Doubly-Damned Lies

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Here is what Wikipedia has to say about lies, damned lies , and statistics:

Mark Twain popularized the saying in Chapters from My Autobiography, published in the North American Review in 1907. “Figures often beguile me,” he wrote, “particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'”[2]

Alternative attributions include, among many others (for example Walter Bagehot and Arthur James Balfour) the radical English journalist and politician Henry Du Pré Labouchère (1831–1912), Jervoise Athelstane Baines,[3] and British politician and man of letters Leonard H. Courtney, who used the phrase in 1895 and two years later became president of the Royal Statistical Society. Courtney is quoted by Baines (1896) as attributing the phrase to a “wise statesman”,[4] but he may have been referring to a future statesman rather than a past one.[5] The phrase has also been attributed to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.[6][7]

Edward Tufte, a master statistician, said, “It is straightforward for me to be ethical, responsible, and kind-hearted because I have the resources to support that.”  But it takes more, because too often, too many people with resources choose exploitation, irresponsibility, and mean-spiritedness to gain more resources, pointedly those of power.

I have begun to get the impression that the actual cost of living is not accurately reflected in government-produced statistical indices.  I have spent hours perusing the federal presentation of statistics.  The amount of data is stupendous, but I can’t tell you where it begins and ends.  The amount of information that you get from that data is unknowable.  Part of the problem is that there is no verifiable central repository, and even if there were, the configuration would evolve from moment to moment.  There is no reliable standard for answering the questions about who, what, when, where, why, and how (process, how much, how many, etc.)  There are no conceptual handles for grasping the associations and relationships among the data.  It is a miasma.  It is a sargasso sea of loose ends.  I now understand how the Pentagon could lose trillions, or why we will never know how much particular programs cost, or why boondoggles are endless.  If the government does accounting like it does everything else, why are we keeping score?

— Kilgore Forelle

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Build, Barbara, Build: Reflections on Nickel and Dimed

I finally read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and was pleasantly surprised.  Her runaway best-seller is what researchers call “radical ethnography”; to study low-skilled workers in America, Ehrenreich became a low-skilled worker in America.  Ehrenreich mostly just walks us through her experiment: how she found work, where she lived, what the jobs were like, how she made ends meet.  While there’s ideological commentary throughout, she’s less preachy than most of her competition.  My favorite part, though, comes in the final chapter.  Instead of simply complaining about low wages, Ehrenreich talks about the painful pairing of low pay with high housing costs:

Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.

The problem of rents is easy for a non-economist, even a sparsely educated low-wage worker, to grasp: it’s the market, stupid.

Confession:

For a second, I was filled with hope that Ehrenreich was going to go full Yglesias and start denouncing our insanely strict housing regulation.  And as I read the next paragraph, the same hope returned:

If there seems to be general complacency about the low-income housing crisis, this is partly because it is in no way reflected in the official poverty rate, which has remained for the past several years at a soothingly low 13 percent or so. The reason for the disconnect between the actual housing nightmare of the poor and “poverty,” as officially defined, is simple: the official poverty level is still calculated by the archaic method of taking the bare-bones cost of food for a family of a given size and multiplying this number by three. Yet food is relatively inflation-proof, at least compared with rent. In the early 1960s, when this method of calculating poverty was devised, food accounted for 24 percent of the average family budget (not 33 percent even then, it should be noted) and housing 29 percent. In 1999, food took up only 16 percent of the family budget, while housing had soared to 37 percent.

Wise observations.  Housing costs have exploded – especially in high-wage areas of the country.  It is very hard for low-skilled workers to afford nice housing.  And superficially, the problem is “the market.”  Prices are high because developers produce so little housing.

Why, though, do developers produce so little housing?  Regardless of their political views, almost any economist these days will blame government regulation.  The physical cost of erecting buildings hasn’t changed much, but the political cost of erecting buildings has skyrocketed.  Serious deregulation would dramatically increase the supply of housing, and sharply reduce its price.  And don’t say, “Only for the rich.”  Much of the regulation on the books – such as minimum lot sizes, height restrictions, and bans on multi-family construction – is consciously designed to zone out the poor.

So when Ehrenreich was decrying housing costs, she could have segued to, “Despite decades of free-market rhetoric, hardly anyone wants to see a real free market in housing.  Yet almost nothing else would do more for the working poor.”  Furthermore, she could have so segued without breaking character.  There is no good reason why Ehrenreich couldn’t think everything else she thinks and advocate the abolition of a bunch of laws that deprive the poor of affordable housing.

Alas, she said this instead:

When the rich and the poor compete for housing on the open market, the poor don’t stand a chance. The rich can always outbid them, buy up their tenements or trailer parks, and replace them with condos, McMansions, golf courses, or whatever they like. Since the rich have become more numerous, thanks largely to rising stock prices and executive salaries, the poor have necessarily been forced into housing that is more expensive, more dilapidated, or more distant from their places of work.

This is plainly false.  In a free market, the poor totally “stand a chance.”  Given current prices and twenty acres of land, developers would much rather erect a massive apartment complex than twenty single-family homes.  In desirable areas, however, getting such permission is almost impossible.  And while developers will build in remote locations if they must, most would far prefer to build up in urban centers.  Why don’t they?  Because getting permission to make your building taller is like pulling teeth.  For every skyscraper under construction in NYC, just picture all the landlords who would build a skyscraper of their own if the zoning authorities handed them permission.

What then is Ehrenreich’s solution?  More government spending:

When the market fails to distribute some vital commodity, such as housing, to all who require it, the usual liberal-to-moderate expectation is that the government will step in and help. We accept this principle-at least in a halfhearted and faltering way-in the case of health care, where government offers Medicare to the elderly, Medicaid to the desperately poor, and various state programs to the children of the merely very poor. But in the case of housing, the extreme upward skewing of the market has been accompanied by a cowardly public sector retreat from responsibility. Expenditures on public housing have fallen since the 1980s, and the expansion of public rental subsidies came to a halt in the mid-1990s.

I can understand someone saying, “Deregulation isn’t enough.”  But you could double the supply of public housing without making a noticeable dent in the housing shortage.  Rent subsidies are much easier to scale up, but subsidizing demand without increasing supply is almost the definition of crazy policy.  Furthermore, if you want to create high-paid job opportunities for non-college workers, a rapidly growing construction sector is a dream come true.

You could interpret all this as a “gotcha,” but I strive to be positive.  Yes, Nickel and Dimed overlooked the fact that government grossly deprives the working poor of affordable housing.  As far as Google knows, Ehrenreich’s continued to overlook this fact.  What’s important now, though, is that she could and should join the long list of left-leaning thinkers who champion deregulation of housing.

So how about it, Barbara?

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Erratic Behavior

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Isn’t it odd when someone known for erratic behavior erratically does something with which an observer agrees, suddenly that erratic behavior becomes the mark of “stable genius?”  On the other hand, the action becomes betrayal.  Check out Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance.

Well the bad news is that there has never been a POTUS who was not a consistent warmonger.  The very nature of the office demands it.  There have been 45 warmongers, but some worse than others.  The good news is that the office of POTUS is on a path of self-destruction.  The path of civilization leads from authoritarianism toward laissez-faire.  A human being, a social animal of breadth and depth, does not need to relegate choice and responsibility to a fictional leader.

— Kilgore Forelle

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When the Quest for Education Equity Stifles Innovation

In March, efforts to open an innovative public high school in a diverse, urban district just outside of Boston received a devastating blow. Powderhouse Studios was in the works for seven years, with grand hopes of changing public education from a top-down system defined by coercion to a learner-driven model focused on student autonomy and self-determination. The vision for this school was so compelling that it won a $10 million XQ Super School innovation grant and was positioned to lead efforts to inject freedom into a conventional schooling system characterized by force.

The school was set to open this fall in Somerville, Massachusetts, clearing high hurdles along the way, including gaining the crucial support of the teachers’ union. Everything looked ready to go. Then, in a startling turn of events, the local school committee voted unanimously in March not to approve the school’s launch.

Boston’s local NPR station ran a story about the Powderhouse debacle. While the school committee members said they appreciated the high school’s novel approach, which would focus primarily on project-based learning tied to student interests, they decided they couldn’t approve a school that would only serve 160 high school-age students when there are 5,000 students in the district who wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the program. According to the NPR reporter:

The biggest concerns for committee members center around equity and resources.

It wouldn’t be fair, school committee members concluded, to allow some young people to attend Powderhouse if not everyone could attend. As the school committee chairperson told NPR:

I can’t look at Powderhouse in isolation… I have a responsibility to the 5,000 students currently in our system. If we approve the school, some of them will go there, but what does it mean for everybody?

In the all-out quest for educational equity, innovation is systematically stifled. If not everyone can have something, then no one can.

An All or Nothing Approach

Just imagine if Motorola had the same perspective regarding its invention of the first cell phone. Imagine if company leaders (or politicians!) said: “We can’t manufacture these mobile phones because not everyone will have access to them and therefore no one should.” Fortunately, manufacturers didn’t pay attention to equity, and as a result, over five billion people around the world now have a cell phone. Five. billion. people.

At first, cell phones were incredibly expensive and only a few people could own them, but thanks to the power of innovation and the timeless laws of supply and demand, the costs of cell phones dropped dramatically—even as their features became more state-of-the-art. This is how innovation works in the marketplace—when it is not halted by government central planners who think they know what is best and most “equitable.”

I wrote about Powderhouse in Unschooled, before the March vote, and even then I was pessimistically hopeful. The school sounded like an ideal incubator of educational innovation, where teenagers would be responsible for designing, managing, and executing in-depth, multiyear projects leading to mastery in various subjects in a more authentic, hands-on way. There would be no assigned classes, no grades, no age-segregation, and no testing. Teachers would act as mentors and guides. The space would look more like a research lab than a school, and project mastery would ultimately be mapped back to district-wide core competency expectations.

Self-Directed Education

Dreamed up by Alec Resnick, an MIT graduate inspired by social reformers like John Holt (a teacher who coined the term “unschooling” in 1977) and Ivan Illich, who wrote Deschooling Society in 1970, Powderhouse had a bold vision to move self-directed education into the public sector. Resnick was also very concerned about equity and access, ensuring that students would be selected into the school by lottery and that the population would be reflective of the demographic diversity of the larger district. The new school could be a beacon for change. But then the March vote came.

This outcome shouldn’t surprise us. The historical track record for innovative public schools like this one is dismal. They will sometimes succeed in launching with much fanfare and excitement and then eventually get reabsorbed into the larger district, ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from other conventional schools. True educational innovation must occur outside of the public schooling system.Since its 19th-century inception, the compulsory mass schooling system has shown itself to be remarkably resistant to change. The future of Powderhouse is unclear, but the past is often prologue.

The Powderhouse story is just the latest example of why I believe that true educational innovation must occur outside of the public schooling system. Like they did with cell phones, entrepreneurs will be the ones to create meaningful and lasting change with the potential to reach more people—with lower costs and better results. Entrepreneurs can catalyze far greater educational equity than well-intentioned central planners ever could. That is, if they are not halted by elected officials and government bureaucrats who think they are the guardians of us all.

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They Know Better

Moral reasoning is hard.  It’s so hard, in fact, that most people do little moral reasoning.  Instead, as Daniel Kahneman would expect, they perform a mental substitution.  Rather than wonder, “What’s morally right?,” they ask, “What’s socially acceptable?”

In decent societies, this seems fairly harmless.  When your society is even selectively evil, however, the substitution is disastrous.  Strictly following standard social norms in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China is murder.

Which brings us to a pressing question: How do you know whether your society is evil?  Or to make matters even starker: How hard was it for the average adult in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China to know that their societies were evil?  If people can’t readily figure that out on their own, what moral questions can they answer?

My claim: Figuring out that Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China are evil is an easy task for almost anyone – including lifelong members of those societies.  How so?  By applying two principles that a child can understand.

Principle #1: Turnaround. When a child mistreats each other, adults routinely ask the offender something like, “Would it be all right if someone did that to you?”  When you’re faced with complex moral hypotheticals, this question won’t get you far.  But when you’re wondering, “Is it all right to murder some peaceful but unpopular people?,” you really can fast forward to the right answer just by asking, “If you were a Jew/kulak/money-lender, would it be all right to murder you?”

Principle #2: Bad laws are made to be broken. Virtually everyone in every society regularly breaks the law – and they usually do so with a clean conscience.  This is clearly true when the law inflicts great suffering for no good reason.  Yet people also routinely break laws simply because the laws are obviously stupid.  A few people may claim to “Always follow the law,” but even these stubborn folk spend little time actually studying the laws to ensure they don’t accidentally break one.  Neither do they feel guilty about their lackadaisical effort to master the body of laws they’re nominally determined to strictly obey.  And since people already break the law to cut a few minutes off their commute, the idea that they should disobey laws ordering the murder of Jews/kulaks/money-lenders is only an intellectual baby step.

None of this means that ordinary people in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China were morally obliged to die as martyrs.  However, it does mean ordinary people in these societies could easily figure out that their societies were deeply evil – and they should at least covertly strive to avoid complicity.  If they failed to figure that out, it is because they culpably failed to apply moral principles they understood since childhood.

The moral standards for people who actually formed and carried out these policies were, of course, much higher.  I’ve quoted Spiderman before and I’ll quote him again: With great power comes great responsibility.  Ordinary people have no obligation to devote their lives to the study of moral philosophy and social science.  But anyone who wields political power over thousands of human beings – much less millions – absolutely does.

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Bad Choices and Shifting the Blame

I don’t blame manufacturers or retailers for the misuse of their (non-faulty) products. Not even with products known to be really dangerous if used according to their purpose.

When someone buys something dangerous and makes the choice to misuse it, that’s where the blame lies.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking guns, opioids, cars, or anything else.

If you misuse something it’s YOUR fault if you die from it and YOUR fault if you harm others. You are not the victim. I hold YOU accountable. And, if the shoe is on the other foot, as it has been a few times, I accept my responsibility.

Yes, I get it. Where drugs are concerned, people foolishly abuse drugs manufactured by people who just want to make money from addicts. It’s easy to say someone shouldn’t make something that people can get addicted to. Even though people can apparently get addicted to anything. They don’t force anyone to use their products (unlike government). They are simply meeting a want, even though we might dislike that want.

So, being addicted doesn’t change anything. To have become addicted, you still had to make the choice to use something known to be dangerously addictive at least once. Unless you are one of the vanishingly rare cases where someone drugged you without your knowledge and you became addicted, you chose the path. I feel bad for addicts, but that’s no reason to attack the manufacturers, treat them as criminals, and ignore the voluntary choice the future addict made.

Nor is there any legitimate reason to treat addicts as criminals instead of as people who may need medical help. Prohibition is still evil.

The choice to misuse a product is still a choice, and it’s not helpful to coddle those making these choices or to shift the blame to someone else.

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