It’s More Than Just Willpower

It breaks my heart every time I pass someone sleeping in the street. I go through a mental process, wondering what circumstances, preferences, and choices get a person to a spot where sleeping on the sidewalk is better than the next best alternative.

I do not want to deny free will. It’s possible there’s a homeless person somewhere who thinks my life is miserable and theirs is better. It seems more likely nobody really wants to sleep on the sidewalk, but somehow they get to a place where that seems better or easier than whatever would be needed to sleep indoors.

I think about my own life. There are a lot of things I experience that I don’t really want to experience, but I lack the creativity, willpower, or knowledge needed to make choices that would help me avoid those experiences. I’m always living sub-optimally in some way. It’s always a combination of circumstances and choices. I’m always choosing at least a little less than what I know would be best, and sometimes a lot.

I’ve had mostly good incentive structures around me. In part from circumstances I was born into, in part from those I’ve created. To the extent that the incentive structures are good, my behavior and outcomes are good. When those structures are neutral or bad, my choices typically follow.

I think willpower can be built over time, such that a person who’s learned to make good, tough choices gets better at it. But in the beginning, and at the individual point of choosing, I don’t think any two humans are that different. We seek our self interest as defined by our subjective preferences given our current information, resources, and understanding. Those variables of preference, information, resources, and understanding are the elements of the incentive structure.

I try to find, cultivate, and stay in good incentive structures because I know that without them, my choices are capable of leading me somewhere I don’t want to go.

So much for me. What about the people still sleeping on the street? I don’t know. That’s probably why my attention turns to my own life pretty quickly. It’s something I can work with and control at least to some extent. I don’t know what to do for them. That’s part of the heartbreak.

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Los Angeles: Homelessness Meets Economics 101

“We can’t arrest our way out of this. We can’t shelter our way out of this. We have to house our way out of this,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said last year while campaigning for a measure to spend $1.2 billion in taxpayer money over ten years on housing for his city’s homeless population.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who backed a $355 million county sales tax initiative to provide services to the homeless in the county, calls it “the height of contradiction” that homelessness is growing in a prosperous state.

The results? “The stunning increase in homelessness announced in Los Angeles this week — up 16% over last year citywide,” reports CNN, “was an almost incomprehensible conundrum given the nation’s booming economy and the hundreds of millions of dollars that city, county and state officials have directed toward the problem.”

There’s nothing “stunning” or “incomprehensible” about it.

Eric Garcetti, Mark Ridley-Thomas, meet Ronald Reagan: “If you want more of something, subsidize it.”

Los Angeles is already an inherently attractive destination for the homeless for several reasons ranging from climate (homelessness in, say, the midwest can mean freezing to death if you can’t find a shelter bed) to jobs (large metro with lots of employers) to transportation (mass transit for those without cars) to an already larger concentration than rural areas of both private charities and government services aimed at their problems.

What did Ridley-Thomas and Garcetti EXPECT to happen when they announced their plans to stack hundreds of millions of dollars in new government assistance on top of those inherent attractions?

If I was homeless in the western United States, I’d make a beeline for LA. You probably would too.

Garcetti is correct that housing is key to reducing homelessness. But  “free” or subsidized housing attracts people who want to live in it faster than it can be built.

If Garcetti and Ridley-Thomas want to address homelessness with housing, they should get to work reducing tax and regulatory burdens — everything from zoning regulations to permit requirements to rent control ordinances  —  that make it more expensive, difficult, and time-consuming, and less profitable, to build new housing in Los Angeles than it should be.

Unfortunately, however good their intentions, politicians hate giving up any amount of power and control over any activity. LA’s politicians will probably just continue pouring gasoline on the fire and wondering why it gets hotter instead of burning out.

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Election 2020: Biden Gets One Thing Right, But it May Cost Him

On June 5, former vice-president Joe Biden’s presidential campaign confirmed to The Hill that Biden still supports the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal taxpayer funds for abortions (with exceptions). His opponents instantly piled on, hoping to erase his commanding lead in the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential primary polls.

Abortion is shaping up as a key election issue to a degree we haven’t seen in decades.  Republican state legislatures are pushing increasingly draconian bans in a play to put Roe v. Wade before what they hope will be a more pro-life Supreme Court bench than in the past. Democratic states are pulling in the other direction, attempting to protect abortion choice over as wide a time frame as possible.

The center isn’t always the best place to be, especially in a party primary cycle. Nor, says my most cynical self, is Joe Biden especially well-known for clinging to principle over party. But in this case that’s exactly what he’s doing … and in this case he’s absolutely right.

“I will continue to abide by the same principle that has guided me throughout my 21 years in the Senate,”  Biden wrote to a constituent in 1994. “[T]hose of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them. As you may know, I have consistently — on no fewer than 50 occasions — voted against federal funding of abortions.”

Whatever you think about abortion as such, that SHOULD be a position most of us can agree on. Even Congress has agreed on it  — 44 times! They passed the Hyde Amendment in 1976 and have renewed it every year since, regardless of whether the House and Senate were controlled by Democrats or by Republicans at any given time.

Who doesn’t agree?

The National Abortion Rights Action League, which defends “access” to abortion but re-defines “access” as meaning “everyone else pays for it.”

Planned Parenthood, which wants its half a billion dollars in annual corporate welfare from Uncle Sugar dispensed without conditions.

Most of the other 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates, who want endorsements from NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and the campaign contributions that they expect such endorsements to encourage.

Above, I mention that the Hyde Amendment includes exceptions. Those exceptions are for rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life. The only procedures covered by the federal funding ban are purely elective abortions, and not even all of those.

Obviously pro-life Americans have good reasons to support the Hyde Amendment. But so do pro-choice Americans, if they’re really pro-choice.

Whether or not to have an abortion is your choice.

Whether or not the rest of us pick up the check for your choice should be our choice, not Planned Parenthood’s or NARAL’s.

Stick to your guns, Joe.

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Why is Immigration a “Contentious Issue in Classical Liberalism”?

“Contentious Issues in Classical Liberalism” was the theme of this year’s Mont Pelerin Society.  This gave me a chance to explore a major puzzle: Sociologically, immigration clearly deserves to be on the agenda.  After all, many people otherwise sympathetic to human freedom and free markets support even more immigration restrictions than we already have.  Intellectually, however, it’s hard to see why.

The plot thickens when you notice that pro-freedom immigration skeptics routinely use arguments that almost never use in any other context, starting with:

1. Collective ownership.  Yes, if countries are the collective property of their citizens, then they have a right to regulate immigration.  But this also implies nations’ right to regulate everything else, too!  You can’t live on my land without my consent, but neither can you open a store on my land without my consent, or even hire someone to work on my land for less than the minimum wage without my consent.

2. Collective guilt.  Yes, if e.g. foreign Muslims are collectively guilty for whatever wrongs foreign Muslims have done in the past, then immigration restrictions against Muslims would be justified.  But this also implies that other people can legitimately hold us collectively guilty for whatever wrongs “we’ve” done in the past.  So affirmative action, reparations for slavery and colonialism, returning land to American Indians, and much more are suddenly on the agenda.

3. Shocking anecdotes.  Yes, if we ought to take shocking anecdotes seriously, then any awful immigrant action on CNN justifies a major policy response.  But this also implies that shocking anecdotes about poverty, health care, worker safety, and the environment on CNN also justify major policy responses.

4. Popular support.  Yes, if “This is what citizens want, and they’re entitled to get their way,” then immigration restrictions easily pass muster.  But so do virtually all the policies classical liberals traditionally oppose, starting with protectionism and a bunch of price controls.

Unless you’re going to abandon the whole classical liberal framework, basic intellectual hygiene requires you to excise any argument along these lines.  What remains?  Only arguments claiming that the consequences of immigration are awful enough to overcome the standard classical liberal presumption against government action.

How does that approach fare?  See my full presentation to find out.  Bonus: A bunch of Zach Weinersmith cartoons!

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Keeping Score

Nobody asked but …

Big Six Henderson was a Revenuer, and remains a folk legend in Kentucky — here is a good article.  In later life, he served also as the timekeeper for the Western Kentucky Teachers College basketball team.  Truth and Big Six’s stories sometimes aligned, but I cannot attest here.  It is related that Big Six once said, after WK won on a last (or perhaps beyond last) second shot, “There’s no reason to lose if you’re the one keeping score.”  Whether he said it, or not, the thing itself seems true.

Remember when POTUS took credit for the commercial airline safety record?  POTUS is an instinctive storyteller.  The process is called controlling the narrative.  It consists of cherry picking the factoids, and to a lesser degree, the facts — or re-arranging the frame.

Here is another article, in which POTUS seeks to abolish poverty by redefining it.  Remember that he also reports frequently on progress of the border wall, turning imagination into infrastructure.

This is nothing new. LBJ, FDR, WW, TR, and Honest Abe (sic) were past masters.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Today’s Schools Are Yesterday’s Streetcars: How Technology Will Transform Education

We can predict the future of education by glimpsing the past of transportation. Fueled by technological innovation, namely electricity, streetcars gradually replaced the horse-and-buggy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, followed by mass-produced automobiles that ultimately toppled the streetcar.

Throughout the 20th century, cars became safer, faster, cleaner, and cheaper and allowed individuals unprecedented mobility and autonomy. Then, in the 21st century, car-sharing applications showed how technology could once again disrupt the transportation industry, expanding rider options and challenging entrenched systems of control.

Personalized Learning

Education transformation will take a similar path. Fueled by technological innovation, schools are now in the middle of their streetcar moment. Chalkboards are still ubiquitous, but computers are increasingly being used not only to supplement learning but also to administer it. Personalized learning, as this technology-enabled classroom education is called, is all the rage.

In public schools like those using Summit Learning, a personalized, online learning approach developed by Facebook engineers and funded by Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, the computer becomes the teacher, executing a largely self-paced curriculum and offering more flexibility and autonomy for students.True education transformation will come when learners realize that they don’t need an intermediary at all. The platform has sparked controversy, as some parents and educators resist change. Like the streetcar and transportation, personalized learning in schools is altering and modernizing the educational landscape. But it is just a launchpad.

True education transformation will come when learners realize that they don’t need an intermediary at all. Personalized learning in conventional schools will shift to self-directed education or unschooling, driven by the learner herself using the resource-rich networks of both real and digital communities. As Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society:

The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.

Illich wrote those words in 1970 before the technological webs now at our fingertips were ever imagined. The funnel model of education, even when augmented by technology, is simply passé. Conflating learning with schooling, mired in coercion and a controlled curriculum, is an outdated idea. Schooling is something that others do to you; learning is something you do for yourself.

A New Perspective on Learning Itself

We already see how this works in our own adult lives. Just as the first automobiles began to disrupt old notions of transportation, recent technological innovations are recalibrating the way we learn. Whether it’s using YouTube to fix a toilet, Duolingo to learn a language, Audible to listen to books, or FaceTime to have lessons with your guitar instructor, technological platforms and applications are quickly helping us to shed our schooled vision of learning. Increasingly, we see that we can self-educate by following our own curiosities and pursuing our own personal and professional goals.

We can choose our own teachers and select the learning tools that work best for us. In his book, Illich wrote,

School prepares for the institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.

Technology frees us from this institutional paradigm of education and lets us teach ourselves.

It can do the same for our children. As our own relationship to learning shifts in response to new technologies that make information and knowledge more accessible, we may begin to question the worn-out ways our children learn. As we realize the value and reward of self-education in our own lives, we’ll want to give this gift to our children.

Minimally Invasive Education

In his academic papers and award-winning 2013 TED Talk, Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra explains how children teach themselves without institutional schooling. His “hole in the wall” studies have been widely cited, showing how children from the poorest slums of India to elsewhere around the world are able to learn to read, to teach themselves English, and to understand advanced scientific content (like DNA replication) simply by having access to an Internet-enabled public computer.

Mitra calls this approach “minimally invasive education” and concludes in his talk:

If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen.

Thanks to technology, we adults now see this learning emerge all the time in our own lives. It can be the same for our children.

In the 21st century, the transportation industry was jolted again by technological innovation. Uber, Lyft, and other car-sharing companies challenged longstanding local monopolies, granting riders more choice and flexibility with better service and lower costs. Next, autonomous vehicles may be the new wave of disruptive innovation in transportation. Meanwhile, in education, technology will continue to expand access to resources, information, knowledge, and skills that make self-education outside of schooling not only possible but preferable.

Like the streetcar and horse-and-buggy, institutional schooling will become a cultural relic, a quaint reminder of yesteryear. We will realize that non-coercive, technology-enabled, self-directed education in collaboration with others results in better, more meaningful, more enduring learning than its institutional predecessors can offer. We will realize that we can be educated without being schooled. Indeed, the future is here.

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