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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US Schools Are Leaving Students Ill-Equipped to Compete with Artificial Intelligence

We have long known that the robots were coming, but now that they are here, the mismatch between our modern education system and the technology-fueled workplace is glaringly apparent. As robots expertly perform routine tasks and increasingly assume broader workforce responsibilities, we must ask ourselves an important question: What is our key human differentiator?

The Power of Creativity

According to Boston University professor Iain Cockburn, who just published a new paper on the impact of artificial intelligence, the human competitive advantage lies in optimizing “what we can do better than machines, which is imagination, creativity, judgment.” In the paper, Cockburn and his colleagues suggest that it’s possible the robots will catch up to us soon in these realms, but they are not there yet. They write:

Instead, recent advances in both robotics and in deep learning are by and large innovations that require a significant level of human planning and that apply to a relatively narrow domain of problem-solving (e.g., face recognition, playing Go, picking up a particular object, etc.). While it is of course possible that further breakthroughs will lead to a technology that can meaningfully mimic the nature of human subjective intelligence and emotion, the recent advances that have attracted scientific and commercial attention are well removed from these domains.

If human imagination, creativity, and judgment are our primary tools for competing successfully with today’s robots, then it would make sense for current education models to focus on cultivating these qualities. The sad fact, however, is that most schooling is stuck in a 19th-century system of command and control, memorization, and regurgitation that may successfully train young people to be robotic workers but not innovative thinkers.

It’s Time to Adapt

Recognizing the inevitable effects of automation, artificial intelligence researchers have been calling for dramatic changes in the education of our youth since computers first appeared. One futurist was Seymour Papert, a renowned mathematician who became co-director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s.

Papert was a critic of education models based on top-down instruction and passive learning. He believed that “the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching.” So firm was his vision of the ways technology could facilitate authentic learning, Papert foreshadowed the end of conventional schooling. In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert writes that “schools as we know them today will have no place in the future.”

Of course, Papert’s vision hasn’t emerged. Other than the ubiquity of computers, most present schooling looks remarkably similar to schooling in the 1980s, and passive learning and a teach-and-test approach to education endures. American public school students now take more than one hundred required standardized tests from preschool through high school graduation—a number that has skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, their creativity scores are plummeting. College of William & Mary professor Kyung Hee Kim discovered that American creativity scores have been falling precipitously since the early 1990s, with elementary school-age children experiencing the sharpest drop in creativity.

We should all be alarmed. If human creativity is our key competitive advantage against robots, and that creativity is declining, the forthcoming workplace disruption and job losses that will accompany increased automation will be more severe than they otherwise should be. Some educators suggest doubling down on efforts to foster creativity. John Maeda, the former president of Rhode Island School of Design, said in an interview:

I wouldn’t say [creativity] can be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge and wisdom to someone. I would say instead it can be re-kindled in people—all children are creative. They just lose their capability to be creative by growing up.

But it’s not a consequence of growing up that causes creativity to decline: It’s our antiquated system of forced schooling that was designed to crush creativity in the name of conformity. As I spotlight in my upcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, young people who learn without school, or in other non-coercive learning environments, retain their natural creativity and curiosity. We don’t need to rekindle creativity; we need to stop destroying it.

To compete with robots, we need an education model that nurtures human imagination and ingenuity. Forced schooling is ill-equipped to do this, but models of learning without conventional schooling are ideally positioned to take on the pending robot challenge.

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The Pleasure of Disproving the Experts

Want to run? Experts say you need nice running shoes, controlled diets, and fancy nutrition gels.

Want to start a podcast? Experts might tell you that you need the latest microphones, a sound mixer, a perfectly soundproof room, and high-cost conferencing software.

Want to get into photography? Experts might say you need to get a fancy camera and understand aperture, shutter speed, ISO speed, exposure, and all the rest.

Of course, they’d be mistaken.*

You *can* become a runner without equipment. Equipment can help prevent health risks in the long term, but then people have also been running long before running stores were a thing.

You *can* be a decent photographer without investing tons of time and money. If you know how to capture the right moments and you use the right light and angles, you can get good shots.

You *can* start a podcast, even if you don’t have the production capabilities of FOX News or CNN. Just get a microphone and someone interesting to speak into it.

Expert opinions are great, especially when they help you to get a job done. But I get rebellious when expert advice seems calculated to terrify the hearer into helpless dependence on experts (and the things they sell). I’ve seen myself and others get to that place of paralysis before. I get out by doing the things I’m not supposed to be able to do, and doing them with a lot less knowledge and a lot fewer resources.

It takes a bit more work, but it’s well worth it to try things your way (without being cocky or careless) when experts tend to stand in the path instead of clearing it.

And it’s so much fun, because it’s so much fun to set people free from fear of starting.

*Or you would be mistaken for taking their advice as absolute. These words are wisdom when applied to the extremes in running, photography, podcasting – if you’re going pro, you do want to make investments like these.

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The FDA’s Assault on Tobacco Consumers, Part 3

Early one morning last December, Jeff Gracik was heading to his southern California home garage-workshop where he makes his living when he heard a loud, hurried knock on his front door. Thinking it might be a rushed UPS driver, he quickly opened the door. But it wasn’t UPS. Standing on his doorstep were three badge-flashing inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They had come to inspect Jeff’s business.

Just what is Jeff’s business? Does he produce food? No. Does he produce drugs? No again. So why the unannounced visit by FDA inspectors?

Jeff makes pipes for tobacco pipe smokers. He doesn’t make tobacco, mind you, which (alas) Congress empowered the FDA to control, but pipes, most of which are made from wood (most commonly briar, but other varieties too), materials such as acrylic and vulcanized rubber for the mouthpieces, and wood stains, which Jeff buys but does not make.

In its wisdom, the FDA has deemed pipes “tobacco products,” a category of things it regulates under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA) of 2009. Forgive the bureaucratese I’m about to shovel your way, but an FDA document states (pp. 257-58):

“The definition of ‘tobacco product’ … includes all components, parts, and accessories of tobacco products (except for raw materials other than tobacco used in manufacturing a component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product). FDA interprets components and parts of a tobacco product to include any assembly of materials intended or reasonably expected: 1) to alter or affect the tobacco product’s performance, composition, constituents or characteristics; or 2) to be used with or for the human consumption of a tobacco product. Both e-cigarettes and pipes meet this definition.”

You may find it odd that the FDA chooses not to regulate lighters, matches, ashtrays, humidors, and the like, but it has its reason: it deems such things to be accessories, not components and parts. Accessories, the FDA says, “do not contain tobacco, are not derived from tobacco, and do not affect or alter the performance, composition, constituents, or characteristics of a tobacco product.” Since pipes do those things, they are deemed regulated components rather than unregulated accessories.

Who knew the FDA personnel had the wisdom to make such fine distinctions?

Note the first word I emphasized a couple of paragraphs earlier: interprets. The FDA admits it has no explicit statutory authority to regulate things not made or derived from tobacco even if they can be used to consume tobacco. Did the members of Congress who wrote and voted for the TCA (which amended the FD&C) deem non-tobacco products such as wooden pipes to be tobacco products? It appears not. The legislation states that the “term ‘tobacco product’ means any product made or derived from tobacco that is intended for human consumption, including any component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product (except for raw materials other than tobacco used in manufacturing a component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product).”

The word including would seem to limit the covered components, parts, and accessories to things “made or derived from tobacco,” of which the briar root Jeff Gracik uses is not an example. Briar comes from the root of the flowering plant called Erica Arborea, or tree heath.

To reinforce my point, note that the word pipe appears in the TCA only as a qualifier for the word tobacco. The statute’s authors wanted to assure that tobacco is understood to include pipe tobacco and not just cigars and cigarettes. But the legislation contains not one single reference to pipes per se. So Congress apparently did not intend to authorize the FDA to control anything other than tobacco or things derived from it, even things that are likely to be used to consume tobacco.

But no matter. The FDA has assumed the power to deem non-A to be A. Logic and common sense be damned.

At any rate, three FDA inspectors (two of them trainees) turned up unannounced at Jeff Gracik’s door to say that they had the authority under the TCA to enter his premises — right then — and inspect his home workshop. Actually, he had “consented” to inspections once every two years when he registered with the FDA as a pipe maker. Jeff had learned earlier that under the law, retailers could not sell his pipes unless he was registered, so he allowed a retailer to register him, saving him the trouble of doing the paperwork himself. He had no choice: he earns his living as a full-time pipe maker and wants to keep doing so.

Jeff, who is 39, started making pipes in 2003. He sold his first one a year later and has since built a sterling reputation among pipe collectors. He makes 100 to 125 pipes a year — which sell for $800 to $3,000 apiece — under the name J. Alan Pipes. Jeff is an artisan; he makes pipes one at a time by hand. Each is unique, a thing of beauty, a dazzling collaboration of nature and human being. He and brother Jeremy have a second, lower-priced line of partially machine-made pipes under the name Alan Brothers.

Needless to say, Jeff was unaccustomed to having federal agents traipsing around his workshop. “I was so shocked,” he told me. He said the inspectors were friendly but firm — and apparently unsure what they were supposed to be doing. This might have been their first venture into unknown territory. (Other pipe makers are being similarly visited.) The inspectors started asking questions “most of which were not really relevant to pipe making. Things like: tell us about all the materials you use. Tell us about where they’re from. Do you have receipts for where they’re from? We need the names for all the distributors for all your materials. We need to know exactly the ingredients with which they’re treated; so, for instance, briar, how is it treated? Of course, I’m an artisan. I don’t have those kinds of records.”

That was just the beginning. “They had me demonstrate how to make a pipe. So I had to take a block of briar and chuck it in my lathe…. And as the day went on, they became more and more interested in what I was doing.” He said some of their questions suggested they were interested in the potential toxicity of materials and ingredient, but that’s as far as that went. They tested no materials or stains and took no sample with them. Jeff was not told to submit anything for approval.

The visit lasted six and a half hours, as if this small businessman had nothing better to do than entertain a group of FDA inspectors. “I got nothing done that day,” he said.

“They wanted to see written procedures,” he explained. “How do you do A to Z?” He told them that as a craftsman and unlike a factory, he has no written procedures. As the hours went by he sensed he was almost gaining sympathy from the inspectors.

Jeff said he did his best to comply with all requests, including requests for documents going back to 2006. “If they shut me down because I failed to answer a question to their satisfaction,” he said, “then my kids don’t eat and we foreclose on our house.”

For the record, the TCA states that regulations “shall not impose requirements unduly burdensome to a tobacco product manufacturer or importer, taking into account the cost of complying with such requirements and the need for the protection of the public health ….” Decide for yourself if the FDA obeys that prohibition.

The FDA and those who support government control will point out that even though pipes are not made from tobacco, they are used to consume tobacco. That’s true. But Gracik points out that some people who buy his pipes, which can be as beautiful as any work of art, are collectors who don’t smoke. (Interestingly, his grandmother’s first cousin was Andy Warhol.)

It’s hard to say how many pipe makers we have in America. People connected with the industry and hobby estimate the number of full-timers at 25 to 30, with a few hundred more who make and sell pipes part-time. Jeff is afraid that the thicket of rules could persuade many of them to “throw in the towel.” He says: “It scared the hell out of a lot of pipe makers when we found out we were under this kind of scrutiny.”

The pipe makers certainly could use a trade association to protect them. But Gracik says they are, unsurprisingly, individualists and so discussions about forming an association have gotten nowhere.

So the FDA harasses — even if it’s with a smile — small-scale artisans who scratch out livings working by hand with wood and other harmless materials. To what end? It’s all part of a larger puritanical campaign to harass peaceful Americans who enjoy consuming tobacco via cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco and using non-tobacco nicotine e-cigarettes.

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits,” Mark Twain said.

Using tobacco is not risk-free, of course, but most things in life are not risk-free. In the real world, risk can be managed and minimized but never eliminated, and in a free society, individuals have the right to decide for themselves how to go about doing it.

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