Modern Civilization: Impressive, but Not Great

Modern civilization is uniquely capable of rebuilding great cathedrals, but it is uniquely incapable of building great cathedrals. It is capable of spectacular recreation, but it is spectacularly incapable of creation. It commands unprecedented resources, but it often uses them in an unprecedentedly unresourceful manner. It is remarkably long on qualitative potential, but remarkably short on qualitative achievement.

In other words, it is an all-purpose tool without a purpose: an embodiment not so much of a tragically necessary tradeoff, but of a tragically wasted opportunity. Thus, what it needs is not will, but discipline, not progress, but direction, not freedom from arbitrary discrimination, but freedom to prudent discrimination, and not unrestricted self-realization, but the unhampered pursuit of virtue.

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Reflections on The Sopranos

I just finished re-watching the entirety of The Sopranos, HBO’s classic Mafia drama. I saw it season-by-season when it originally aired (1999-2007), and I still hew to the allegedly philistine view that the ending was not only bad, but insulting. Overall, though the show’s reputation is well-deserved. Here are the top social science insights I take away. (minor spoilers)

1. Human motivation is overdetermined. For any important action, people usually have several plausible reasons, and pinpointing the marginal factor is nigh impossible. Thus, does Tony kill Ralph because he believes Ralph torched their racehorse? Because Ralph denied doing so? Because Tony had stolen Ralph’s girlfriend, and didn’t believe Ralph was OK with it? Or was it all because Tony never forgave Ralph for murdering his own pregnant girlfriend a season earlier?

2. Humans are unbelievably petty. By providing readers with an array of credible motives, the show leads us to think that small grievances at least occasionally cause massive reactions. When Paulie murders his mother’s elderly frenemy, for example, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that he wouldn’t have done so if the frenemy hadn’t tried to wrongfully appropriate his mother’s dinner rolls. Similarly, Carmela doesn’t try to divorce Tony because he’s a serial adulterer or brutal criminal. She’s known both for years.  Instead, she tries to divorce him because Irina, Tony’s ex-girlfriend, calls Carmela’s home to tattle that Tony slept with Irina’s one-legged cousin.

3. Out of sight, out of mind. In The Sopranos, criminals and non-criminals routinely interact. The non-criminals would have to be fools not to realize that the criminals aren’t merely violent, but murderous. Still, as long as the non-criminals do not witness the violence with their own eyes, they barely care. Even when they discover details that would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the horrifying had happened, they look the other way. Thus, everyone except Adriana’s mother gets over her disappearance (murder, actually) with minimal cognitive dissonance. Never mind that her boyfriend was a junkie who repeatedly beat her; Adriana must have just decided out of the blue to leave New Jersey and never talk to her family or friends again.

4. A disciplined organized crime family can act with near-impunity. It’s easy to catch the typical murderer because the typical murderer murders someone he personally wants to murder. A crime family, however, can handily re-allocate its crimes so everyone lacks a personal motive for the crimes he personally commits. Criss cross! When Adriana tries to get Chrissy into witness protection, he doesn’t murder her. Instead, he tells Tony, who delegates the job to Silvio.

5. Organized crime families are not, in fact, disciplined. Criminals are overwhelmingly impulsive, macro males. So even though they have a great social technology for manufacturing ironclad alibis, they routinely fail to use it. Early in the series, Chrissy shoots a random baker in the foot in broad daylight. A great way to get caught… but Chrissy felt slighted, so he shot anyway. Ralphie beats his pregnant girlfriend to death in the Bing parking lot because she insulted his manhood.

6. Hedonic adaptation is mighty. The leading criminals on the show aren’t just filthy rich; they’re very popular with the ladies. Yet these criminals almost never count their blessings or stop to smell the flowers. Instead, they’re deeply bitter – and constantly on the edge of throwing temper tantrums. The wives of the leading criminals objectively have even less to complain about; they enjoy their husbands’ riches without ever facing the danger and brutality of acquiring those riches. Even so, the mob wives spend their days complaining and feeling sorry for themselves. Carmela, Tony’s wife, is the clearest case. Her main happy minutes come when she unwraps new jewels and furs. The rest of the time, she’s crinkling her nose with crankiness.

7. Rooting for the bad guy is easy… as long as he’s got charisma. If you neutrally described the typical Sopranos episode, almost anyone hypothetical juror would hand down centuries of jail time.  As you watch, however, righteous verdicts are far from your mind. Why? Because the criminals have amusing personalities. My family’s personal favorite is Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri; we can’t stop quoting this scene:

Paulie: As far as f***n’ bears are concerned, I say, get rid of them all. They had their turn, and now we got ours. That’s why dinosaurs don’t exist no more.

Dancer: Wasn’t it a meteor?

Paulie: They’re all meat eaters.

Chris: Meteor, me-te-or.

How can we feel such affection for a sadistic killer like Paulie?  Because he’s hilarious, and we’re in no danger.  Oh, and how he loves his mother!

8. Psychiatric language is largely a set of excuses and power-plays.  The Sopranos addresses anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, sociopathy, Borderline Personality Disorder, and much more.  Yet in virtually every case, it acknowledges that there is, to quote psychiatrists’ psychiatrist Elliot Kupferberg, a reasonable “pre-therapeutic” take on the same situation.  Yes, you can say that addicts are helpless victims of a “disease.”  But you can also say that addicts are people who willfully place their own self-destructive habits over family harmony.  Indeed, The Sopranos standardly insinuates that psychiatric language mostly boils down to Social Desirability BiasIf a character has ADHD, he’s sick and needs help; only a monster would growl, “Man up and work harder.”  But as the plot plays out, attentive viewers will notice that it’s the no-nonsense approach that fits the facts and improves behavior.  Even psychiatrist Dr. Melfi reverts to old-fashioned theories of personal responsibility when she exits her office; if you cross her, she’ll lash out no matter what psychiatric labels you carry.

The only clear-cut exception to this psychiatric skepticism is Uncle Junior’s dementia.  Even here, he starts out as a faker, feigning dementia to delay his trial.  By the end of the show, however, Junior’s run out of money – and can’t remember where he stashed his emergency funds.  Indeed, he barely knows who he is anymore.  The lesson: Dementia, unlike the other mental problems characters face, is a hard constraint rather than an exotic preference.

9. Despite ubiquitous ambiguity, right and wrong is fairly obvious if you calm down and detach yourself from your society. In season 3, a lone righteous character, psychiatrist Dr. Krakower, sees through a web of wrong-doing and lame excuses in a matter of minutes.  Carmela Soprano goes to Krakower for help, and he delivers The Moral Answers.  Highlights from one of the greatest scenes of all time:

Carmela: […] [Tony’s] a good man, a good father.

Krakower: You tell me he’s a depressed criminal. Prone to anger. Serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man?

Carmela: I thought psychiatrists weren’t supposed to be judgmental.

Krakower: Many patients want to be excused for their current predicament. Because of events that occurred in their childhood. That’s what psychiatry has become in America. Visit any shopping mall or ethnic pride parade. Witness the results.

Carmela: What we say in here stays in here, right?

Krakower: By ethical code and by law.

Carmela: His crimes. They are, uh, organized crimes.

Krakower: The mafia.

Carmela: Oh so, so what? So what? He betrays me every week with these whores.

Krakower: Probably the least of his misdeeds.  You can leave now, or you can you stay and hear what I have to say.

Carmela: Well, you’re gonna charge the same anyway.

Krakower: I won’t take your money.

Carmela: That’s a new one.

Krakower: You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about. As long as you’re his accomplice.

[…]

Carmela: So . . . You think I need to define my boundaries more clearly. Keep a certain distance. Not internalize my–

Krakower: What did I just say?

Carmela: Leave him.

Krakower: Take only the children, or what’s left of them, and go.

[…]

Carmela: I’d have to, uh, get a lawyer. Find an apartment. Arrange for child support.

Krakower: You’re not listening. I am not charging you because I won’t take blood money. And you can’t either. One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.

10. Dylan Matthews and Tyler Cowen notwithstanding, the Columbus Day episode was hilarious and wise.  The veneration of this murderous slaver isn’t just shameful; it exposes the shameful essence of identity politics of every description.  And what better vessels for these truisms than a gang of self-righteously aggrieved mafiosi?

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The Dissident Ambassador

In a new paper, Greg Mankiw shares some thoughtful reflections on teaching and heterodoxy:

I have always thought that instructors, especially in introductory courses, are like ambassadors for the economics profession. The role of ambassadors is not to represent their own views but to act as agents for their principal. Just as ambassadors are supposed to faithfully represent the perspective of their nations, the instructor in an introductory course (and intermediate courses as well) should faithfully represent the views shared by the majority of professional economists.

[…]

This perspective of instructor as ambassador raises the question of what instructors should do if they hold views far from the mainstream of the economics profession. If you are an Austrian or Marxist economist, for example, what should you do if asked to teach an introductory course? In my view, there are only two responsible courses of action. One is to sublimate your own views and spend most of the course teaching what the mainstream believes, even if you disagree with it. Because many introductory students will take only one or two courses in economics throughout their educations, it would be pedagogical malpractice, in my judgment, to focus on an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint. The other responsible course of action is to avoid teaching introductory (and even intermediate) courses entirely. In a more advanced elective, there is nothing wrong with teaching an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint, as long as students know what they are getting.

Mankiw’s view definitely resonates with me, but my position – and my practice – is rather different.  I say that a professor’s fundamental fiduciary duty is to teach their students about the world – not what his peers think about the world.  As long as your discipline is fundamentally sound, fortunately, these two goals closely overlap.  If your discipline is a corrupt pseudo-science, however, your obligations to your students require you to teach heterodoxy.  Sure, you’ll have to explain the normal view in the process of debunking it.   Yet it’s a dereliction of duty to teach nonsense as fact.

Analogously, by the way, it’s fine to act as a loyal ambassador for a fundamentally virtuous organization.  But if you’re the ambassador for North Korea, you have not only the right but the obligation to be a traitor.  “I’m just promoting my client’s interests” is as flimsy a defense as “I’m just following orders.”  See Mike Huemer on legal ethics for further discussion.

Since I am a professional economist, I’m happy to say that I don’t consider my discipline a corrupt pseudo-science.  However, economics is also far from “fundamentally sound.”  When I teach, then, I try to split the difference.  I spend about half of the time as Mankiw recommends: neutrally describing the economic consensus.  When the consensus is far from the truth, though, I go out of my way to amend it.

Yes, I try to plainly disclose whether I’m describing the research consensus or just telling them what’s actually reasonable to believe.  And no, I don’t penalize students for arguing that the consensus is right and Caplan is wrong.  Some of my exams even require students to disagree with me!  Still, my primary goal is to teach students how the economy works, not what most economists happen to believe.

Furthermore, the only economics students who really need to understand the current conventional wisdom of economics are… graduate students!  After all, no matter how misguided the research consensus happens to be, you can’t be a successful researcher unless you understand it.  Most Econ 1 students, in stark contrast, will never take another economics class.  So the sole economics instructor they’re ever going to have should rigidly focus on economic reality.  Thus, I essentially reverse Mankiw’s advice to confine “idiosyncratic minority viewpoints” to advanced students.  No matter what you think about Keynesianism, you have a fiduciary responsibility to teach your grad students all about it.  Otherwise, they’ll be at a severe professional handicap.  For undergrads, in contrast, the truth of Keynesianism is pivotal.  If your students’ lifetime commitment to economics comes to fifteen weeks, it would be silly to spend five weeks on an intellectual dead-end.

Am I saying that professors should teach whatever they feel is true?  No; a thousand times no.  If you use your “feelings” to form beliefs, you shouldn’t be a professor at all.  The first fiduciary duty of every intellectual is to set emotions aside, and calmly and patiently study a wide range of arguments and evidence.  Once you’ve done that, however, you owe it to your students to share the fruits of your labors.  And if, along the way, you discover that your discipline is misguided, you should let your students know that, too.

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Irresponsibility Is the Youth-Killer

There’s this myth in our culture that youth is a blank check to be irresponsible. “Have fun and cut loose a little,” older folks tell us, not without a little envy.

But being young is not the opposite of being responsible. And to be carefree is not the same as to be irresponsible. In fact, irresponsibility is the youth-killer – the very reason that our older friends and family look and feel the part of the elderly before their time.

The 20 or 30 year-old who eats irresponsibly (“donuts! pizza!” etc.) becomes the overweight and chronically-ill 40 or 50-year old.

The 20 or 30 year-old who manages finances irresponsibly (“let’s go out for margaritas every night!” etc.) becomes the 40 or 50 year-old with no retirement plan and debt which will outlive them.

The 20 or 30-year old who fails to take responsibility in work (“I just want to have a high-status job,” etc. ) becomes the corporate drone, the underachiever, or the sycophantic overachiever at 40 or 50.

The 20 or 30-year old who dates irresponsibly (“I’m just looking for a good time!”) becomes the 40 or 50-year old with one or more divorces.

This should scare you very much.

Time goes quickly (as 20-somethings discover), and action inevitably seeks its consequences. If you would keep your youth, dump this idea that your youth gives you so much margin for error. You can make some mistakes, but you can’t afford to live destructive lifestyles day-in and day-out.

Run like hell from people who want you to squander your youth with them.

Youth is a gift your parents’ responsibility gives you at birth. It’s a gift you only get to keep if you choose the path of responsibility. That path of responsibility is the only thing which maintains the attributes of youth which we (rightly) love: good health, strength, freedom, curiosity of mind, beauty.

These things we value take great work and great care. And they can last for a tremendously long time. There are 70-somethings running long distances and 80-somethings skiing down mountains. And you can be one of them.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The First Rungs on the Success Ladder

We live in abundant times. This presents an interesting conundrum when it comes to succeeding.

Success is not the result of pure luck or genetics. Success is a discipline that can be learned. You can deliberately build your ability to succeed. Pick a challenge. One that’s hard but not too hard. Persist until you figure out how to overcome that challenge. It builds confidence that you take with you to the next, slightly bigger challenge. That’s how you learn success.

But what if you begin with a challenge that’s too big?

You can just as easily learn failure. I don’t mean learn from failure, which is what happens while you’re persisting at a challenge that’s big enough but not too big. I mean learn failure as a habit or mindset. If you take on a challenge outside your current capabilities, you will in all likelihood get disheartened, internalize your insufficiency, and extrapolate it broadly.

Thus the conundrum of an age of abundance.

If we accept some form of Maslow’s hierarchy, the most basic human challenges of food, shelter, and safety are taken care of. We’re born into the middle of the pyramid. This is not a bad thing. I don’t want my kids to have to scavenge for food and clothing. But because success compounds, those born into abundance can miss out on the first, most basic forms of success, and then find the rest out of reach.

The extreme example of the kid born into great wealth and status is familiar to us from books and movies. The first challenge that kid is faced with is self-actualization. All the smaller battles have been won on her behalf. That is a really massive challenge. No wonder there are so many dysfunctional trust fund babies.

But it’s not just the uber-elite. A lot of young people feel like failures and struggle to succeed at anything. In the world of careers, with which I am very familiar, you have people in their twenties taking on their first job and experiencing existential trauma because they feel the need to find work that speaks to their deepest calling. They’re starting with self-actualization, which is too big a challenge.

They never had to fight the small battle of just learning to finish a task without praise. They never had to fight the slightly bigger battle of earning their first five dollars. They never overcame the challenge of learning to show up on time and not get fired. They never learned to overcome escalating social challenges like being ignored or misunderstood.

Well-intentioned parents save their kids from all the small, early challenges and point the kid to big ones. The kid who never learned how to cope with not being chosen first in basketball is told “Get into an elite university”, or, “Become a doctor”, or, “Make me proud.”

So a lot of people are wandering around feeling lost because they don’t know how to “make a dent in the universe”. It’s not because they are failures. It’s because they skipped too many steps. Figure out how to walk before you try to run.

Imagine if we tried to help babies out by building mechanical legs and hooking them up to IVs. “Poor kid was crawling on the floor, barely mobile, and totally reliant upon his mother for food. We’ve solved that, now he can move around and tackle bigger, more creative problems!”

It would destroy the development process. The kid would never walk, never bond, and probably have digestive health and psychological issues forever.

When we remove grunt work, low pay jobs, skinned knees, hurt feelings on the playground, and all the small challenges that kids confront first, we remove the first rungs on the success ladder. When we place big epic battles for meaning as the first our kids ever face, we make failure easier to learn than success.

Fight smaller battles. Win them. Then fight slightly bigger battles.

Don’t worry about slaying dragons until you learn to swat flies.

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Susan Radzilowski: Practical Strategies for Peaceful Parenting (1h7m)

This episode features a parenting workshop by social worker Susan Radzilowski from 2016. This workshop views behavior through the lens of positive parenting. A guiding principle of this framework is to remember that all behavior has meaning. Using positive discipline strategies when your child’s behavior is a concern can help to transform problem behaviors into teachable moments. Purchase books on peaceful parenting through the EVC Recommended Links page here.

Listen To This Episode (1h7m, mp3, 64kbps)

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