Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, March 31, 2014


I got in a little Twitter conversation with Elisa about the recent #CancelColbert fracas.  I can't summon the energy to describe how #CancelColbert unfolded, but this New Yorker online piece, which Elisa linked to, has a pretty good summary.

Elisa tweeted:
I think she was referring to my outrage at Suey Park's "activism," but either way I want to explain why I find Park's approach so objectionable.  (Not that I'm really outraged.  There are far worse things in the world.  But as I tweeted, I think it's crazy not to hold Park accountable for the ridiculousness spawned by her campaign.)

So, to start:  Park says she likes Colbert's show and doesn't want it to be canceled.  So what was the point?  Apparently it was:
to argue that white liberals who routinely condemn what she called “worse racism” will often turn a blind eye to, or even defend, more tacit forms of prejudice, especially when they come from someone who shares their basic political beliefs
This comes as something of a relief to me, since I thought the idea of canceling the show was a significant overreaction.  But I wonder how clear these nuances of the #CancelColbert movement were to its participants, many of whom presumably defended the idea of canceling the show.

And therein lies my problem with this kind of "activism."  In any discussion worth having, there is going to be a layer of unsavory discourse churning beneath.  If you want to talk about rape jokes, you are going to have to deal with a lot of ridiculous invocations of the First Amendment.  This is the price we pay for letting everyone participate.

But Park's approach was to start with overheated rhetoric and then hope for the best.  She presumably knew that her more nuanced point wouldn't fit in a hashtag, and she knew that #CancelColbert would grab people's attention precisely because it is such a gross overreaction.  She was acting in bad faith when she encouraged her followers to adopt a more extreme position than the one she actually held.  She was using the methods of a rabble-rouser and inviting a torrent of overheated responses on both sides.

You can argue that the discussion needed to happen, and the ends justify the means.  But I don't think that's right.  Park mobilized resources with her campaign, she directed people's efforts.  And not just her immediate followers and her ideological allies:  all kinds of people were drawn in because there was a lot at stake, and they were forced to engage in a needlessly stupid fight.  There have been some thoughtful reactions, but this is despite Park's efforts to sensationalize and debase the discussion.  It is fortuitous.

It reminds me very much of the old "no enemies to the left" approach to politics, in which nothing is beyond the pale as long as it is nominally in support of your ideology.  The logic is that because Asians suffer real discrimination, any accusation of anti-Asian bias is almost by definition a good thing, regardless of whether it is reasonable or leveled in good faith.  Attention needs to be brought to the subject!  Any criticism of Park's methods is really a tactical move in the debate over whether Asians are discriminated against!

Anyway here I've written a long-ish blog post about it, and I don't even feel that strongly.  I just think it's important to maintain these distinctions.  Bad-faith provocateurs are bad-faith provocateurs and we shouldn't indulge their misbehavior just because we think an issue deserves more attention.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

We Are All Generalists

One way of thinking about the direction society has gone is that we are ever-more specialized.  This makes sense, in a way:  as Adam Smith observed, specialization is limited by the extent of the market, and today's market is more extensive than ever before.  (Another way of putting it is that transportation and communication costs have fallen dramatically and so we can specialize to a degree that was never possible before.)  So in our professional lives, we are generally expected to understand only a very narrow area.

But we are all generalists in life:  we are all amateur social psychologists, amateur cooks, amateur writers, amateur political analysts, amateur movie critics, amateur investors, amateur sex workers, and so forth.  (The only exceptions are people who are professional social psychologists, professional cooks, etc.)  Now some of these things are largely recreational, and so the stakes are fairly low—if you are not great at analyzing movies, the worst that is likely to happen is that a few conversations don't go as well as they otherwise might have.  And in other cases, where the overall stakes are fairly high (e.g., presidential elections), a single vote is relatively unlikely to matter.

But then there are those areas of life that matter a lot, and that depend crucially on our mastery of these non-professional skills.  And so it is that we find ourselves desperate to understand things that we can't afford to spend much time thinking about.  We resort to tactics that are of necessity, well, amateurish.  I like to think that my approach to investing is a pretty good one, but any professional investor would almost certainly be taken aback by my ignorance of even basic concepts.  I just don't have the time or inclination to educate myself on these issues.  I am an amateur playing in a professional market.

I think this helps explain the huge volume of bullshit that gets peddled to people.  In particular, it helps explain why people are interested in advice that seems woefully insufficient to the task:  inadequate as it may be, it is probably in an easily digestible format and may provide more usable information than a far "better," more rigorous product.  (Cosmopolitan sex tips seem pretty ridiculous, but most people don't have time to wade through the scholarly literature, and many probably couldn't understand it if they did.  And anyway, how confident are we that the scholarly approach is the best one in this area?)

So the bullshit is understandable.  But that doesn't make it a good thing:  much of it really is pure bullshit, and even when there is helpful information out there, it is not always easy to find it.  Unsurprisingly, people often hire professionals to cover gaps in their expertise.  That can work very well, but it generally trades in one problem for another:  instead of being good at investing, you must be good at hiring someone who is good at investing.  It does you no good to hire someone who is dishonest or bad at his job.  But how are you going to identify good, honest professionals?  Luckily it's easy sometimes:  you may not know the first thing about plumbing, but you know what makes a good plumber, and you can either ask for references or use reviews from the internet to find a good one.  Or you can ask friends to refer a good plumber.  Or you can just rely on the market to weed out plumbers who don't know what they are doing.  Exactly which approach to take may not be obvious, but you're unlikely to go too far wrong with any of them.

But I'm not sure there are comparably effective approaches when it comes to complicated things like investing.  To give another example, the one that motivated this post:  in order to do my taxes properly, I need to understand tax issues that seem to be very arcane (though of course they are probably not arcane to tax professionals).  It is probably a good idea to get outside help, but the tax software I bought resulted in a tiny refund (much smaller than I expected).  When I did my taxes manually (which took several hours), I found a refund about 50 times larger.  Now, who knows, maybe I've done something wrong, but this is the problem:  I don't know enough about taxes to know how reliable the tax preparation software is.  My ignorance about taxes leaves me unequipped to assess the professionals who can help me address my ignorance about taxes.

Partly this is just what it means to be human.  But also, public policy can make a big difference.  Licensing is meant to address these problems, and it may be a good idea in some cases (though I am ready to believe that it is over-used sometimes).  But what is really galling is that taxes don't have to be this hard!  If you were trying to design a system that imposed a much lower burden on tax-filers (not tax-payers:  I am talking about the difficulty of calculating taxes, not the burden of actually paying them), you could do so without much difficulty.  Some people believe the tax preparers have effectively lobbied Congress to make it very difficult to file taxes without professional help.  I don't know if that's true or not, but if so, Congress has outdone itself.

[UPDATE:  The tax software was right and I was wrong!  Score one for specialization/trusting the professionals.  However, it took me about a day's worth of work to figure out that my tax software was right.  Also, I'm pretty sure the software is still filling out the forms wrong, which could affect my taxes next year (though not the amount I owe this year).  So all in all, it's still an unsettling situation.]

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Douthat's Strange Lament

Ross Douthat has a column in the New York Times today, describing what he sees as the rout of the anti-gay-marriage forces in American politics and culture.  It's an annoying column, although the second-to-last paragraph is somewhat gracious:
I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.
But only somewhat gracious, because Douthat is missing something rather important here, something that I don't think I've ever seen him acknowledge.  Gay marriage proponents don't support gay marriage because they like gay people and think that gay marriage would be a nice thing to have.  Gay marriage proponents, and supporters of gay equality generally, see this as a fundamental matter of human dignity, something that should be treated as a basic right.  I am reminded of an anecdote from WWII-era Denmark:
Such general support across Danish society seems to have empowered the Jews of Copenhagen. When the Gestapo came to search the Jewish community’s offices in September 1943, the community treasurer, Axel Hertz, did not hesitate to ask the intruders, “By what right do you come here?” The German in charge replied, quite candidly: “By the right of the stronger.” And Hertz retorted: “That is no good right.” Jews in Denmark behaved like rights-bearers, not like victims in search of compassion. And they were not wrong: their feeling of membership in the Danish polity had a basis in its political culture.
Rights-bearers.  Not victims in search of compassion.  Not a marginalized minority in search of Douthat's "real charity."  Douthat's attitude is reminiscent of David Brooks's ridiculous column bemoaning the legalization of marijuana.  Brooks didn't even think it necessary to argue that the problems with marijuana consumption might justify the huge cost of pursuing, arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning people—that is, ruining their lives!—for trafficking in a mostly harmless drug.  Similarly with Douthat:  never (as far as I know) has he adduced any rationale that could possibly justify treating homosexuals as non-rights-bearers, people who deserve charity but do not deserve full participation as equals in our society.  It's a bizarre and telling omission.  I happen to be more sympathetic than most liberals to claims of religious liberty and personal conscience, which are currently being litigated in the courts and debated in the legislatures.  But these debates should start with the obvious background assumption:  gay people are full citizens, endowed with the same rights as everyone else, and not reliant on anyone's charity or goodwill for the vindication of those rights.