The Depression Preference

When I describe mental illness as “an extreme, socially disapproved preference,” the most convincing counter-example people offer is depression.  Do I really think people “want to be depressed” or choose depression as a bizarre alternative lifestyle?

My quick answer: These objections confuse preferences with meta-preferences.

No one chooses to have the gene for cilantro aversion.  Yet people with the cilantro aversion gene are perfectly able to eat this vegetable.  They just strongly prefer not to.

Similarly, when I say that alcoholics are people who value heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages more than family harmony, this doesn’t mean that they like having these priorities.  If they could press a button which would eliminate their craving for alcohol, I bet many alcoholics would press it.  But given their actual cravings, they prefer to keep drinking heavily despite the suffering of their families.

The same holds even more strongly for the typical person diagnosed with clinical depression.  Most people with loving families and successful careers are happy.  Clinically depressed people, however, often have both loving families and successful careers, yet still want to kill themselves.  Their preference is so extreme that it confuses the rest of us.  They’d almost surely rather have a different preference.  But it is their preference nonetheless.

Not convinced?  Think back to the early 1970s, when psychiatrists still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.  I object, “Mental disorder?  No, it’s just an extreme, socially disapproved preference.”  When critics incredulously respond, “Do you really think people choose to be gay?,” I say they’re confusing preferences with meta-preferences.  To be gay is to sexually prefer people of your own gender.  This doesn’t mean that gays want to feel this way.  If a gay-to-straight conversion button existed in the intolerant world of 1960, I bet that most gays would have gladly pushed it for themselves.  Even today, I think many gay teens would press the conversion button to fit in and avoid conflict.  But so what?  Hypothetical buttons can’t transform a preference into a disorder.

Is this all just a word game?  No.  The economic distinction between preferences and constraints that I’m drawing upon has three big substantive implications here.

First, people with extreme preferences could make different choices.  People with cilantro aversion are able to eat cilantro.  Alcoholics are able to stop drinking.  The depressed can refrain from suicide.  And so on.  This is fundamentally different from my inability to bench press 300 pounds – or live to be 150 years old.

Second, as a corollary, people with extreme preferences can – and routinely do – respond to incentives.  People with cilantro aversion are more likely to eat cilantro if other foods are expensive or inconvenient.  Alcoholics respond to alcohol taxes – and family pressure.  Depressed parents may delay suicide until their kids are grown.  Even in a tragic situation, incentives matter.*

Third, as a further corollary, people with extreme preferences can – and routinely do – find better ways to cope.  People reshape their own preferences all the time; perhaps you can do the same.  Failing that, perhaps you can discover more constructive ways to satisfy the preferences that you’re stuck with.  For example, if you’re extremely depressed despite great career success, you really should try some experiments in living.  Perhaps you’ll be miserable whatever you do.  But if you’ve only experienced one narrow lifestyle, how do you know?  Maybe you’d feel better if you tried putting friendship or hobbies above “achievement.”

It’s tempting to insist that there’s something pathological about having conflicting preferences and meta-preferences.  On reflection, however, these conflicts are a ubiquitous feature of human existence.  Almost everyone would like to feel differently in some important dimension.  Almost everyone reading this probably wishes they were less lazy, more patient, more outgoing, more loving, more ambitious, or more persistent.  But you still are the preferences you really have.  There’s plenty of room for improvement, but that doesn’t mean you’re sick.

* I’m well-aware that many physical symptoms also respond to incentives.  You can pressure a diabetic to lose weight, which in turn reverses his diabetes.  But all of these incentive effects require time to work.  The symptoms of mental illness, in contrast, can and often do respond to incentives instantly, because they are choices that are always within your grasp.  “I’m divorcing you unless you stop drinking right now” is a viable threat.  “I’m divorcing you unless you stop being diabetic right now” is silly one.

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“Meatless Mondays” and the Rise of Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

One of our favorite family poems is Shel Silverstein’s “Point Of View.” It’s witty without being preachy yet prompts the listener to more thoughtfully consider the act of meat-eating: “Thanksgiving dinner’s sad and thankless/ Christmas dinner’s dark and blue. /When you stop and try to see it/ From the turkey’s point of view.”

Reading this poem reinforces the idea that eating meat or not eating meat is a personal choice, a lifestyle decision that may be rooted in one’s own sense of right and wrong. There are many social, cultural, and individual reasons why someone might be a carnivore or a vegetarian. It’s a private decision of the home and family.

Private Choice or Public Policy?

Except when it isn’t. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this month that all New York City public schools would enact “Meatless Mondays,” avoiding any meat offerings during Monday school breakfasts and lunches beginning this fall. “Cutting back on meat a little will improve New Yorkers’ health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We’re expanding Meatless Mondays to all public schools to keep our lunch and planet green for generations to come.”

The mayor acknowledges that vegetarianism is a personal choice. At a press conference announcing his new vegetarian agenda, he stated: “So, for me, this is very personal, because – and I will say up front, I eat meat and I eat vegetarian dishes and I try and strike a balance between the two. But I have two vegetarians in my home and they feel very strongly about this.”

Mayor de Blasio’s family members apparently feel very strongly about their personal choice to be vegetarians. Good for them. The issue is when someone’s personal preferences become public policy. The mayor explains in his speech that sometimes we need those philosopher-kings to guide the masses: “Sometimes it’s our elected officials who are the trailblazers and the visionaries.”

How about letting individuals and families make their own choices about what to eat? Should government officials really have the power to decide what you put into your own body?

There are, thankfully, ways around the Meatless Monday mandate. New York City parents can pack their own child’s meals, with meat if they choose. As I’ve written previously, these homemade lunches are a much healthier option for children than the USDA-issued variety. Parents can also opt-out of public schooling altogether, something more parents are doing in New York City and elsewhere to regain control over their children’s education.

Government Mandating Subjective Decisions

The Meatless Monday plan is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to government dictates on right and wrong, often using compulsory government schools to influence young people. Comprehensive sex education curriculum mandates in public schools continue to spark controversy, challenging various belief systems and family preferences. And the push to introduce “character education” into schools as a way to boost students’ moral compasses begs the question of whose moral compass will be used.

In a pluralistic society, state mandates on morality are inevitably contentious. A new report by Boston’s Pioneer Institute examines the growing impact of SEL, or the widespread emphasis on “social-emotional learning” in schools over academic content. Through various curricula and teaching methods, SEL initiatives can mold students’ perceptions of themselves and their world in a potentially narrow way.

Jane Robbins co-authored the study, called “Social Emotional Learning: K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State.” She explains,

It’s one thing to direct your own moral, ethical, and emotional development or that of your children, but having a government vendor or unqualified public school officials implement an SEL curriculum based on coffee-table psychology is quite another.

Individuals and families should be the ones to determine their own values and moral worldviews, not government agents—often working through public schools—dictating good and bad.

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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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Trade Peer Pressure for Past Pressure

“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. . . Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Peer pressure is shockingly sneaky. Despite all the warnings against it, I’ve ended up falling into many of the lifestyle choices (high-consumption, etc) of people around me – even while being able to break the mold of peer pressure in other ways (skipping college, etc).

I want to try to live my own life, as fully as possible without the (unconscious) rule of following the masses. Maybe that’s possible for me. Maybe I’ll fail. But I have discovered at least one way of thinking about peer pressure that’s helping me on my way:

Even if it is impossible to break free of the sway of others, why settle for such a poor pack of peers?

There’s no particular reason I have to let the pressure of my 21st century late millennial, city-dwelling, and social-media driven peers be my only guiding light and influence.

I’m looking a little further back – and biographies have been helping to change my perspective on who my peers can be.

With the great “cloud of witnesses” of those long-dead I can pick and choose a much better cross-section of peers to pressure me.

I can look to people like Cato to learn how to resist corruption and face death bravely.

I can look to people like Frederick Douglass, who stood up to claim his manhood and freedom from slavery.

I can look to Richard Winters (of the 101st Airborne, Band of Brothers fame) to learn how to lead people well.

I can look to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and other Americans of the Enlightenment era for inspiration on becoming a learned and accomplished man.

I can look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Sophie Scholl or Pino Lella to learn how to act from faith and justice against a system of darkness.

Spend enough time around the good and dead people of the past and you will grow in their direction – just like you might grow in the direction of your millennial peers. Our brains don’t seem to mind treating the dead recorded as if they were living. Several hours listening to an audiobook about Benjamin Franklin might have much the same effect of spending time with the man himself, and being influenced by him.

Listen to the words of wise, good men and women. Read their biographies. Imitate them – play-acting if you must. This past pressure is a far better and far more productive kind of peer pressure.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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We Wanted Tech

“We wanted workers, but we got people instead.”  This line from Max Frisch didn’t just give George Borjas the title of his most recent book.  At last Friday’s immigration conference in St. Cloud, Borjas declared it his all-time favorite immigration epiphany.  The point, he explained, is that immigrants aren’t just machines that produce stuff; they have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.

Borjas is right, of course.  In fact, he doesn’t go far enough.  After all, even machines aren’t just machines that produce stuff.  They too have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.  If you look closely at any major technological development, you can justly say, “We wanted tech, but we changed society instead.”

Consider cellphones.  When they were first introduced, you might picture them as more convenient phonebooths.  But they’ve revolutionized not only our society, but our psychology.  Many human beings now interact with their phones more than they interact with fellow human beings; go to any public place and you will see this to be true.  Even when we are talking to fellow human beings, cellphones have changed the tone and tenor of our conversations.  When I casually chat with my friends, for example, we often fact check each others’ assertions.  And cellphones are crucial for social media, which has dramatically swayed not only public discourse, but elections and policy.  Without Twitter, would Donald Trump’s candidacy even have been able to get off the ground?

When driverless cars come, they’ll disrupt our whole society again.  Commuting time will plausibly skyrocket, especially in high-rent areas.  If you can relax – or even sleep – in your car, why pay $1M for a tiny apartment downtown?  Indeed, once you get rid of the driver’s seat, we’ll probably turn cars into small motorhomes, so “living out of your car” could become an alternative lifestyle rather than a tale of woe.  And what will happen to all the truck drivers, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, and delivery drivers?

Still not convinced?  I trust you’ll admit that nuclear technology did more to the world than slash electric bills.

Verily, we wanted tech, but we changed society instead.

How should you react to this truism?  You could say, “Duh, everybody knows this already.”  That’s my knee-jerk reaction to Frisch’s quote, too.  But both “duhs” are too dismissive.  “Obvious once you think about it”≠”Obvious.”

What else is there to say?

1. You could retreat to agnosticism.  “Well, there are direct economic benefits, plus an array of intangible social effects.  We don’t know how to measure these intangibles; we don’t even know if they’re good or bad.”  This is basically what Borjas said about immigration in his Friday talk.  There’s no reason we couldn’t generalize it.

Reaction: Philosophically, agnosticism of any kind is incoherent sophistry.  We always have some information.  We can and should combine this information with common sense to form reasonable guesses about whatever question is on our minds.  Crucially, “information” includes psychological evidence about the errors to which the human mind is prone.  And one of the best ways to keep your guesses reasonable is openness to bets.

2. You could start by measuring the direct benefits, then see if any of the broader social negatives are plausibly in the same ballpark.  If not, the standard conclusion still goes through despite the complexity of the world.

Reaction: Once you factor in the value of time, this is typically the best approach for laymen.  It’s a quick way to resolve a wide range of policy disputes, especially if you embrace some version of weak deontology rather than consequentialism.

3. You could try a lot harder to study the measurement of so-called “intangibles.”  This might require a massive research program to fill in the enormous gaps in our knowledge.  Or perhaps if you play around on Google Scholar, you’ll discover that many researchers have already measured the stuff you imagine “no one knows.”

Reaction: This is the best approach for experts.  If you do good work and/or publicize it, you also help laymen reach the truth with modest mental effort.  So earn your paycheck!

Whatever you conclude, know that immigration is nothing special.  Everything has broader social effects.  These complexities are no reason to defer to popular prejudice, which is what I suspect Borjas hopes we’ll do.  Instead, these complexities are a reason to think broader and work harder to get the best answers we can.

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Quarter-Life Crises Are Good For You

“So teach us to count our days
    that we may gain a wise heart.” – Psalm 90:12

I’m about to turn 23, and I’m feeling the pinch of time. It really does pick up speed.

By 23, I expected I would have my own business, a published book, a trusty old horse, the looks of Indiana Jones, a Batcave, and a sidekick. I’m sure you had similar high ambitions when you were 17 or so: maybe you were going to travel, read all the great books, or invest and become financially independent at an early age.

I’m not saying I’m having a quarter-life crisis. But I am saying I understand the people who do.

Around the time life speeds up, it can be very easy to start forgetting and neglecting all the things you said you were going to do. By the time you reach the quarter-century mark of our lives, you realize you’ve either over-shot our goals or under-budgeted time and effort for your achievements.

I’ve done a lot of cool things in 23 year of life – things I never expected I would do. But I also see all the ways I shirked from my goals, wasted my time, wasted good wealth, and stayed comfortable when I should have been bold and wise.

Here are a few things I wish I had known coming out of my teens into my twenties:

1. Always be cultivating and protecting your independence. Breaking out of the gravitational pull of the life model set by your parents and your peers is harder than you thing. It’s not a once and done thing – as I assumed somewhat. You must constantly review your lifestyle and resist the subconscious pull of imitating others. You must be capable of repeating all of the hard decisions and hard conversations and hard sacrifices of your “coming of age” in new forms.

2 Things come in cycles – so prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. Each moral dilemma, expense, setback, challenge, duty will feel new, like a one-time challenge that can be forgotten and then left behind. But you will realize slowly that these things come in cycles – and that you have to budget for them in terms of time, energy and resources. Too many times I’ve thrown everything I have at a problem or desire, only for it to come back again to find me unprepared. I should have

3. Time dilates. Again, that old thing about time running faster? It’s entirely true. Once you get into work, you’ll find all of that youthful free time shrinking and shrinking. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking that just working a job well is progress. It isn’t – not if you want your own Batcave or cruise ship (insert wildly big goal here). You will have to notice how the weeks and months blend together – and learn from that flow how precious your time is. To manage to reach your goals as your time shrinks, you will have to be increasingly disciplined and intentional about how you use your time.

4. You aren’t special. Around my age, you start losing all of that “special snowflake” status you may have had when you were college-aged. You no longer get to compare yourself to college students. You finally have to compare yourself to what you thought your adult self would be life. And you probably will be disappointed. But that’s a good thing. You should be competing against and aspiring to the kind of lives led by the best men and women in history. And to even start on that path, you have to realize how far off the track and how unexceptional you currently are.

5. Progress and regress both compound quickly. Most if not all progress works on the principle of compound interest. And with time going by faster and faster, you can either see progress or regress compound faster and faster. Every year passing by puts you further behind or further ahead – there is no standing still. Small habits started young will snowball (particularly where character is concerned). I’ve gone from running a mile to running a half-marathon in a year of progress on one metric. I’ve also seen myself spend more and more of my money (money I should be investing) from a habit of trading money for convenience. Not good. I’ve also wasted this effect by spreading myself too thin on things to learn or do.

The reason I’m *not* having a quarter-life crisis? Because now I know these things. And I know it’s half-time for my youth. In the words of Clint Eastwood (just replace “America” with “me”)

“All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us. This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin.”

We need a good hard slap in this day and age to remind ourselves that life is short. We need a good reminder that life is passing us by and life will pass us by – comfortably – if we don’t do anything about it.

Let’s use our birthdays (and quarter-life crises) to remember that.

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