The Anti-Jerk Law

You’ve probably had a boss who was a jerk.  Indeed, you may be working under a jerk of a boss right now.  Question: Would it be a good idea to pass an Anti-Jerk Law to protect workers from these jerky employers?  Like existing employment discrimination laws, the Anti-Jerk Law would allow aggrieved employees to sue their employer for jerkiness – and received handsome compensation if they prove their charge in a court of law.

I doubt many people would endorse this Anti-Jerk Law.  On what basis, though, would they object?

Libertarians might stand up for the “right to be a jerk,” but few non-libertarians would find that convincing.

Economists might appeal to the standard economics textbook conclusion that mandated benefits – including the right to sue your employer for jerkiness – are inefficient.  But few non-economists would find that convincing.

 

Why, then, would normal people refuse to endorse an Anti-Jerk Law?  If pressed, the reason would probably be along the lines of, “Jerkiness is way too subjective.”  If you call your boss a jerk, he’s probably thinking, “No, you’re the jerk.”  Even if a large majority of the workers at a firm consider their boss a jerk, a contrarian might insist, “The boss is tough but fair.  You folks simply don’t measure up.”   Other people might muse: “Personality conflicts are a fact of life.  You can’t legislate them out of existence.”

 

What happens if you scoff at the subjectivity of jerkiness and pass your Anti-Jerk Law anyway?  All of the following:

1. Bosses try to avoid the appearance of jerkiness.  But bosses with poor social skills or bad luck still get sued.

2. Since bosses try to avoid the appearance of jerkiness, litigious employees don’t have a lot to work with.

3. As long as judges and juries are sympathetic, however, they lower the de facto burden of proof, allowing the war on jerks to continue indefinitely.

4. Bosses, in turn, defend themselves by trying to pre-emptively discredit litigious employees.

5. Cynical bosses go a step further by trying not to hire employees who are relatively likely to cry “jerk.”

6. Human resource departments institute Orwellian anti-jerk training, where participants get punished for pointing out that the HR folks are domineering and insulting.  I.e., jerks!

7. If so-called jerky managerial styles enhance productivity (think: athletic coaches), society forfeits major benefits.

 

As far as I know, no country has an Anti-Jerk Law in place.  But many countries ban “discrimination,” and the effects are much the same.  Once you pass discrimination laws…

 

1. Bosses try to avoid the appearance of discrimination.  But bosses with poor social skills or bad luck still get sued.

2. Since bosses try to avoid the appearance of discrimination, litigious employees don’t have a lot to work with.

3. As long as judges and juries are sympathetic, however, they lower the de facto burden of proof, allowing the war on discrimination to continue indefinitely.

4. Bosses, in turn, defend themselves by trying to pre-emptively discredit litigious employees.

5. Cynical bosses go a step further by trying not to hire employees who are relatively likely to cry “discrimination.”

6. Human resource departments institute Orwellian anti-discrimination training, where participants get punished for pointing out that the HR folks are hostile and bigoted.  I.e., discriminators!

7. If so-called discrimination enhances productivity (think: standardized testing), society forfeits major benefits.

 

Why do the same patterns emerge in both cases?  Because “he discriminated against me” is about as subjective as “he was a jerk to me.”  In both cases, they feel very real to the accuser.  In both cases, they feel very unfair to the accused.  If you knew neither party, you’d probably decline to even express an opinion.

And with good reason.

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Being Normal

I’ve always been weird, but at this point in my life I feel like I understand non-weird people quite well.  If you’re still baffled, my weird friends, one simple principle captures most of what you need to know.

 

The Principle of Normality: A normal person says what others say, but does what others do.

 

Notice that this principle captures two distinct features of normality.

First, conformism.  People dislike expressing views or taking actions unless other people express the same views and take the same actions.

Second, the chasm between words and actions.  Normal people lack integrity.  They feel little need to bring their actions in harmony with their words – or their words in harmony with their actions.

Example: A normal person will say, “We should do everything possible to fight global warming” – yet donate zero to environmental charities.  How can they cope with the cognitive dissonance?  Because this psychological experience is alien to them.  They speak environmentalist words to echo the environmentalist words they hear other people say.  They donate zero to environmental charities because to mimic what they see other people do.

For normal people, Social Desirability Bias is far more than a bias; it is their way of life.

Once you understand the Principle of Normality, my weird friends, you are also ready to look in the mirror and understand weirdness in all its manifestations.  While some weird people exhibit multiple manifestations, most weird people strongly emphasize just one.  (I think).

Manifestation #1: Saying unconventional things.  Some weird people like speaking about odd, off-putting, or socially disapproved topics, despite strong social pressure.  Picture the comic book nerd, the gaming nerd, the literary nerd, or the anti-religious nerd.  They still live much like other people; they just say weird things.

Manifestation #2: Doing unconventional actions.  Other weird people focus on doing odd, off-putting, or socially disapproved things, again despite strong social pressure.  Picture the polyamorist, the punker, the Hare Krishna (in Western societies), or the junkie.  They still speak much like other people; they just do weird things.

Manifestation #3: The integrity of good.  A third variety of weird person starts with plausible, even popular verbal premises.  Then they stun the rest of the world by striving to bring their behavior into strict conformity with these premises.  Picture the Effective Altruist, the vegan, the abolitionist, or the proponent of radical honesty.

Manifestation #4: The integrity of evil.  The last variety of weird person starts with bizarre verbal premises that seem absurd unless you’re thoroughly brainwashed.  They they horrify the rest of the world by striving to bring their behavior into strict conformity with these premises.  Picture the Islamic fundamentalist, the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, or the theonomist.

 

To point out the obvious: Manifestation #4 is responsible for almost all of the political horrors of the last three centuries.  Most weird people are not violent fanatics, but all violent fanatics are weird.  So while I’m personally high on Manifestations 1, 2, and especially 3, I can understand why weird people tend to frighten normal people.  In defense of the weird, however, I have to point out that most moral progress comes from Manifestation #3 – the abolition of slavery being the greatest example.  Normal people rarely initiate awful crimes on their own, but once violent fanatics make awful crimes normal, normal people will support them by word and deed.

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Impasse

I’ve spent over 30 years arguing about ideas.  During those decades, I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve changed my mind.  I’ve changed minds.

Normally, however, arguing about ideas is fruitless.  Tempers fray.  Discussion goes in circles.  Each and every mental corruption that Philip Tetlock has explored rears itself ugly epistemic head.  You even lose friends.

When a conversation goes off the rails, I’m sorely tempted to bluntly assess the other party’s deep intellectual flaws.  (As I repeatedly told my mom when I was a teenager, “When will you get it through your thick skull that…”)  You don’t have to master Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People to predict the results.  The other party typically has the temerity to bluntly assess my deep intellectual flaws, which in turn sparks an even more unpleasant, fruitless, and potentially friendship-ending exchange.

The wise approach to fruitless argument, rather, is to politely disengage.  Yet how can you do this without counter-productively moving the conversation from bad to worse?

The classic move is to make “one last point,” then terminate the conversation.  Again, you don’t have to master Carnegie to predict the results.  The other side rushes to get in their “one last point” and the cycle of suffering resumes.

A better approach is to meekly announce, “I can’t think of anything else productive to say.”  Alas, this is still red meat in the eyes of many disputants.  “Aha, so you can’t even answer my brilliant arguments.  Typical!”

The best ejector button I’ve discovered so far is a single word: “Impasse.”  You can stretch it out to, “I fear we’ve reached an impasse,” but even that provides a hand-hold for the other party to say, “Oh, we’ve reached an impasse, eh?  Speak for yourself.”  When you say, “Impasse” and stop talking, the conversation swiftly ends.  The other side won’t like it, but at this point you should meet further taunts with a silent shrug.  While this might spawn a grudge, it’s less likely to do so than further wasted words.

Admittedly, if your real goal is to manipulate the other party into purging you, your best bet is probably Agree and Amplify.  But if that’s your goal, you have no need of my help.

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Reflections on My Illustration Contest

You might not realize from EconLog or my academic work, but I love crafting and sharing stories.  Some are true, at least as far as memory serves.  I’ve told my kids hundreds of stories over the dinner table, most revolving around absurd events of my childhood.  I’ve also written a pile of fiction, mostly for my artisanal role-playing games.  I’ve explored almost every genre that’s game-worthy: high fantasy, superheroes, crime, dystopian, absurdist comedy, conspiracy, war, westerns, and even Bollywood.   And as you might guess from my Open Borders, I am also a huge fan of the graphic novel format.  Indeed, years earlier I wrote a fictional graphic novel, Amore Infernale; you can check out the storyboards here.

Since Open Borders has done well, I’m now trying to get my earlier book illustrated and published.  Making the transition from non-fiction to fiction is, however, harder than it looks, so I’ve decided to simply find and hire an illustrator on my own.  My search process is quite involved, but years ago my friend Dave Hedengren sponsored an illustration contest for me, so I decided to do the same.  Overall, running my own illustration contest was a great experience.  Here’s what I learned along the way.

1. Many Western artists have a strong norm against contests.  Why?  As far as I can tell, critics deem contests “exploitative” because a lot of entrants work hard for zero pay.

2. You don’t have to be a free-market economist to see how absurd this norm is.  Most artists “work” for free anyway, because no one on Earth is ready to pay them for their efforts.  So why would it be bad to at least give such artists a chance to earn some money doing what they love?  Artists with good outside options can and will opt out.  Artists who really need the money or don’t love art that much can have a day job.  Contests are a good option for the artists who remain.

3. There’s a close analogy between contests and unpaid internships.  In both cases, workers who aren’t worth training at the minimum wage can practice their skills and make connections by working for free.  This in turn (a) tells people whether they’re cut out for the career they’re trying, and (b) paves the way to a better future.

4. Are opponents of contests (and unpaid internships, for that matter) deliberately trying to hobble the next generation of competition?  I doubt it; their complaints seem impulsive, not strategic.  When they say, “It’s not fair!” they’re blurting out their unschooled opinions, not crying crocodile tears.

5. My prize was $400 to draw pages 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 of my storyboards.  For Western artists, this would be a modest payday even if they were sure to win, just $80 a page.  In the end, however, 53 artists tried their luck.  As the basic economics of immigration predicts, almost all of the entries were from developing countries.  Naive observers might assume that the internet has already integrated global art markets, but this is plainly not the case.  (Along the same lines, you might think that the internet would allow programmers to earn the same pay from any location on Earth, but Indian programmers get a huge pay increase if they reach the U.S.).

6. I was a little disappointed during the first two weeks of the contest.  No one even seemed to be trying to draw more than one or two pages.  But artists picked up the pace at the end.  On the last day of the contest, I had to choose between five great takes on all five pages.

7. Despite everything I’ve said, choosing the winner was painful for me.  I really did get invested in the artists’ dedication to their craft, as well as glimmers of their personal stories.  I spent more time visualizing the disappointment of the near-champions than the elation of the actual winner.  Running the contest make be feel like a boss – which made me start feeling responsible for everyone working for me.  Perhaps that shows that I’m not cut out to be a boss.

8. The winner of my contest is a promising young artist from the mountains of the Philippines, who works under the name Aljon Dave D. (or just “Dave”).  He’s a classy guy; just read his victory statement:

9. I’ve never tried self-publishing before, but since this is a work of fiction, I’m willing to give it a try.  Publisher certification must matter less when readers are looking for entertainment alone, rather than a mix of entertainment and truth.  If I do self-publish, Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski’s work on commodification has inspired me to try to monetize this project to the hilt.  I won’t just sell autographed hard copies and ads; I’ll sell product placements, and auction off the chance to select the model for minor characters.  If you want the Mayor of Verona to look like you, I will make it happen.

10. My two favorite pages are below.  You can see Dave’s entire winning entry here, along with the rest of the competition.  The decision was tough, but Dave won me over with his creativity and the expressiveness of his characters.  I still haven’t settled on an illustrator for this project, but Dave is a prime contender.

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Don’t Pickpocket Your Students

Imagine you’re a professor somewhere.  You here rumors of the creation of a new Office of Student Property Security.  “Whatever,” you think.

Yet before long, you’re summoned to a brand-new mandatory training session run by certified officers of Student Property Security.  At this session (in-person back in the old days; now Zoom of course), they give you a tortoise-paced 90-minute Powerpoint presentation on the student property crisis and the appropriate faculty response.  And the whole spiel can be readily summarized in a single commandment: “Don’t pickpocket your students.”

To me, such a training session would be insulting, pointless, and unhinged.

Why insulting?  Because I would never consider pickpocketing my students in a million years.  I don’t need a self-styled anti-pickpocketing “expert” to remind me of this elementary obligation.  To quote Uncle Junior in The Sopranos, “Where does he get the effrontery?”

Why pointless?  Because any professor who did pickpocket his students would probably not be dissuaded by a training seminar.  Wrong-doers already know the rules; they just don’t care.

Why unhinged?  Because there is no ongoing pickpocketing “crisis.”  Sure, the media can pinpoint a few egregious scandals in a country with over 300 million inhabitants.  But no matter how much outrage such scandals spark, they show next to nothing about real life.  And outrage directed at those who doubt the true severity of the alleged crisis shows less than nothing about real life.

What would motivate an institution to impose this insulting, pointless, and unhinged training?  It could be an effort to diminish the school’s legal liability; if a pickpocketed student ever sues the school, the school can protest, “Don’t blame us, we run a first-rate anti-pickpocketing training program!”  But it’s hard to imagine that a jury would find such protests convincing.  The real motive, I suspect, is not that the administration is protecting their school from lawsuits, but that administrators are protecting themselves from complaints.  Once the student pickpocketing availability cascade gets off the ground, the administrator who refuses to “do something” to “address the crisis” troubleth his own house and inherits the wind.

Now to be fair, no American university currently requires faculty to attend mandatory anti-pickpocketing training.

As far as I know.

And that’s great, because it would be truly Kafkaesque if any university did.

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The Freedom to Do What Sounds Wrong

Friends of freedom routinely defend the right to do wrong.  “If you’re only free to do good things, what freedom do you really have?”  Yet on reflection, this sorely underrates the value of freedom.  Yes, the freedom to do bad things is important.  Much more important, though, is the freedom to do good things that sound bad.

Why is this so important?  Because Social Desirability Bias is ubiquitous; that’s why.   Long psych story short: When the truth sounds bad, human beings deceive and self-deceive.  This deceit in turn routinely rationalizes bad policies.  Example: Convenience and fun are often better than health and safety.  That’s what your actions declare whenever you drive to a restaurant instead of hunkering down in your home.  But almost no one wants to give a public speech where they say, “Convenience and fun are often better than health and safety.”  Policymakers, in turn, largely ignore the value of convenience and fun.  Abandoning your dysfunctional country is often better than “staying to fix it.” But no one wants to openly declare, “I decided my country was a lost cause, so I got out of Dodge.”  Policymakers, in turn, vigorously spurn mere “economic migrants.”  Breaking inconvenient laws is often the best move, but few scofflaws will ever call a press conference to defend their behavior.  Policymakers, in turn, enforce phonebooks’ worth of inane rules.  Working hard to get rich yields wonderful social benefits, but hardly anyone on Earth will even admit to being rich.  Policymakers, in turn, treat the rich as cattle or leeches.

The rhetoric of “freedom” is a great way to neutralize this poison of Social Desirability Bias.  Indeed, there is probably no better antidote in the universe.  When busybodies try to use government to force everyone to sacrifice tons of convenience and fun for vestigial doses of health and safety, shouting, “I spurn safety for convenience” will get you nowhere.  But shouting, “Freedom!” like you’re in Braveheart just might foil the busybodies’ nefarious efforts.  People won’t welcome an immigrant who says he hated his country of birth.  But they will smile upon an immigrant who earnestly avows that he came for “freedom. If you’re caught breaking a stupid law, you won’t escape a guilty verdict by conclusively showing that the law is stupid.  You might, though, if you stand up for your “freedom.” A rich man who wants to keep what he’s earned won’t win much sympathy by lecturing the world about economics.  His better bet, rather, is to raise the banner of “Freedom!”

None of this means that appeals to freedom are – or should be – insincere.  Pursuit of convenience and fun, fleeing your hellhole of birth, breaking stupid laws, and working your way to wealth are all bona fide expressions of freedom.  My point, rather, is about marketing.  Directly defying Social Desirability Bias is ever-tempting, but usually fruitless.  If you want to defend good things that sound bad, your best bet is to reframe the debate.  Want to stand up for business and the rich?  Your best bet is to change the subject.  What were we talking about again?  Oh, that’s right: Freedom!

Isn’t this precisely what critics accuse libertarians of doing all the time?  Pretty much.  What I’m saying is that their accusations are unfair, but we should strive to make them true.  Mainstream political thinkers are too wrapped up in their own irrational demagoguery to even acknowledge the existence of Social Desirability Bias.  Once you fully absorb the distinction between what sounds good and what is good, however, the implied political danger will weigh upon your mind.  What can rational human beings do in the face of such mindless emotionalism?  Wave the flag of freedom.  Wave it habitually.  Wave it proudly.  Even then, you’ll probably lose the war of words, but at least you’ll have a fighting chance.

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Nudge: Welfare State Edition

Simplistic summary of a long debate on paternalism:

 

Hard Paternalist: Government should force weak human beings to do what’s in their own best interest.

Knee-Jerk Libertarian: No, that’s totalitarian.

Soft Paternalist: Government should nudge weak human beings to do what’s in their own best interest.

Thoughtful Libertarian: You define “nudges” so elastically that you still end up being pretty totalitarian.

 

Rizzo and Whitman’s Escaping Paternalism exemplifies the Thoughtful Libertarian position; indeed, as I’ve already said, they’ve probably written the best book on paternalism.  Only after the Book Club ended, though, did the following compromise position occur to me: Instead of using all means at its disposal to nudge people to do what’s in their own best interest, government should limit itself to using the welfare state to nudge its beneficiaries to do what’s in their own best interest.

Let’s call this “Ward Paternalism” – paternalism limited to people who are dependents of the government.  For example, rather than give welfare recipients cash to spend, a Ward Paternalist might give them food stamps instead.  Why?  To nudge them into buying groceries instead of alcohol.

Key point: Under Ward Paternalism, anyone who doesn’t want to be nudged can simply decline to become dependent on the government.  You can spend their own money your own way, no questions asked.  If, however, you ask taxpayers for help, the help comes with strings attached to encourage you to get your life in order.  He who pays the piper, calls the tune – and why shouldn’t the tune be, “Get your life in order”?

Soft paternalists often call their position “libertarian paternalism.”  Ward Paternalism, however, better fits the label, because Ward Paternalism preserves the right of independent adults to do as they please.  The restrictions are limited to those who opt in by pleading inability to support themselves.

Why, though, would anyone support Ward Paternalism?  Top two reasons:

1. While irresponsibility is not the sole cause of desperation, it is plainly a major cause.  The very fact that you’re asking for government help therefore raises serious doubts about your own prudence.  And it makes sense to focus paternalistic energy on you.

2. The standard moral constraint to leave others alone does not apply.  “Leave me alone, I don’t want your help” has great force.  “Help me, but don’t presume to tell me how to live my life” has little.

 

Before you dismiss it as an eccentric or arrogant position, notice that Ward Paternalism is already enshrined in a wide range of government programs.  Governments routinely redistribute in kind; they much prefer to hand out food, health care, schooling, or housing than cash.  Much of the reason, no doubt, is that governments want to make sure that children in poor families get food, health care, schooling, and housing even if their parents have other priorities.  The rest of the reason, though, is that governments are nudging the adults themselves to prioritize food, health care, schooling, and housing over alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and gambling.  The same goes for government pensions; you can’t start spending your retirement when you’re fifty, because the government wants to ensure that you won’t be starving on the streets when you’re seventy.  If an independent adult can fairly protest, “It’s my money and I’ll do what I want with it,” why can’t taxpayers just as fairly protest, “It’s our money and you’ll use it as we think best”?

What about the slippery slope?  Rizzo and Whitman powerfully argue for its potency.  Yet in this case, we face multiple slopes.  If we scrupulously avoid the slope where government uses conditional redistribution to dictate our lifestyles, we expose ourselves to the slope where government hands out money like a drunken sailor.  And in any case, attaching endless strings to government money is a sneaky route to austerity, a policy program that deserves our full support.  If government nudges the people aggressively enough to inspire a massive wave of declarations of independence, so much the better.

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Self-Help Is Like a Vaccine

AEI’s Andrew Biggs has a totally reasonable piece arguing that Americans’ unhealthy lifestyles are a major cause of America’s high COVID mortality rate:

Americans entered the Covid pandemic in much poorer health than citizens of other developed countries. For instance, over 27,000 U.S Covid deaths list diabetes as a comorbidity, accounting for 16% of total Covid-related fatalities. But what if instead of having the highest diabetes rate among rich countries the U.S. had the same rate as Australia, with less than half the U.S. level? The same holds for obesity, listed as a comorbidity in 4% of Covid cases. Forty percent of Americans are obese, the highest in the developed world and over twice the OECD average. U.S. death rates from heart disease are also higher than most European and Asian countries. Hypertension is listed as a comorbidity in 22% of Covid deaths. If Americans simply had the same health status as other high-income countries, it is likely that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.

The obvious upshot is: Individuals can and should reduce their COVID risk by switching to healthier lifestyles.  Yet Biggs strangely declares the opposite:

General practitioners tell me that their Type 2 diabetes patients can tell you their weight and know how it relates to their illness. They know that by losing weight their can reduce their risk of blindness, limb amputations or death. They simply aren’t able to do it.

If anything is obvious, however, it is that they simply are able to do it.  Anyone can.  Eat fewer and smaller meals… and you will lose weight.  Exercise more… and you will lose weight.  Everyone knows this.  And everyone can apply their knowledge.  Put less food in your mouth, move your body more, and your risk of dying of COVID will crash.

Why then do so many people remain unhealthy, even the midst of an historic pandemic?  Because they prefer (the pleasure of food and idleness plus the attendant health loss) to (the pain of hunger and exertion plus the attendant health gain).  To quote Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman:

I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard.

If this is all undeniable, why do so many smart people refuse to assent?  Social Desirability Bias, naturally.  When the truth sounds bad, people say – and perhaps even believe – the patently untrue.  As I’ve explained before:

“Sorry, I can’t come to your party.”  This common excuse is almost always literally false.  You’re working?  Unless your boss chains you to your desk, you can come to the party.  You’re in Paris, and the party’s in DC tomorrow?  If you can beg, borrow, or steal airfare, you can come to the party.  The same goes for most social uses of the word “can’t” – everything from “We can’t be together” to “I can’t help myself.”

Why say, “I can’t” when the truth is “It’s too costly for me” or “I don’t feel like it”?  Because “I can’t” sounds better.  It insinuates, “The only reason I’m not doing X is because I lack the ability to do X.  Otherwise I would totally do it.”  “It’s too costly for me” and “I don’t feel like it” are insulting by comparison.  Both blurt, “X simply isn’t my top priority.  Get used to it.”  In short, the way we use the word “can’t” is a clear-cut case of Social Desirability Bias: our all-too-human propensity to lie when the truth sounds bad.

The literally-false “can’t” is hardly alone.  Social Desirability Bias permeates our diction – i.e., the specific words we choose to use.

What’s so awful about sugarcoating the harsh reality that the obese are fully capable of reaching a healthy body weight?

Simple: Sugarcoating distracts and confuses.  Self-help is a virtually foolproof solution for obesity; as long as you strictly follow the recipe, you won’t be obese for long.  Ignoring or denying the possibility of self-help discourages people from fixing – or even saving! – their own lives.

One could scoff, “Human beings are weak.  What’s the point of telling them to diet and exercise for the rest of their lives when we know they won’t?  We might as well just spare their feelings.”

Perhaps, perhaps.

Consider, though, this parallel argument: “Anti-vaxxers are crazy.  What’s the point of telling them to get vaccinated when we know they won’t?  We might as well just spare their feelings.”

Can you think of any decent objections?  Because I definitely can.

1. There’s a continuum of crazy.  Some anti-vaxxers are beyond hope.  Others will only bend the knee in the face of overwhelming shame.  A great many, however, are only skin-deep crazy.  Moderate shame – or persistent persuasion – will eventually get the vaccines in their bloodstreams.

2. Crazy is contagious. If no one challengers anti-vaxxers, undecided bystanders are more likely to adopt their crazy ideas.  These “converts,” in turn, can easily go on to corrupt others.  Given how conformist human beings are, the anti-vax movement can spread even in the absence of deliberate recruitment efforts.  Initially non-crazy people notice the rising prevalence of crazy ideas – and casually become crazy themselves.

3. Someone’s gonna get blamed.  If you refuse to blame anti-vaxxers for their own bad choices, people are likely to look around for someone else to blame.   For example: “People would probably be happy to take vaccines, if doctors weren’t so arrogant.”  The result: Instead of “sparing people’s feelings” in the aggregate, you wind up redistributing the hurt feelings over to innocent bystanders.

What then is the right message to send?  This: “Anti-vaxxers are totally able to get vaccinated.  The are making bad choices.  They should make better choices.”

This isn’t merely helpful; it is true.

The same goes for obesity.  The right message is not: “They are simply unable to lose weight.”  The right message is: “The obese are totally able to be thin.  They are making bad choices.  They should make better choices.”

This isn’t merely helpful; it is true.

The same principle holds for self-help generally.  Self-help is like a vaccine: When used, it works wonders.  The fact that many people refuse to do what works is a flimsy reason to humor them.  And it is a terrible reason to endorse clear-cut errors like, “They just can’t do it.”   Anyone can get vaccinated; just roll up your sleeve and let the doctor stick you with the needle.  Anyone can be thin; just eat moderately and exercise regularly.  And anyone can improve his own life; just stop making excuses and follow the path of prudence.

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Orwellian Othering

I recently characterized “diversity and inclusion” as a deeply Orwellian movement – doublethink all the way:

Out of all the major political movements on Earth, none is more Orwellian than “social justice.” No other movement is so dedicated to achieving the opposite of what its slogans proclaim – or so aggressive in the warping of language.

For example:

1. The diversity and inclusion movement is nominally devoted to fervent “anti-racism.”  In practice, however, they are the only prominent openly racist movement I have encountered during my life in the United States.  Nowadays they routinely mock and dismiss critics for the color of their skin – then accuse those they mock and dismiss of “white fragility.”

Recently, I noticed yet another fine mess of diversity and inclusion doublethink: the crusade against “othering.”  What does “othering” mean?  Defining other groups of human beings as objectionably different in order to rationalize the poor treatment they receive at your hands.

The crusade against “othering” has become a prominent component of the diversity and inclusive movement, with over 1.5M google hits for this odd neologism.  Check out the Ngram:

The most noted skirmish of the anti-othering crusade happened in an English class at Iowa State, where the syllabus gave this now-notorious “GIANT WARNING”:

GIANT WARNING: any instances of othering that you participate in intentionally (racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, sorophobia, transphobia, classism, mocking of mental health issues, body shaming, etc) in class are grounds for dismissal from the classroom.  The same goes for any papers/projects: you cannot choose any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (ie: no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc).

True, the media scandal only happened because the story was atypically dramatic.  The professor was even ordered to fix her syllabus and “provided additional information regarding the First Amendment policies of the university.” Yet the “othering” meme – and the attendant crusade – are already commonplace in the humanities and social sciences.

What is so Orwellian about this crusade?  The fact that most of those who denounce “othering” exemplify the practices they denounce.  The diversity and inclusive movement has a broad list of odious outsiders they mention with scorn and treat with disdain: “straight cis white males,” adherents of traditional religions, conservatives, moderates, opponents of abortion, and even insufficiently radical liberals and progressives.

You might think those who preach against othering would strive to assure the world of their hospitable intentions: “Just because you have other ideas doesn’t mean I’m going to other you.”  Instead, they reliably do the opposite, responding to even mild dissent with anger and ostracism.

True, few professors threaten their students in writing.  Yet for every educator who others unbelievers on the record, there are probably dozens – if not hundreds – who do so informally.  Imagine you were a student of the chastised Iowa State professor.  After she grudgingly affirms your First Amendment rights, would you feel comfortable submitting work he previously stated was grounds for dismissal?  Not likely, because her initial statement so stridently othered you.

The moral: The crucial variable is not official class policy, but the attitude of the teacher.  And teachers who think what the Iowa State professor wrote abound.

As far as I know, intolerant, thin-skinned, anti-intellectual educators have been around for… well, forever.  What has changed is the Orwellian nature of their reaction to dissent.  Traditional authoritarians othered openly.  Orwellian proponents of “diversity and inclusion” other vast swaths of humanity while giving the evil eye to anyone who doubts their supreme commitment to compassion and acceptance.

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An Hypothesis About Alleged Dementia

 

Last week I watched a large part of a Joe Biden speech that he gave live in Wisconsin. After various segments of talks and interviews I had seen in the last few months, I thought I would see him fumble and say unintelligible things. It’s possible that he did, but in the 15 minutes I watched, he didn’t. He was totally lucid.

But also I’ve seen him claim in the last week that we have lost 200 million Americans to COVID-19. He exaggerated by 3 orders of magnitude. And a year ago, he claimed that a child care tax credit he proposed would put “720 million women” back into the workforce.

What gives?

I’ve followed him over the years and I’ve seen that he’s never had much respect for facts and/or numbers. He seems to see numbers not as a way of understanding reality but as a weapon.

But in his speech in Wisconsin, Biden, from what I saw, didn’t use numbers. Instead, most of his speech was an angry personal attack on Donald Trump. I think he’s clearest mentally when he’s angry. So what many people see as dementia when he messes up facts and numbers is simply his disrespect for facts and numbers.

Take a look at this 5-minute video made in 1988 when even the mainstream press was calling out Joe Biden for his lies. So what we’re seeing now, possibly, is not a man who has dementia but a man who is slower than he once was at being a fabulist, at laying out made-up facts but quite quick at expressing his anger.

Don’t believe me? Then you’re a lying dog-faced pony soldier and I challenge you to a pushup contest.

But seriously, folks, it’s an hypothesis. I could be wrong, but it would be interesting to see other explanations.

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