Pur Autre Vie

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Way We Live

For a variety of reasons, including the extreme degree of specialization in modern society, most of us have little facility with most areas of life.  I enjoy reading about meteorology, but I have next to no comprehension of how it is practiced, and I couldn't possibly serve as a meteorologist.  I simply have to hope that the people entrusted with that responsibility will do their jobs well.

And so our lives are modular, and only a scant few of those modules are transparent to us.  In a good society, the rules and norms are such that this state of affairs is not treacherous, and the "simple" or "unsophisticated" understanding of important modules is not misleading (or at least, not misleading in a way that leads to injury).

So for instance, most people don't really understand how a bank works.  They rely on a simple metaphor in which the bank "holds" their money in an account and returns it to them, with interest, when they need it.  They have no way to assess the credit risk of different banks.  To make this situation tolerable, we have set up the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation so that a typical account holder (someone with under $250,000 in the bank) doesn't need to worry about how banks work or which banks are relatively sound.  At most, depositors are exposed to a slight delay or disruption in accessing their money, and not to the loss of the money (again, assuming the account is worth less than $250,000—we assume that people with more money than that are able to fend for themselves).

Anyway free market economics departs from this framework somewhat.  It often sees no problem with treacherous "modules," since perfectly rational people will never be surprised by them.  Meanwhile it assumes that the most important thing is to provide choice.  If a depositor wants to earn a little extra interest in return for giving up FDIC protection, why shouldn't he be able to?  Free market economics is essentially the premise that people who are good at navigating the world should be permitted to prosper at the expense of people who are not.

But actually that's not my concern today.  I think too often we think of the world in terms of fairly elaborate conceptual frameworks.  But that is not how life is experienced.  (I have been thinking about this because of a conversation I had with Dave and Alan about philosophical zombies, and then a conversation I had with Dave about inequality.)  People are mired in confusion and doubt.  They often have shockingly little time or mental energy to devote to important life decisions, and so they use horrifyingly crude methods of reasoning.

And this is not just the fate of the poor or poorly educated, but of all of us, when we wander outside our areas of self-sufficiency.  (Here's an example from XKCD.)

It seems to me that there's no real way to deal with this satisfactorily.  People ramp up their level of confidence when they feel secure, and then when they get burned they dial it back down.  That's obviously very roughly rational, but it leaves us wandering through the world with a child-like sense of what's going on around us and how to respond to it.

Anyway if you think about it too long it makes you feel dehumanized and helpless.


Blogger Alan said...

But practically some people are much better off than others. Some people know things like "invest in low-cost index funds and shift towards bonds over time," "eat food, mostly plants, not too much," and "the New York Times is reasonably reliable, but the New York Post is not." Some people don't. And these things are really big deals (both in themselves and because of what they say about one's worldview and other beliefs). And they're often not matters of expertise or even willpower; rather, I think they come down to culture and institutions, for lack of better terms.

I'm reminded of the secretary who used to sit across the hall from me, a 60-something Italian-American old-school New Yorker who was born in Williamsburg and voted for Trump. She was always loudly on the phone, and I had a window into her life. I gathered she exercised regularly, watched what she ate, followed a budget, worked hard, and engaged in other behaviors associated with more "elite" people. Unfortunately she didn't have the cultural and institutional guidance to make good specific choices. For instance, she powered through Zumba classes and frequently had to lay off due to injuries, which would just flare up again, rather than systematically addressing her issues via physical therapy (in fairness she did do PT, but it seemed like she viewed it as a nuisance and a last resort). And she followed some faddish diet rather than doing the Mediterranean thing or something more reasonably flexible and not unjustifiably precise. It struck me that a key difference between us was that I simply had a better sense of which sources to trust, and also lived a life in which more trustworthy information was funneled my way. It wasn't that I was that much more of an expert, or had spent that much more time researching, diet, exercise, and investment; I just received and reviewed better shit, and over time had developed (in part, sure, due to higher intelligence) a better bullshit filter.

I don't have time to elaborate now or really reflect on this, but I think plausible lessons might be (in addition to the need for appropriate market regulations): schools should make more of an effort to give people the tools to know how to find and recognize trustworthy practical information; and some "horrifyingly crude methods of reasoning" are much better than others.

8:46 PM  

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