The Rhetoric of Policy Levers

In the end, policymakers face a complicated calculus. How much of an increase in total smoking are they willing to accept in exchange for some of that smoking to come from lower-risk e-cigarettes? Regulation of e-cigarettes (i.e. restricting their use in the same way as is common for traditional cigarettes) is likely to mitigate any possible increase in demand, but it may also limit the number of smokers switching from traditional cigarettes. The health risks are murky, the demand effects are murky, and even if both were known, the right policy decisions would not be clear.

-Emily Oster, What Do We Really Know About the Safety of E-Cigarettes?

I draw your attention to this quote not to debate the merit of e-cigarette regulation, or to criticize the quality of Oster’s article. It’s well researched and well written. I quote the concluding paragraph because I was struck by how Oster decided to frame the question.

Some things to note:

  • She did not ask whether people ought to be allowed to assess these risks for themselves.
  • Her implied audience is not made up of people trying to decide whether or not they should start using e-cigarettes.
  • She does not imply that her audience ought to advise their loved ones and acquaintances for or against the use of e-cigarettes.

Oster instead addresses “policymakers”, though the way she addresses them implies to me that she does not believe most of her actual audience is constituted of such people.

And her framing of the risk analysis of e-cigarettes is entirely in terms of reducing things like overall smoking rates and bad health outcomes, regardless of whether smoking rates reflect personal preferences and health outcomes come about from reasonably informed personal choices. In fact, she talks specifically about attempting to “mitigate any possible increase in demand” should e-cigarettes reduce the cost of smoking, as if an “increase in demand” were something like the rotation of the planets, rather than the adding up of freely made individual human choices.

Of course, my analysis of her rhetoric is dripping in a rhetoric of my own. But I’d like to leave it at this for now; it really is her framing, more than any substantive point she made, that I wanted to draw attention to.



Flattery will get you everywhere, my dear. Besides, I think I’ve spilled quite enough ink this week kvetching about the embarrassing politics of wayward children.

I still recall the moment it happened, my charming darlings. No, not the time when the America of my youth hucked aside its pretentious dalliance with painful sincerity, but the moment I finally grasped that it was never there to begin with. There has never in the history of civilization as I hazily understand it been a period characterized by anything even remotely approaching genuine sincerity. Quite the opposite, since even primates exhibit evidence of strategic deception.

For me, the eye-opening event was the 1989 release of Faith No More’s album The Real Thing. The music video for their still-occasionally-played radio hit Epic was making the rounds. Here, give it a listen:

See what I mean? Patton takes great pains to growl out lyrics of great portent, howling as only he can do, challenging your flippant notions of your own masculinity with a guttural sneer. But the contents of the lyrics? Perfectly vapid. He’s taking the piss out of pretentious hair metal bands a few years before Kurt Cobain achieved international acclaim by doing the exact same thing, only with a bit more Pacific Northwestern melancholy (and those unforgettable anarchy cheerleaders). For me, that was the day sincerity died. Not with a bang, but with a fish flopping around as Roddy Bottum played a wee tinkling dirge to its demise.

Is that any different from Kurosawa and Mifune’s Yojimbo taking the piss out of the preposterous bowdlerization of the WWII-era Samurai aesthetic? Or to Mozart’s impish antics deflating self-important Italian opera? Irony suffuses human history, and many of the best works that have survived the ages (seriously you guys, re-read the Iliad and tell me it’s not 99.9% tongue-in-cheek) tends very heavily to the side of pricking the vanity of the self-indulgent psychopomp.

But as in all else, temperance is a virtue. I think what Peej wants from me is a steely eye gazing an an unseemly excess of not just irony, but the Hieronymous Bosch-flavoured animatronic grotesquery of recursive meta-irony. She fancies herself a 140-character Helen and I her pied Paris to cross deadly waters.

Challenge accepted.

Using game theory, it’s pretty easy to model a sincerity dilemma. With probability p, your interlocutor is being sincere (therefore, with probability 1-p, she is being insincere). Since you know the payoffs to the actions you can take, you have all the parameters you need to guide your response. As you vary p, your behavior should change. Easy peasy chicken sneezy.

Or is it? Not so fast, because what if p isn’t a parameter, but a variable? What if your behavior in this round influences the probability that others will either be sincere or act as if there were sincere in the next round? Go ahead and get all recursive with that. Take a moment and see if you can’t land on an equilibrium where every player is privately insincere but publicly sincere. If you were a naive observer, would you be able to distinguish between that world and one where everyone was actually legit sincere?

Take your time thinking carefully about that question before pondering this one:

What if foreign cultures have this same equilibrium? What if part of the cognitive dissonance expats experience a few months living abroad is the uncomfortable realization that their cozy adopted culture is just another gaggle of brooding hypocrites not all that different from the ones left behind?

The Age of Irony may as well be named The Age of Always. Adjust or perish as you see fit.

And the best way to slay the beast of tiresome meta-irony is to starve the damnable thing. Irony appeals to many of our ugliest human instincts. The virtuous wanderer acknowledges that these nasty urges exist, accepts them, and strives for excellence regardless. #Arete, young lady. #Phronesis.


It’s hard, but satisfying.


The Virtue of Pickup Artists

In a recent discussion on whether moral philosophy can be useful, redditor Minutenewt had the following to say:

Do you wish to get rich? Do you wish to obtain the best looking women? Do you wish to lead a life of indolence punctuated by greed and rapacity? Then no, moral philosophy will only hold you back.

I think this gets it backwards. In my experience, my most successful friends are also some of the kindest and most conscientious people I know. Meanwhile, my loser friends take flagrant short cuts, and seem willing to expend all their social capital on short-term gains.

That’s not a successful strategy for the 21st century economy, where reputation sticks, and automation is driving up the premia on humanity’s remaining comparative advantage: sociability. Likewise, in the mating market, women seem to value confidence and extroversion, not being an anti-social jerk contrary to popular wisdom.

Take the writer Neil Strauss as a case study. To be perfectly clear, Strauss is a bald, nerdy looking guy who, when he laughs, makes weird chortle noises through his nose. Nonetheless, he is also an expert “pickup artist,” and author of The Game.

Now, while The Game was destined to become a kind of bible for rapacious creeps, I think of Neil Strauss as being in some sense maximally virtuous. That is, he uses an applied understanding of human nature and a high degree of meta-rationality to calibrate virtuous behaviours (self control, discipline, courage) toward — at least one definition of — flourishing.

You may not like his aims, but in the abstract Strauss is simply an expert in human persuasion. He picks up women by using euvoluntary techniques that make the women in question want to pick up him:

If there was anything I’d learned, it’s that the man never chooses the woman. All he can do is give her an opportunity to choose him.

Ethical argumentation works on the same principal. As Hume showed, prescriptive rhetoric lacks access to an ultimate “moral ought” to give itself foundation. And yet, it still has sway over human action. This can only be because effective arguments hit on the right moral aesthetics, encouraging a shift in perspective and motivation.

As further evidence that Strauss is a virtue ethicist in disguise, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast he was asked to name the one book he loves so much that he gives copies away. His response: On the Shortness of Life by the infamous stoic Seneca the Younger. What does stoicism have to do with picking up women? Evidently, quite a lot.


Continue reading “The Virtue of Pickup Artists”

“Against Method” is Rhetorically Destructive

All modern philosophy starts by acknowledging a basic anti-Cartesian premise: that the universe lacks an ‘all seeing eye of god’, that ultimate arbiter of Truth, method, or the thing-in-itself, for humans to access. Only this was not a new realization in 1975, when Feyerabend’s Against Method was first published. So what did Feyerabend add?

Feyerabend’s main contribution was to couch a political program within the anti-Cartesian premise. By undermining the one scientific method to rule them all, he deflated the authority of science in order to raise the relative status of other types of truth seeking, including mysticism, religion and the occult. This effort must be seen within the anti-imperialist zeitgeist of the 70s, with so many minds awakening to the failures of neo-colonialism through the tyranny of experts. But it was also a cause that appealed to Feyeraband as a practitioner of alternative medicine.


In other words, Feyeraband’s contribution was rhetorical: He leveraged a technical philosophical position (epistemological anti-foundationalism) into a political posture against the hierarchical institutions of science, like the state or ivory tower, in order for them to be replaced by an “epistemological anarchism” which demanded our scientific “authorities” be devolved to a democratic system of popular vote.

By harnessing rhetoric Feyerabend was simply living out his own view of how science progressed: Scientific paradigms rise in part on their empirical merits but mostly on how persuasively they’re marketed. This extends the scientific enterprise far beyond the conjecture-refutation dyad of Karl Popper into the realms of rhetoric and aesthetics. For instance, Feyerabend famously argued that Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system succeeded not due to some empirical eureka moment or triumph of reason, but due to Galileo being “one of the greatest propagandists of ideas in the history of science“.

So while it is impossible to dispute the anti-Cartesian premise or the role of rhetoric in science, whether you are a fan or enemy of Feyerabend’s work will depend on your mood affiliations. Think of it as an “if-by-whiskey” contra Descartes. If Against Method is but one way to rhetorically frame our anti-Cartesian condition, the question you should ask is whether it is the best way — That is, if denigrating science and scientists, as such, was a very useful end.

I believe we increasingly live in Feyerabend’s preferred world, where suspicion of experts and the conflation of science with power reins supreme on both ends of the political spectrum. My sense is that this represents a major step backwards in our ability to reach honest agreement. Ironically, without the authority of science we will lose one of the strongest rhetorical wedges we have to hold the powerful accountable.

To see the alternative, contrast the rhetoric of Against Method with the writing of C.S. Peirce. Peirce started with the same anti-Cartesian premise, and yet developed a philosophy of science that re-conceptualized method pragmatically, without demoting science’s status in society. Peirce viewed scientists like blind monks feeling an elephant, who then build theory through a “community of inquiry“. While no method is “ultimately” better than another, our conceptions of reality have practical consequences, so different methods ought to lead to similar conclusion in the long run.

So here we have two attacks on epistemological foundationalism. Using one type of rhetoric, Feyerabend pushed an anti-colonial relativism, giving “equal rights” to creationists and trained biologists alike to claim the scientific credo. Using different rhetoric, C.S. Peirce raised the status of science while at the same time pointing out its fallibility. In Peirce’s own words:

To an earlier age knowledge was power — merely that and nothing more; to us it is life and the summum bonum — the highest good.

Feyerabend’s ideas belong to that earlier age; indeed, the core ideas in Feyerabend were not original. Rather, his legacy is the disrepute of scientific authority. But at what cost?

Rhetoric and Non-ergodicity Management

My latest at EE is a stab at a Schumpeter-Knight-Kirzner-North synthesis. Boiled down, I find it useful to distinguish risk, uncertainty, and non-ergodicity as zones in a function of decreasing knowledge of possible outcomes. Risk describes well-governed, well-understood probability functions. Uncertainty describes well-governed, but poorly understood probability functions, and non-ergodicity describes wild probability functions. Another way to think about it that risk is a threat to an individual, uncertainty is a threat to a firm, and non-ergodicity is a threat to society. I’m not sure if the way I parse these ideas are capital-T True, but to me this is useful. At the risk of immodesty, that’s good enough for me.

Protection against the unknown satisfies deep atavistic cravings common to many species. In humans, this desire is strong enough to divert many billions of dollars into insurance schemes of one sort or another. A, if not the, function of the finance industry (or at least the vibrant, robust derivatives markets) is to allow people to pool and trade risk (even when what they’re actually trading is uncertainty), easing tensions about the obscure future, permitting long-term planning and investment. Read through a 10-K sometime and you’ll see that quite a bit of the fluff is devoted to talk about how the firm devotes resources to contingency planning and how well diversified they are. One of the big reasons many economists flog the virtues of a stable rule of law is that the productive capacity of the many industries of the nation suffer when the threat of capricious expropriation looms. 

I submit to you that the hedge we enjoy against big social upheaval (by this, I mean developments that destroy entire industries, change the political process, or result in mass migrations) is rhetoric. If citizens are comfortable with the decline of patterns of production and exchange, they will be naturally less prone to petitioning the legislature for redress. A civilization that tolerates dynamism, that accepts the destruction part of creative destruction will more aptly resist ossification. The civilization that yields to truculent Ludditism will waste precious resources on protecting incumbents, shielding defunct industry, and perpetuating inefficiency. A society, in other words, of untempered backwards-looking faith is one that will mire itself in the treacle of the past.

Our best hedge against non-ergodicity is to learn to stop worrying and love what truly matters in life.

The Storyteller’s Obligation

In my previous post I linked to a study on how children were inspired to virtuous action by the role model of George Washington, who told his own father he cut down the cherry tree and was rewarded for honesty.

This is a useful thing to know, both as a parent and also more generally as someone who would like to inspire virtue in a broad range of people. However, it makes me think about a particular consequence of storytelling, and how aspirational stories can lead to tragedies.

Garret Jones recently stated that “There are few horrors of the last century that can’t be blamed on an excessive concern for justice.”, and I believe that’s entirely right. The 20th century’s communist revolutions that led the greatest string of tragedies the human race has yet seen were based on a story about justice and fair distribution of wealth. They told a story about how human society could pass through a socialist phase and into a communist phase where material wealth and prosperity was available to everyone and no one would enjoy power and status over another. It would be Utopia.

Of course it turned out these stories were wrong. Marx was wrong. Communism doesn’t work. The entire exercise was doomed to failure from before it started. 

This is the danger of stories. They can inspire people, but they can also lead them to folly. If we only tell people the good half of stories, or (worse) tell people stories about the way we wish the world were, we lead them astray. 

And this isn’t limited to grand tragedies like the Great Leap Forward, but also in small ways and individual lives. A young person may spend money on a degree whose prospects are not what they were told, or engage in relationships with unrealistic expectations of how love and friendship actually works. This causes heartache, lost money and effort, and also comes back to bite the storyteller as a teller of lies (however well meaning they were at the time).

Don’t do this. Only tell stories that are true. Inspire, but also be wise. Be like Shakespeare, and Homer. 

The one way ratchet of responding to children (and cats).

Adam found a great study that might indicate that kids’ “stories of punishment do not inspire changes in behavior, while stories about a virtuous role model (who is rewarded for his virtue) has a strongly positive impact on behavior.”

There’s a cynical way to look at this. First, three things about my perspective: 1) The mode of thinking I’m about describe came from my time as a preschool teacher, 2) I don’t have kids, 3) The technique does, however, seem to work on my cat.

It’s possible that kids (and perhaps cats) merely crave attention and feedback. The stories of punishment are stories of a behavior that received attention (fame as being the boy/girl that got eaten by wild animals or the boy/girl that had a freakish nose-talent and was made of wood!?). The lesson a kid could take from those stories of punishment might be merely that lying makes you the object of attention. The Washington story on the other hand teaches the same lesson but with a virtuous trigger behavior, x behavior—being a sap that hates trees but can’t bark a fib—earns you attention (even, gasp, the presidency!).

So what we end up with is a one way ratchet. Give child attention, behavior at time of attention will be amplified. Reward negative behavior with punishment-attention and you get more negative behavior; reward positive behavior with praise-attention and you get more positive behavior.

But wait, you are saying dear reader, Peter, your cynicism and cat manipulation have blinded you to the actual results of the study! The punishment stories did not encourage lying… punishment stories simply had no effect on behavior. I submit further cynicism in my defense. Perhaps the baseline (the control of no stories) that most kids operate on is that lying will gain you attention. And perhaps they’ve already been so saturated with this world-view that a couple of punishment stories won’t change much. The virtue story on the other hand is something new for these kids, and it momentarily spurs a change in the child’s understanding of what behavior will lead to the researcher rewarding them with attention.

My conclusion would be the same as Adam’s, we need more stories about virtue. But the reasons for that conclusion are a bit more Pavlovian. Now I’m going back to my cat-training (she “prays” like this on command):