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Idiots Are Not Necessary

“It’s hard to grasp that other investors have different goals than we do, because an anchor of psychology is not realizing that rational people can see the world through a different lens than your own.”

 

I have held positions that are at odds with my position now. I think I can still pass the Ideological Turing Test on those ideas, but I’m less sure of that than I used to be- when you’re settled in a way of thinking, the uniqueness of that framing becomes harder to see. Your set of assumptions feel true and unalterable. Making your foundational beliefs genuinely alterable is uncomfortable and taxing.

 

One difference I can grok about my mindset now versus maybe a decade ago is that back then I could see failure around me but couldn’t really appreciate Chesterton’s Fence. As a result, I lived with an assumption that behind persistent problems were probably just dumb people. This is a bit of a straw man, but I didn’t have the hands-on experience to understand the sheer hairiness of even pretty common problems. Andrew Sullivan’s blog introduced me to Burkean conservatism. Over time, and especially through my work, I’ve discovered that really smart people are behind many many more large-scale shitty things than I had previously supposed, often because nature is indifferent, communication is unreliable, incentives are misaligned, and fighting chaos is generally exhausting. I think that was the theme of my earliest musings on this blog, really- for me, it was fertile ground for metacognition back in 2012-2013, and now has cooled into just another set of ‘true things about the world’ that frame how I see almost anything.

 

To be clear, there is plenty of arational/irrational behavior out there. But irrationality is not always a sufficient condition for large-scale, persistent problems.

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Notes on ‘The Complacent Class’

Tyler Cowen’s “The Complacent Class” isn’t a big book, but it is spawling, touching on a thousand different angles on the same idea. Subtitled “The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream”, it’s easy to draw a clear line from Cowen’s previous book, The Great Stagnation. 

You can think of this book as detailing the social roots for the resulting slow growth outcome and explaining why that economic and technological stagnation has lasted so long and why, for the most part, it has failed to reverse itself.

Cowen’s succinct self-summary of The Complacent Class [brackets mine]:

I’ve discussed a number of main elements driving the trend toward a more static, less risk-taking America. These include the collapse of fiscal freedom [e.g. the growing share of government expenses that are non-negotiably directed towards entitlements programs, reducing overall flexibility of the government to deploy resources] and democratic process, lower residential mobility, less building in America’s most productive cities, more segregation by income and status, a much greater concern with safety and risk, the coddling of our children, and fewer start-ups and slower growth in living standards, among others. These forces have led to an America that is calmer, safer, and more peaceful, at least in the short run. But it is also an America that is losing the ability to regenerate itself, reinvent itself, and create new sources of dynamism. And as the years pass, it seems increasingly obvious that the social and economic stagnation of our times is more than just a temporary blip; instead, that stagnation reflects deeply rooted structural forces that will not be easy to undo by mere marginal reforms.

The first section below is more about something a couple of asides that Cowen made that connected to some of the ideas already recorded in this blog. The second section are more direct notes from the text, detailing who the Complacent Class is and why they may have become complacent.

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The Power Broker I

The New York Sun reports Moses, in the totality of his reign as ‘Master Builder,’ “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars” across the City of New York. Nearly unfathomable nowadays is that Moses was able to wield such lofty power, from the mid-1920′s through 1968, without holding any elected office. Instead, as reported by Paul Goldberger in his New York Times obituary, Moses “held several appointive offices and once occupied 12 positions simultaneously, including that of New York City Parks Commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.”

These notes are on roughly the first 1/6 of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Since I listened to this as an audiobook, it’s hard to reference specific chapters etc. I can say that the notes below are based on Caro’s retelling of Moses’ life up until his mid-30’s, shortly after he is finally made Park Commissioner.

Early on, Moses is presented to the reader (or listener, as the case may be) as very smart, very literate and extremely self-assured. He also demonstrates an extreme attention to detail, a very elitist attitude, a high tolerance for risk. Robert Moses is a voracious reader, a lover of poetry, and also maybe cruelly aggressive. In the prologue, the author (Robert Caro) offers two glimpses of Robert Moses: one is college-aged Robert at Yale, threatening to quit the swim team if the team’s funding needs aren’t met (which includes his plan to be less-than-forthcoming to a potential donor about where the money is going… this turns out to be a motif); the other is a middle-aged Robert, self-assuredly threatening to quit his assigned posts if he does not also get a seat that he coveted but was denied by the Mayor, who gave him two other seats instead. Young Robert failed and quit swimming altogether. Older Robert Moses got exactly what he wanted, presumably as he always does. Caro questions how a person can have that kind of power in a democracy.

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Before Reading “The Power Broker”

I’m 1/6 of the way through The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The audiobook doesn’t divide in exactly the same way as the book does, but that sixth takes me through Moses’ first 35 years. Most of that time, he personally has no power at all.

Brief overview: Robert Moses would become one of the most influential public officials in 20th century New York. As a city planner, he would build and run unaccountable public authorities to achieve his vision of New York, which favored cars over public transit and dotted and crossed the metropolitan area with public parks and highways (often without regard for who or what was already there). He was the model authoritarian urban planner.

And it’s how he did it that was so remarkable. Robert Moses never held elected office. Mayors came and went, Governors came and went, but Robert Moses was a constant force in shaping New York for decades. He’s a man who turned roadbuilding into a method to reward or punish his political enemies, who invented laws and boards and then used them to sculpt the city as he saw fit.

At the time this book was published, New York was in a nadir. The subtitle, The Fall of New York, in hindsight, can now be seen as a comical overreach. As one reviewer put it, Moses’ surgical modifications to the city were not necessarily in the public interest, but they weren’t fatal. Cities don’t die easily.

The book is still highly lauded as a story about New York City, about “cities in general” (especially since Moses’ model influenced other cities), as a biography of a fascinating person, and as a study in power.

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The Internet is a Red Pill Dispensary

I very clearly broke my promise to “see you next week”. I deserve to be shamed.

Below, I take what I think might be a pretty mixed metaphor, and stretch it pretty badly. As I’ve done before, I figured I’d publish it as a snapshot of an idea-in-progress to reference and clean up later.

I would promise to get more anchored and concise with future posts, but you know by now that you just can’t trust me.

I.  The Hairpin Bend

Xianhang Zhang is constantly inventing terms that I wish I knew about ages ago. On Quora ~5 years ago, he casually dropped this answer that has stayed on my clipboard for (literally) years. Disclaimers later.

Libertarians, in my perception, are stuck in what I term a “hairpin bend”. That is, the people who are less wise than them are frequently indistinguishable from the people who are more wise than them.

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What I don’t know

I had a great year last year, although I didn’t return to publish much of anything here (3 pretty short posts in 2015).

The previous year (2014), I published 74 posts, some of which I was even pretty proud of. I felt that writing helped me to crystalize my thinking, even when I didn’t publish. When I did publish, the feedback was useful. I want that back this year. I’ll try for at least one post per week, on the usual topics. Whatever those are.

 

I

We consistently overestimate the power of our own judgment. There is no reason that you or I would have looked at the nascent automobile, airplane, radio, penicillin, or the internet, and understood any second-order implications that seem obvious now that they’ve happened. Few at the time had much of any idea, even for years after the idea’s conception. We have records of unimpressed or confused (or even contemptuous) responses by authority figures to these technologies as they developed. Many crackpot websites share quotes of these misjudgments to suggest that their particular wares are in the same category as other revolutionary, once-ridiculed technologies or ideas.

We also have many records of weird wishlists and wayward projections of where the “inevitable” and “totally not path dependent” technology tree will grow and blossom. Various tomorrowlands are forced to close by economic/technical constraints or changing priorities. (Vaguely related, and worth checking out: “Web Design: The First 100 years“, and observations on longing for closed technological frontiers.) Jetpacks and flying cars, etcetera.

In any of the common threads of “progress”- economic, technological, or ethical– there is no particular reason that a given person would be on what we today might consider to be the right side of history. I certainly have preferences. There is no law of nature defending my preferences into posterity.

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