Traditionalism and Social Security

Matt isn’t satisfied with my response. He wants a substantive example—Social Security. Can a traditionalist support it or must they oppose it? And why?

What I’ve been trying to say (not very well apparently) is that my position is pluralist and pragmatist. I have substantive positions, and I haven’t tried to hide this fact. The fact that I draw on more than one little framework in the employ of my larger one is not cynical, it’s part of the framework which I have talked about openly. Traditionalism simply characterizes aspects of my position. The first aspect I discussed is simply meta-ethics; we’re all traditionalists in practice in that our ideas have a long history before they got to us and we could add our judgment to them. The third aspect is the one that Matt seems to chafe at; the idea that sometimes some communities are able to work things out among themselves without either the use or the threat of force.

The second aspect is the only one that’s of any use to me in answering Matt’s question about Social Security. That is a respect for what has lasted.

Ah, Matt says, but Social Security has been around since 1935! And apparently non-traditionalists believe that 79 years is a really long time for a policy to have lasted, so he thinks he’s got something here, as far as a challenging proposition for traditionalists goes. Of course, 79 years isn’t much longer than the entire life of the Soviet Union, an entirely ahistorical experiment in government that collapsed under its own weight in the end. I don’t mean to compare the two in substance, I’m simply interested in time horizons; to Matt the reformer 79 must appear an eternity.  To me, it tells me that Social Security is not as fragile as your typical American policy, but it’s still highly untested by time.

And let’s not forget that we’ve had to raise retirement age, increase taxes, and lower benefits before. The main problem that I see with Social Security is that it was designed to work for a specific demographic situation, and demographics fluctuate over time. “The test of time” is not just a cute phrase, it means that something has managed to survive a wide variety of scenarios and come out more or less intact. It’s no secret that Social Security is being increasingly squeezed by our aging population; the older our demographic distribution skews the more the math of Social Security simply does not add up.

Of course we can continue to increase taxes and lower benefits and move the retirement age for a while, but not for forever. Eventually you’ll have to be 200 years old and only get a dollar a year, in nominal future dollar terms.

Matt seems to think that the widespread popularity of Social Security binds me as a traditionalist to support it. But that’s just due to a persistent misunderstanding of his as to how I arrive at my substantive beliefs, as I explained at the beginning of this piece and in the previous piece.

I hope this post has answered Matt’s question to his satisfaction.

The Three Sides of Traditionalism

Back in December I began what has been a long and fruitful conversation with Matt Bruenig. I reached out to ask him a few questions in order to do justice to his assertion that the economy is a government program so that I might criticize it. Matt was kind enough to review my drafts to make sure I didn’t mischaracterize him and thus beat up on a strawman. Good thing, too—my first draft was way off the mark. I wrote about how he was a blank slate style rationalist, who just wanted to sweep away everything merely historical and build up society anew from a purely rational blueprint. Matt looked it over and said, essentially, “I have never said that and I don’t believe it.”

So I scrapped the entire piece (well, some of it was jettisoned to turn into this post) and I’m glad that I did. The resulting piece accurately represented Matt’s views, and the challenge of criticizing his actual views instead of the cartoon version I had assumed he believed was very rewarding.

Sadly, it is a cartoon version of my arguments that Matt criticizes in this post responding to my piece I have up at the Ümlaut today.

A phrase that Matt uses repeatedly in his piece to characterize my position is “I support deferring to status quo norms.” I’m afraid I’m going to have to paraphrase what Matt said to me back in December—I never have said that people should “defer to status quo norms” and that is not what I believe in.

The very framing of it is incoherent, in precisely the ways that Matt explores in his piece. As he puts it:

If everyone formed their views by deferring to the views of others (who were also in this example forming their views by deferring to the views of others), nobody could ever form any substantive views.

How true. Good thing that isn’t my position!

My position is in fact entirely consistent with self-conscious criticism of existing norms and institutions. I detail this at length here.

There are roughly three facets of my position that could be characterized as “traditionalist”. First, none of us arrive at ideas, beliefs, or habits of behavior from nowhere. All of us are brought up by parents, among family and peers, in a particular community (or communities, if you traveled in your childhood). This upbringing and the cultural artifacts (novels, poetry, movies, philosophy, whatever) we interface with form the foundation of our beliefs, habits, and articulated arguments. Given that this was Aristotle’s position with regard to moral philosophy in the Nicomachean Ethics, it’s hardly an irrationalist idea.

Second: stable, reliable practices and institutions are hard to come by. It can seem all too easy to find fault with what exists, but if it has sufficient provenance it has usually survived for a reason. That doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize. It does mean that we should be cautious about what we do away with and what we change in any drastic way. When criticizing a trio of neoreactionary thinkers, I made the point that the US has never really worried about a military coup. It seemed to me that the parts of America’s culture they wanted to do away with had a lot to do with just why we’re able to take it for granted that our military will remain comfortably under the control of a civilian government, and not the other way around.

In short, institutions and norms and culture are intertwined in ways that are not crystal clear. Going in there and trying to fix it as though it were a car and we mechanics seems, to me, to be asking for trouble. This is precisely what I accused Matt of doing to a big, dramatic extent in the first draft of my criticism of him. It’s also, incidentally, why I don’t think that things like food stamps are quite so huge a deal as some libertarians might. In fact, from what I gathered they have actually been quite effective at helping people who could use it and also quite cheap in terms of tax funding, and (importantly) they’ve been around for a while (though not by historic standards). Cutting them was thus unconscionable—if I haven’t spoken out against it, it is because there are plenty of things coming out from the capitol building that I find unconscionable.

Finally, there is a thick layer of ground level knowhow that is largely inaccessible to the theorist, and which is what really keeps human social systems going. Sam tried to give an example of this but Matt didn’t seem to really get it:

I don’t think that Sam was trying to say that divining this sort of thing is how we should determine policy, necessarily. What I think he meant, and what I believe, is that this sort of thing actually allows a lot of people to get along on their own most of the time, without the use or threat or implication of force in the background. And I think that where that is true, we should let it happen, rather than attempt to impose a theoretically designed structure upon it. I know that Matt believes this happens sometimes because he describes it eloquently here. It’s clear that he believes it is a far more limited thing than I do, and that’s OK. That’s a disagreement I’m happy to continue to have discussions around in our ongoing conversation moving forward.

If I didn’t sufficiently engage with Matt’s specific criticisms here, I apologize. It just seems to me that he has so misunderstood my position that his specific points were, for the most part, entirely irrelevant.

Technically Correct

David points me to this review of William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts. The review summarizes the book and its castigations of “development experts” like Jeffrey Sachs trying to lift up poor nations with hydro dams and fertilizer plants. “It won’t work! It hasn’t worked! It can’t work! You have to give the poor rights first.” he cries.

What seems interesting to me is that Easterly decries the tyranny of experts, while also claiming superior expertise on what makes an economy develop. After all, Easterly isn’t saying that Jeffrey Sachs and the like cannot proscribe a method for developing an economy; he’s saying “You’re using the wrong method!”.

Personally I’m on Easterly’s side in this debate. The legal rights of the poor are a key and often overlooked ingredient in development success. Hernando de Soto has done great work on showing how formalizing property ownership and legal title systems, and then giving the poor access to capital markets through mortgages on their land, is a real multiplier for economic development. The poor need those legal titles, and then the rights to enforce them and borrow against them, to help themselves out of their poverty. Even in developed economies many new businesses are formed with capital borrowed from a family home, and Peru and Indonesia are no different in that respect.

And I might even go further. There has been good research on how family structure plays a role in economic development, and how the difference between England and the Netherlands (nuclear families living apart with distinct ownership rights) and Eastern Europe (multigeneration families with common ownership of farms and businesses) caused the Great Enrichment to start in Europe’s Northwest instead of its East or South. Why not include family law into the bundle of reforms that a developing economy needs?

And even further, because this is Sweet Talk, let us not forget the role of individual virtue. Throughout history men and women have claimed to have honor and to live by a strict code, but most of these codes did not result in the Great Enrichment. The virtues of Love, Faith, Hope, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage are not only unique in their combination but also in their interpretation. What constitutes “Justice” varies in particular from one culture to the next, and any culture that considers economic outcomes to be a greater Justice than equality in opportunity will not rise to join the wealthy nations of the world. After all, China did not start to rise from its slump until Deng said “Let some people become rich first.”

So what would my ideal development plan look like? It would replace the local law with the English common law, and send promising students to Common Law nations to study it. It would create a “Sesame St” curriculum to instill Bourgeois Virtues among the youth via TV and other media channels. It would make a point of promulgating a sense of what Justice “is” and what it looks like among the people. It would focus like a laser on the rights of the poor and their actual and effective access to the institutions that protect those rights (using methods that de Soto has been a leader in, such as measuring the number of days required to open a business, title land, or resolve a case). It would then keep taxes low and sit back to let the people figure out where to go from there.

But see? I am offering my expertise. I claim no expertise at whether Niger should build a hydro dam or a coal plant, or what crops they should grow and which fertilizers to use. Locals have much more useful information than I on those topics, and what they lack they can learn on Wikipedia or by conversing with experts in foreign countries at the local Internet cafe. Cell phones can tell them the prices of fish in six different markets, letting them plan their businesses better than I ever could. My expertise isn’t in planning, but in setting up conditions so that others may most effectively plan.

Jeffrey Sachs’ problem isn’t that he’s a tyrannical expert, it’s that he’s a well spoken non-expert. He doesn’t actually know how development happens. (And neither do I, 100%, but I’m fairly confident I know more than Sachs). Sachs is technically correct that expertise is needed, it’s just that the expertise needed isn’t the expertise he has. Easterly’s book would be better titled The Tyranny of Over-Confident Ignoramuses


Excess Kurtosis of Unusual Size? I don’t believe it exists.

The Princess Bride, like many fairy tales of its ilk, relies on a narrative built from dashed expectations. Buttercup expects Westley to return, Inigo expects revenge, Vizzini expects normal humans to be unable to scale the Cliffs of Insanity, &c &c. The classical heroic tropes are interesting because they exceed ordinary human probability distributions. 

There’s no swashbuckling in the 95% interval.

Each of Westley’s achievements, from charming the Dread Pirate Roberts, to tailing Vizzini in thick fog, to scaling the cliffs, to besting a fencer who’s trained his entire adult life, to choking out Andre the Giant, to outwitting a Sicilian when death is on the line speaks of a character who lives in the fat tails of his distributions. Even when he’s recently recovered from being mostly dead, The Man in Black sweet talks Humperdink into surrender without raising anything apart from the tone of his voice.

The hero triumphs because he was underestimated. Vizzini found his actions “inconceivable” because models are more tractable when they employ normal distributions. Inigo’s model, one based on heuristics and experience brought by many years of practical training, was perhaps less precise, but certainly more accurate. Acknowledging uncertainty, acknowledging non-ergodicty grants robustness, flexibility, and wu-wei (to borrow a quip from Drew) to your model of the world. The death of Vizzini is a metaphor for the perils of hubris.

At EE today, I asked if exchange with a robot could be euvoluntary. In a world governed by normal probability distributions, the future of automation looks scary indeed. It’s very difficult to imagine what people might do with their time once robots have pushed us out of meaningful employment. But I have a hunch that if you’d have asked 14th c. farmers the same question about the development of the thresher or the gas-powered tractor or the combine, they’d have been equally at loggerheads to imagine a world of word processors and dubstep. Just because we can’t imagine life in the long tails doesn’t imply that such life doesn’t exist.

Don’t be Vizzini. Let your father’s sword guide you.

Spontaneous Order at the Corner of Seymour and Niagara Streets

You traverse a bridge over the Erie Canal to escape North Tonawanda into the safe clutches of home, the City of Tonawanda. Escaping Niagara County into Erie County is akin to escaping France into Germany: the smell is your first indicator that there is, indeed, order in this chaotic world. Nevertheless, an under-regulated intersection confronts you in City of Tonawanda, a test to see if you are worthy of entering the ordered paradise of this one mile-squared municipality in lovely Western New York.

Straight ahead is uptown, via Seymour Street. Left on Niagara Street takes you downtown, while turning right takes you up the Niagara River to the Town of Tonawanda, which harbors the Tonawanda Coke, Tonawanda Axle, DuPont, and Dunlop manufacturing plants, along with a handful of Federally Designated Brownfields.

The under-regulated intersection is just that: a traffic signal for eight lanes of traffic, two in each direction, no left turn signal for the Tonawanda-North Tonawanda traffic, nor any designated left-turn or right-turn lanes. Seymour quickly merges the right lane into the left lane; every man for himself. A pattern has developed; like a tidal flow, it has two parts.

1) During the regular part of the weekday, going from North Tonawanda into City of Tonawanda, the left lane is for left turns onto Niagara and traffic through to Seymour. The right lane is reserved for those turning right.

2) During rush hours, the left turn lane is strictly for left turns onto Niagara. The right lane becomes for right turns onto Niagara and traffic through to Seymour.

These are unwritten rules, not indicated by sign, signal, nor directional arrow; we all know the rules because they make perfect sense. 1) Left turns during light traffic don’t hold you up too terribly long. Using the right lane to go straight clogs up right-turning traffic behind you during red lights; 2) Left-turns during rush hour traffic are hopeless, but some unlucky few must get downtown, and no one can be angry about that, now can they? We’ll share the right lane for a little while; otherwise no one will ever make it uptown.

On a rare occasion, a tourist, teenager, or jackass fouls up the works, and these exceptions prove the rule. We all just know the lane assignments. I can’t remember, in ten years of living here, traversing that same intersection, a single traffic accident.

Less regulation equals friendly self-regulated intersections, even in something involving so many people in a relatively complex operation. I mean, rush hour traffic, right?

Bayesian Inference atop the Cliffs of Insanity

It appears I haven’t updated my priors since 1987. When Vizzini, Inigo, and Andre the Giant stand at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity and see the Man in Black below them slowly ascending, Vizzini claims against the evidence of his own senses that such effort is “inconceivable.” In one of the more oft-quoted lines of the film, Inigo retorts “you keep using that word–I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When I first watched the film as, gosh, I guess I was 13 at the time, I interpreted it as a dig at Inigo’s lack of sophistication. To me, it was a simple pun: “inconceivable” can also mean “unable to conceive [a child].” Ha ha, snare drum, cue curtain, and scene.

The more apt interpretation wouldn’t have occurred to a 13 year old me: Inigo was criticizing Vizzini’s Bayesian processing. “Inconceivable” means that the mind is incapable of imagining the outcome. Well, clearly the evidence presented refutes Vizzini’s prior beliefs about the Man in Black’s abilities. It’s not “inconceivable” unless Vizzini is unwilling or unable to update his beliefs given the currently available evidence. To Inigo, “inconceivable” means that the posterior probability is 0. To Vizzini, “inconceivable” means that the prior probability is 0. The difference in opinion over the use of the word contrasts the simple (Hayekian) humility portrayed beautifully by Mandy Patinkin against the technocratic arrogance portrayed (again, beautifully) by Wallace Shawn.

And a few scenes later [spoiler alert], Vizzini’s hubris leads to his untimely demise. Is The Princess Bride a paean to libertarianism? Eh, probably not. But the political intrigue is catnip for public choice scholars, for sure.

Why is this relevant to Sweet Talk? Well, the unfortunate truth about people is that they tend to be pretty awful Bayesians. In some circumstances, they have resolutely, irrationally immobile priors. In others, they update too much based on weak or misleading evidence. This intemperate tendency should favor biasing institutions towards robustness against the vagaries of popular opinion. Presume Chestertonian fences.

And never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line.


Someone ought to decide

The problem with compasses is that people with compasses think they know where they’re going.

* * *

Sam W. make the observation (supported by good evidence) that an Unconditional Basic Income reduces the amount of time people spend working in the formal job sector, or looking for work in the formal job sector. And that’s bad, because policies that marginally discourage people from spending more time in the formal job sector are bad policies.

Policies that don’t pay people to stay at home at care for young children or elderly and sick parents or spouses are bad polices.

Policies that don’t pay people to stay up late at night writing a novel or coding or painting or experimenting in their privately-owned lab are bad policies.

Policies that cause people to spend 10% more time during the week on charitable causes are bad policies.

Policies that produce 5% more home-cooked meals, rather than the more efficiently produced pizza deliveries, are bad polices.

We want policies that produce jobs, and encourage people to spend more time at those jobs. And we know what jobs are. They’re at corporations and government agencies. They’re formalized, and have Tax ID numbers, and are incorporated under statute. They produce reams and reams of useful Board minutes and HR compliance policies. Those are real jobs. Not like some goofballs spitballing in the park about a better way to keep the neighborhood clean – they don’t even have an LLC agreement.

* * *

Of course I don’t believe any of that. I believe the opposite. I think the Unconditional Basic Income is awesome, and I support it – unconditionally. Because I don’t trust the government or any other agency to know what a real job is.

I don’t want the IRS auditing our lives to determine whether a home office is a “real job”. Or whether my collaboration with a neighbor rises to the level of officialness that it warrants government subsidy. I don’t want to file paperwork that proves to some bureaucrat or politician that it was time well spent.

I think people can be trusted to know what their lives need. Maybe they need more money, but maybe they need to spend more time with their kids – kids that can’t afford to pay them for that parenting service. Maybe they have enough to live on and would gain more happiness by participating more in the Church and at the homeless shelter, giving to those who cannot provide them with anything in exchange but gratitude.

And this is a generalizeable principle. I’m not a fan of having the government decide what people ought to do. We know the government shouldn’t decide how to allocate resources (Communism = bad), so why give them the power to determine (or at least marginally encourage) what categories of activity resources should be allocated to? Why adopt a policy that officially discourages tinkering and trying new things with the minimal amount of regulatory overhead? That doesn’t seem wise to me.

Of course this is where someone jumps in and says people are rationally selfish and won’t do hard and ugly things that need doing without payment. That’s somewhat true. No one wakes up at 3 AM to collect garbage as a hobby. But let me state three priors that cause me to believe this won’t be a harmful policy: (1) I believe that people have a strong innate desire to be seen as productive and useful members of society, so no one is going to stay at home playing video games forever. Eventually the desire for respect will drive them out. (2) Most proposals of UBI provide a very low level of income. You’d only agree to live off that alone if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing with your unpaid time. My hunch is that that kind of passion only comes from things that are driving value to someone, somewhere, eventually, even if it’s not getting compensated at that moment. And (3) My Adamtopia has minimal barriers to new entry in all sectors, so the high levels of unemployment you see in socialist countries that ban competition should never occur. I think that sort of apocalyptic level of resource-wasting is more associated with banning industriousness than subsidizing sloth.

* * *

Unconditional Basic Income. Because someone ought to decide where your efforts are best lent at a given time, and that someone is you.

Voluntary Workfare

The 1996 TANF reforms turned the legacy welfare payment system from chronic support into something closer to an income-smoothing program. Recipients are eligible only temporarily, and subject to certain restrictions. Unconditional Basic Income proposals aim to reverse that idea, to deliver cash to everyone to do with as they please.

Contrast that with wage subsidies, or conditional income, where you’re eligible for transfer payments tied to good-faith efforts to stay employed.

I ask myself what the purpose of transfer payments are. Are they chiefly to help ease liquidity problems for people who find themselves intermittently employed, or are they chiefly to support people who, for reasons of accident or injury utterly unable to support themselves with the fruits of their labor?

Unconditional Basic Income may produce unintended, unwanted consequences. Workfare addresses some of these worries, but can it not carry with it the risk of heaving out the most vulnerable on their backsides? 

I’m afraid I see no good way for an omnibus repeal of the crazy ad hoc patchwork of transfer systems to stick given what I know of public opinion from my time spent questing in the realm of the General Social Survey. Workfare is a tradeoff, not a solution.

The rhetoric of eternal beauty

I don’t have deep and well thought out opinions on art criticism. I am merely a consumer of art, and an amateur one at that. But this post by Adam Gurri reminded me of an opinion that I have held for a long time, which is that art (by which I mean traditional arts like music, sculpture and painting, but also crafts which can be artistically done, like furniture making and architecture) has a powerful affect on the people who perceive it and appreciate it. The effect can be civilizing, and inspire people to live their own lives to the same standard of beauty and grace as the art.

I appreciate what Bill Gates is doing in Africa. It’s important work, Maybe over the timeline of centuries it will pay greater dividends than the existence of the Renaissance. But art is not a fruity waste of time and money either. Art, once created, can inspire for centuries. Long after the artist and his patron are both forgotten, the Basillica and the Ode to Joy can still be there, reminding us that this Earth can be a bit more like Heaven if only we try.

A Free Society is an Advertising Society, a Rhetorical Society

No small part of why Sam posted Deirdre McCloskey’s video on freedom of speech is because at one point she says, with emphasis, “sweet talk,” and then pauses for effect. Thus providing documented proof that she does, indeed, say the phrase, and out loud!

But I suspect a big part of why Sam posted the video is also because it gets at the core of what Sweet Talk is all about (so much so that I’ve added it to the about page, on Sam H’s suggestion).

As someone who works in advertising, it may be a little self-serving to promote a video which argues that “a free society is an advertising society”. But her point that persuasion is the mechanism of informing one another’s judgment in a free society is an important one. It gets at what makes even the most forward-looking liberal uncomfortable with speech that is radically free—what if people cannot be persuaded to believe the right thing? McCloskey uses the example of the Pythagoras Theorem; you don’t start believing in it because you’ve witnessed unblemished Truth. You start believing in it because someone or someones have persuaded you that you should. As a child or young person perhaps you simply took it as a given; later in life you may be more likely to deliberate more before making such a judgment call.

But persuasion is persuasion. And the discomfort with relying on it alone is not unfounded—consider the anti-vaccine community, who have persuaded themselves and others to take a stance which actively puts other people at risk. Moreover, it provides a path for tyrants who haven’t enough strength to simply stage a coup—if you can persuade enough people that the headaches and gridlock of democracy ought to give way to decisive actions directed by one man, and that you are just the man for the job. (I can hear Evan Jenkins chiming in here with “you know who else persuaded people that he was the man for that job?”)

McCloskey’s remarks are highly clarifying—you can measure the extent of freedom in a society by how restricted persuasion’s importance is. For in the USSR persuasion was extremely important—within the party bureaucracy. Even Stalin had to cobble together coalitions to maintain his power, and the people at the top of those coalitions had to persuade the people at the next level down that they ought to be followed, and so on. It’s true that the threat of being disappeared often trumped rhetoric where Stalin was concerned—but this was only possible because of someone who Stalin could get to do his dirty work. And it is worth noting that Stalin always found it important to publicly smear the image of the ones he exiled or murdered, as if leaving a hint of good reputation was dangerous.

But the point is not really to look at the extent of persuasion’s importance within Stalin’s regime—the point is that for the rest of Soviet society, persuasion was essentially off the table. It wasn’t an option. In as much as black markets emerged and it was impossible for the center to completely regulate the reality on the ground, rhetoric could surface in the daily life of the typical Soviet citizen. But anything outside of some very narrow lines came with very high personal risks.

We now know even better than we did at the time the problems that come with such a national-level monoculture of politics, production, and persuasion. This is something that needs to be brought up again and again; it is a necessary foundation of the rhetoric supporting a free society.

Still, this does not mean we should get comfortable living our relatively free lives. The dangers of what persuasion can bring about are very real. It’s for that reason that we must consider ethics and rhetoric as deeply interconnected.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men be unpersuasive.