Caplans of the Caribbean

I just returned from cruising the Caribbean on Anthem of the SeasMaybe you’ve heard of it? Fortunately, no coronavirus panic marred our vacation, and the concluding scare at the dock turned out to be a false alarm.  Though I’d seen a little of the Caribbean before, this trip was a heavy dose: after a stop at San Juan, Puerto Rico, we sailed on to St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts.  My social science reflections:

1. I’ve been writing about Puerto Rico for years.  Its great open borders experiment doesn’t just put an upper bound on the dangers of “brain drain”; it also shows that liberalization makes migration serenely “snowball” rather than frighteningly “flood.” I was excited, then, to finally see Puerto Rico with my own eyes.  San Juan, at least, met my high expectations.  It’s a rich and beautiful city – and I didn’t merely visit the tourist areas.  The country is packed with Walmarts and other big-box retail.  Uber works well.  I saw near-zero remnants of Hurricane Maria, and – through my bilingual sons – had two fun chats with jovial Uber drivers.  Next time, I’d really like to drive the Ruta Panorámica.  No doubt I’d witness some serious poverty, but I doubt it’s more disturbing than driving around rural Mississippi or West Virginia.

When I invoke Puerto Rico, immigration skeptics often scoff.  Hurricane Maria aside, they deem Puerto Rico a disaster zone.  After all, if it were a U.S. state, Puerto Rico (with a per-capita GDP of just $32,000) would be even poorer than Mississippi, right?

I call this a willfully misanthropic comparison.  To grasp the effects of open borders on Puerto Rico, you have to ask, “How would Puerto Ricans be doing if they didn’t enjoy free migration to the U.S.?”  To answer that question, you’ve got to look not as Mississippi, but at other Caribbean islands.  Which I then proceeded to do.

2. Our next stop was St. Maarten (the Dutch side).  Official estimates of its per-capita GDP vary very widely.  While the CIA absurdly sets it at $66,800 (PPP), Wikipedia provides only a 2008 estimate of $15,400 (nominal).  Compared to Puerto Rico, in any case, the island looks quite poor.  A good chunk of this admittedly stems from low population; 42,000 people plus tourists aren’t enough to sustain more than a few restaurants or entertainment venues.  Even taking population into account, however, living standards look low.  Desperate peddling of tourist wares is a common job.  Roads are bumpy.  The shiniest business we saw was a KFC.  The biggest grocery store we found wasn’t bad, but about a third of the refrigerated shelves were empty.  There’s no Uber, but since there are plenty of taxis, I blame regulation.  After SNUBA diving (awesome), we taxied to the local tropical zoo, which sadly turned out to be shuttered since Maria.

What explains the gap between the official economic statistics and what we saw?  The simplest story is that a few super-rich expats drive up the average, but it’s hard to believe that’s close to the whole story.  The next explanation is that I’m such a spoiled American that almost everywhere on Earth looks impoverished to me.  Another is that the statistics are fake; but wouldn’t countries want to overstate their poverty to get extra foreign aid?  Last, CPI bias is plausibly astronomically unfavorable in small islands where there’s not much to spend your money on.  (As I told Tyler, there are odd parallels between small Swiss towns and these Caribbean islands; in both places, even the rich have little to buy).

While we’re on the subject of CPI bias, the Internet has clearly been a nearly unmeasured godsend for the whole region.  In 1990, islanders would have been cut off from 99% of humanity’s cultural bounty.  Today, the curious can sample and savor this bounty for modest connection fees.

3. Then we sailed on to Antigua (a subset of Antigua and Barbuda), with recent per capita GDP estimates of $17,500 nominal and $28,000 PPP.  It did indeed look a little richer than St. Maarten, though that too could be confounded with higher population.  The downtown was fun to see, but the roads were bumpy and even the main sidewalks poorly maintained.  While shuttling to snorkeling, we saw a huge sports stadium (10,000 seats!) largely funded by the government of mainland China.  (Other islands, in contrast, seemed oriented toward Taiwan).  There were fewer desperate peddlers, but almost no businesses even in the historic downtown.  As Richard Scarry famously inquired, “What do people do all day?”

4. Next, we saw St. Lucia.  Geographically, it was the most beautiful of the islands.  The Pitons are splendid, and we passed some scenic harbors and resorts.  Economically, though, St. Lucia looked the worst.  This fits with official statistics, which put its per-capita GDP at $10,000 nominal and $15,000 PPP.  Even though it has roughly twice the population of Antigua and Barbuda, the KFC was again the shiniest business we saw.  The main downtown church was closed, and the nearby park contained about a dozen apparently homeless men, though perhaps they were just relaxing and drinking alone.  Desperate peddling was intense.  The local police seemed to be one of the main employers.

5. Our last stop was on St. Kitts (a subset of St. Kitts and Nevis), whose per capital GDP of $19,000 nominal and $31,000 PPP make it the richest island we saw after Puerto Rico.  Since we spent six hours hiking Mount Liamuiga, the local volcano, we never walked the town.  Yet we did get to see a long stretch of one of the main coastal highways, and the country did indeed look marginally richer than Antigua.

My hiking guide described himself as “fascinated by economics,” and we had a good amount of time to chat.  He suffered from severe pessimistic bias; I tried in vain to calm his fears that U.S. agro-business faced imminent crisis.  When he playfully accused me of having naive faith in mankind, I told him, “No, I just believe in business.”  He mentioned his Netflix subscription, but I didn’t have time to rhetorically build on that foundation.

My guide knew a handful of islanders who worked in the UK, but viewed his countrymen as deeply provincial.  Cruise ships dock all the time in St. Kitts, but when I asked him if he knew anyone who worked on such a ship, he insisted, “It’s not something they would ever think about as a possibility.”  This surprised me, because workers of Caribbean origin were fairly common on my ship, especially relative to their countries’ populations.

6. Are the latter four islands the ideal comparison group for Puerto Rico?  Not really.  Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts are all former British colonies, and St. Maarten’s is so anglophone that it might as well be.  A better approach is to compare Puerto Rico with other former Spanish colonies; the Dominican Republic is the most obvious counterpart.  Since the latter’s per-capita GDP is only $9000, Puerto Rico’s open borders experiment look even better.

7. I’ve repeatedly heard people claim that open borders would turn the U.S. into Haiti.  On this journey, I was struck by the fact that almost nowhere in the Caribbean is remotely as awful as Haiti.  St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts all have roughly the same demographics has Haiti – all are 90%+ black.   They all have roughly the same history of hellish slave plantations.  Furthermore, according to the least-bad estimates, their national average IQs are all extremely low.  St. Lucia comes in second-to-last on Earth, with an average national IQ of 62 (versus Haiti’s 67).  Despite these parallels, St. Lucia roughly matches average global per-capita income, and St. Maarten, Antigua, and and St. Kitts are comfortably above this average.

8. With the able assistance of Nathaniel Bechhofer, I’ve pointed out that “Deep Roots” theories of national development are highly sensitive to population-weighting.  If you count China and India as two data points, the empirics say that national ancestry matters a lot.  When you weigh countries by their populations, however, national ancestry barely matters at all, because the two most-populous countries on Earth have done poorly in modern times despite their illustrious histories.  Critics have pushed back; each country should count as a separate “experiment,” so we should base our worldviews on the unweighted results.

Yet in that case, each and every tiny upper-middle-income Caribbean country should statistically count as much as China and India.  I just checked Putterman and Weil‘s data, and found that none of my last four islands is actually in their sample.  (Haiti and Jamaica are, but even the Bahamas fell through the cracks).  If we re-did Deep Roots estimates with ten more Caribbean data points, I predict that their results would markedly attenuate.  So would Garett’s main findings in Hive Mind.

Personally, I continue to think that population-weighting is the way to go in cross-country regressions.  If you disagree, though, you’d really better add the island nations of the Caribbean to your sample and watch what happens.

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The Honest Guide to Mindfulness

Mindfulness has (amazingly, wonderfully) become quite a buzzword in the last decade or so, and for good reason. It’s powerful, and can help us to become more present, happier, more focused, and much more.

However, if you’re new to mindfulness, it’s easy to get the wrong idea from all the marketing you’ll find online. Images of people at complete peace with the world and themselves, full of bliss, simply by sitting still and meditating for a few minutes … they are beautiful images, but they don’t tell the whole truth.

Mindfulness is powerful, and you should absolutely do it. But you should do it with your eyes wide open, knowing what’s up.

So here’s my attempt at an honest guide to mindfulness.

Mindfulness is hard. You can meditate and get antsy, want to get up, want to go do something else, plan your day, dive into your work, answer a few messages, search for some information you’re itching to know about.

Mindfulness is hard, which is a good reason to do it.

Mindfulness is messy. You’ll get started with meditation, maybe get on a streak of meditating every day, and feel really good about yourself. Then you might fall off, struggle to start again, feel bad about it. You’ll do this for years, perhaps. Or maybe you’ll meditate regularly but struggle to be mindful throughout the day, especially during certain situations like working online or while you’re eating or socializing. You’ll get better at being present, but only in spurts and starts, and the learning will be anything but smooth.

Mindfulness is messy, just like life, which is the reason to open up to the messiness instead of our usual desire for things to be orderly and neat. We can learn to accept the messiness of life if we practice with it.

Mindfulness is uncomfortable. Sitting still and facing the sensations of the present moment can feel boring. It can bring up itches that you just need to scratch right now. Urges to go to do something else, to plan and solve and remember, will come up, because they are the old mental habits. And not following those urges can be very uncomfortable.

Mindfulness is uncomfortable because it’s so rare for us not to indulge in those old mental patterns. But that’s the very reason it’s so powerful.

Mindfulness pulls the rug out from under your feet. Let’s say you’ve been practicing meditation for a few months, and you think you’re getting the hang of it. All of a sudden, everything you think you knew about meditation can be upended, as you learn something new, or as a new pattern starts to come up. Now you have to adjust to that. After a few months, you might think you know a thing or two, and then you read a book or listen to a talk from a teacher, and that gets yanked away from you too. Over and over, you get upended, and it can be very jarring each time.

Mindfulness can be jarring when you get upended. And that’s part of the magic too — feeling like we are on solid ground is an illusion, and learning to deal with the groundlessness of not knowing is an incredible practice.

Mindfulness takes a metric crap-ton of practice. You’ll suck at meditation (or any other mindfulness practice) when you first start. You can’t “do it right” or keep your attention on anything for very long. Don’t worry, you never really master it! It’s all continual practice, without ever feeling like you know exactly what you’re doing. You practice and practice, and then practice some more. You might make some progress, only to find out that you still have so much more to learn.

It takes a crapload of practice, and that’s a beautiful thing to open up to.

You’ll think you’re doing it wrong, and fail a lot. You’ll start out and continually feel like your’e doing it wrong, and that won’t feel very good. The good news is that no one knows what the hell they’re doing, and it often won’t feel very good. The better news is that it’s not supposed to feel good, and you learn to accept the idea that you’re never very sure of anything. This is what life is always like, but we just usually blame it on the external circumstances (or think there’s something wrong with us), rather than accepting this uncertainty about everything as a basic part of our lives that we can open up to and even love.

It’ll show you all your “faults.” You’ll learn through mindfulness practice that you’re not as disciplined as you’d like to be. You’re not as tough, competent, skilled, exceptional. This will become clear as you practice.

You’ll come face-to-face with all of your demons. And then you’ll make friends with them.

You’ll start to think other people should be more mindful … and you’ll be wrong. As you start to get “better” at mindfulness, and more and more aware of your habits and patterns and thoughts … as you drop into the present more often … it will become clearer when other people aren’t being mindful. And you might think they should be practicing too, that they should put their phones down and be more present. You’ll think you know how others should be mindful, because you’ve learned a thing or two.

And then you’ll realize that judging others and thinking you know how others should behave is just your mind’s old pattern of judging and trying to get control. You’ll learn to let that go too, sometimes … and when you do, that’s when you’ll become more open to connecting with others vulnerably.

It requires more than mindfulness. As you practice, you’ll find that mindfulness by itself isn’t the answer to everything. It doesn’t magically solve any problems. It’s a powerful practice, and can bring wonderful awareness to your life. But sometimes that awareness is of all the terrible things you’re feeling, all the harsh thoughts you have about yourself, all the harsh thoughts you have about other people or the world around you. Awareness doesn’t always feel good! And it doesn’t solve everything.

Mindfulness is only part of the work. The work also requires compassion — for yourself and others. It requires vulnerability and the ability to open your heart. It requires honesty and the willingness to face things. It requires being willing to love things as they are, without needing to control things. It requires letting go of what you think things should be like, letting go of what you think you should have or shouldn’t have. The work requires you to be willing to be curious, to be open, to remain in not knowing.

It is beautiful work, and requires courage. I am learning along with you, and am glad to be on this journey with a fellow explorer.

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Good to Occasionally Consider “What If?”

Everyone would be smart to consider “what if?” — especially where their beliefs and assumptions are concerned.

While it’s not healthy to dwell on it until the thought paralyzes you, “what if I’m wrong?” is essential if you like being correct.

What if I’m wrong about everything I believe? There are those who believe I am. Are they right?

What if it really were possible to change an unethical act into an ethical one just by writing some words saying it’s now OK? What if you call those words “legislation” or “the law?”

What if a group has the right to gang up and violate the life, liberty, property of others as long as they follow rules they’ve made up? Can such a right be created with rules? What if they call the act of ganging up “voting” or “governing?”

What if it’s actually OK to use violence against people who aren’t harming others? What if you call this violence “enforcing the law” and say you don’t make the laws, you just enforce them; shifting the blame to others? Is it OK as long as you pretend the people themselves are to blame for the legislation being violently imposed against them?

What if it’s OK to take other people’s property without their explicit consent? You could call it “taxation,” “fines,” asset forfeiture, or eminent domain. What if you don’t completely steal the property, but only steal its value to the owner through acts you call “code enforcement” or “zoning?”

What if you really do have the right to control what others ingest? What if you call it a war on drugs instead of admitting it’s a war on sick people?

What if it’s ethical to prohibit or ration self-defense and the tools that are most effective for that purpose? What if you claim it’s about safety or crime?

What if working for government does give a person extra rights others can’t have? Would it change anything if they call it “authority” instead of a right?

What if it’s OK to be dishonest about what you do as long as you mean well? Never mind the real-world consequences, your intentions are what matter. Right?

Would this be a society you’d want to live in? It wouldn’t be for me. In fact, I wouldn’t call it a society except in the loosest sense.

I might be wrong. Any of us might be. When you’re willing to consider the possibility you could be wrong, real thinking begins.

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Don’t Scare Kids with Political Fears

I remember the panic I felt about tornado warnings as a child. It didn’t matter whether my family was in danger; I wasn’t informed enough to know whether we were. I didn’t understand that worry isn’t helpful, and I wasn’t able to change things. There was nothing meaningful I could do.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard of local children scared that World War III had begun. They’ve overheard adults talking about it and were worried. I did my best to explain things and calm the fears of one kid; hopeful that she’d calm her friends.

It would be great if adults would stop acting like scared children; overreacting about politics, science, and other things they don’t understand as well as they imagine they do.

This pattern repeats both locally and on a global scale.

In recent months an angry Swedish teen gained attention because she believes the planet is being destroyed by carbon dioxide. She’s scared … and she blames you.

All because she has been shown one side of a debate by people who don’t want dissent. Their political agenda — their power and position — depends on the narrative going a particular way. She is being used as their political pawn.

I’m not even claiming she’s necessarily wrong. Regardless of what you’ve been told, no one knows. Climate predictions about the long-term are not much better than a guess. But the way she has been frightened and used is wrong without question. Do you really want to ruin a young person’s life based on speculation?

Political events may even be worse. To pretend you know for certain that one politician having another politician killed is going to cause a world war — and scaring children with this kind of talk — is irresponsible. Or worse.

If you want to worry, go ahead. But to scare kids with this kind of thing isn’t right.

I’m not saying to keep them ignorant. You can discuss the facts without sharing scary doomsday conclusions.

It’s different to educate a kid on the dangers of getting into a stranger’s car. They have control over this. None of us can save or destroy the planet, and politicians are going to do what politicians do. In fact, you can’t be certain which path results in destruction and which one comes out better in the long run. You can guess. You can apply your beliefs. But you can’t know.

To scare children over things no one can know for certain is child abuse.

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Crazy People Work on the Most Interesting Stuff

Think of the most exciting possible inventions and discoveries you can imagine.

Deep space travel. Telepathy. Wireless electricity. Anti-gravity. Cold fusion. Terraforming. etc.

If you poke around YouTube or podcasts or badly designed websites, you’ll find people working on them. Devoting years to research and experimentation. You’ll notice their passion and conviction. But you’ll also notice something else: most of them are kinda crazy. Whether or not they are discovering anything true, you suspect they would be the last people on earth capable of bringing their idea to market or even credibly explaining it outside their niche circles.

But if you poke around places full of high achieving people with sharp minds, big vision, and lots of ability, you won’t hear them say stuff like, “I’m working on faster than light travel. I think the current model of physics is all wrong, and I suspect it’s possible so I want to prove it.”

Most of the best, most respected minds seem to be employed on the more mundane stuff. Sure, they’re doing cool valuable stuff (except when they go into politics), but how often does it question the most fundemental assumptions?

We know so very little about reality. We don’t even know what we don’t know, or whether what we know is actually true. And the most fundamental stuff – the nature and origin of the universe, our planet, our species, the basic rules of the physical strata, consciousness, death and beyond – is the stuff most of us spend the least time on.

Except the crazy people. They live there.

Part of the crazy label comes because they are working on this stuff. To examine widely accepted beliefs is often considered crazy. Part of the label is because most of the time these people are crazy. So it feeds itself. People who don’t know how to be normal are more likely to go into crazy stuff because they have less to lose. The more they do, the more the belief that “only crazy people study that” is re-enforced and better minds are repelled.

I’m not trying to place blame or cast judgement. I’m trying to understand this phenomenon. It’s the same thing that causes most conversations with neighbors and acquaintances to be so boring. Most of us – myself included – are not willing to dive into crazy stuff most of the time. If your reputation is shot, say, because you’re crazy, it’s easier.

Conformity is a powerful force. I try to do a little something every day to combat it. A world of crazy questions is much more interesting than a world of probably wrong answers no one wants to talk about.

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Iraq: America’s Other “Longest War”

As the calendar prepares to flip from 2019 to 2020, protesters stormed the US embassy in Baghdad.  As I write this, the action — a response to US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria which killed at least 25 and wounded more than 50 — hasn’t yet become a reprise of the Iran hostage crisis of 40 years ago, but it’s eerily reminiscent.

Although few Americans seem to notice, Iraq is arguably the second-longest war in US history.

Mainstream media often refer to the 18-year US occupation of Afghanistan as “America’s longest war.” That claim is wrong on its face.

Setting aside a century of “Indian wars” and two decades of involvement in Vietnam prior to the 1965 escalation, the Korean War handily takes the “longest war” prize:  It began in 1950 and has merely been in ceasefire status, with occasional flare-ups and no final settlement, since 1953. If wars were people, the Korean War would be collecting Social Security.

The US war in Iraq is approaching its 28th birthday, also with no end in sight.

It began in January of 1991 with Operation Desert Storm (“the liberation of Kuwait” from Iraqi occupation). The 12 years between that “mother of all battles” and the 2003 US invasion were punctuated by US bombings to facilitate a Kurdish secession movement in the north,  protect persecuted Shiites in the south, and provide convenient distractions from assorted Clinton administration peccadilloes.

Following the short, sharp conventional fighting phase of the invasion, the war remained a very hot conflict — a combination of civil war and anti-occupation insurgency — for years following US president George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” announcement in May of 2003.

A brief cooling period accompanied Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, but by 2014 American troops (and “civilian contractors,” i.e mercenaries) were once again arriving to intervene in the new regime’s fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The airstrikes which sparked the current protests were carried out in response to a rocket attack on a regime military base in which one of the aforementioned American mercenaries was killed.

The bigger picture:

The US government is using Iraq as a staging area for its ongoing actions in Syria and against Iran (which it blames for this specific rocket attack and for its backing of militias in Iraq in general).

US president Donald Trump talks a good “let’s get out of all these stupid wars” game. But in actuality he has increased, and continues to increase, the size of US military deployments to, and the tempo of US military operations in, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Several thousand US troops remain in Iraq and the war looks likely to stretch into a fourth decade.

There is, of course, an alternative: Trump could put his money where his mouth is and begin withdrawing US troops from the region instead of continuing to pour American blood and treasure into a series of conflicts which should never have happened in the first place.

Peace on Earth? Maybe not. But the US going home and minding its own business would be a good start.

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