You Have No Idea How Lucky You Are

Of all the bad and dangerous ideas in the world, perhaps none is worse and more dangerous than the idea that there is no such thing as luck.

Whenever you find some instance of a large group of humans treating another large group of humans very badly, there is usually some philosophical basis for believing that those who are suffering must suffer because they deserve it. And the only way to get there philosophically is to believe that those who are suffering brought it upon themselves, or that they are lesser in some way that justifies their suffering. That the child starving to death, that the family facing the firing squad, that the people in chains, that they have some sort of character flaw that makes it right for them to be where they are.

When there is no such thing as luck, or when we believe that luck only plays a very small role in life, everyone’s status in the world is exactly as it should be. And so almost invariably, the argument “that there is no such thing as luck,” is proposed and defended by the wealthiest people on the planet. The wealthiest and most statusful would like to believe that their wealth and status comes not from good fortune and happenstance, but through strength of character—through an inchoate will to power or some such thing.[1]

From a philosophical and a scientific perspective, the opposite argument is much easier to defend. Namely, that everything that happens to us is pure luck.[2] Our lives are a product of our genes acting upon our environment, nothing more and nothing less. There is no overarching “self” that guides and steers the ship. There is no ghost in the machine. The notion of libertarian free will is an illusion, and the idea that we can somehow make decisions independent of our genetic and environmental precursors, is generally viewed with derision among serious scholars of neuroscience and the philosophy of the mind.

But among popular psychology and folk philosophy, the opposite argument is much more prevalent. That there is no such thing as luck. That our lives are a blank slate. That if we all woke up at 4:30 am every day and meditated, took cold showers, wrote 1,000 words every day, and recited positive mantras, that we could all be multi-millionaire life coaches.[3] The search results for “there is no such thing as luck” are equal parts plentiful and intellectually vacuous.

And it’s not just popular psychology bloggers who believe this mantra. This kind of talk is fairly popular among the VC crowd, too. To name just a couple of bigger names, Peter Thiel and Keith Rabois are famous for advocating a strongly anti-luck position. Peter Thiel’s position is much more sophisticated than the lifestyle blogger’s, but it still treads along into the territory of might = right. Slightly less nuanced is Keith Rabois, who this summer posted on twitter his belief that, “survivorship bias is something losers say.” If you follow this and his other arguments, his position is clear—he’s ludicrously wealthy because of his work ethic.[4]

Of course, the least fortunate among us tend to be stronger believers in luck. In that vein, I recently finished a book called “The Great Hunger,” about the Irish Potato Famine, from 1845-1849. Here is one first-hand account of what that era was like.

Having for many years been intimately connected with the western portion of the County of Cork, and possessing some small property there, I thought it right personally to investigate the truth of several lamentable accounts which had reached me, of the appalling state of misery to which that part of the country was reduced. I accordingly went to … Skibbereen… and on reaching the spot I was surprised to find the hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, and the scenes that presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner of filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found with a low moaning they were alive—they were in fever, four children, a woman, and what had once been a man…. My heart sickens at the recital, but I must go on…. I found myself grabbed by a woman with an infant just born in her arms and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins—the sole covering of herself and the baby. The same morning the police opened up a house on adjoining lands, which was observed shut for many days, and two dozen corpses were found, lying upon the floor, half devoured by rats.

A mother, herself in a fever, was seen the same day to drag out the corpse of a child, a girl about twelve, perfectly naked, and leave it half covered with stones. In another house … the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying unable to move, under the same cloak. One had been dead many hours but the others were unable to move either themselves or the corpse.

Account by Nicholas Cummins, as quoted in The Great Hunger, by Cecil Woodham-Smith.

The reaction of the British government, which was Ireland’s government at the time, was that the best course of action was to do nothing. That the poor were left to the “operation of natural causes,” to use Lord Trevelyan’s phrase. During the potato famine, Ireland was actually a net exporter of food. But the Irish peasantry who grew wheat, barley, and other food used that money to pay the rent. Their own diet consisted of potatoes and potatoes alone. When that crop rotted because of blight, they had nothing to eat. Even though there was plenty of food available in the market, rents on Irish properties at the time amounted to 80% and then to in excess of 100% of Irish incomes. If the Irish ate the food that they sold to pay the rent, they were condemning themselves and their families to a slow death of starvation after eviction. The choices were immediate starvation and slow starvation.

In four years, it is estimated that 1.5 million people died and another million emigrated. The population of the country shrank by nearly 30% in less than half a decade.

For obvious reasons, these starving Irish during the potato famine were not a prime demographic for life coaches. Couldn’t afford it, and not particularly receptive to the message.

Many in the British government felt that this was for the best. According to Nassau Senior, economic advisor to the British government, “I heard one of them say that he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.” Time and again, high-level British officials rejected opportunities for intervention. While some attempts at assistance were made in 1846, with public works programs, the political will for intervention quickly faded. By 1847, British policy was to simply allow nature to take its course. After two years of mass starvation and emigration, a small and pitiful insurrection occurred in 1848, with a few dozen Irish conspiring with one Minister of Parliament to rally support for Irish independence. After this, British attitudes further hardened against assistance to the Irish poor. The tone of British Parliament was one of an extreme “rage against Ireland on account of its faction, its mendacity, [and] its ingratitude.” In their minds, the Irish had brought this great famine upon themselves.

This particular event in history had a strong impact on me because my father and all but one of my grandparents were from west Cork. The living conditions of Skibbereen were those that my not-so-distant ancestors somehow managed to survive.[5] All of my genes come from this part of the world. All that is me came from that time and place.

The only difference between my life of comfort and luxury now and their life of penury and misery then is that I was born 140 years later, in another part of the world.

I like to think that I have worked hard for what I have achieved in life, but I am not so smug as to believe that the difference between my living conditions and theirs is all a result of hard work or skill.

It was pure luck.

I was born in a time when a reasonably intelligent person with a decent work ethic could cultivate a lifestyle where he could consume goods from around the world, with a click of a button, with sufficient resources in the bank to live without any fear of hunger or deprivation. My great-great-grandparents, my great-grandparents, and even my grandparents were raised in a time where they often had to share one meal a day with their enormous families, consuming just enough calories not to die of starvation. My ancestors couldn’t own land, they couldn’t read or write, and they couldn’t vote. What’s more, my great-great-grandparents had no incentives or opportunities to improve their lives. If they built a nicer home for themselves, the landlord could kick them off the home at any time, for any reason. Their status was essentially set in stone from the day of their birth.

The game was rigged from the beginning. There was no way for them to win, and they knew it.

Those of us who started life with a winning lottery ticket prefer to minimize the notion of luck and good fortune as a way to justify the way we live. We have to devise an explanation for why we have ten times or 100 times as much crap as we need. Because we have so much, and others have so little, we need to convince ourselves that we have some virtues that the poor and the destitute do not possess, and that’s why we are living the way we do, and that they are living the way they do.

Here are the greatest virtues you possess: your parents and your birthplace. Congrats! Excellent work!

Of course, those who work hard and have discipline have more success, all other things being equal, than those who do not.[6] But when you look at the distribution of wealth and opportunities around the world, the multi-million-dollar high status positions are available to those who already started in the top few percent of the talent and fortune pools.

And the kind of wealth and prosperity that Americans consider customary, those chances too are inconceivable for all but a small fraction of the world’s population. If you make $50,000 year, you are among the top 1% of the world’s global wealthy. And if you are there or somewhere close, you probably often take for granted how lucky you truly are, simply because most of the people around you are relatively wealthy too.

But as my grandfather was careful to remind me when I was a child, none of this is a given. It’s a result of a fortunate mix of time, place, and circumstance. Almost all of which is totally beyond our control.

The purpose of this post is not to criticize those who take pride in their accomplishments or to discourage hard work. It’s to try to give pause to those who think that those who have less than us are somehow flawed or unworthy. When you make that leap, you’re falling into Lord Trevelyan’s trap: That the English aristocracy deserves four courses for luncheon followed by port and brandy and the child born in Skibbereen deserves to die of starvation or Typhoid fever. That the ingenuity of the former and that character flaws of the latter not only make it so, but make it righteously so.  

Most forms of genocide, mass cruelty, and human abomination adopt some derivation of that logic—that the destitute and wretched are responsible for what has befallen them. And therefore not only should we not do what we can to prevent and ameliorate their suffering, but that it would be wrong to do so. That the best thing to do is to let “nature take its course.”

But it is my belief that I am no more responsible for my own good fortune than my ancestors were responsible for their own misfortune. That’s it’s basically luck all the way down.

So to the extent that I have any responsibility, it’s to not turn my back on the least fortunate. To not convince myself that I am somehow superior to those who are starving and poor. To recognize that the only thing separating me from them is a little bit of luck.

[1] There is some research that belief in free will is correlated with propensity to do good (Baumeister 2014), so if believing in free will makes you want to do more good and help people more, then by all means, believe away!

[2] If you don’t believe in free will then the belief that everything that happens to us is luck follows logically. But I don’t think you have to believe this argument to follow the rest of the blog post. Even if you don’t believe that everything that happens to us is pure luck, I would hope that you could be persuaded that at least much of what happens to us is pure luck. We can allow for some fuzziness in the boundaries and still follow along.

[3] FWIW, I meditate > an hour every day and occasionally take cold showers. All snark aside, I think that both of those are very healthy habits.

[4] Perhaps worth noting is that both Thiel and Rabois graduated from Stanford Law School in the early ‘90s, just before the Silicon Valley tech explosion. They are smart, hardworking people, who just so happened to be at the right place at the right time to become tech magnates. There have been a lot of great painters in history, but only a few were connected to the Medicis in 16th-century Renaissance Florence.

[5] One of my great-grandparents, my mother’s grandfather, was a child in West Cork during the potato famine.

[6] I agree with Thiel and Rabois that hard work matters, and that most people don’t work hard enough to reach their potential. But talent and circumstance matter more. If you don’t possess a 98th-percentile intellect with 98th-percentile resources (on a global scale) as a starting point, you have no chance of becoming a tech magnate or a VC or any other equivalent super-high-status position. There are not a lot of Nicaraguan peasants who become Silicon Valley startup CEOs.

A Three-Step Process for Deciding Which News Stories To Give a Shit About

And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter—we never need read of another.

To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip.

Henry David Thoreau – Walden

Give me poison, and I will feel sick.

I used to feel that I had a duty to worry about all the problems in the news. That I had to know about all of the world’s problems—from who was winning the most recent game to whatever the biggest tragedy was going on around me. That somehow all the for-profit news sources knew what I needed to know. That I had to know about those problems and then form an opinion about them.

I don’t think that anymore. After nearly 40 years on this earth, I have yet to find much good to come from my worrying about the biggest dramas going on around me. That I was better off setting my own agenda, and not letting the most miserable, deviant, and power hungry people on earth dictate my moods.

So now I try to let almost all news stories go without letting them enter into my consciousness. Whether it’s scandal or death, I try to let it go.

Don’t get me wrong. I, too, try to care about the world’s problems. But I aspire to be pickier about which ones.

With that in mind, here is my totally personal, unscientific, and subjective theory of when to care and when not to care about the news:

Step 1: Does this news story pertain to actual suffering?[1]

A lot of the news is manufactured, symbolic, culture-war drama that fails to meet this basic test of significance. Regardless of how you feel about the issue or what becomes of it, no matter what happens, no one’s really getting hurt.

By spending a few seconds thinking about the degree to which the story is close to or attenuated from real suffering, you can give yourself a good filter on what matters and what does not.

A few recent stories measured against up this test:

The NFL national-anthem-kneeling-scandal: Pure manufactured drama. It’s a series of symbolic gestures designed to protest another series of other symbolic gestures. Clear fail.

The whole MSESPN drama: It’s one person’s opinion that got a lot of other people super riled up. Meh.

The Catalan-secession story: It’s not obvious that the movement is meant to alleviate real human suffering. It’s a story about political, nationalist, and social preferences.

All of the President’s tweets: So much hot air.

Potentially offensive speech: I know that this deeply bothers some people, but it’s at the bottom of my give-a-shit list. Unless the offensive speech is coupled with some sort of tangible action that results in real suffering, such as intimidation, violence, or discrimination that causes a worse outcome for another person, this is too attenuated from real suffering to ruffle my feathers of righteous indignation. And other peoples’ righteous indignation is not suffering in the same way that not having access to clean water or watching your child die from malaria is real suffering.[2]

The aftermath of the Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico: Perhaps hundreds of thousands without shelter or clean water. That’s real suffering.

Threats of violence, harassment, or actual violence: Suffering that potentially worthy of our attention.

War in Syria: Horrible suffering.

Of course, how I interpret human suffering might be different from the way you do. But this is a good place to start.

Step 2: Is there anything I can do about it?

If a single massive typhoon strikes an island and kills all it inhabits, that event might be very sad and tragic, and it might have caused massive human suffering, but that suffering probably cannot be remedied. And so in my view there is a limit to the value in obsessing over or worrying about that tragedy after the fact.

Perhaps that tragedy warrants a moment of reflection, to pause and think about its victims. But with so many ongoing tragedies, and with so many people who could use our help, it’s unclear that there is a benefit to worrying about done tragedies.

So, too, with isolated crime stories, reported in local, national, or international news. Most of the time, it’s not helpful to worry about past tragedies that cannot be undone.

Handwringing and righteous indignation are largely useless emotions. If you’re going to dedicate your time and energy to reading and thinking about tragedy and suffering, you might as well put what you learn about trying to alleviate some of that suffering. 

Step 3: Is caring about this situation the most efficient use of energy and resources?

These folks are the experts on this topic, so if you want more information on this question, please do click on that link or read Will MacAskill’s book, Doing Good Better.

Whatever the tragedy or suffering, if we’re going to bother to care, I say we should always try to channel our efforts to alleviate suffering in a way that may actually be capable of effectively achieving that goal. From the massive amount of blood that was donated and wasted after September 11th to the huge amounts of money wasted by the Red Cross after the earthquake in Haiti, often the knee-jerk, well-intentioned action is not the most effective one.

Donating to the victims of the biggest and most recent news story is probably not the most efficient use of resources. Usually, by focusing on less-publicized forms of suffering, we can make a difference more effectively. If you’re going to make a sacrifice and give, why not try to make the biggest impact you can? Under-the-radar tragedies almost never reach a choke point caused by massive influxes of donations at the same time, and so the impact of a donation for such a less-publicized form of suffering might be more immediate and make a bigger difference than for one that’s currently in the news.

Again, there’s not one easy answer to how to effectively react to suffering. And even inefficient forms of giving may do some good. But to me, the very act of thinking about this step may be enough to make a difference in alleviating real suffering. So, unlike the news, I think it’s worth the time.

So I try to give a shit about suffering. And I think I should try to do something to alleviate suffering when I can. And I try to learn lessons about how to do that better however I can.

But my ultimate conclusion when reading the news is almost always the same: that I’m better off thinking about things that aren’t in the news. That perhaps the best way to care about suffering is to focus on suffering that isn’t sold to me for profit.

[1] I partially borrowed this step from Yuval Noah Harari.

[2] I would distinguish generic offensive speech with personalized attacks, which can often cause real suffering.

Toward Greater Parsimony of Narratives

When we were young, we all had few strongly held beliefs about the world. Back then we were all little sponges, learning what we could without preconceived notions that guided our actions.

But as we got older, we took the new information and started to fit it within a growing framework.

Some of that framework was unquestionably helpful. If the red light is glowing on the stove, best not to put your hand on the burner. That’s a good one to keep stored in the old memory banks. Some of those berries are tasty and some are poisonous. Noted!

But one of the problematic things about this unique human ability to learn, process, and store cultural information is that we eventually develop certain narratives that create complacency and stunt further growth. Humans have a desire to forever wish to acquire more information but we also have an instinct toward using less energy.

This is where narratives develop in adolescence and adulthood. There aren’t a lot of four-year-old libertarians or democrats or fascists. Children just learn. But fully developed adults tend to try to create overarching narratives that are used to filter all new information. These belief systems aren’t genetic or inherited; they are the product of cultural inheritance.

For most of us, we construct belief systems with ample narratives that provide prefabricated intellectual structures that will accommodate any new piece of information. We know what we know and everything we learn today and today will further confirm what we already know. This is true even if what we learn today or tomorrow would on the surface seem to contradict what we knew yesterday. The human mind will go to great lengths to maintain intellectual consistency, regardless of the information that might seem to disconfirm our prior beliefs.

The argument that we should not do this is the main thrust behind books such as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which has become trendy (for good reason, as it’s a great book) in recent years.

But there is certainly a tension between the foolish notion that you should approach everything as if it were the very first time (Crap, I put my hand on the hot stove again!) and the philosophy that we should open ourselves to new possibilities every day.

Perhaps a useful distinction comes in the difference between stored information and stored narratives. Stored information gives us data points or remembered experiences that we can use as building blocks to guide future actions. This includes building blocks related to hot stoves and poisonous berries. Stored narratives are overarching belief systems that we use to process and filter new information. These can be helpful (my society has taught me that lying, stealing, and killing are best avoided), but they can also be divisive and inhibiting (cults, extreme nationalism, jihad).

By keeping the narratives to a minimum, you keep your identity small. Keeping your identity small while relying on stored information allows you think through more issues more clearly and adjust what you know to whatever new things you learn. Kind of like Bayesianism without the math.

Paul Graham says “[t]he more labels you give yourself, the dumber they make you.I agree with this. And I would add that the more narratives we settle into to explain our world, the less open we are to learning new things.

Though perhaps that’s just another way of saying the same thing.

Contra Bershidsky on Catalan Independence

Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky recently wrote an article explaining why Catalan independence is doomed to failure.

The article does a good job providing an historical analysis of previous independence movements, and it explains that the situation in Catalonia does not fit within the previous patterns where independence was achieved. But I believe that his piece fails to acknowledge what happens in the intermediate and long term if current dynamics continue to develop as they have in recent years. While I would not argue that the Catalan independence movement will succeed in the short term, I do believe that its separation from Spain in nearly inevitable in the long term.

I can appreciate from a normative perspective that many people believe that Catalonia leaving Spain might be a terrible idea, but I’m also certain this issue isn’t going away.

The polling seems to indicate that the majority of those in Catalonia want to leave.[1] And what’s more important is that the momentum seems to be moving in the direction of independence. This has been borne out in polling and it is clear on the ground as well.

I lived in Barcelona for three years, in 1998 and again from 2001 to 2003. I then spent time there again in 2014. In the late nineties, you might occasionally see a radical university student with a separatist flag (the red and yellow flag with the blue triangle and white star), but it was rare. The simple red and yellow flag, known as the Senyera, was much more common.

Now, the separatist flag is ubiquitous. The revolution has gone mainstream.

What’s more, there is considerable political asymmetry in the intensity of the separatists’ desire to leave and the more moderate crowd’s wish to remain. In Barcelona, you see 50 Catalan flags for every one Spanish flag. If you go more than 30 minutes outside of Barcelona, in Catalonia, you’re more likely to see the national flag of Bhutan than that of Spain.

This is not reflective of the political will of all of the people. But it is the reality on the ground.

It is likely true that the majority of Catalans no longer want to be a part of Spain. And it is likely true that the proportion of Catalans who want to leave is growing. And it is definitely true that the squeakiest wheels are the ones screaming loudest for independence.

But neither Spain nor the EU wants to let that happen.

So what to do?

Bershidsky seems to think that because Catalan separatists lack the requisite violence or a consensus with Spain, its revolution won’t succeed.

The Catalan nationalist movement has always been largely peaceful. The only notable exception is the Terra Lliure group, which was active between 1978 and 1995. Its attacks only killed one person, and it dissolved soon after a massive government crackdown. It never had the strength or violent determination of the Irish Republican Army, the Basque Country’s ETA or even the Quebec Liberation Front, not to mention the separatist fighters of Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, South Sudan, Eritrea or Timor-Leste.

That kind of determination is not strictly necessary for a successful secession. As an alternative, public opinion in the country from which a region is trying to secede must be in favor of the change (as was the case with Norway’s splintering from Sweden in 1905), or at least willing to accept the will of the region’s population (the case of the U.K. and Scotland, had the latter voted for independence in 2014). But such consensual situations are rare, and the Catalans don’t benefit from one of them. The rest of Spain — at least those Spaniards who have voted for the major political parties — is not in favor of Catalan independence.

Under these circumstances, separatists need escalation dominance.

Yesterday, Spanish leaders arrested a few regional government leaders for organizing the October 1st referendum on independence. Tens of thousands of Catalan separatists then took to the streets.

As many critics of Catalan independence are quick to point out, the main driver of this movement seems to be a 19th-century brand of tribal identity politics.

So let me pose a question: Which is more likely, that a growing, modern tribal-identity political movement will be silenced by arresting some of its leaders for holding a peaceful referendum, or that those leaders will be treated as martyrs and that the movement will use the arrests to further fuel its tribal-identity political movement?

My money is on the latter.

What’s more, as a broader international community, I would think there would be some value to establishing a protocol for autonomous regions to achieve independence, if that is what they want to do. It is unrealistic to expect the boundaries that existed in 2000 to be the boundaries that are in place for the rest of history. And while you and I might think that the desire to separate from a one developed democratic political entity to another developed democratic entity based on a sense of nationalism is foolish, it’s not our decision. It’s the decision of the Catalan people.

It strikes me as a bit perverse to say that those looking to achieve self determination in the 21st century must achieve a certain threshold of violence to achieve their aims. I’d like to think we could do better than that in 2017. But I am skeptical that we will.

My prediction is that some sort of referendum happens on October 1st. Catalans vote en masse to leave. Most moderates or anti-leave voters don’t bother to vote, because they don’t think it’s legitimate and know it’s going to be rout.

Spain and the EU will ignore the vote.

The Spanish government will continue with more actions like the ones we saw yesterday. The question is whether Catalan separatists will continue to remain non-violent if their political will is ignored over time. Perhaps some combination of boycotts/non-violent strikes or other such actions could help them achieve their aims without violence, but I doubt it. My fear is that after years of non-violence that leads to no political changes, you’ll see a more violent arm of the movement develop.

The Catalan independence movement will not fail any time soon. I believe that there are two ways that this ends: either with complete, violent repression similar to what we witnessed under Franco or with independence. Bershidsky argues that Catalonia lacks to the political will to fight Spain. I disagree. The bigger question to me is whether the EU and/or Spain has the political will to kill this growing movement. I don’t think Spain is ready to go to war over this. But I fear that some in Catalonia will eventually shift in that direction, if things continue as they have.

I’d bet on seeing an independent Catalonia, eventually. But I think it might take 10-20 years and a lot more drama before it finally happens.

[Update Oct. 2: In my opinion, the strongest rational argument for independence stems from a deep-seated Catalan belief that democracy in Spain is inherently unstable, and that sooner or later, a Madrid government will always devolve into fascism or autocracy where Catalonia is treated as a suppressed minority. Francoism was bad for Spain as a whole, but it was particularly bad for the minority regions. Democracy in Spain is only about 40 years old, which means that many people in Catalonia remember living under fascism with Franco, and everyone knows people who did live under that regime. Many Catalans want to take advantage of this relatively stable time in history and see this as their best chance to escape the possibility of Madrid-based fascism forever. I would not say that yesterday’s events would do any favors in dispelling that fear.] 

[1] I could write another (very long) article parsing this polling data. Polling data in Catalonia is invariably biased, and unreliable, but the overall trend leans toward independence. Spanish and Catalan papers are not renowned for neutrality. That said, having lived in Barcelona, if there were a source I would trust in terms of polling, it would be polling from La Vanguardia, which locals would consider center-right. And since Catalonia skews left, that makes it about as centrist as you’re going to get in Barcelona.

In Defense of Holding Fewer Strong Opinions

I started this blog with the belief that I had a lot to say. Now that I’ve been doing it a while, I am much more comfortable with how little I have to say about most things.

As Thoreau once said, “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” I suspect that most people interpret this in the context of materialism, but to me it also applies to the world of public debate. The number of grievous and tragic problems in the world is nearly infinite, but our time and attention resources are not.

To me, that means it makes sense to be parsimonious about the rabbit holes we let consume our time and attention. And moreover, to have some humility about the number of subjects where we might develop more than a surface level of sophistication.

I used to think that I had to have a unique, informed opinion of deep conviction about every subject in social debate. As if I had some sort of social duty to develop an opinion about every issue the world over. But it’s beyond foolish to think that I can know more about health care policy than health care experts. That I can know more about foreign policy than foreign policy experts. That I have some unique insight into the problem of global warming or social inequality.

Now, when people try to engage me in debate about most topics, I find it easier to simply bow out. If pressed, I might say that I read a book about the topic once, and it said some such thing. But it’s unlikely I know anything more than the author of the book. It’s unlikely I have some unique insight.

If I haven’t dedicated years to the problem, then I’m almost certainly not an expert. It’s ok to know that I don’t know more than I do know. And to let go of the need to feign some sort of command of all topics of social relevance.

I never had that level of sophistication; the only thing that’s new is that I’m finally mature enough to admit it.

Refusing to Let Others Dictate Your Agenda

Each time we open our laptops, peak at our smartphones, or check Facebook or Twitter, we invite the world’s most talented distraction merchants to persuade us in what will become of our day.

Our thought processes are not created in a vacuum. Our brains are constantly churning though, working out, and trying to process, organize, and make sense of whatever information we provide to them. What we feed our brains every morning will be what our brains digest throughout the rest of the day.

If the first thing we do in the morning is to roll out of bed and check the smartphone for our Facebook and news feeds, we let our lives—our priorities, our values, our mental processes, and our very existence—be dictated to by those whose greatest talent is to manipulate our attention to further their own selfish agendas.

No one is better at this than our current President. But I refuse to let the President’s shenanigans dictate my moods. And I refuse to let some white nationalist clown in Charlottesville or anywhere else decide whether I will be in a good mood or a bad mood today. And I’m not about to let Antifa or some other group’s reaction to someone else’s racism affect me, either. Or to let some athlete’s performance I’ve never met determine whether I am happy. No one’s agenda gets priority over my own.

At least in my experience, I think the reason I sometimes let my various screens hijack my attention is not that I particularly enjoy what I find there, but because it’s easy.

There’s a nakedness to situations where we have to decide for ourselves what to do. It’s easier to let other, stronger personalities lead the charge. To give in to the flashiest form of distraction. There’s a certain relief when you finish your to-do list, but for me at least, there’s a moment there that’s also terrifying. That emptiness of external priorities forces us to fill the vacuum. It’s easy to fill that vacuum with various forms of escape—booze, drugs, and digital distraction. And then days become weeks, weeks become months, and eventually our life is in the rearview mirror.

It’s harder to carve out our own path and stick with it. To live life instead of escaping or avoiding it. But it’s invariably more rewarding and meaningful, too. To the extent I remain aware of my own tendencies, I prefer to do nothing than to fill the void with garbage.

It all boils down to refusing to let others dictate your agenda, one moment at a time. That choice is mine and mine alone. It doesn’t belong to my clients, it does not get placed in the grubby hands of any political advocate, it does not fall to the media, and it does not belong to my Facebook friends.

That is a choice I delegate to no one.

Three Universal Laws on Suffering and Information Consumption

I believe the following three statements to be universally true:

  1. Every day, there is suffering and misery in the world that is outside of our control.
  2. There will always be people looking to exploit that suffering and misery to further their own agenda, to raise their own status, or to get us to pay attention to them.
  3. There will always be effective ways to alleviate someone’s suffering and misery that will never receive much attention.

About Rule #1

If you go looking for bad news, you’ll never have trouble finding it.

There are about 400,000 murders a year, which averages out to more than a 1000 every day. It’s safe to say that at nearly all moments, someone is either killing someone else or in the process of making it happen. That’s a sobering thought. Probably too much for the human brain to fully comprehend or absorb while still functioning. If we did choose to focus on that fact all the time, it would be hard to get motivated or feel good about anything.

About Rule #2

This suffering isn’t new. But what is new is the way we access and process information about those who are suffering.

If you lived in an American small town in 1900, your life expectancy would have been about 37 years. If you had a child, there would have been about a 1 in 6 chance that it would not live to see its first birthday. Murder rates were higher then than they are now. No women could vote. Black people, only a generation removed from slavery in certain parts of the country, still had essentially no civil rights. Basic sanitation was near non-existent, and so cholera and tuberculosis were rampant.

But as hard as life was relative to now, the average person was probably not as hyper aware of the world’s problems. There was no shortage of low-quality, shock-inducing journalism then, but most news stories were local. Most newspapers focused the bulk of their attention on provincial problems, which almost by definition, in the absence of localized war, were less colossal in scale than the worst problems in the world. And to the extent that people did consume the news, they usually did so with a paper, once a day, delivered to their doorstep.

Today, we have the world’s worst problems curated and filtered for us all of our waking hours. Many of us choose to receive constant notifications about this news pinged at us from phones we keep with us, all day, every day. We’re not just getting news with our morning coffee, we’re getting it pumped out at us through a half-dozen electronic devices, near which many of us spend the bulk of our waking hours. Further, because of social media, the line between where we socialize and where we consume news of the world’s problems has become blurry or non-existent, where the places we seek friendship and companionship and the places we receive recurring negative information blend together in what can be for some a very unhealthy cocktail.

And there is an evolutionary process at work in delivering to us news of the world’s problems. In much the same way that the food we eat is sweeter and saltier than ever before, that booze is stronger, that drugs are more potent, and that TV shows are more numerous and stimulating, so too is news more hard-hitting and engaging. If it weren’t more stimulating than other forms of entertainment, we wouldn’t bother with it. We wouldn’t click. We wouldn’t watch.

It doesn’t matter that the trend in this country and the world has been toward less violence, less crime, less racism, less intolerance, less disease, less infant mortality, longer life spans, and cleaner water.[1] Based on what we read and how we consume information, we cannot help but perceive and sense that the opposite is true.[2]

About Rule #3

I don’t think there is an easy answer to the world’s suffering and misery. As long as there are humans, there will be suffering. And while the rate at which it happens may be reduced somewhat, it will never go away completely.

I do have a proposal for what to do about it. My proposal is fairly simple: While there is always suffering and misery outside of your control, so too will there be some suffering and misery that we have the power to help alleviate.

If you are reading this on a computer right now, you probably have the resources to buy a few mosquito nets or to help fund someone’s medical procedure in a developing country. Even gifts as low as $10 can save lives or permanently reduce another human being’s suffering. Nearly ever city and town in this country has elderly people that could use attention and care. My wife spends a few hours every Friday and gives some love and attention to dogs and cats at a local shelter. These are small acts of kindness. But count me in the group that believes that small acts of kindness matter, both to the donor and the recipient.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of the first two laws, thinking that the world is spinning off its axis. There is perpetual suffering in the world: that much will always be true. But there are also limitless opportunities for kindness.

The question for you and for me is where we choose to focus our energy and attention.

[1] None of this is meant to trivialize the subjective experience of someone who suffers or is a victim of one of these problems today. A 3% reduction in the violent crime rate is no solace to someone whose loved one is murdered.

[2] I’m a bit nervous that the perception that things are getting worse, however untrue in a statistical sense, might actually have the capacity to cause people to act out in ways that actually do make things worse. Namely, that the perception that things are getting more violent even when they are not might lead to more violence, thus reversing the long-term trend in the direction of less violence.


I can appreciate the desire to be part of a group. And I can appreciate the desire to label things and to put them into boxes.

But when it comes to humans and human systems, things are rarely so simple.

I’ve never felt comfortable identifying myself personally with any one specific philosophy or ideology. And I’ve never loved the idea of imposing that on others.

For example, I consider myself pragmatic and I like the writing of William James, but I don’t think I’m an according-to-Hoyle pragmatist.

And I consider myself rational, and I like a number of so-called rationalist thinkers, but I don’t self-identify as a rationalist or actively participate in the rationalist community.

I’ve been influenced by the Stoics, some Zen Buddhists, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Joseph Henrich, Cal Newport, Martha Nussbaum, Steven Pinker, and EO Wilson, among others, but I’m not sure what that makes me intellectually or philosophically.

For me, I think ascribing wholeheartedly to any particular school of philosophy limits your ability to use different solutions to different problems. This is what I think Charlie Munger means when he says to someone with a hammer every problem is a nail. It’s better to go through life with an ample toolkit, learning as much as you can, and when a new problem shows up, to evaluate flexibly how to solve that problem.

I studied philosophy in college. I thought for many years that I would be a philosophy professor. But it became obvious that so much of what we did was to learn arguments, learn their names (usually an –ism of some kind), and then learn the counterargument to that philosophy (which also usually could be summarized with another –ism of some kind).

In a typical philosophy of mind class, you’d learn the different historical theories of the philosophy of mind: dualism, materialism, behaviorism, monism, type identity theory, functionalism, and so forth and then you’d learn why contemporary philosophers generally think that each of those ideas are flawed.

This creates a jargon that’s unique to philosophers. It helps us identify and quickly work our way through different complex thought patterns: “How would a deontologist/utilitarian respond to this problem?” and so it is useful when philosophers talk to other philosophers. But when philosophers try to communicate with anyone else, the jargon is useless.

To use a music analogy, learning jargon is like learning to play different types of chords. To become a philosophy professor, you must become a master with the jargon. And to become a professional musician, you need to know a lot of chords. If you don’t know many chords or you are limited in the chords you can play, you’re going to be a limited musician. But knowing a lot different chords and playing beautiful music are very different things. The former is a tool and the latter is a process or a product. And so, too, with philosophy. Knowing all the arguments and having good ideas are not the same thing.

It just strikes me that too many thinkers conflate facility with the jargon and the –isms with the practice of philosophy.

Either way, while jargon can be frustrating to outsiders, whatever two consenting adults want to do with their –isms is usually fine by me. If people want to use an –isms to speed up a discussion, I have no issue with that.

But what really bothers me is the instinct or tendency to foist –isms onto people and arguments that don’t want to be associated with them.

I prefer not to be so easily pigeonholed, and I do not relish in the act of pigeonholing others.

In this vein, beyond those who self-identify with some kind of –ism, there is a strong desire by many to label others with an –ism that the recipient might not like: liberalism, conservativism, alt-rightism, fundamentalism, neoliberalism, socialism, libertarianism, and of course, racism, sexism, and fascism.

But to me, all those feel like different forms of epithets. They’re shortcuts, ad hominem arguments meant to cut down someone’s ideas or put them into an easy category, whether the originator of the ideas wants them there or not. And it’s often an excuse to place limits or boundaries around arguments where they don’t always belong.

Don’t like someone or their arguments? Label them with a certain –ism and you don’t have to bother with persuasion anymore. It’s cheap, insulting, and dismissive.

Life is too rich, too complex, and too diverse to expect any one philosophy to encapsulate a human being’s life or ideas. Any such parsimony of explanation will invariably be incomplete or false.

I say let life come at you one moment, person, and idea at a time; you can’t know for certain how to resolve a problem until it happens. Any presumption that you’ve figured all problems out in advance, or can dismiss someone else in totality in advance, is simply confabulation or fabrication.

If you dislike my ideas and arguments, that’s fine. But if you dismiss my arguments with a label, rather than a counterargument or an appeal to some form of reason, you will never earn my respect.

Rapoport’s Rebuttals

  1. Sometimes basic jargon (or –isms) are necessary to have an intelligent conversation. If Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne are trying to have a conversation about free will, for example, to restrict them from using basic terminology about free will such as determinism, indeterminism, libertarianism, or compatibilism, would be to hamstring them in their ability to have a clear and intelligent conversation. While those unfamiliar with those terms might not be able to follow along, anyone who is truly interested could learn that terminology and then follow along with that conversation.
  2. If someone is making a sexist or racist argument, you need to call a spade a spade. By pretending that Steve Bannon or the alt right don’t have real fascist or racist tendencies would be to play pretend and do a disservice to any person who needs to be warned about the genuinely dangerous tendencies of those people.

Rapoport’s Rebuttals – A Model for Better Online Civil Discourse

Not all online discussions are models of congeniality and civility.

From the 45th President of the United States on down to the trolls who inhabit the comments section of nearly every online article and discussion thread, far too many people are rude, dismissive, and wholly uninterested in anything resembling a search for the truth.

I can’t control much of that, but what I can do is try to be a model for a better, more civil form of online conversation.

As a way to try to live up to that standard, I’m going to play around with a new feature, called Rapoport’s Rebuttals, which I’ll add to the end of some of my more sensitive or contentious posts.

The idea is to present the other side’s position on the post’s topic in a fair, clear, and even-handed way.

The name comes from social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, who proposed a set of rules for criticizing an intellectual opponent in a way that is fair and that might actually encourage greater responsiveness. His rules were recently popularized as follows by philosopher Daniel Dennett in his book Intuition Pumps and and Other Tools for Thinking :

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Since in this case, my intellectual opponent will often be a composite or a fiction, my main focus will be on Rule #1, fairly presenting possible counterarguments. But since the spirit of Rapoport’s rules is the vision behind the concept (and because it’s alliterative), I’ll name it after him.

The goal will be to force myself to consider opposing viewpoints and to try to underscore the fact that, even when people might disagree, perhaps it’s possible to do so not quite so disagreeably.

Rapoport’s Metarebuttal:

  1. This exercise does not improve the clarity of one’s writing. The writer should know something before he sets out to write, and his purpose should be to articulate that to the reader. Good writers present their writing as an observer of truth, and rebuttals and metarebuttals are the kind of ornamental displays of excessive navel-gazing that only serve to undermine a writer’s true purpose.

Why the President of the United States Is NOT the Most Powerful Man on Earth

One platitude I often hear is that the President of the United States is “the most powerful man on earth.”

But it’s not true. And to me it seems obvious right now that it’s not true.

The President of the United States is the titular head of the United States government. And the United States is the most powerful nation on earth. But it does not necessarily follow that the titular head of the most powerful nation’s government is then always and automatically the most powerful person on the planet.

There are many ways that someone other than the head the most powerful nation’s government could become the most powerful person on the planet.

Here are just a few such few ways:

  • A regent or an advisor can acquire power that outstrips the titular head of the most powerful nation’s government (think Metternich, Richelieu; Machiavelli; Empress Dowager Cixi, Kissinger)
  • A wealthy business or business owner could have power and influence greater than the head of government (think any head of the British or Dutch East India Company in its prime; Andrew Carnegie; Commodore Vanderbilt; Nelson Rockefeller; the original JP Morgan)
  • The head of the most powerful country might have limited authority to take unilateral action, while the head of a less powerful country might have unlimited power
  • Military leaders often have more power than the nominal head of state (Scipio; Pizarro; Francis Drake; Robert E. Lee; McArthur)
  • Some celebrities probably have more power than the head of the US government (in 1967, who was more influential, Lyndon Johnson or John Lennon?)

When looking at Trump’s presidency, regardless of what you think of his actual policies, it’s remarkable how few of his proposed policies have been enacted.

He promised to build a wall. Not a brick has been laid and not a dollar has been allocated to start it. He promised to repeal Obamacare in the first 100 days. It hasn’t happened. He tried to block immigration from a handful of mostly-Muslim countries, but the judicial system greatly restrained his ability to do it.

I think even his most fervent advocates would admit, most of what he’s wanted to accomplish hasn’t happened.

I won’t go into detail for Obama, but I think the same could be said for his presidency. Even his greatest advocates would admit that he wasn’t able to push through much of what he wanted to accomplish because he got so much blowback from Congress.

In sum, the President of the United States needs the cooperation of a lot of other people to do much of anything. The President can issue executive orders and grant pardons—that’s certainly significant, but he cannot enact major policy changes on his own. And all policy revisions, even executive orders, are subject to judicial review for compliance with the constitution.

If you need a lot of other people’s consent, cooperation, and assistance to exert influence, you’re not actually that powerful. Given the strictures of our constitution, there’s a strong argument to be made that no American President has ever been the most powerful man on earth. And given how weak and inept our current president is, that is almost certainly the case today.

If the President of the United States isn’t the most powerful person on earth right now, then who is?

I think there’s a strong argument right now that Vladimir Putin is the most powerful man on earth. According to Bill Browder, he’s as wealthy as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates combined. Like our president, he has the power to start a nuclear war that could end our species and most life on this planet. And unlike our president, he is not especially limited by other branches of government to effectuate his policies. While Russia isn’t as powerful as the United States, Putin exerts much more influence on Russian politics than Obama and Trump combined have exerted on United States politics.

He had the power to influence our most recent election. And I doubt that any one American politician could do much to unseat him from power.

Given that’s the case, it would seem that his power vastly exceeds that of any American politician or businessperson.

Either way, Donald Trump is the head of the United States government right now. But he is NOT the most powerful man on earth.