Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Prestidigitation

If I were to ask pretty nearly anyone why the National Rifle Association (NRA) runs commercials that promote fear and paranoia, they'd give me one of two answers:
  1. The NRA does not do that
  2. Fear and paranoia sell
I probably would have said the latter. I think I've been duped, and not because I believe the former.

I read a fairly long piece in the New Yorker about Secrecy, Self-Dealing and Greed in the NRA. The short summary is the the NRA, which is a non-profit organization, appears to have a extremely tight relationship with their public relationship firm, Ackerman McQueen, a for-profit organization. That is, many people who work for the NRA are former Ackerman McQueen employees, and many people who are thought of as NRA spokespeople are actually Ackerman McQueen staff.

The result of this close relationship is that the NRA tends to make decisions that benefit Ackerman McQueen rather than its membership. In public filings in 2017 the NRA revealed it paid Ackerman McQueen more than $40 million. It's fine to pay your public relationship firm more than $40 million is you are getting more than $40 million of value from that payment. The evidence suggests they are not.

Glossy magazines, TV spots and launching their own NRATV don't appear to bring in as much money as they pay to produce them. Some of the promotional materials seem outright self-destructive - highlighting rich donors when the NRA gets most of their money from a broad array of small donors who might not like to see them spend it in this way.

It all adds up to why I said I think I've been duped. The NRA doesn't buy TV spots selling the idea that the Democrats are coming to take your guns because that's what gets them money or makes them powerful. The NRA buys those TV spots because the decision making at the NRA is controlled by the PR firm that they pay to make those TV spots. The people doing this know that people like me will believe that fear sells because we are cynical.

We're convinced that fear and paranoia sell, but they are not actually selling. They aren't selling fear, they are paying to put it out there. But they have been paying themselves to put it out there, using donor money. What fear and paranoia have been doing in this instance is make a loud distraction.

If the NRA continues to lose millions of dollars a year at some point it will collapse. I think it would be easy to see that as a victory for a lot of people who oppose the NRA's politics.

But this isn't a story about one half of America supporting gun massacres and another half opposing them and team good winning. This is a story about people who are supporting gun massacres as a distraction while they line their own pockets. Those people are getting away with it, team good is not winning. If the NRA collapses, the people who are responsible both for the poisonous politics and for the collapse of the organization will walk away millionaires. And then they will do it again.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Improved Epistemology

I once stormed out of a philosophy class because I didn't agree with my professor's point of view that speaking fictionally and speaking literally were a binary and nothing existed in between.

Epistemology is the
"study"
of what it means to know something which is closely connected with what it means for something to be true. Obviously people have had all kinds of wacky, unique ideas about this over centuries of people thinking about it, but I'm going to oversimplify that by putting everything into two big buckets.

The classical idea of truth is basically summed up by the famous
misquote
of Socrates, "I know that I know nothing." In this model actual truth is unattainable, but we console ourselves with calling things true because they seem true to us. If someone points out that we can't know anything is true we just remind ourselves not to invite them to our next party. This is a garbage idea of truth that has no real world application and doesn't even let us distinguish what's true and what's not.

The scientific idea of truth is that the truth is whatever our best evidence points to. This is a useful and self-consistent idea of truth. After all, our best evidence suggests that our best evidence points to the truth. Otherwise that bridge would be falling down. But this kind of truth, it turns out, seems to be impractical for a large swath of people for everyday purposes. It puts evaluating truth claims out of the hands of people who make truth claims. It doesn't align with people's sense of what truth is supposed to be.

Anyway, I experiment a lot with holding contradictory ideas in my head because it turns out that they very nearly don't exist. The only way to get solid contradictory ideas is to say, "Well that's not what I meant" every time you notice a way they can be reconciled. There's almost always more than one way of looking at things.

Hegel is attributed
with the idea of using a dialectical method to arrive at truth using the thesis, antithesis, synthesis approach. That is, you begin with a claim of truth, you formulate its opposite, and then you find something that reconciles the two.

As a philosophical exercise this is stupid. You can't take the statement that water is wet, contradict it with "water isn't wet" and then find some deeper truth by combining the two. But if we look at the world we'll find lots of places where people hold seemingly contradictory ideas, and have those ideas serve them in their lives. These are the kinds of ideas that we actually need to synthesize.

So this brings me to my third bucket for how to understand the idea of truth. Notions connect to truth to the extent that they ought to be taken into account when forming a higher truth. This idea of truth is less obsessive about labeling things as true or false and more focused on understanding things well so that useful parts of them can be salvaged.

I think this is probably actually closer to the ideal embedded in the scientific method than the statement of scientific truth I gave above is. I doubt more than a handful of people ever took the idea of best evidence being truth as literally as I did. But philosophy is primarily about spending a long time thinking about something to arrive at a conclusion everyone else already knew, so here I am.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Diversity

There's something I have to say, and it's embarrassing to say it, so I don't want to. But let me promise you, I'm not being uncharitable here, this is really an accurate and banal description of what really happened.

One day some years ago someone I worked with found they couldn't attend a continuing education session on economics. They asked me to take the seat because they didn't want it to go to waste. This was basically a few days off work, it was my boss asking me to go, and I love to hate-learn things, so this seemed like a good idea to me.

In the economics course, aimed at professional people who have degrees and work in public policy, they explained a fairly basic idea from economics: trade makes people better off. Here's the explanation:
Alice has a car and Bob needs a car. Alice sells the car to Bob for $3,000. Now, Alice would not have made that sale unless the car was worth less than $3,000 to them. Let's say Alice valued the car at $2,000. Bob would not have bought the car unless it was worth more than $3,000 to Bob, so let's just say Bob values the car at $4,000. Previously Alice had an asset worth $2,000 and Bob had currency worth $3,000. After the exchange Alice had currency worth $3,000 and Bob had an asset worth $4,000. Thus each is $1,000 richer and society is $2,000 richer.
Now I find the majority of my education to be painfully embarrassing, but that little parable seems so dumb to me that I feel like I am being dishonest by recounting it. Surely there was a more intelligent point that I am leaving out.

Actually there are far stupider points that are being left out. Like the idea that the value of a thing is reliably determined by how much the individual willing to pay for it is willing to pay, which pretends to employ the wisdom of crowds but actually allows the value of things to be set by weird outliers. It also holds the value of currency to be equal to each person in contradiction to that previous premise.

But I think there is a more intelligent point being left out. It's just a point not recognized by economics. In physics we say energy can't be created or destroyed. In order to make that make sense we have to acknowledge a thing called potential energy. If I have a large rock fifty feet from the ground it has gravitational potential energy - that is, if whatever is suspending the rock were to cease to suspend it, the rock could crush my body leaving a grisly pulp. The energy to do that was not created when the rock was released. Rather, it was converted from the kinetic energy that was the rock moving up there in the first place to the potential energy stored in the rock's position. When the rock is released it is converted back into kinetic energy.

I think there is a useful analogy in there. Intuitively, the car did not become an inherently more valuable thing when Bob took possession of it,
but rather its potential value was unleashed
. After all, what if Alice was conning Bob and the car is junk that won't work in a week? Economists would try to hold that as an exception by carving out some rule about fraud and coercion
without actually being able to define either
. I think instead we should look at things in the world actually having value, which is not affected by what we choose to pay for them.

A note, I think most economists would agree with me on that and say that market price is just the best way to know the value of things, it isn't the value of things. I think the discipline of economics has entirely substituted the metric for the thing they want to measure.

So let's think of the world as a
real
place with
real
things that
really
exist in it and that have some properties that stand regardless of whether we recognize those properties or not. Things may have value that is unrealized to any person, but unrealized value is only unrealized until it is realized.

There's an undoubtedly apocryphal story of two ancient civilizations living in what we'd consider close proximity that never met. One had domesticated animals, the other had invented the wheel. Because they never met they never combined these two synergistic inventions. Imagine the great increase in well-being in both of these two possibly fictional civilizations had they happened upon one another.

Where would that value come from? The facile argument from my economics course would say it came from trade. But I would say that the creation of value wasn't in the exchange of a
llama
for a wheel. The creation of value was in the invention of the wheel and the domestication of the llama. The explosion of well-being is the realization of the value of both of those things, and in the further creation of spin-off technologies like a harness to have a llama pull a wheeled cart.

Let's take those two civilizations. A traveler from one meets a traveler from another. They check out the wheel and the llama and say, "Wow, what's up with that?!?" They take the knowledge back to their civilizations. Next thing you know everyone is making wheels, everyone is training animals, and everyone is better off.

Instead let's imagine they meet and conspire to figure out how they can make as much personal gain off the new knowledge as possible. There is an agreement that civilization A can have trained animals but must buy them all from person B's farm, and civilization B can have wheels but must pay person A a fee per wheel-kilometer rolled. The explosion is considerably less.

Economists would say that everyone is still better off because of the trade. But in this example people are better off because of the sharing of ideas and worse off because of the trade. The trade part is limiting people's well-being, not expanding it. The point economists would make in rebuttal is that the trade is necessary for the sharing of ideas, but they would make that point because they base their understanding of society on the simple multiplication of number of people in society by the diary of an 18th century philosopher who spent their life obsessing over their trust issues.

So when an economist tells you that trade creates wealth, make sure to let them know that in fact what creates well-being is just that different people are different and thus have different ideas and we can combine those ideas. That is, diversity creates value. Trade is a way to realize that value but trade takes a cut of the value for itself.