to drop everything and work in India. There’s something about proximity that we all respond to, and which has been well examined by social scientists.

Going back to my New York friend: is that envy being displayed, exactly? I don’t think so. I think it’s something more like dispossession and despair. And it’s honestly something I believe our natures would rather avoid, but sometimes just slaps us in our face, especially in places like New York City.

I’m not throwing envy out altogether. In fact, I do think envy is strongly at work, but only at a local level. I am working at Columbia now, so it’s natural and proper that I am envious of my colleague’s slightly-larger office. I ignore the stuff I don’t see like how the trustees are chosen and treated. A person in a given town is envious of their neighbor’s house or car or job or wife, but they don’t think about what’s happening in a different neighborhood. In fact they might obsess over such things. It happens. But again, it’s local.

Evidence that people only think very locally about wealth and inequality is everywhere; so when people are polled and asked to describe income or wealth inequality, they always think it’s much less skewed than it is. Why? I’ll guess. It’s because they extrapolate from their very local experience, where there the outliers are not so very outlying at all. It’s a safe kind of assumption that doesn’t boil the blood.

So envy is there, it’s powerful, but it biases us enormously. If anything, I’m starting to think envy is something to distract us from something more dangerous, which is that sense of privation and dispossession, which runs deeper and is more anarchic. By contrast, envy seems like a myopic feeling that keeps us acting safely inside the system, where if we follow the rules but we’re a little bit better at them, we will get that bigger office or bigger car.

In the end, I reject envy as a unifying glue that describes our world, at least in times of severe inequality like now. It just doesn’t address the growing hostility that I’m sensing, which is that second kind of feeling, which exists beyond envy.

Moreover, I think the assumption that everyone is feeling something as small as envy, or rather the projection of envy onto the entire population, is damaging.

So, for example, there was an New York Times Op-Ed recently entitled Capitalize Workers! that suggested we get more people involved for saving for their retirement by investing in the stock market with “minimum pensions”.

I think the idea here is that everyone wants a piece of that amazing stock market return. But if you think about where people actually are financially, it’s such a weirdly out-of-touch plan, the idea that everyone is a Wall Street trader or wants to be.

For most people I meet and talk to, at this point retirement is not at all about the thrill of risk-taking, but rather the avoidance of risk altogether. If you asked those people, they’d rather just have their Social Security benefits doubled. They are not trying to take their chances to double their money, but rather trying to eke out a retirement without severe pain.

Why is this happening? Why are the authors of this piece, who both work at the think tank Third Way,  making such bizarre assumptions about how poor people want to retire? My first guess was that they are just working with the funds on Wall Street who would reap (even more) profits if more people invested.

But another less suspicious possibility is given by my above observation. Namely, they are projecting their myopic envy, that makes sense in their world, onto the poor and middle class worrying about retirement.

In their neighborhood, the way envy works is about trading and making big gains with extra money, but of course to do that you have to have extra money to start out with. In other words, the distance between the authors and the people they claim to be trying to help is too large for their system of envy to translate meaningfully.


Categories: #OWS, musing

Does OpenSSL bug prove that open source code doesn’t work?

By now most of you have read about the major bug that was found in OpenSSL, an open source security software toolkit. The bug itself is called the Heartbleed Bug, and there’s lots of information about it and how to fix it here. People are super upset about this, and lots of questions remain.

For example, was it intentionally undermined? Has the NSA deliberately inserted weaknesses into this as well? It seems like the jury is out right now, but if I’m the guy who put in the bug, I’m changing my name and going undercover just in case.

Next, how widely was the weakness exploited? If you’re super worried about stuff, or if you are a particular target of attack, the answer is probably “widely.” The frustrating thing is that there’s seemingly no way to measure or test that assumption, since the attackers would leave no trace.

Here’s what I find interesting the most interesting question: what will the long-term reaction be to open source software? People might think that open source code is a bust after this. They will complain that something like this should never have been allowed to happen – that the whole point of open software is that people should be checking this stuff as it comes in – and it never would have happened if there were people getting paid to test the software.

First of all, it did work as intended, even though it took two years instead of two days like people might have wanted. And maybe this shouldn’t have happened like it did, but I suspect that people will learn this particular lesson really well as of now.

But in general terms, bugs are everywhere. Think about Knight Capital’s trading debacle or the ObamaCare website, just two famous recent problems with large-scale coding projects that aren’t open source.

Even when people are paid to fix bugs, they fix the kind of bugs that cause the software to stop a lot sooner than the kind of bug that doesn’t make anything explode, lets people see information they shouldn’t see, and leaves no trace. So for every Knight’s Capital there are tons of other bugs in software that continue to exist.

In other words it’s more a question of who knows about the bugs and who can exploit them. And of course, whether those weaknesses will ever be exposed to the public at all.

It would be great to see the OpenSSL bug story become, over time, a success story. This would mean that, on the one hand the nerds becoming more vigilant in checking vitally important code, and learning to think like assholes, but also the public would need to acknowledge how freaking hard it is to program.

Categories: musing, open source tools

Could we use eminent domain to help suffering homeowners? (#OWS)

Here are two things you might have some trouble believing if you read the papers regularly and find yourself convinced we are in a housing recovery. First, there are still huge numbers of homeowners on the brink of, or just starting to enter, foreclosure. Second, many of the banks foreclosing on those properties do not have clear legal ownership over the mortgages in question.

Obama should have addressed the first problem through TARP way back in 2008. In fact mortgage modification was an intention of TARP that was promised Congress when it passed the second half of the money but it never happened. Instead Obama came up with the garbage called HAMP, which has been dreadfully implemented and possibly a net harmful program.

Even without Obama, we should have seen a willingness to renegotiate debt. After all, we can negotiate credit card debt, and businesses routinely renegotiate their mortgages. Why are private home mortgages kept airtight? I guess the banks see it as in their interest not to allow negotiations, and whatever the banks want, the banks seem to get.

The second problem, which is essentially one of botched paperwork (explained here), is probably technically the job of some regulator to deal with, but nobody wants to “blow up the system” so nobody is dealing with it. This is especially ironic considering how often we hear about the so-called sanctity of the contract.

The result of these huge looming problems is that banks got bailed out and the system never got cleared of its actual debt and paperwork problems,.

Enter the concept of using eminent domain to force these two issues. Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, is pushing this in a few nationwide court cases, for example in Richmond, California.

More recently, and what inspired this post this morning, is a plan cooked up by Strike Debt using eminent domain to force courts to clear up broken chains of title, written by Hannah Appel and JP Massar.

This idea is on its face unappealing, given the history of that crude tool eminent domain. Everyone I meet has their own stories, but start here for a short list of eminent domain abuses.

And it might not work, either. A district judge might not want to deal with the complexity of the issue and might just let the bad paperwork through.

For that matter, many concerns have been voiced about the practicality of this approach, and one that deeply resonates with me is the idea of using it against current mortgages – i.e. mortgages where the homeowner is up-to-date with payment. Using eminent domain in such a case could set a precedent whereby, even though someone has been taking care of their property, the city uses eminent domain to condemn it based on historical data which implies the owner is likely to neglect their property. That would not be good enough. As far as I know the current plan only uses mortgages where there have been missed payments, though.

The bottomline is this: we’re in a situation where all these homeowners are being crushed with unreasonable monthly payments, and hugely inflated principals, where the legal ownership of the mortgage itself is under question, and nobody seems to want to do squat about it. Maybe it’s time a crude tool is used against a cruel enemy.

Categories: #OWS, finance, musing

Matt Stoller is tearing up Tumblr

I’ve been super impressed by Matt Stoller’s recent foray into “tumbling”, which is kind of like blogging except it’s called tumbling. Even the spam emails from tumblr are worth following him, because sometimes they contain his newest posts.

His title is Observations on Credit and Surveillance but in fact the content is all over the map, reading original source documents to describe the connections between communism and U.S. slavery or Gerald Ford and Watergate, not to mention the 1894 Post Office Bank proposal.

Most interesting to me is the information he’s uncovered about data provisions in the TPP and the history of credit cards and debt collection.

Go take a look, he’s been on fire. I hope he keeps it going.

Categories: musing, news

How to Lie With Statistics (in the Age of Big Data)

When I emailed my mom last month to tell her the awesome news about the book I’m writing she emailed me back the following:

i.e, A modern-day How to Lie with Statistics (1954), avail on Amazon
for $9.10.  Love, Mom

That was her whole email. She’s never been very verbose, in person or electronically. Too busy hacking.

Even so, she gave me enough to go on, and I bought the book and recently read it. It was awesome and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it – or read it recently. It’s a quick read and available as a free pdf download here.

The goal of the book is to demonstrate all the ways marketers, journalists, accountants, and sometimes even statisticians can bias your interpretation of statistical facts or even just confuse you into thinking something is true when it’s not. It’s illustrated as well, which is fun and often funny.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.02.22 AM

The author does things like talk about how you can present graphs to be very misleading – my favorite, because it happens to be my pet peeve, is the “growth chart” where the y-axis goes from 1400 to 1402 so things look like they’ve grown a huge amount because “0″ isn’t represented anywhere. Or of course the chart that has no numbers at all so you don’t know what you’re looking at.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.43.24 AM

There are a few things that don’t translate: so for example, he has a big thing about how people say “average” but they don’t specify whether they mean “arithmetic mean” or “median.” Nowadays this is taken to mean the former (am I wrong?).

And also, it’s fascinating to see how culture has changed – many of his examples that involve race would be very different nowadays, and issues around women, and the idea that you could run a randomized experiment to give half the people polio vaccines and withhold them from the other half, when polio is a real threat that leaves children paralyzed, is really strange.

Also, many of the examples – there are hundreds – refer to the Great Depression and the recovery since then, and the assumptions are bizarrely different in 1954 than you see in 2014 (and I’d guess different than how it will be in 2024 but I hope I’m wrong). Specifically, it seems that many of the lies that people are propagating with statistics are to downplay their profits so as to not seem excessive. Can you imagine?!

One of the reasons I read this book, of course, was to see if my book really is a modern version of that one. And I have to say that many of the issues do not translate, but some of them do, in interesting ways.

Even the reason that many of them don’t is kind of interesting: in the age of big data, we often don’t even see charts of data so how can we be misled by them? In other words, the presumption is that the data is so big as to be inaccessible. Google doesn’t bother showing us the numbers. Plus they don’t have to since we use their services anyway.

The most transferrable tips on how to lie with statistics probably stem from discussions on the following topics:

  • Selection bias (things like, of the people who responded to our poll, they are all happy with our service)
  • Survivorship bias (things like, companies that have been in the S&P for 30 years have great stock performance)
  • Confusing people about topic A by discussing a related but not directly relevant topic B. This is described in the book as a “semi-attached figure”

The last one is the most relevant, I believe. In the age of big data, and partly because the data is “too big” to take a real look at, we spend an amazing amount of time talking about how a model is measuring something we care about (teachers’ value, or how good a candidate is for a job) when in fact the model is doing something quite different (test scores, demographic data).

If we were aware of those discrepancies we’d have way more skepticism, but we’re intimidated by the size of the data and the complexity of the models.

A final point. For the most part that crucial big data issue of complexity isn’t addressed in the book. It kind of makes me pine for the olden days, except not really if I’m black, a woman, or at risk of being exposed to polio.

UPDATES: First, my bad for not understanding that, at the time, the polio vaccine wasn’t known to work, or even be harmful, so of course there were trials. I was speaking from the perspective of the present day when it seems obvious that it works. For that matter I’m not even sure it was the particular vaccine that ended up working that was being tested.

Second, I showed my mom this post and her response was perfect:

Glad you liked it! Love, Mom

Categories: musing, statistics

Jamie Dimon’s bonus too low – shoulda been $100 million at least

Crossposted on the Alt Banking blog, the below reflects a discussion at Alt Banking from last Sunday’s meeting.

People have been making a big fuss about JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s recent raise. They seem to think that, what with all the lawsuits that JP Morgan Chase has been involved in this past year, exposing so much fraudulent behavior which directly contributed to so much human suffering, the guy should be somewhat humbled and punished. They even wanna question his right to stock options he shoulda had way back in 2008, when the world was on fire. The nerve!

I mean, maybe by some definition of “earned” he doesn’t deserve those 20 sticks. Maybe they think they have better plans for the bonus money. But from where I sit, the guy should have gotten way more, considering he set the price of fraud by big banks so low and in so many different ways.

I estimate that he should have gotten at least $100 million, using a very basic fact that the regulatory arbitrage which he displayed, and which now exists as a precedent for all bankers for the rest of eternity, benefitted not just him, not just JP Morgan Chase, but all the Too-Big-To-Fail banks. For that reason, every TBTF bank should give him at least $20 million as a reward for their future profitable fraudulent earnings. Since there are at least 5 TBTF banks, I’m just scaling up in a super reasonable way.

I know that might sound weird, for Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, which are generally speaking competitors to JP Morgan, to give Jamie Dimon cash money. And they might want to keep it on the DL for that matter, for the sake of appearances.

But after all, this is the guy who called Attorney General Eric Holder on the phone and negotiated a settlement, for christ’s sake! Who DOES that? That’s really above and beyond the chutzpah of even the most criminal of masterminds. Only the creamiest of the crop, only the most devoted of banker psychopaths can get away with that shit. That is to say, Jamie Dimon, and maybe Lloyd Blankfein (Dear Lloyd: I don’t doubt for a minute that you will have your day too, very soon, and then all the big boys will pitch in for your supersized bonus).

So what are you waiting for, Citigroup? Wells? When are you guys ponying up what we all know Dimon deserves from all of the elite institutions protected from prosecution? I say you guys perform the equivalent of a kowtow in Wall Street terms, which is of course monetized, in the form of a check. Send it on over.

Come to think of it we should also offer extra cash to HSBC’s legal team, and for that matter Eric Holder himself. If it hasn’t already been done.

Categories: #OWS, finance, musing

The coming Calculus MOOC Revolution and the end of math research

I don’t usually like to sound like a doomsayer but today I’m going to make an exception. I’m going to describe an effect that I believe will be present, even if it’s not as strong as I am suggesting it might be. There are three points to my post today.

1) Math research is a byproduct of calculus teaching

I’ve said it before, calculus (and pre-calculus, and linear algebra) might be a thorn in many math teachers’ side, and boring to teach over and over again, but it’s the bread and butter of math departments. I’ve heard statistics that 85% of students who take any class in math at a given college take only calculus.

Math research is essentially funded through these teaching jobs. This is less true for the super elite institutions which might have their own army of calculus adjuncts and have separate sources of funding both from NSF-like entities and private entities, but if you take the group of people I just saw at JMM you have a bunch of people who essentially depend on their take-home salary to do research, and their take-home salary depends on lots of students at their school taking service courses.

I wish I had a graph comparing the number of student enrolled in calculus each year versus the number of papers published in math journals each year. That would be a great graphic to have, and I think it would make my point.

2) Calculus MOOCs and other web tools are going to start replacing calculus teaching very soon and at a large scale

It’s already happening at Penn through Coursera. Word on the street is it is about to happen at MIT through EdX.

If this isn’t feasible right now it will be soon. Right now the average calculus class might be better than the best MOOC, especially if you consider asking questions and getting a human response. But as the calculus version of math overflow springs into existence with a record of every question and every answer provided, it will become less and less important to have a Ph.D. mathematician present.

Which isn’t to say we won’t need a person at all – we might well need someone. But chances are they won’t be tenured, and chances are they could be overseas in a call center.

This is not really a bad thing in theory, at least for the students, as long as they actually learn the stuff (as compared to now). Once the appropriate tools have been written and deployed and populated, the students may be better off and happier. They will very likely be more adept at finding correct answers for their calculus questions online, which may be a way of evaluating success (although not mine).

It’s called progress, and machines have been doing it for more than a hundred years, replacing skilled craftspeople. It hurts at first but then the world adjusts. And after all, lots of people complain now about teaching boring classes, and they will get relief. But then again many of them will have to find other jobs.

Colleges might take a hit from parents about how expensive they are and how they’re just getting the kids to learn via computer. And maybe they will actually lower tuition, but my guess is they’ll come up with something else they are offering that makes up for it which will have nothing to do with the math department.

3) Math researchers will be severely reduced if nothing is done

Let’s put those two things together, and what we see is that math research, which we’ve basically been getting for free all this time, as a byproduct of calculus, will be severely curtailed. Not at the small elite institutions that don’t mind paying for it, but at the rest of the country. That’s a lot of research. In terms of scale, my guess is that the average faculty will be reduced by more than 50%, and some faculties will be closed altogether.

Why isn’t anything being done? Why do mathematicians seem so asleep at this wheel? Why aren’t they making the case that math research is vital to a long-term functioning society?

My theory is that mathematicians haven’t been promoting their work for the simple reason that they haven’t had to, because they had this cash cow called calculus which many of them aren’t even aware of as a great thing (because close up it’s often a pain).

It’s possible that mathematicians don’t even know how to promote math to the general public, at least right now. But I’m thinking that’s going to change. We’re going to think about it pretty hard and learn how to promote math research very soon, or else we’re going back to 1850 levels of math research, where everyone knew each other and stuff was done by letter.

How worried am I about this?

For my friends with tenure, not so worried, except if their entire department is at risk. But for my younger friends who are interested in going to grad school now, I’m not writing them letters of recommendation before having this talk, because they’ll be looking around for tenured positions in about 10 years, and that’s the time scale at which I think math departments will be shrinking instead of expanding.

In terms of math PR, I’m also pretty worried, but not hopeless. I think one can really make the case that basic math research should be supported and expanded, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right and a lot of people willing to put time and organizing skills into the effort for it to work. And hopefully it will be a community effort and not controlled by a few billionaires.

Categories: math, math education, musing

Two thoughts on math research papers

Today I’d like to mention two ideas I’ve been having recently on how to make being a research mathematician (even) more fun.

1) Mathematicians should consider holding public discussions about papers

First, math nerds, did you know that in statistics they have formal discussions about papers? It’s been a long-standing tradition by the Royal Statistical Society, whose motto is “Advancing the science and application of statistics, and promoting use and awareness for public benefit,” to choose papers by some criterion and then hold regular public discussions about those papers by a few experts who are not the author, about the paper. Then the author responds to their points and the whole conversation is published for posterity.

I think this is a cool idea for math papers too. One thing that kind of depressed me about math is how rarely you’d find people reading the same papers unless you specifically got a group of people together to do so, which was a lot of work. This way the work is done mostly by other people and more importantly the payoff is much better for them since everyone gets a view into the discussion.

Note I’m sidestepping who would organize this whole thing, and how the papers would be chosen exactly, but I’d expect it would improve the overall feeling that I had of being isolated in a tiny math community, especially if the conversations were meant to be penetrable.

2) There should be a good clustering method for papers around topics

This second idea may already be happening, but I’m going to say it anyway, and it could easily be a thesis for someone in CS.

Namely, the idea of using NLP and other such techniques to cluster math papers by topic. Right now the most obvious way to find a “nearby” paper is to look at the graph of papers by direct reference, but you’re probably missing out on lots of stuff that way. I think a different and possibly more interesting way would be to use the text in the title, abstract, and introduction to find papers with similar subjects.

This might be especially useful when you want to know the answer to a question like, “has anyone proved that such-and-such?” and you can do a text search for the statement of that theorem.

The good news here is that mathematicians are in love with terminology, and give weird names to things that make NLP techniques very happy. My favorite recent example which I hear Johan muttering under his breath from time to time is Flabby Sheaves. There’s no way that’s not a distinctive phrase.

The bad news is that such techniques won’t help at all in finding different fields who have come across the same idea but have different names for the relevant objects. But that’s OK, because it means there’s still lots of work for mathematicians.

By the way, back to the question of whether this has already been done. My buddy Max Lieblich has a website called MarXiv which is a wrapper over the math ArXiv and has a “similar” button. I have no idea what that button actually does though. In any case I totally dig the design of the similar button, and what I propose is just to have something like that work with NLP.

Categories: math, musing, open source tools

Magic pill thought experiment

First of all I want to thank you guys. I’m feeling incredibly lucky that, when I asked for comments and ideas, both for my book and for the “Public Facing Math” panel, you guys delivered immediately and impressively.

You guys are the best!

Next, here’s the ridiculous thought experiment I’m cooking up this morning, inspired by this recent Room For Debate focusing on fessing up about cosmetic surgery and this recent New Yorker column by Matthew Hutson about nonconformity as a signal of status.

So, imagine there’s an very inexpensive and very accessible “magic pill” that makes you appear incredibly average. It doesn’t do anything to your health, just your appearance, which is key – we don’t want to conflate the issues of appearance and health. And let’s assume it works for 5 years and then stops. It doesn’t have side effects.

And as we know, average is in a certain sense quite beautiful, if this graph of the “average face of women” in a bunch of countries can be believed (more info here and here). But of course, it’s also not very interesting, being totally average.

So here’s the thought experiment: three questions.

First, would you take the pill?

Second, would you hang out with other people who took the pill?

Third, considering your answer to the second question, would you take the pill?

I’ll give you guys a moment to think about this…


OK, here’s what I think. At first I thought I might take the pill. I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad to live behind a mask of averageness. I’d be bland but attractive, it might be nice. Never worry about a bad hair day, which truth be told I don’t really worry about much now.

But then again, I immediately realized I’d rather hang out with people who refused the pill. I mean, they’d be more interesting for sure, right? They’d be strangely not insecure. They might even be proud of pimples and asymmetries, in a world of everyone looking super perfect. I’d definitely want to hang with them.

But then would they want to hang with me? On second thought, I wouldn’t take the pill because it would matter more to me to signal interestingness than to be considered attractive, especially if attractiveness was cheaply gotten.

What about you guys? This might be the dumbest post I’ve ever written but for some reason I like this thought experiment, and when I’ve asked different people they never give me the same answer, and so far nobody agrees with me.

One last thing. I think the entire game changes if the pill only lasted for 12 hours.

Categories: musing

Short Facebook

I don’t normally give investing advice, and I don’t even actually trade myself – although some of my retirement money is invested in the market – but in spite of that I plan to explain my dim view of Facebook today.

Here’s the thing. Facebook is boring. Super boring, and super commercial and getting worse. It’s used anyway, by almost everyone, because everyone else they care about is already on it.

But think about how that happened. First a generation of people started using it, then their parents started using it. And Facebook did a pretty good job of making those parents welcome. Things are inoffensive and super easy to use. Inoffensive to the point of being utterly bland.

Here’s what’s not going to happen. The kids today are just not going to be interested in adopting Facebook. Why should they, when their parents and teachers and coaches are on there already, and it’s just another place where they can get into trouble with authority, not to mention be bombarded with ridiculous ads?

My theory is that some other sexier and edgier social media platform is going to come along and sweep up the next generation of users who want to get the hell away from their parents and grandparents and teachers and coaches. And it’s not Twitter, or Instagram. It doesn’t exist yet, but it will. And when it exists, Facebook will never gain another user and will lose a bunch and the entire younger generation will be embarrassed to admit they ever used it.

One more ridiculous opinion on technology for the morning. Email, I claim, is also dying. Nowadays if you really want someone’s attention you need to text them, not email them. Too many people know each others’ email addresses, so knowing someone’s phone number is really the only sign of authentic connection. And even that is falling by the wayside in our age of over-sharing and constrained attention.

My theory is that pretty soon we’re going to have yet a new way of communicating with each other, which isn’t really new but which has a privileged status. Perhaps it will require that, not only do you know my phone number, but you also have a password to indicate that your message is important enough for me to read it.

Categories: musing

How do we encourage empathy?

Usually I spend a lot of time reading stuff, and then I get outraged or otherwise respond internally to something I read. I take notes on the article, in an email to myself, and that later becomes a blog post.

But since all I’ve been doing lately is hanging out with the family, cooking, and watching Psych and Star Wars: Enterprise marathons, I have less to react to and therefore less to write about.

[Aside: if you haven't seen Psych yet, please take a look, especially if you like hilarious and snarky references to the 1980's, but even if you don't. Season 4 episode 1 is a great starting point. Netflixxable.]

Even so, here we are, friend, and I wanted to write this morning, and you’re here already.

So I will share some thoughts I had when I took a brisk walk last night, to try to get rid of the big Christmas dinner feeling. Big dinner, not big feeling, although the feeling was pretty big too.

I was thinking about gratitude, for even having the opportunity to have such a nice meal to share with my family, and then I started thinking about what I consider the flip side of gratitude, namely empathy. I was wondering, how do we encourage empathy and gratitude in ourselves and in others? In, say, our children?

First, who cares?

Lots of people have been writing about empathy lately, how rich people have less empathy, and the failure of technical fields to encourage empathy. We also seem to have connected gratitude with happiness.

Personally I’m pretty convinced these are both critical feelings both for relating to others on an individual basis and on thinking about public policy and income inequality, which I think about quite a bit. So I’m game.

Second, why those two things?

It occurred to me as I was walking that maybe other people don’t think of gratitude and empathy together. But for me there’s a pretty straight line from empathy to gratitude, and it’s not all that easy to get to gratitude some other way.

Some people write about how to raise your kids to be grateful, for example, and they often suggest that we ask our kids to think of things for which they are grateful, say before bed every night.

This strikes me as hollow. I don’t think people can just conjure up gratitude. Instead they will learn to list things which they are lucky to have, but being fortunate is not the same as feeling grateful. And listing a bunch of things you are fortunate to have can backfire, I’d imagine. I’m not into this plan.

But maybe I’m wrong, or maybe I misunderstood the plan. Readers, is there a connection for you too between empathy and gratitude, and is there a way to engender gratitude directly?

So, what about empathy?

Do you remember how much you hated your father growing up? I do. And I also remember the time, or times, that I realized I had the same tendencies inside myself. I could be just like that guy, I realized. FUCK.

And that’s when I realized I had a choice. I could either hate myself as much as I hated him, or I could forgive both of us. Or actually there are more options, including things like continuing to hate him and ignoring those same qualities in myself, but I try not to be too hypocritical.

Anyhoo, the point is that I forgave both of us. I empathized with his weaknesses, which were mine as well. And that is how I empathize with people in general, because I realize I am one mistake away from fucking up, or having too much debt, or being homeless or jobless.

And by the way, I even have made those mistakes, or many of them anyway, but I’ve been bailed out because of friends, or because I’m educated, or because I’m white. I am largely insulated from my bigger mistakes, but when I see someone in pain, it’s my pain, because it could be me.

And of course we have empathy for people because they are unlucky, like if someone they love gets sick, or if they themselves get sick and this ridiculous health system lands them in deep debt, or if they are at the wrong place at the wrong time, like if someone gets into an accident or if they are born into poverty.

But we also have empathy in recognition of making super shitty decisions and even of being cruel. Because cruelty is a weakness of ours too.

For me at least, gratitude comes right after that. It’s actually just a continuation of the feeling of empathy. I am grateful to my friends, and I am grateful for my freedom, and I am grateful I have not been in a situation recently where I’ve been overly tempted to wield my personal arsenal of evil weapons.

So, how do we encourage empathy and/or gratitude?

That’s the thing, I don’t know. The truth is, I’m not sure how it can be done without going through this whole process of hating something, then recognizing it inside yourself, and then coming to terms with it kindly. That’s pretty much all I got.

And so instead of asking my kids to be grateful, I just try to do my best to role model empathy and gratitude myself, in my words and actions and especially in my inactions.

Categories: musing

Insulin level tracking?

I’m wondering something kind of stupid this morning, which is why we don’t track people’s insulin levels. Or maybe we do and I don’t know about it? In which case, how do I get myself a Quantified Self insulin tracker?

Here’s a bit of background to explain why I’m asking this. Insulin levels in your blood regulate the speed at which sugar in your blood is turned into fat, and similarly they regulate how quickly fat cells release fat into the bloodstream.

If someone without diabetes eats something sweet their insulin levels shoot up to collect all the blood so the blood sugar levels doesn’t get toxic. Because what’s really important, as diabetics know, is that blood sugar levels remain not too high nor too low. Type I diabetics don’t make insulin, and Type II diabetics don’t respond to insulin properly.

OK so here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure my insulin levels are normally a bit high, and that when I eat sugar or bread they spike up dramatically. And although that might sound like the opposite of diabetes, it’s actually the precursor to diabetes, where my body goes nuts making insulin and then my organs become resistant to it.

But first of all, I’d like to know if I’m right – are my insulin levels elevated? – and second of all, I’d like to know how much my body reacts, insulin-wise, to eating and drinking various things. For instance, I drink a lot of coffee, and I’d like to know what that does to my insulin levels. And what about Coke Zero?

I am probably going to be disappointed here. I know that the critical level to keep track of for diabetics, blood sugar, is still pretty hard to do, although recent continuous monitors do exist and are helping. So if anyone knows of a “continuous insulin monitor” please tell me!

One last word about why insulin. I am fairly convinced that the insulin levels – combined with a measure of their insulin resistance – would explain a lot about why certain people retain fat where others don’t with the same diet. And it would be such a relief to stop arguing about willpower and start understanding this stuff scientifically.

One last thing. Please do not comment below telling me how to lose weight or talking about how to have more willpower: I will delete such comments! Please do comment on the scientific issues around the mechanisms of insulin, data collection, and potentially modeling with that data.

Categories: modeling, musing

Maybe I have an Irish mind

I’m only a quarter Irish but something about the way Conan O’Brien (love that guy!) describes “the Irish mind” in this 2012 speech to the University Philosophical Society at Trinity College Dublin makes me want to claim a full Irish heritage.

According to O’Brien, Irish minds cause people never follow rules, and not because they’re brave but because they are just not wired to do so. I can definitely relate to that. Hearing rules listed has always made me want to immediately rebel. Just a reaction I have.

Also, there’s the storytelling aspect to my personality, which I definitely inherited from my dad (who’s fully half Irish).

According to this personality trait, if you’ve had an experience, it doesn’t really count until you’ve told the story to a friend, or maybe 6 close friends, and then it doesn’t really get good until you’ve embellished it and generally perfected the story. Many of my actual experiences have been enhanced and even gone from pleasant to unpleasant (or vice versa) through this process.

And I’ve also done lots of crazy things just in anticipation of telling the story later. It’s a constant little Irish voice in my head urging me on with things like, “think of how awesome this story is gonna be!” and “especially after you embellish it!” I pretty much listen to that voice every time.

It’s not always pleasant having an Irish mind, especially for the people around me. My husband, who is Dutch, is much more literal and unembellished than I am. It took me about 15 years of our marriage to train him out of correcting me when I’d say something like “We waited in that line for 4 and a half hours!” and he’d say, “Actually it was more like 15 minutes.”

People, does that help the story? I think not. Therefore we do not do that.

Someday I gotta go back to the mother country and get really into the foggy alcoholic brew of it all. And I’m sure that those guys won’t mind me claiming my heritage once they see how I can knit a faux-traditional Irish fisherman sweater and play Irish jigs (really slowly) on my fiddle. I’ll come back with some incredible stories, I just know it.

Categories: musing

What’s the best narrative for revolution?

Yesterday at our weekly Alt Banking meeting we had an extraordinary speaker, Merlyna Lim, come talk to us about social media and grass roots organizing.

Her story was interesting and nuanced; I won’t get everything down here. But there were quite a few sound byte takeaways I can express.

  • The organizing which culminated in the Arab Spring started way before Facebook or Twitter came to the region.
  • To a large extent social media has replaced chatting in the cafe, which we don’t do anymore.
  • But that’s actually a good thing, since many regimes are so oppressive they won’t let large groups of people hold regular meetings (and large can mean 5 or more).
  • Whereas social media is pretty good at energizing people to “get rid of their enemy” at a given critical moment, and mobilize on the street, it’s not that great at nuanced discussions for how to build something permanent and lasting afterwards.

One other thing I wanted to mention was Merlyna’s work on Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who self-immolated after getting into a dispute with a police officer.

The original story that got people mobilized in Tunis and out on the street, was that the police officer was a woman, that she slapped him, and that he was a college educated street vendor. It turns out these were white lies – he never finished high school, the police officer may have been a man, and there was probably no slap – but they built a narrative that people really loved. Merlyna wrote a paper about this available here if you want to know more.

That brings us to the question of why this particular framing was so appealing. Merlyna put it this way: plenty of other people had self-immolated under similar circumstances in Tunisia in the past 6 months alone. But they didn’t start a revolution because they were just very poor and didn’t have this story with extra (made-up) humiliating details. Killing yourself because you are frustrated at not having enough to eat just isn’t as compelling.

It reminds me of this Bloomberg View piece I’ve been chewing on for a couple of week, written by Peter Turchin and entitled Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays. He studies conditions for revolution as well, and claims that having a large unemployed but highly educated population – the “lawyer glut” we’re seeing today – is asking for trouble. From his article:

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.

Food for thought. Does one have more sympathy for people whose foodstamps have been recently cut or for someone who got a law degree and can’t find a job? Or is the real outrage when both happen (or at least are said to happen)? Personally, and this is maybe because I’ve been reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, I’m not as worried about the lawyer.

Categories: #OWS, musing

What are Walmart’s wage incentives?

Suppose you have a employer – think Walmart – that has a ubiquitous presence nationally – think the United States. Is there ever a point, as that employer grows in size and employs more and more of the nation, that its agenda becomes aligned with the national agenda of prosperity and well-being?

That’s the interesting assumption behind a recent Guardian article called Walmart and Downton Abbey: rampant inequality and detachment from reality written by . From the article:

The best thing the top brass at Walmart could do to preserve their own privileged status would be to raise wages for their workers. A recent study by the progressive thinktank Demos illustrated that the company could afford to pay its workers an additional $5.83 an hour (pdf), enough to bring their wages just above the poverty level, simply by ending the company’s share-buyback program. This way prices could stay as they are but sales would increase as more workers would have more money to spend.

This comes up a lot in my Occupy group as well – the idea that raising wages would be good for low-wage companies like McDonalds and Walmart. The question I have is, is it true? (Aside to readers: if you’re aware of a paper that does this analysis, please tell me!) My guess is no.

Let’s put it this way. If I’m a small company then it’s pretty clear I don’t want to raise wages if I don’t have to. The lower the wages for my workers are, the more I get to keep or spend on other things. But as I grow in size, it might actually make sense, depending on context. If I employ 50% of the population, which is indeed an enormous number of people, then how much I pay them goes straight to the bottomline of how much they spend at my store. But again, it all depends on context.

And there’s and important bit of context going on here, which was beautifully explained recently by Bloomberg columnist Barry Ritholtz in his column entitled How McDonald’s and Wal-Mart Became Welfare Queens. From that article:

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private sector employer, is also the biggest consumer of taxpayer supported aid. According to Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, in many states, Wal-Mart employees are the largest group of Medicaid recipients. They are also the single biggest group of food stamp recipients. Wal-mart’s “associates” are paid so little, according to Grayson, that they receive $1,000 on average in public assistance. These amount to massive taxpayer subsidies for private companies.

My point is this. Given their welfare queen status, the agenda of Walmart and other huge low-wage employers is not actually aligned with the nation’s. As long as it can lower wages below poverty level, leaving Uncle Sam to make up some of the difference, and either pocket that difference or distribute them to their shareholders, they’ll continue to do so. The incentives are wrong.

And instead of appealing to their greed and telling them it’s in their best interest to raise wages, which I don’t believe is true (but I’d love to be wrong!), we need to raise political awareness about how the system actually works. And my guess is we should either raise the minimum wage - and then tie it to inflation - or establish a basic income guarantee.

Categories: musing

Today I’m thankful for the pope

I’m not religious but I think Pope Francis is an awesome and inspiring thinker and leader. And yes, I’ve invited him to join Occupy. Here’s an excerpt from his recent Apostolic Exhortation in case you haven’t seen it yet:

No to an economy of exclusion

53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

No to the new idolatry of money

55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

56. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

No to a financial system which rules rather than serves

57. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside of the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”.[55]

58. A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.

No to the inequality which spawns violence

59. Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future. We are far from the so-called “end of history”, since the conditions for a sustainable and peaceful development have not yet been adequately articulated and realized.

60. Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. This serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts. Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless. All this becomes even more exasperating for the marginalized in the light of the widespread and deeply rooted corruption found in many countries – in their governments, businesses and institutions – whatever the political ideology of their leaders.

Categories: musing

People don’t get fired enough

This might surprise some of you – or not, I’m not sure. But one of the most satisfying things about leaving academia and the tenure system and going into industry is how, at least in the ideal situation, you can get fired for not doing your job.

In fact, one of the reasons I decided to leave academia is that I really thought some of my colleagues weren’t doing right by the undergraduates, and the frustrating thing was that there was essentially no way to force them to start. Tenure has great aspects and not-so-great aspects, and a total lack of leverage is not a great one. I feel for deans sometimes.

Here’s the dirty little secret of lots of industry jobs, though: lots of time people also don’t get fired when they should. And sometimes it’s super awful bullies who yell and scream and act inappropriately but also pull in amazing sales numbers. There are things like that, of course. That’s the example of how they don’t abide by the alleged social contract but they perform on the bottomline. Social contracts are hard to quantify and somewhat squishy. You see people getting away with stuff because they’re rainmakers or higher ups.

But there are also plenty of examples of people just not doing their job, and having super awful attitudes, or even just completely apathetic attitudes, and for whatever reason they don’t get fired. This demoralizes and irritates and distracts everyone around them, because they all resent the free-rider.

Plus, retaining people who should by all accounts get fired makes the veneer of the kool-aid drinking camaraderie even more flimsy and scrutinizable – what’s so great about working here if people can just slack off and not care? Why do I give two shits about this project anyway? How does this project in the larger scheme of things? Maybe that scrutiny is a good thing – I engage in it myself – but you don’t want everyone thinking that all the time.

Here’s the thing, before you think I’m super vicious and mean to want people to get fired. These people I’m talking about are generally high skilled and temporarily depressed. They’re in the wrong job. And once fired, they will find another job, which will hopefully be a better one for them. I’m not saying that nobody will ever end up jobless and homeless, but very few, and moreover there are plenty of jobless and homeless people who would be psyched to do that job really well (putting aside how difficult it is for homeless people to get seriously considered for a job).

And I’m not saying you fire people out of the blue. You definitely need to tell people they’re not performing well (or that they are) and keep them in the feedback loop on whether things are working out. But in my experience people who deserve to get fired totally know it and can’t believe their luck that they’ve not been fired yet.

To conclude, I’m going on record saying I kind of agree with Jack Welch on this issue in a way I never thought I would.

Categories: musing, rant

Cathy’s Wager

I know you guys might be getting kind of exhausted from all the oversharing that’s been happening on mathbabe this week. I am too. But let me finish the phase with one piece of advice which I hope you find helpful.

I call it “Cathy’s Wager” (h/t Chris Wiggins) in reference to a much more famous and better idea called Pascal’s Wager. That, you may remember, is the argument that you might as well be a good person because there’s either a god, who cares, or there isn’t, in which case you haven’t lost all that much.

So here’s my version, and it refers to how other people treat you and how you react. I’ll assume most people treat you nicely most of the time, and then sometimes someone doesn’t treat you nicely. How do you react?

My theory is that you always assume it’s something they’re going through, and you try to never take it personally. Here are some examples.

  1. You’re friends with someone and all of a sudden they stop writing back to your emails. Assume they’re going through something, maybe a depression, maybe a break-up, maybe they just fell in love or moved jobs. It’s not about you and you shouldn’t take it personally. Consider writing to them and saying you’re there for them if they need a friend, or just do nothing and let them take their time, depending on how close a friend they are and how likely each of those scenarios is. Err on the side of compassion, not blame.
  2. You’re trying to set up a meeting with someone professionally and they never get back to you, or even worse, they don’t show up for the planned meeting and never explain why. First, always assume this has nothing to do with you. Maybe the got into a fight with their significant other, maybe they just got fired. You have no idea. But in order to avoid this from happening, do remember to confirm business meetings the day of, if it’s in the afternoon, or the afternoon before, if it’s in the morning, especially if the meeting was made more than a week in advance.
  3. You have what you think is an interesting if provocative conversation with someone and they never talk to you again, and you hear 2nd or 3rd hand (or both) that they hate your guts. Again, it’s not about you. There was some trigger in that conversation, and yes if you want to be sensitive you could try to go back over the conversation in your head and figure out what the heck happened. Do it once, but if you are convinced you meant no offense, then assume that person is going through something. They might even get over it and want to make up someday. Who knows, maybe part of what they like in life is getting offended and complaining. For example, maybe they take this article to heart entitled “The 14 Habits of Highly Miserable People.”
  4. Someone gets into your face and tells you you’re an awful person and are being mean to them for whatever reason. Not about you.

As I’m sure you can see, the assumption that “it’s not about me” is super useful and time-saving. I use it a lot, which means I don’t spend a lot of time second guessing myself or trying to change things that I can’t change about other people’s feelings. It’s kind of a selfish version of the Serenity Prayer, if you will, without all the religious stuff.

And this is not to say I don’t spend time trying to mend differences and reach out to my friends! I totally do! I just don’t feel personally affected if it doesn’t work. And I think that actually helps me do it more often in the end.

One caveat: the above examples work pretty well unless you are actually an awful person. I’m assuming you’re not. If you are actually a bad person, please don’t rely on Cathy’s Wager, thanks. Of course that begs the question of whether anyone actually thinks they’re awful, and if you go there, consider the idea that awful people are already using Cathy’s Wager, so you may as well too.

Categories: musing

The multiple arms races of the college system

I’m reading a fine book called Nobody Makes You Shop at Walmart, which dispels many of the myths surrounding market populism, otherwise described in the book as “MarketThink”, namely the rhetoric which “portrays the world (governments aside) as if it works like an ideal competitive market, even when proposing actions that contradict that portrayal,” according to the author Tom Slee.

I’ve gotten a lot out of this book, and I suggest that you guys read it, especially if you are libertarians, so we can argue about it afterwards.

One thing Slee does is distinguish between different kinds of competitive and power-dynamic systems, and fingers certain situations as “arms races”, in which there are escalating costs but no long-lasting added value for the participants. They often involve relative rankings.

Slee’s example is a neighborhood block where all the men on the block compete to have the nicest cars. Each household spends a bunch of money to rise in the rankings just to have others respond by spending money too, and at the end of a year they’ve all spent money and none of the rankings have actually changed.

One of Slee’s overall points about arms races is that the way to deal with them is through armament agreements, which everyone involved needs to sign onto. Later in the book he also talks about how hard it is to get large groups of people to agree to anything at all, especially vague social contracts, when there’s an advantage to cheating, something he calls “free riding.” (as a commenter pointed out to me, free riding is more like someone who gets something for nothing, like a worker who benefits from the work of a union without being in the union and paying dues. This is just cheating.)

I’d argue, and I believe the book even uses this example, that education can be seen as an arms race as well. Take the statistics in this Opinionator blog from the New York Times, written by Jonathan Cowan and Jim Kessler, and entitled “The Middle Class Gets Wise.”

It describes how much more money the average high school graduate, versus two-year college, versus four-year college, versus professional degree graduate makes. In other words, it describes the payoffs to being higher ranked in that system. The money is real, of course, and everyone is aware of it as an issue even if they don’t know the exact numbers, so it is very analogous to the car status thing.

Cowan and Kessler describe in their article how, in the face of recession, lots more people have gone to college. That makes sense, since many of them didn’t have jobs and wanted to make themselves employable in the future, and at the same time people knew the job climate was even more rank-oriented since it has become tighter. People responded, in other words, to the incentives.

There’s a feedback loop going on in colleges as well, of course, and paired with the federal loan program and the fact that students cannot get rid of student debt in bankruptcy, we’ve seen a predictable (in direction if not size) and dramatic increase in tuition and student debt load for the younger generation.

My reaction to this is: we need an armament agreement, but it’s really not clear how that’s going to all of a sudden appear or how it would work, considering the number of entities involved, and the free rider problems due to the cash money incentives everywhere.

From the point of view of employers, rankings are great and they can be sure to pick the highest ranked individuals from that system, even if that means – as it often does – having Ph.D. graduates working in mailrooms. So don’t expect any help from them to add sanity to this system.

From the point of view of the colleges, they’re getting to hire more and more administrators, which means growth, which they love.

Finally, from the point of view of the individual student, it makes sense to go into debt, with almost no limit (to a point, but people rarely do that calculation explicitly, and if they did there’d be intense bias) to get significantly higher in the ranking.

In other words, it’s a shitshow, and possibly the only real disruption that could improve it would be widespread and universally respected basic and free-ish education. At least that would solve some of the arms race problems, for employers and for students. It would not make colleges happy.

The authors of the Opinionator piece, Cowan and Kessler, don’t agree with me. They have a goal, which is for even more people to go to school, and for tuition to be somehow magically decreased as well. In other words, up the antes for one feedback loop and hope its partner feedback loop somehow relaxes. Here’s the way they describe it:

So what can we do? Anya Kamenetz, the author of “Generation Debt,” has put together some excellent ideas for Third Way, the centrist policy organization where we both work. Let’s start by reducing the number of college administrators per 100 students, which jumped by 40 percent between 1993 and 2007. We should demand a cease-fire to the perk wars in which colleges build ever-more-luxurious living, dining and recreational facilities. Blended learning, which uses online teaching tools together with professors and teaching assistants, could also help students master coursework at less cost.

There are 37 million Americans with some college experience, but no degree. So pegging government tuition aid to college graduation rates would entice schools to find ways of keeping students in class. And eliminating some of the offerings of rarely chosen majors could bring some market efficiencies now lacking in education.

That really just doesn’t seem like a viable plan to me, and pegging government money to graduation rates is really stupid, as I described here, but maybe I’m just being negative. Cowan and Kessler, please tell me how that “demand” is going to work in practice.

Also, what’s funny about their idealistic demand is that they also think of a couple other things to do but dismiss them as unrealistic:

The most commonly discussed solutions to the problem of income inequality seem unlikely to get to the heart of the problem. Yes, we could raise additional taxes on the wealthy, but we just did that. Bumping up the minimum wage would help, but how high would lawmakers allow it to go? We should look instead at what Americans are already doing to solve this problem and help them do it far more successfully and at less cost.

Am I the only one who thinks raising the minimum wage would help more to address income inequality and is easier to imagine working?

Categories: modeling, musing

Make Rich People Read Chekhov

There have been two articles in the New York Times very recently concerning empathy.

First, there was this Opinionator piece about how rich people have less empathy. Second, there was this Well blogpost which reports on a study that implies you can improve your empathy skills, at least in the short term, by reading literary fiction like Chekhov.

Empathy means understanding and sharing the feelings of other people. So what do these two columns actually refer to?

For rich people, it’s mostly about attention rather than empathy. The idea is that researchers study how people pay attention to people (answer: they pay attention to high status people more), and found that rich people don’t do it much at all. They claim attention is a prerequisite for empathy, and that there’s a negative feedback loop going on with the rich, a lack of empathy, and increasing inequality.

As for the literary fiction column, it cites a study in which what they measure is something a little bit different, namely the “theory of mind” of a person after reading Checkhov versus something else. The concept of the theory of mind is that we have internal models of other people’s mindset, and actually they claim to be able to separate this into two parts, cognitive and affective. So if I have a realistic impression of what you’re feeling, we say that my affective theory of mind is good, whereas if I have a realistic impression of how you’re planning to act, that’s called nailing a cognitive theory of mind.

A few comments:

  1. I’m not so sure about the attention-leads-to-empathy assumption. Sometimes I am on a subway and I start sensing people’s emotions around me whether I like it or not, even when I’m trying not to pay attention to them. For me empathy is like smell, and some people are incredibly smelly, especially on the subway.
  2. On the other hand it resonates with me that rich people have less empathy. Certainly this seemed to be the case when I worked at D.E. Shaw, although it might have been a self-selection thing: maybe people who are not empathetic are attracted to working at a hedge fund.
  3. In any case, there’s a tremendous disconnect between regular people and the attitude of finance people, along the lines of “I’m smarter than those people so I deserve to be rich”, and I ascribe much of this disconnect to a lack of empathy.
  4. In both of these columns, though, the question was how well do you pay attention to, and read, people in the same room with you. Unfortunately that’s not a good enough question, at least if you’re worried about that negative feedback loop, if you think about the real world. In the real world, even in New York, rich people don’t spend lots of time in the same room with anyone except other rich people. So it’s a bigger problem to address than what you might at first think.
  5. Having said that, I don’t claim that if everyone just had more empathy all our problems would be solved. Even so I do think it might help. Certainly my sensitivity to other people’s emotions deeply affects me and my actions and goals, but of course that’s too little evidence to go by.
  6. In any case it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine a world of increased empathy. I like that it’s being considered as a basic attribute of interest, and that it seems tweakable.
  7. Conclusion: before talking to someone I perceive as unempathetic, I will bust out a Checkov short story (this one) and demand they read it on the spot. That should really help.
Categories: finance, musing, news

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 888 other followers