The Wheat and Tares Grow Up Together: Morality and Judging Historical Eras

Is the 21st century a time of great moral progress? Or is it a time of decadence? Ask different people and you’ll get different answers. In my view, the answer is “both.”

On one hand, humans are progressing. The internet and software are breaking down barriers between people and people groups. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other great prejudices (at least in their traditional forms) are losing their entrenched hold on the human mind. Individual humans can be freer, more creative, and more generous than ever before.

On the other hand, humans are regressing. We’re putting more and more faith in centralized governments (contrary to the lessons of the 20th century) and giving up more freedom and responsibility. We’re abandoning our commitments to friends, family, and ideas of honor and the sacred. We’re allowing ourselves to be addicted by digital stimulants from porn and video games to news feeds and notifications.

We like to be able to put simple moral judgments on historical eras, and every era presents difficulties for the person who wants to put simple labels of “good” or “bad”, “progressive” or “regressive” on any time in human history.

Jesus once told a parable which amateur cultural and historical judges (like me) should consider:

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:24-30

Now Jesus wasn’t talking about historical eras, but the metaphor of the wheat and the tares (the King James version of weeds) is a good one.

In any and every time, no matter how much we idealize or condemn, there is always wheat, and there are always weeds. The 16th century had exploration and cultural renaissance, but it also had religious warfare and barbaric tortures. The 19th century had abolitionism and industrialism, but it also had colonialism and imperialism. The 1st century had Stoicism and Christianity, but it also had mad emperors and slavery.

For all of these eras and all times (including our own), it does us good to remember the command to “[Let] them (wheat and weeds) grow up until harvest.” I read this as a metaphor for the wisdom of reserving blanket judgment.

We may one day be able to say that the centuries in our rearview were “good” or “bad.” But the harvest of consequence has not yet happened for the 21st century, and it’s hard to say that the harvests of the 19th and 20th are fully ripe, either. It is too soon to judge. Let time do that. In the meantime, resist the urge either to burn the fields or to swallow the weeds.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Erich Fromm on “The Authoritarian Character”

While reading a couple of days ago, I ran into a passage that resonated with me and seemed very timely:

Not only the forces that determine one’s own life directly but also those that seem to determine life in general are felt as unchangeable fate. It is fate that there are wars and that one part of mankind has to be ruled by another. It is fate that the amount of suffering can never be less than it always has been. Fate may be rationalized philosophically as “natural law” or as “destiny of man,” religiously as the “will of the Lord,” ethically as “duty”– for the authoritarian character it is always a higher power outside of the individual, toward which the individual can do nothing but submit. The authoritarian character worships the past. What has been, will eternally be. To wish or to work for something that has not yet been before is crime or madness. (Added emphasis is mine) ~  Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm

That passage is from a part of the book where he is describing how masochism and sadism are embraced by some as a way to avoid the isolation of freedom*. The authoritarian character, as he calls it, is sado-masochistic. It seeks out ways to suffer to distract itself from the scary aspects of freedom, and it likes to make sure others suffer along with it.

I see the above traits of the authoritarian character, especially the parts I emphasized, in almost everyone who is promoting statism. You can see it in FB posts, in YouTube comments, in comments left on this blog. and anywhere a no-compromise libertarian point is made. I’ve come to recognize and expect this tack, yet was surprised to see it– and see it explained so clearly– in a book from 1941.

I don’t agree with Fromm on everything. I think he made good observations but came to an erroneous conclusion.

He was a supporter of toxic authoritarianism when he obviously– from his own observations– should have known better. Why? Maybe he was just genetically inclined that way. Maybe he wasn’t able to rise above his early brainwashing. But who knows?

You can find truth and wisdom in anyone’s words if you look, even if they are wrong about everything else.

I realize I apparently lack the brain software that makes some fear the “isolation” of freedom. Even though I usually feel isolated due to all sorts of other things, I don’t mistake those things for freedom. That’s like blaming your good health for your fear that you might someday get a disease.

*Fromm uses the word “freedom” (inconsistently, but at least part of the time) for the concept I call “liberty” but that doesn’t alter the truth of these words.

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Late Bloomers and the Benefits of Delayed Success

At a dinner party several years ago, a woman and I chatted about education and parenthood. I had just met her and when I told her about our unschooling approach to education that prioritizes self-directed learning, she was visibly perplexed. “Don’t you worry about outcomes?” she asked. Yes, I replied. I want my children to be highly literate and numerate, to live a meaningful life tied to their interests and talents, and to have a strong sense of personal agency. “Well,” she responded, “for my kids, it might as well be either the Ivy League or jail.” She was only half-kidding.

A Social Obsession with Early Accomplishments

The recent college admissions bribery scandal shows the lengths that some affluent parents will go to make sure their children get into elite colleges. But it’s not just wealthy parents who are worried about their child’s early success and college and career prospects. In his new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, longtime Forbes publisher, Rich Karlgaard, writes about our societal obsession with early accomplishment and its potentially negative impact on both individuals and communities. He writes:

What I suggest is that parents, schools, employers, the media, and consumers of media are now crazily overcelebrating early achievement as the best kind of achievement or even the only kind. We do so at the cost of shaming the late bloomer and thus shortchanging people and society.

Karlgaard is clear in saying there is nothing inherently wrong with early achievement. Indeed, we are all better off thanks to the inventions of young entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who both dropped out of college years ago to pursue their revolutionary technology companies. The downside is that now we often look to early markers of a narrow definition of success as defining a person’s worth.

How children perform at school, what kind of test scores they get, what college they get into at 18 become sought-after signals of accomplishment. Karlgaard suggests several problems with this outlook, including marginalizing highly-talented young people who may not perform well in conventional schooling and grow up with a sense of being less than their peers. He writes:

When so many people believe they are inferior based on a few narrow measurements made when they were children, society as a whole suffers.

Mounting Pressure During Childhood

More troubling is the mounting pressure on parents and children to begin this trail of achievement in preschool, depriving children of freedom and play in the name of academic rigor and triggering skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide. Karlgaard writes:

Excessively promoting the primacy of early measurable achievement—grades, test scores, glamour job, money, celebrity—conceals a dark flipside: If we or our kids don’t knock our SATs out of the park, gain admittance to a top-ten university, reinvent an industry, or land our first job at a cool company that’s changing the world, we’ve somehow failed and are destined to be also-rans for the rest of our lives.

Karlgaard explains that this “societal madness for early achievement” can be damaging to many children and young people. They may appear successful on the outside, but on the inside, many are hurting. He writes:

Early bloomers are in the headlines, but are they succeeding as much as the media lead us to believe? In fact, many early bloomers are suffering terribly. The pressure to achieve early success led to three student suicides in the 2014–15 school year at Gunn High School, a public school in Palo Alto, California, three miles from the elite Stanford University campus. All were good students striving for early achievement. By March in the same school year, forty-two Gunn students had been hospitalized or treated for suicidal thoughts.

Fortunately, Late Bloomers offers a dose of sanity for those of us who question the increasingly standardized, test-driven schooling model that can fuel a toxic early achievement culture, while also encouraging all of us that it’s never too late to pursue a passion, build a business, or change the world.

Late Bloomers

A late bloomer himself, Karlgaard had a hunch that there was great value in peaking later in life. His book is an extensively researched work that blends the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology with profiles of inspiring late bloomers to show that the push toward early achievement and career success may be unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

While research shows that individuals on average have rapid brain functioning and memory skills in their 20s, it’s in their 30s and 40s that strong executive functioning skills, empathy, and level-headedness kick in, and wisdom really emerges after 50. These more mature qualities can be critical in helping late bloomers to launch new, successful endeavors and enterprises.

A primary characteristic of late bloomers is curiosity which, Karlgaard argues, is abundant in young children and is steadily eroded through what he calls “America’s early-blooming conveyor belt.” Late bloomers seem to hold on to their curiosity despite societal efforts to weaken it. They are seekers and explorers who aren’t afraid to experiment.

Quitting Your Way to Success

They also aren’t afraid to quit. Late bloomers tend to reject the myth that “winners never quit and quitters never win,” recognizing the opportunity lost when we spend our time in a job or activity that isn’t serving us well and that may distract us from pursuing our true talents. Karlgaard explains the importance of quitting to success:

As part of our obsession with early achievement, we’ve turned quitting into a pejorative, an insult that cuts straight to our sense of self-worth. And that’s not just unfair, it’s destructive. In a drive to suppress individuality and reinforce cultural norms, society has turned one of the most effective tools for self-discovery into a proverbial four-letter word.

Ultimately, Karlgaard’s Late Bloomers book is a refreshing reminder that it’s okay to slow down and move through life at our own pace, following our own pathway. Don’t let the societal conveyor belt of preschool-to-college-to-career achievement drown out your talents or derail your potential. Know that it’s never too late to begin or to peak, and that there is often great value that comes with time. Karlgaard concludes:

If we’re not forced to conform to standard timetables for success, we can—and will—bloom on our own schedules. And we can do it with a deeper sense of mission and a greater feeling of contentment.

This is sage advice, both for us to take and to give to our children.

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Don’t Apply for “A Job”

Don’t apply for “a job.” That’s too general.

Apply for a specific opportunity to create a specific kind of value for a specific company.

If you apply for something, that’s actually what you’re doing anyway. So you might as well adopt a mindset that’s congruent with the task.

Apply for jobs with the same practical wisdom you’d display when looking for a date.

Don’t let yourself sound like a desperate person who’s looking for anything under the sun. Make the company feel like you’re uniquely interested in them.

You wouldn’t go on a date and say “Oh, I’m just here because I have no friends and you were available. There was nothing about you that made me intrigued. I’m just trying to get to know ANYONE who’s willing to listen.”

You would say “When I met you the other day and you started talking about how you loved the Chicago Bulls and THEN you dropped that Eminem reference in the SAME sentence, I was like ‘I GOTTA get to know this person right here.’”

Make your pitch personal.

People like it when you’re interested in them in particular.

They like it less when you’re just putting out a bunch of feelers.

The same is true for companies.

Don’t be spammy. Be specific.

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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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Words Poorly Used #139 — Complexity

When a minion uses the word complexity it is an action of CYA, not a true description of a problem.  After all, conventional wisdom holds that if you can truly define a problem, then the solution is forthright.  Complexity is not a definition of a problem.  The speaker of the word complexity is essentially saying, “leave me alone … you are playing with fire (and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain)” and/or “I am a member of the priesthood, and you’re not.”

Complexity is an ambiguous word covering any combination.  It is a minefield.  It is the stuff of unforeseen consequences.  The user of the word can stretch its meaning to post-describe any set of relationships.  Compound relationships can contain more compound relationships, including serial relationships.  Serial relationships can contain more serial relationships, including series of compound relationships.

Number one, the wielder of complexity at least understands the complexity without being able to divine the unforeseen consequences, and number two, such wielder understands that, within limits, she understands more about the complexity than the wieldee.

The use of the word, complexity, does not mean the problem is fully plumbed with a solution at hand.

— Kilgore Forelle

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