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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

I think I understand the revolving door problem

I was reading this Bloomberg article about the internal risk models at JP Morgan versus Goldman Sachs, and it hit me: I too had an urge for the SEC to hire the insiders at Goldman Sachs to help them “understand risk” at every level. Why not hire a small team of Goldman Sachs experts to help the SEC combat bullshit like what happened with the London Whale?

After all, Goldman people know risk. They probably knew risk even better before 1999, when they went IPO and the partners stopped being personally liable for losses. But even now, of all the big players on the street, Goldman is known for being a few steps ahead of everyone else when it comes to a losing trade.

So it’s natural to want someone from deeply within that culture to come spread their technical risk wisdom to the other side, the regulators.

Unfortunately that’s never what actually happens. Instead of getting the technical knowledge of how to think about risk, how to model a portfolio to squirrel out black holes of mystery, the revolving door instead keeps outputting crazy freaks like Jon Corzine, who blow up firms through, ironically, taking ridiculous risks at the first opportunity.

So, why does this happen? Some possibilities:

  1. Goldman Sachs promotes crazy freaks because they make great leaders while constrained inside a disciplined culture of calculated risks, but when they get outside they go nuts. This is kind of the model of Mormon children who are finally allowed out into the world and engage in tons of sex and drugs.
  2. On the flip side, perhaps Goldman Sachs keeps the people who actually understand the technical part of risk very deep in the machine and these guys never get leave the building at all.
  3. Or maybe, people who understand risk sometimes do go through the revolving door, but they don’t share their knowledge with the other side, because their incentives have changed once they’re outside.
  4. In other words, they don’t help the regulators understand how banks lie and cheat to regulators, because they’re too busy watering down regulation so their buddies can continuously lie and cheat to regulators.

Whatever the case, for whatever reason we keep using the revolving door in hopes that someone will eventually tell us the magic that Goldman Sachs knows, but we never quite get anyone like that, and that means the the SEC and other regulators are woefully unprepared for the kind of tricks that banks have up their sleeves.

Categories: finance, modeling, musing

New Essay, On Being a Data Skeptic, now out

It is available here and is based on a related essay written by Susan Webber entitled “Management’s Great Addiction: It’s time we recognized that we just can’t measure everything.” It is being published by O’Reilly as an e-book.

No, I don’t know who that woman is looking skeptical on the cover. I wish they’d asked me for a picture of a skeptical person, I think my 11-year-old son would’ve done a better job.

Categories: data science, modeling, musing

Sunday morning reading

September 29, 2013 3 comments

I wanted to share with you guys a few things I’ve been interested in this weekend.

First, this TED talk which for whatever reason never made it onto the TED main website. It’s by Nick Hanauer, and in it he dispels some common economic myths, much like Chapter 7 of Occupy Finance. A juicy quote: “So when businesspeople take credit for creating jobs, it’s a little like squirrels taking credit for creating evolution. In fact, it’s the other way around.”

Next, it turns out women are way better than men at orgasms, at least those where you do it all in your head – a “think off”. A full 2% of women can fantasize their way to climax (compared to, I guess, way fewer men) and there’s even training for this skill. Two questions from the mathbabe. First, do wet dreams count? Because if they do I think we’ll have to recount. Second, say I invest my time in this, and get really good at it, since it’s all hands-free and such and will make my life that much more efficient. Is this something that takes a lot of time? Can I do it whilst carrying groceries home, or whilst cooking dinner? On the subway? Between stops? Details please.onetrain

Next, here’s an important discussion of why junior people get criminally prosecuted – in this case, for the debacle that was the JP Morgan London Whale case – while the big bosses just get vaguely complained about in a civil case, and the shareholders end up paying huge fines for their misbehavior. Last two lines: “Yet it remains disquieting when the same actions result in criminal charges for some but only a civil case for others, and no individuals are held responsible for misconduct at a company. In the end, we are left to trust that prosecutors have made good decisions.” There’s no recourse for bad prosecuting either. How do we even protest bad prosecuting?

Next, I’ve been listening to some seriously catchy and funny tunes my boys turned me on to. What makes me old is how long it takes me to catch on to stuff, since I heard this one years ago, but it seems that everything that these guys touch is hilarious. Especially this one (also see “I Just Had Sex” and “Jack Sparrow“):

Finally, I’m really into knitting recently, and I recently figured out how to knit this pattern even though you’d have to pay big bucks to get the official pattern. Email me if you’re interested in the bootleg version.

Not mine - I stole this picture. I am still working on mine.

Not mine – I stole this picture. I am still working on mine.

Categories: musing, news

Are you cliterate?

September 24, 2013 1 comment

Not much time this morning for blogging, but I wanted everyone to get a chance to read this amazing Huffington Post article about learning more than you ever thought possible about the female sexual organ, and then celebrating that knowledge in style.

The article is actually more inspiring than you’d think, and I found myself weeping with joy at times. I’m an easy cry, but still.

Plus, any article that has this picture is worth reading:

SOLID-GOLD-CLIT

Categories: musing, news

Movie Review: Network

September 13, 2013 12 comments

I watched Network last night on the advice of my friends in Occupy. More like insistence than advice, actually: they claimed I absolutely needed to see it, that it would blow me away with its prescience and wisdom.

Turns out they were absolutely right.

Here’s the thing, though. Given that Network was released in 1977, I’m hesitant to even suggest to young people today (defined as: younger than me) that they watch it because they it’s so true, its predictions are so spot-on accurate, that anyone who wasn’t alive in 1977 might not – probably cannot – appreciate how incredible it must have seemed back then. It might even seem boring to someone who is used to a world of Fox News and the internet’s filter bubble.

Then again, that’s not entirely true. It’s not just an amazing prediction about what TV and society would turn into. The other strength of the movie is that it keeps changing, in a mostly painful but sometimes hilarious way, from scene to scene, subplot to subplot, and that keeps it from being about just one idea or just one person.

A particularly powerful scene of a jilted wife really got to me, and even though the movie isn’t particularly about that relationship, the movie manages to make it work.

And the most ridiculous scene, which involves two revolutionary groups reading over a contract with a crowd of network lawyers, might also be the most convincingly depressing: we might have our own particular emotional and political issues and rebellions, but we are all cowed by the power of money.

If you wanted to force Network to be about one thing in particular, it would have to be an argument concerning the role of the individual in the modern world. Here’s the protagonist, Howard Beale, preaching to his television audience from this YouTube clip of Network:

… when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this tube?

So, listen to me! Television is not the truth!  Television is a goddamned amusement park, that’s what television is! Television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats and story-tellers, singers and dancers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion-tamers and football players.  We’re in the boredom-killing business!

If you want truth, go to God, go to your guru, go to yourself because that’s the only place you’ll ever find any real truth!  But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us.

We’ll tell you anything you want to hear.  We lie like hell! We’ll tell you Kojack always gets the killer, and nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker’s house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry:  just look at your watch — at the end of the hour, he’s going to win.  We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear!

We deal in illusion, man! None of it’s true! But you people sit there — all of you — day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds — we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe this illusion we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal.

You do whatever the tube tells you.  You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs!

In God’s name, you people are the real thing!  We’re the illusions!  So turn off this goddam set! Turn it off right now!  Turn it off and leave it off.  Turn it off right now, right in the middle of this very sentence I’m speaking now.”

After a while, the head of the news corporation decides he’s had enough of Beale’s message and decides to give him the corporation’s perspective on the discussion. From this YouTube clip:

You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy.

There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They pull out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale.  The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.

The world is a business, Mr. Beale!

It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.  And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale.

What’s incredible about Network is that, until possibly the last 2 minutes, none of it seems particularly unrealistic. It’s satire that rings so true that it manages to avoid the standard skeptical or baffled response. And although it is not uplifting, Network is incredibly thought-provoking and current.

Finally, the movie also has some show-biz advice for anyone trying to communicate a message. Namely, being consistently depressing and apocalyptic gets old, even if there’s an element of truth to it. It’s critical to balance that with hope about the power of individual action, sprinkled with outrage and impulsive energy.

Categories: musing

Sunday morning musing: is sexism an addiction?

I’ve been reading articles about cultures of sexism at Harvard Business School and in philosophy, both articles published in the New York Times this past week. The two of them have gotten me to speculate about the different ways that men and women experience sexist behavior.

Namely, very differently. Women, being the targets of sexist remarks and behavior, are sensitive to its barbaric nature and status-oriented putdowns – they are aware of it because it so obviously stings. Men – some men, not all – consistently seem baffled by all the fuss, and if they acknowledge the behavior, it is, in their opinion, more like having fun than being mean.

“Why would people want me to stop having fun?” they ask.

It makes me wonder if sexism is addictive. Let me explain my Sunday morning theory.

Assume that, when men perform an act of sexism, they get rewarded in their pleasure center similar to when someone takes a street drug or has sex.

So for example, say some male Harvard Business School (HBS) student encounters a female HBS colleague who is a potential competitor. To establish his dominance, he puts her down publicly on the basis of her looks. As mentioned in the article, the HBS population is obsessed with status, and this is a standard way of keeping her status low and simultaneously making her anxious and distracted.

My question is, what happens inside that man’s brain when he does that? For that matter, what happens to the brains of the other men in that group who witness that? My theory is that they all experience a kind of pleasure center stimulation, whereby their entire group is nudged up in rank over some “other,” which happens to be that woman. In some sense it’s kind of irrelevant who they put down in order to be rewarded, though, which is why they don’t think of what they did as a bad thing, just something that they vaguely enjoyed.

Go back to how differently the men and women describe their experiences after the fact of sexist environments. Men consistently don’t remember it as a negative event. From the article about sexism in philosophy:

I’m always hearing from stressed-out men, worrying aloud what “all this fuss” about sexual harassment means for them. I’ve heard it at training sessions on university sexual harassment policy: “Does this mean I can’t even tell a woman that she looks nice?” I’ve heard it in coffee lounges: “Make sure you keep your door open when you’re talking to a woman student — you never know what she might say later.” And I’ve had it confided to me, with a sigh of regret, at conference happy hours: “I’m afraid now to form any relationships with female students — they might take it the wrong way.”

I don’t think men are lying. I think they actually experience sexist events as positive and benign.

It also makes sense how men react when sexism is addressed by the higher authorities in the form of sensitivity training. When men are forced into a room to talk about sexism and norms of appropriate behavior, they’re super uncomfortable and don’t seem to know why they’re there (again, not all men). They for whatever reason don’t think discussions about sexism apply to them, like it’s a women’s issue.

On the other hand, as we saw in the HBS article, forcing men to talk about it at length does seem to actually help, in spite of their protests. The article focuses on women’s behavior, I think overly much, but it’s just as much about men as it is about women. True, women undermine themselves by competing with each other to be perfect and sexy and brilliant (but not too brilliant), etc., but really it’s about getting them men to stop with their nonsense, right?

And what might be happening is that, along with the positive feedback which stimulates the pleasure center, through this training they might also be developing a second, negative feedback around sexist comments, which would mean that eventually, if that second feedback grew strong enough, it would no longer feel so good to be sexist.

I mean, how do you break someone of their addictive habits? I guess you could destroy the pleasure center altogether, but that seems extreme except for the really most annoying HBS folks. Probably what you’d want to do is counteract the effect with an opposing effect. Thus sensitivity training.

Of course, this theory applies equally well to other forms of discrimination. And it’s not obvious how to address it even if it’s true. But at least, if we thought about it this way, it would throw light on the baffling disconnect whereby such problems are glaringly obvious to some while remaining utterly invisible to others.

Categories: musing, news

Experimentation in education – still a long way to go

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a piece by Gina Kolata on randomized experiments in education. Namely, they’ve started to use randomized experiments like they do in medical trials. Here’s what’s going on:

… a little-known office in the Education Department is starting to get some real data, using a method that has transformed medicine: the randomized clinical trial, in which groups of subjects are randomly assigned to get either an experimental therapy, the standard therapy, a placebo or nothing.

They have preliminary results:

The findings could be transformative, researchers say. For example, one conclusion from the new research is that the choice of instructional materials — textbooks, curriculum guides, homework, quizzes — can affect achievement as profoundly as teachers themselves; a poor choice of materials is at least as bad as a terrible teacher, and a good choice can help offset a bad teacher’s deficiencies.

So far, the office — the Institute of Education Sciences — has supported 175 randomized studies. Some have already concluded; among the findings are that one popular math textbook was demonstrably superior to three competitors, and that a highly touted computer-aided math-instruction program had no effect on how much students learned.

Other studies are under way. Cognitive psychology researchers, for instance, are assessing an experimental math curriculum in Tampa, Fla.

If you go to any of the above links, you’ll see that the metric of success is consistently defined as a standardized test score. That’s the only gauge of improvement. So any “progress” that’s made is by definition measured by such a test.

In other words, if we optimize to this system, we will optimize for textbooks which raise standardized test scores. If it doesn’t improve kids’ test scores, it might as well not be in the book. In fact it will probably “waste time” with respect to raising scores, so there will effectively be a penalty for, say, fun puzzles, or understanding why things are true, or learning to write.

Now, if scores are all we cared about, this could and should be considered progress. Certainly Gina Kolata, the NYTimes journalist, didn’t mention that we might not care only about this – she recorded it as unfettered good, as she was expected to by the Education Department, no doubt. But, as a data scientist who gets paid to think about the feedback loops and side effects of choices like “metrics of success,” I have a problem with it.

I don’t have a thing against randomized tests – using them is a good idea, and will maybe even quiet some noise around all the different curriculums, online and in person. I do think, though, that we need to have more ways of evaluating an educational experience than a test score.

After all, if I take a pill once a day to prevent a disease, then what I care about is whether I get the disease, not which pill I took or what color it was. Medicine is a very outcome- focused discipline in a way that education is not. Of course, there are exceptions, say when the treatment has strong and negative side-effects, and the overall effect is net negative. Kind of like when the teacher raises his or her kids’ scores but also causes them to lose interest in learning.

If we go the way of the randomized trial, why not give the students some self-assessments and review capabilities of their text and their teacher (which is not to say teacher evaluations give clean data, because we know from experience they don’t)? Why not ask the students how they liked the book and how much they care about learning? Why not track the students’ attitudes, self-assessment, and goals for a subject for a few years, since we know longer-term effects are sometimes more important that immediate test score changes?

In other words, I’m calling for collecting more and better data beyond one-dimensional test scores. If you think about it, teenagers get treated better by their cell phone companies or Netflix than by their schools.

I know what you’re thinking – that students are all lazy and would all complain about anyone or anything that gave them extra work. My experience is that kids actually aren’t like this, know the difference between rote work and real learning, and love the learning part.

Another complaint I hear coming – long-term studies take too long and are too expensive. But ultimately these things do matter in the long term, and as we’ve seen in medicine, skimping on experiments often leads to bigger and more expensive problems. Plus, we’re not going to improve education overnight.

And by the way, if and/or when we do this, we need to implement strict privacy policies for the students’ answers – you don’t want a 7-year-old’s attitude about math held against him when he of she applies to college.

 

Entrepreneurship versus the state

I really like this Slate article written by  and entitled It’s a Myth That Entrepreneurs Drive New Technology.

In it she makes the point that lobbyists for tech companies have overemphasized the role of the entrepreneur in our nation’s technological advances, and likewise underemphasized the role of the state. From the article:

Whether an innovation will be a success is uncertain, and it can take longer than traditional banks or venture capitalists are willing to wait. In countries such as the United States, China, Singapore, and Denmark, the state has provided the kind of patient and long-term finance new technologies need to get off the ground. Investments of this kind have often been driven by big missions, from putting a human on the moon to solving climate change. This has required not only funding basic research—the typical “public good” that most economists admit needs state help—but applied research and seed funding too.

One of her examples was the internet itself, which brings me back – my mom was involved with that project.

Some of my earliest memories are going with my mom to fix something at BBN where she had superuser access on the internet back when it was populated by very few people – the president and some army generals. And no, she didn’t have any kind of clearance, they didn’t think very hard about computer security back then, but on the other hand my mom is scrupulously honest and would never read anyone else’s mail. And it was all done through DARPA or other Department of Defense funding. 

Funny story. When I was little, my mom was in charge (with some other people, on a rotation) of keeping the internet running, which she would refer to as “being on call”. She’d leave, sometimes in the middle of the night, to get these massive computers booted back up. I’d go with her if nobody else was around to watch me, and I remember she’d sometimes get underneath these massive metal boxes, and I’d just see her feet sticking out at the bottom, not unlike a mechanic under a car at a garage.

Anyway, the story is that one time she was on call on Christmas Eve and got called in on an emergency, and in my stocking the next morning I got “IOU” notes. That makes for a pretty crappy Christmas morning when you’re 8! My personal sacrifice for the internet.

Going back to the “state vs. entrepreneur” debate. One thing Mazzucato didn’t mention, but that I will, is the issue of waste. People talk all the time about how wasteful the state is – how there are too many people, and they don’t do much, and they never get fired – but they don’t appreciate how very wasteful the world of start-ups is. Most new companies fail entirely and never do anything at all constructive. I personally have seen hundreds of people working on projects for years in the realm of “entrepreneurs” that everyone knows will do nothing. Talk about waste!

Next, let’s go to why this all happens. It’s all about taxes. From the article:

In this era of obsession with reducing public debt—and the size of the state more generally—it is vital to dispel the myth that the public sector will be less innovative than the private sector. Otherwise, the state’s ability to continue to play its enterprising role will be weakened. Stories about how progress is led by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have aided lobbyists for the U.S. venture capital industry in negotiating lower capital gains and corporate income taxes—hurting the ability of the state to refill its innovation fund.

Totally agreed. It’s a beautiful story aimed at confusing people about whether Apple or Google or GE should pay any taxes at all.

But here’s where I don’t follow her, when she suggests a possible solution:

It is time for the state to get something back for its investments. How? First, this requires an admission that the state does more than just fix market failures—the usual way economists justify state spending. The state has shaped and created markets and, in doing so, taken on great risks. Second, we must ask where the reward is for such risk-taking and admit that it is no longer coming from the tax systems. Third, we must think creatively about how that reward can come back.

There are many ways for this to happen. The repayment of some loans for students depends on income, so why not do this for companies? When Google’s future owners received a grant from the NSF, the contract should have said: If and when the beneficiaries of the grant make $X billion, a contribution will be made back to the NSF.

It’s not that I don’t like the idea in principle. But a problem with the corporation/ people debate is that one critical way that corporations are not like people is in terms of long-term liability. People work at corporations, and when it’s convenient for them, they leave and go somewhere else or start a new company (whereas it’s harder to change bodies). That makes sense in many situations, but it wouldn’t be consistent with her tax-me-when-you-get-rich plan.

In other words, say I form a company that gets NSF funding, comes up with something brilliant, and starts to make huge profits. Then, in order to avoid losing any of my hard-earned dough, I dissolve my company, fire most of the workers, and then start up a new company that doesn’t owe anything to the NSF. I can’t see how this doesn’t happen, and I can’t see how the NSF fights back against it. Lawyers, please explain why I’m wrong.

Personally, I think the real solution is to stop listening to lobbyists and raise taxes, or at the very least make the tax rates effective rather than nominal.

Categories: musing

When to go on the record with email at work

I hear lots of people, mostly young, saying they’re not going to say something by email, as a default condition, in order to avoid documenting something awkward. If it’s controversial or if the subject makes them at all uncomfortable, they’re prone to trying to have that conversation by phone or in person. They avoid email.

I get that. After all, in this age of digital records, nothing ever goes away. If they’re going to say something they don’t want to be held to, then it’s only natural they’d not want to do it in a permanent way. On the other hand, if you’re saying something you want other people held to, that’s another story.

More than half the time, when I’m witness to this issue, I’ve noticed it’s actually the wrong decision, and it ends up protecting the wrong person’s interest. People should realize that documenting sensitive issues is often just as important, and often to your advantage, as not documenting sensitive issues. It also clarifies things and avoids prolonged misunderstandings.

Two made-up examples to demonstrate how to use email.

So, say you feel like your contributions to a long-term project are being ignored, and other people are starting to jockey for credit for your work. Here’s my advice. Write an email to everyone in the project and mention that you’ve done A, B, and C, and are planning to work on D. Don’t complain or whine about how much work you’ve done, but mention specifics, along with the number of hours you’re putting in.

It might seem slightly weird, but feel free to make some excuse for it like you “just want to check in and see where people are on the project or something, since there hasn’t been much of a formal effort to keep track of stuff”, and invite other people to also document their work. Force clarity. It’s good for you, not bad, to have clarity. If people don’t want to give you credit for something, they’ll have to write back and explain themselves, which is unlikely.

Second example, the opposite of the first. Say someone has written an email which documents something which you don’t agree with that involves you. Say, for example, that someone writes to a group of people saying they agreed with you on such-and-such a deal (“Cathy has agreed to work on A”), which didn’t actually happen.

Instead of going to talk to that person, just write back to the entire group saying what the actual deal is (“Actually, there’s been a misunderstanding, and I am not planning to work on A”). You should clarify quickly and often, because you need to realize that other people use email as a way of documenting stuff too. If you ignore that email, people will assume you actually did agree to that.

I don’t want to sound like a lawsuit waiting to happen – I’ve never actually been involved in a lawsuit. But by thoughtfully documenting stuff before it becomes an issue I definitely think I’ve consistently avoided problems becoming worse, especially problems related setting expectations.

Finally, if someone has done something really inappropriate, like sexual misconduct or harassment or something, document it, even just to yourself. Send yourself an email saying exactly what happened, like a journal entry. You might need that documentation later, and now you have an exact timestamp on how things went down.

Categories: musing

I don’t want you to be happy

I was giving unwanted advice to my friend the other day, complaining to him about how he’s this absolutely fantastic, wonderful young person – all true – and he’s wasting his time feeling like he’s wasting his time.

Look, he’s obsessed over time. He’s always complaining about being late, or being too slow, or being rushed, and he never thinks he has time to do anything. He’s too old to embark on something.

He’s on tenure track, so that might be part of the problem, but on the other hand he’s gonna get tenure, even he admits that, so not really.

I was telling him to stop worrying about time and just enjoy being awesome. Here I am, quite a few years older, and I’m not at all rushed when it comes to accomplishment. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and many of my favorite role models are women who change their careers at the age of 75, become potters or writers or poets or what have you. I don’t think I’ll ever need to feel like it’s too late to do something I really want to do. If I’m still alive there’s still time.

“Anyway,” I end my speech, “I’m just saying this because I want you to be happy.”

“Happy?” he says, “please don’t say that. You don’t actually want me to be happy. Come on, you can do better than that.”

And that’s when it hit me. I don’t want him to be happy. I just want him to have better suffering. Instead of suffering about the amount of time he has to do things, which is a self-produced drama, I want him to strive for goals and accomplishments without the noise of crappy I’m-too-late suffering.

I want him to have meaningful suffering, not happiness.

I mean, it depends on what you mean by happiness, but in that conversation he made me realize that wishing happiness on someone is a pretty bland goal. Maybe even an unkind goal.

In fact, it’s the goal I say I wish for my kids when I really hope they’re safe. I’m not so sure “happy” is all that different from “doesn’t get involved in the world too much, stays out of trouble, and is safe”. If you don’t believe me, check out this guy (hat tip Chris Wiggins), whose stated goal is to be happy but whose practice is to ignore all things that interrupt his world view and to make silly lists.

Example from my life. If a friend of mine got his college savings, bought an apartment in Paris, and spent his days combing the catacombs of Paris, I’d want to hang out with that guy. If my son did the same thing, I’d want to convince him not to do it, and to go to college instead. After all, I’d argue, it’s for his own good, he should get an education. I’d tell him I was urging this because I want him to be happy.

Two conclusions.

First, as a parent I’ll strive to spend less time protecting my children from harm and more time letting them seek their own adventures. I want more for them, frankly, than that they’re happy/safe.

Second, I want to start urging my friends to find meaningful suffering. Strive for something and be temporarily miserable when you don’t get it. Hate the world enough to never be satisfied with how shitty things are, love the world enough to stay engaged with it anyway.

Categories: musing
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