What the College Admissions Scandal Reveals

A Tweetstorm.

1/ The signaling theory of education is correct.

Except a degree is not a signal of employability.

It’s a signal of adherence to the dominant social status religion of the day.

2/ Evidence is everywhere.

The mother who pressures her successful, happy, entrepreneur child to get a degree, while she proudly brags about her depressed, unemployed, basement-dwelling degreed child.

3/ The human capital theory of education is clearly bunk. Most people then conclude that degrees are bought because they are an employability signal.

This is also untrue, though it’s easy to see why it can appear that way sometimes.

4/ Not only are there classic correlation problems (e.g people with sports cars/degrees have more money on average), but social status games play a part in other games, like workplace politics, etc.

5/ The signal of social status games has overlap with the signal of employability. Some people prefer to hire other people who play the same social status games.

But employment signal is not the fundamental, causal mechanism for why people buy degrees.

6/ This is proven in so many ways but it’s hard to see until the blinders fall off.

People go into debt and suffer boredom for years “because I have to get a job” without ever asking what it would take to get a particular job.

7/ Imagine someone training for and running a marathon “because I have to to get customers for my artwork”, without every exploring the market to see what customers would need to make it worth buying your art?

8/ That is precisely how 90% of students/parents approach college. They have no idea what they want to do and whether college will help or hinder, yet they go in totally blind to the employment signal ROI, and spend irresponsible amounts of money on the degree.

9/ Why? Because they cannot resist the shame/envy/fear of being outside the dominant social status doctrine.

Again, pride for unemployed degree-holders dramatically exceeds that for successful drop-outs and opt-outs. Not even close.

10/ Multimillion dollar athletes and entertainers go back and buy degrees later in life and get treated as heroes. The employment signaling theory cannot explain any of this, because it’s not the dominant cause of degree buying.

11/ Degrees are a purchase made almost always for other people, not for you. They are made to make those around you feel comfortable with your opting in to their envy games.

12/ If an individual has a career goal and they plan the next few steps to it, if it doesn’t involve a degree, everyone pressures them and tells them they are a loser.

It it involves a degree, no one demands any plan, or any successful outcome at all and they get praise.

13/ Those who opt out of status games are a threat to the herd. They cannot be manipulated, they are unpredictable, they are bold.

They are also the only ones who every create progress and improve the lot of the herd.

14/ Make each step your step, not the step that makes everyone clap and give you cheap praise.

Make your goals about you.

Go build the life you want, don’t seek the badges that keep everyone happy.

15/ Your individual scoreboard is more important to your flourishing than your relative status on the collective status scoreboard.

16/ Fin.

Addendum:

I think it once was primarily an employment signal and status second. That became a religious belief and the social status part flipped to dominant.

Like buying a home was a good investment, that advice became religion, then people bought homes based on status.

(And subsidies and propaganda)

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“Toxic Masculinity” is Propaganda

The term masculinity is supposed to refer to cultural trends within sex that influence behavior, not the actual behavior. Since we live in an incredibly complex and diverse society with many subcultures, trying to define what exactly our society promotes as masculine is ambiguous. What someone would anticipate of my behavior based off of my sex is widely different in various parts of our culture.

This doesn’t even comment on the word toxic. The word toxic should never be used in social sciences. Social sciences should remain descriptive. For example, the Austrian school doesn’t prescribe libertarianism, and it doesn’t say anything is bad or good … it is valueless. Of course, most fans of Austrian economics are libertarians because they like people and they believes libertarianism is good for people based off of their ideas in Austrian economics. However, someone could be a communist tyrant and fully comprehend and believe in Austrian economics … they’d just have to hate people.

The term toxic masculinity is a shit term that is only useable as propaganda. The fact that each word in the term is so rich in content but people don’t tend to define it shows that it is used as propaganda, and the term is being predominantly used by people claiming to be social scientists but are really just propagandists.

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A Short Hop from Bleeding Heart to Mailed Fist

When Hugo Chavez began ruling Venezuela, he sounded like a classic bleeding-heart – full of pity for the poor and downtrodden.  Plenty of people took him at his words – not just Venezuelans, but much of the international bleeding-heart community.  By the time Chavez died, however, many admirers were already having second thoughts about his dictatorial tendencies.  Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, amply confirmed these fears.  Almost everyone now plainly sees the mailed fist of the brutal dictator Chavez II.

Which brings us to two facts about the political world.  Let’s call them Strange and Meta-Strange.

The Strange Fact: This transition from bleeding heart to mailed fist is common.  Almost every Communist dictatorship launches with mountains of humanitarian propaganda.  Yet ultimately, almost everyone who doesn’t fear for his life wakes up and smells the tyranny.

The Meta-Strange Fact: People rarely describe the Strange Fact as “strange”!

What’s so strange about the Strange Fact?  Most obviously, the extreme hypocrisy.  Governments that vocally proclaim their compassion for the meek – most obviously the Soviet Union and Maoist China – commit a grossly disproportionate share of mass murder and other violations of human rights.

What’s so strange about the Meta-Strange Fact?  Well, picture the most vocally compassionate person you personally know, the person who seems most obsessed with the interests and feelings of others.  Wouldn’t you be shocked to discover that they burn babies with cigarettes when you’re not looking?  It’s one thing for people to fall short of saintly ideals; it’s quite another for people who uphold saintly ideals to be downright wicked.

What’s going on?  Here are some possibilities:

1. Politics is a brutal game.  When bleeding hearts take over a government, brutal outsiders smell their weakness, force their way in, bully their way to the top, and unleash hell.

The obvious problem with this story, of course, is that the bleeding hearts and mailed fists are usually the same people, though sometimes at different stages in their political career.

2. In this wicked world, the best way to pursue bleeding-heart policies is with a mailed fist.  Sure, it would be nice if we could harmoniously adopt bleeding-heart policies.  But in the real world, the forces of reaction and selfishness will try to obstruct and reverse bleeding-heart policies with every step.  Unless, of course, you terrorize them into submission.

The obvious problem with this story, of course, is that countries that pursue bleeding-heart policies with a mailed fist look like total disasters.  Most of them face horrifying civil wars; and even when the dust settles, the common man’s quality of life remains very low.

3. Hostile foreigners force bleeding hearts to adopt the mailed fist.  When countries pursue bleeding-heart policies, evil countries like the United States try to isolate, punish, and overthrow them.  The best way to protect your noble bleeding-heart experiment, sadly, is to prioritize the military and internal security.  Then the international community has the effrontery to call these unwelcome defensive measures “the mailed fist.”

The obvious problem with this story: One of the quickest ways to anger countries like the United States is to blatantly use the mailed fist (especially if you combine your mailed fist with anti-Western rhetoric).  Furthermore, if extreme bleeding-heart policies really were prone to provoke powerful foreigners, a sincere bleeding heart would moderate enough to appease these foreigners.  “You don’t like my total war against illiteracy and disease?  Fine, I’ll just do a half-war against illiteracy and disease.”

4. The bleeding-heart rhetoric is mostly propaganda; the main goal is the mailed fist.  Even the most abusive romances usually start with a honeymoon period.  Similarly, dictators rarely gain total power by growling, “Give me total power.”  Instead, they woo the people with flowery words and symbolic gifts.  Part of the goal, of course, is to trick your victims until you get the upper hand.  But the flowery words and symbolic gifts are also effective ways to inspire gratitude in both recipients and bystanders.

This story often seems right to me, but it does implausibly downplay the bleeding hearts’ ideological fervor.

5. Bleeding-heart rhetoric is disguised hate speech.  When activists blame the bourgeoisie for causing hunger, disease, and illiteracy, perhaps their main concern isn’t actually alleviating hunger, disease, or illiteracy.  While they’d like these problems to disappear, the bleeding hearts’ top priority could be making the bourgeoisie suffer.  The mailed fist systematizes that suffering.

It’s tempting to dismiss this story as cartoonish, but it’s more plausible than you think.  Human beings often resent first – and rationalize said resentment later.  They’re also loathe to admit this ugly fact.  Actions, however, speak louder than words.  People like Chavez and Maduro can accept their failure to help the poor, but not their failure to crush their hated enemies.

6. Bleeding-heart policies work so poorly that only the mailed fist can sustain them.  In this story, the bleeding hearts are at least initially sincere.  If their policies worked well enough to inspire broad support, the bleeding hearts would play nice.  Unfortunately, bleeding-heart policies are exorbitantly expensive and often directly counter-productive.  Pursued aggressively, they predictably lead to disaster.  At this point, a saintly bleeding heart will admit error and back off.  A pragmatic bleeding heart will compromise.  The rest, however, respond to their own failures with rage and scapegoating.  Once you institutionalize that rage and scapegoating, the mailed fist has arrived.

This story also seems pretty solid.  It downplays the self-conscious Machiavellians, but only by recasting them as childish fanatics.

If you don’t know much about the actual history of radical bleeding-heart regimes, I’ll admit that stories 4-6 sound overblown and unfair.  But I’ve devoted much of my life to studying this history.  All I can say is:  If your story isn’t ugly, it isn’t true.

P.S. Hugo Chavez is a really boring speaker, so if you’re curious about the general phenomenon I’m discussing, start with this little bleeding-heart speech by the murderous Che Guevara.

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The Reformer’s Plight in The Great Idea

I’m a fan of dystopian fiction, but I overlooked Henry Hazlitt’s The Great Idea (subsequently republished as Time Will Run Back) until last December.  I feared a long-winded, clunky version of Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, but I gave it a chance, and my gamble paid off.  I read the whole thing (almost 400 pages) on a red-eye flight – feeling wide awake the whole way.

The book’s premise: Centuries hence, mankind groans under a world Communist government centered in Moscow.  People live in Stalinist fear and penury.  Censorship is so extreme that virtually all pre-revolutionary writings have been destroyed; even Marx has been censored, to prevent anyone from reverse engineering whatever “capitalism” was.  However, due to a marital dispute, Peter Uldanov, the dictator’s son, was raised in an island paradise, free of both the horrors and the rationalizations of his dystopian society.  When the dictator nears death, he brings Peter to Moscow and appoints him his heir.  The well-meaning but naive Peter is instantly horrified by Communism, and sets out to fix it.  In time, he rediscovers free-market economics, and sets the world to right.

Yes, this sounds trite to me, too.  But Hazlitt is a master of pacing.  It takes almost 200 pages before any of Peter’s reforms start to work.  Until then, it’s one false start after another, because so many of the seemingly dysfunctional policies of the Stalinist society are remedies for other dysfunctional policies.  Here’s Peter arguing with Adams, a reform-minded Communist minister.

“…The hard fact is that some people simply have to do more unpleasant chores than others, and the only way we can get the unpleasant chores done is by compulsion. Not everybody can be a manager, or an actor or an artist or a violin player. Somebody has to dig the coal, collect the garbage, repair the sewers. Nobody will deliberately choose these smelly jobs. People will have to be assigned to them, forced to do them.”

“Well, perhaps we could compensate them in some way, Adams—say by letting them work shorter hours than the others.”

“We thought of that long ago, chief. It didn’t work. It unluckily turned out that it was only the pleasant jobs, like acting or violin playing, that could be reduced to short hours. But we simply can’t afford to have people work only a few hours on the nasty jobs. These are precisely the jobs that have to be done. We couldn’t afford to cut our coal production in half by cutting the hours in half, for example; and we just haven’t got the spare manpower to rotate. Besides, we found that on most such jobs a considerable loss of time and production was involved merely in changing shifts.”

“All right,” agreed Peter; “so under our socialist system we can’t have freedom in choice of work or occupation. But couldn’t we provide some freedom of initiative—at least for those who direct production? Our propaganda is always urging more initiative on the part of commissars or individual plant managers. Why don’t we get it?”

“Because a commissar or plant manager, chief, is invariably shot if his initiative goes wrong. The very fact that he was using his own initiative means that he was not following orders. How can you reconcile individual initiative with planning from the center? When we draw up our Five Year Plans, we allocate the production of hundreds of different commodities and services in accordance with what we assume to be the needs of the people. Now if every plant manager decided for himself what things his plant should produce or how much it should produce of them, our production would turn out to be completely unbalanced and chaotic.”

“Very well,” Peter said; “so we can’t permit the individual plant manager to decide what to produce or how much to produce of it. But this is certainly a big disadvantage. For if someone on the Central Planning Board doesn’t think of some new need to be satisfied, or some new way of satisfying an old need, then nobody thinks of it and nobody dares to supply it. But I have in mind something different from that. How can we encourage individual plant managers to devise more efficient ways of producing the things they are ordered to produce? If these plant managers can’t be encouraged to invent new or better consumption goods, at least they can be encouraged to invent new methods or machines to produce more economically the consumption goods they are ordered to produce, or to produce a higher quality of those consumption goods.”

“You’re just back to the same problem,” Adams said. “If I’m a plant manager, and I invent a new machine, I’ll have to ask the Central Planning Board to get somebody to build it, or to allocate the materials to me so that I can build it. In either case I’ll upset the preordained central plan. I’ll have a hard job convincing the Central Planning Board that my invention or experiment won’t fail. If my invention does fail, and it turns out that I have wasted scarce labor and materials, I will be removed and probably shot. The member of the Central Planning Board who approved my project will be lucky if he isn’t shot himself. Therefore, unless the success of my invention or experiment seems absolutely certain in advance, I will be well advised to do what everybody else does. Then if I fail, I can prove that I failed strictly according to the rules…”

Finally Peter settles on a seemingly simpler radical reform:

“Well, I can think of one more kind of freedom,” Peter said, “and I am determined to create it. That is the freedom to criticize the government.”

Adams started. He seemed to waver between incredulity and alarm. “You mean that you would permit people to criticize the actions of the government, and perhaps even denounce the government, and go unpunished?”

“Exactly!”

“Why, chief, you and I would be destroyed in a few weeks! If we allowed people to criticize us with impunity they would lose all fear of us—all respect for us. There would be an explosion of criticism that would blow us out of our seats—out of Wonworld. And what would we accomplish? Our successors would, of course, immediately suppress criticism again, for their own survival. “

What happens surprises them both.

Peter eagerly looked forward to the results of his reform. There weren’t any. None of the things happened that Adams had predicted. On the other hand, none of the consequences followed that Peter had hoped for. There was simply an intensification of the kind of criticism that had already been going on. People in superior positions continued to criticize people in subordinate positions; they continued to put the blame for failure on people who were not in a position to protect themselves; they continued to accuse people in minor positions of being deviationists and wreckers.

This was what had always been known as communist self-criticism. Peter put out still another proclamation. He ordered a stop to this sort of criticism. For a while it greatly diminished. But still no subordinate criticized his superior, and no one criticized the Politburo, the Party, or the government itself.

“What happened, Adams? Or rather, why didn’t anything happen?”

Adams smiled. “I should have foreseen this, chief. It should have been obvious. All that happened is that nobody trusted your proclamation. They thought it was a trick.”

“A trick?”

“Yes—a trick to smoke them out. A trick to find out who were the enemies of the government, and to liquidate them. Everybody waited for somebody else to stick his neck out, to see what would happen to him. Nobody wanted to be the first. So nobody was.”

Much the same happens when Peter orders free elections.  Later, he launches a seemingly plausible experiment in worker management:

“One of our great troubles, Adams, is that we are trying to plan more than any human mind can hold. We are trying to plan every industry—and all their interrelations—and all the rest. Why not let the workers of each industry control and police their own industry? That would decentralize control and break up the planning problem into manageable units.”

“The idea has possibilities, chief . . . but it might lead to results we couldn’t foresee.”

“Precisely,” said Peter; “and that is why we ought to try it out.”

[…]

“Why not try it out, then, only on a small scale? Why not apply the idea, Adams, in only one province—far away from Moscow? Why not throw a censorship around that district, so that no news could get in or out until we were certain that the experiment was a success?”

“Have you decided, chief, who our guinea pigs would be?”

“How about the Soviet Republic of Peru? That’s certainly remote enough!”

Here’s what goes down in Soviet Peru:

At the very start he found himself confronted in Peru by a problem of unexpected difficulty. He wanted each industry to be self-governing and independent. But what was an industry? Where did each industry begin and end?… At the end, when the Peruvian commissars he had appointed had finished their work, they had named fifty-seven different industries…

A temporary head was named for each industry. Someone jokingly nicknamed these heads the industry “czars.” Each industry was told to organize itself in any way it thought fit, provided each worker was allowed an equal vote. The industry could fix its own production, its own prices or terms of exchange, its own hours and conditions of work, its own entrance requirements.

Some Peruvians called the new system “syndicalism”; others called it “guild socialism”; and still others liked the name “corporativism.”

Peter returned to Moscow, promising to be back in Peru in six months to see how the new system was working. He left a secret cable code with the three top commissars to keep him informed.

Before two months had passed he received urgent cables begging for his return.

He came back to find a chaotic situation bordering on civil war. The first thing the workers in each industry had done had been to exclude anybody else from entering the industry. Each industry had quickly discovered that it could exact the best terms of exchange for its particular product by rendering it relatively scarce. There had then developed a competitive race for scarcity instead of for production. The workers in each industry voted themselves shorter and shorter hours. Each industry was either withholding goods or threatening to suspend production altogether until it got the prices it demanded for the particular kind of goods it had to supply.

Peter was indignant. He called in the various syndicates of workers representing each industry and denounced them in blistering terms for the selfish and shortsighted way in which they had “abused” the privileges he had conferred upon them. But as he studied the matter further he cooled off, and took a more objective view. He was forced to acknowledge to himself that the fault was his own. It was inherent in the system he had set up. He had allowed each industry to become an unrestrained monopoly. The more essential or irreplaceable the product that it made, therefore, the more it could and would squeeze everybody else…

He dismantled the new system entirely, and ordered the restoration of the old centralized socialism under the Central Planning Board at Moscow.

In most literary dialogues, at least one of the characters has the answers.  (“Yes, Socrates, you are quite right!”)  What’s novel about Hazlitt’s dialogues is that all the characters are deeply confused.  Even when they sound reasonable, the Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them.

The Great Idea was originally published in 1951.  Stalin was still alive.  Fifteen years ago, Hazlitt wrote a new introduction with a grim forecast:

The Communist rulers cannot permit private ownership of the means of production not merely because this would mean the surrender of the central principle of their system, but because it would mean the restoration of individual liberty and the end of their despotic power. So I confess that the hope that some day an idealistic Peter Uldanov, miraculously finding himself at the pinnacle of power, will voluntarily restore the right of property, is a dream likely to be fulfilled only in fiction. But it is certainly not altogether idle to hope that, with a growth of economic understanding among their own people, the hands of the Communist dictators may some day be forced, more violently than Lenin’s were when the mutiny at Kronstadt, though suppressed, forced him to adopt the New Economic Policy.

Hazlitt was, of course, thoroughly wrong.  As far as we can tell, Gorbachev never had any intention of restoring capitalism.  But Yeltsin – a career Communist – did just that.  And despite all the disappointment Putin has provoked, the former Soviet Union has seen nothing remotely approaching the horrors of the Russian Civil War.  The actually-existing dystopia of the Soviet Union practically died in its sleep, proving Hazlitt’s fiction to be the opposite of wishful thinking.

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False Narratives, Propaganda, and Political Tribalism

In 2013 people rose up around the world to oppose the war in Syria being promoted by Obama, Clinton, Kerry, many European leaders and maybe most obviously, the neocons. Since then, the war slowly squeezed its way into existence anyway gradually though apathy, propaganda, and other bullshit.

I remember back in 2013 thinking that something really cool happened. However, today, you really get to see the full effect of tribalism and propaganda. Many of the people who so vehemently opposed the war in 2013 are so saddened and outrage by our exit. It makes it seem even more Orwellian and crazy for the people who remember the anti-war protests of the Bush years.

I think people believe all these sorts of things are natural conditions of people over time. Protests are the emergence of the people’s true feelings welling up into grassroots political causes. However, the vast majority of it is best understood as false narratives, propaganda, and political tribalism. The anti-war movement died when the democrats took power over the military. The Tea Party died when Republicans took over the budget.

All of this really should make people grow insanely cynical of the political machinations of our society, but, it largely doesn’t. People just buy into the new narrative and fight a new enemy to the benefit of their perceived political ally. Several years ago I grew surprised with how fast a political movement could support a cause, organization or person that they just opposed several years before, but that is worn down for me. I don’t think this will ever really change. This is the state of man. However, it grows and shrinks along with the power of government.

From my perspective, it is a really interesting time to observe it all. Insane levels of debt in society. Markets are slipping back into recession. Donald Trump is President, and it just feels like there’s an air of chaos about. It is interesting to follow the news and it feels like everything is happening so fast.

Anyway, just some thoughts that came to mind.

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Why I Prefer Freedom

Evil lives in dark corners. The more dark corners exist, the more it thrives. Competition tends to squeeze out dark corners. Monopolies on violence, backed by propaganda and fear, create more dark corners.

Anything deemed too important/necessary to question or face competition is a giant web of protected dark corners. This is why the myth of authority and the myth of the rule of law are so dangerous. They create shelters and havens for scoundrels.

The desire for openness and competitive governance isn’t borne out of a naive belief in the goodness of human nature or ignorance of the evil in the world. The opposite. It comes from recognition of evil, and the fact that markets allow fewer dark corners than monopolies.

A free world is not a perfect world. It’s a world with an incentive structure that makes it harder for evil to thrive than it can in an unfree world. It’s incumbent upon individuals to resist it in both cases. But one makes it harder than the other.

It’s too easy, and too dangerous, to be lured into the comforting fiction that some final arbitrator Leviathan will keep us safe. The creation of any such Final Authority enables more dark corners, not fewer.

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