Adele and the local nature of social norms

The singer Adele stoked controversy this week by appearing in a Carnival outfit, complete with Bantu knots — a style traditionally worn by people of African descent — and a bikini top with the Jamaican flag. Predictably, the Twitter mobs jumped immediately, with many in the media calling the singer out for cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Interestingly, the response from people of African descent was not uniform. Patterns emerged in the identities of her critics and defenders, with criticisms overwhelmingly coming from black Americans, while black Britons defended her outfit as an appreciation of Jamaican culture as well as a way of celebrating her birth neighborhood of Tottenham, which is home to one of the largest diasporas of African-Caribbean people in the world.

While normally I would just ignore this kind of controversy or put it down to the idiocy of the cancel culture that both the left and right engage in, I’m working through Cristina Bichierri’s The Grammar of Society (CE*) this week with my undergrads and it struck me that something more interesting was going on than first appeared.

Classical liberals can sometimes (myself included) fall into the trap of emphasizing Hayekian local knowledge in terms of economic knowledge, such as scarcity on the ground or crop conditions. But as most of us also know, there are lots of other forms of local knowledge that matter a lot too, which is why I find Bichierri’s discussion helpful. Particularly relevant here is her argument that all norms are local in nature. People use norms as heuristics to help them navigate complex social situations with some predictability, relying on the expectations they have about what others around them are doing and adapting based on reciprocal expectations about what people are or should be doing. But these norms themselves require extremely local knowledge about what people in this particular situation or this particular context are doing or expect others to do.

What’s fascinating about the internet and the cancel culture it seems to engender is that at the same time it brings people together from all over the world, it decontextualizes those people, removing them from their local situations and all the relevant facts, norms, and guideposts they used in the moment to determine what to do. Given the nature of the Internet there’s almost no way to avoid this decontextualization, the loss of local knowledge and local norms. This decontextualization makes it very likely that we will make errors about why someone behaved in a particular way.

But decontextualization is dangerous for an even more foundational reason Bichierri discusses. It doesn’t just lead us to make factually incorrect judgments about what other people are doing. It also makes it more likely that we will make a fundamental attribution error when we judge other people. People are not only calling Adele out for something that appeared to be completely appropriate in the social context in which she lives (and in fact is a sign of solidarity with the people of color in her community), but they are also jumping to conclusions about her essential nature, with anonymous users in more than one location discussing her as a “typical white woman” as though wearing bikinis of the Jamaican flag is just what we expect white women to do. One black American journalist concluded on Twitter, “this marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic”, again signaling that Adele’s behavior was not in fact a nuanced reaction to local norms during a celebration of culture but in fact a function of her essence as a white woman. Bichierri’s discussion asks us to take more seriously the way in which decontextualizing people’s behavior makes us even more likely to make these kinds of fundamental attribution errors, leading to even greater levels of polarization and cultural anger.

None of this means celebrities don’t sometimes (perhaps often!) make very stupid decisions. It also doesn’t mean we can’t praise or blame people, which would seem to be an important function in a free society where we want to avoid state coercion as much as possible. But praise and blame are most likely to be accurate and most likely to be effective when we know the people involved, have existing relationships with them, and understand the norms and general context of the situation they are reacting to. Both Bichierri’s and Hayek’s emphasis on local knowledge ask us to use caution when engaging in shaming of those we do not know, whose motivations and goals remain opaque to us. It is in effect, a call for both humility and humanity, which we could all use more of these days.

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Fact-Checking and the Conditions of Responsible Citizenship

The history of classical liberal thought is replete with (empirical) arguments that run basically this way: If the government increases its involvement in X, then ordinary people will stop seeing X as their responsibility. Instead of being concerned about X and working to advance X, they will leave care of X to the state, which will do a worse job at it.

Perhaps the most frequent context in which this argument is invoked involves care for the less fortunate. To wit, if we take it that the government bears responsibility for caring for the poor and downtrodden, this will predictably (and unfortunately) undercut support for mutual aid organizations that can often leverage local knowledge to be more effective at alleviating problems than large, centralized bureaucracies like states. Here’s Wilhelm von Humboldt in a characteristic passage (from The Limits of State Action).

As each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens. This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive; or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits will be most likely to flourish at its liveliest, where the feeling is most acute that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that oppressed classes of the community which are, as it were, overlooked by the government, are always bound together by the closest ties.

https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/humboldt-the-sphere-and-duties-of-government-1792-1854

My fellow blogger Andrew (J.) Cohen recently advanced a similar argument in the case of state-provided education: the more we see the education of children as the state’s responsibility, the less we (particularly parents) see it as something that we ought to look after.

There are many worries one might have about such arguments. First, is the empirical claim that state solutions crowd out non-state solutions even true? Second, even if the empirical claim is true and private individuals and mutual aid organizations are more effective in some ways, still their help can be bad news for freedom insofar as it can be withheld unless recipients meet oppressive conditions. Third, decentralized efforts to address public problems lack mechanisms for ensuring competence and fairness. Even if fully supported, perfectly fair, and much more effective where they operate, such organizations may under-provide needed services elsewhere. And so on.

One thing my own work has forced me to think about lately are the increased calls for fact-checking and labeling of misinformation by social media giants.

My previous posts (here and here) have briefly touched upon reasons for worrying that social media censors and fact-checkers are bound to be fallible. (Indeed, fact-checkers have long shown troubling signs of fallibility, see here, here, here, here, here and here—though also here and here for some reasons for optimism that these shortcomings might be overcome by more thoughtful fact-checking strategies.)

But set aside these issues with the quality of the fact-checking and the political power it might or might not involve. Suppose that the fact-checkers do a decent enough job. Still, the old classical liberal argument above provides reason to worry that widespread fact-checking of this kind might undermine conditions of epistemic responsibility. In short, if we come to expect others to do the hard work of fact-checking for us, we will lose the skills and sense of responsibility for doing it ourselves.

Of course, fact-checking and labeling misinformation is often proposed as an alternative to outright censorship, and it’s likely that it is indeed better than outright censorship. After all, it allows individuals to access and assess the mistaken content for themselves, rather than blocking it from view altogether. Moreover, labeling false or misleading content in this way might well improve our epistemic situation by stopping the spread of misinformation that might otherwise “go viral”. But even if we accept that these benefits of the practice reliably obtain, they need to be weighed against its costs. And one set of costs I’ve heard little about involves those associated with the kinds of people an over-reliance on fact-checking might produce. I’m wary (I think reasonably, but maybe not) of anything that will encourage average people to be more lazy regarding their epistemic duties than they already are.

Now, social media giants are not states. Accordingly, it might be that their efforts to take greater responsibility for fact-checking the content they host is best-interpreted as an instance of voluntary organizations doing what the state is not now doing (better than the state could do), rather than a threat to voluntary solutions for misinformation. And it is clear to me that it is preferable to have non-state entities in charge of fact-checking than to empower the state to do it. In general, it’s healthy to have lots of different institutions with lots of different norms surrounding what kinds of content they tolerate in their jurisdictions.

Still, lots of people get their information on social media platforms. Many have argued this means that they have certain state-like powers. Though I’m skeptical of the strongest of these claims, it’s reasonable to be concerned that, under conditions of wide-spread fact-checking across platforms, users might come to be disposed to accept what they read in these spaces somewhat uncritically. After all, people might develop the reasonable expectation that someone is looking out to ensure that nothing misleading is to be found there. And even if we ignore the fact that, in practice, fact-checking will be “gappy” (with much factually inaccurate information making it through the filters) is difficult to overstate the dangers associated with allowing other people to do our reading and thinking for us.

It’s fair to object that, because the impetus for further fact checking is itself the fact that people are bad at processing information, likely to believe lots of foolish nonsense for bad reasons, and so on, there’s nowhere to go from our present situation but up. Still, this seems to admit that the root of the problem lies with how individuals are trained to evaluate information and its sources. Widespread, public fact-checking can at best ensure that the worst of the problem’s consequences are averted. But it does nothing to address the problem itself–and indeed, it may even make it worse.

In a provocative passage in The Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant reminds us that many calls to “take human beings as they are” rather than “good-natured visionaries fancy they ought to be” ignore the role that political institutions play in making people the way they are. The lesson is that, if we find that we are bad at discharging our epistemic duties, it is worth asking whether this because of the incentives we face or whether it is it a fixed feature human nature. If the former, then, other things equal, we should avoid strengthening those bad incentives and should rather work to improve them.

For various reasons, I suspect that the trend of increased reliance on independent fact-checkers is here to stay. If I’m right, we must take care to avoid a situation in which we become complacent, off-loading the difficult work of responsible citizenship to strangers with their own sets of interests (which might not track our own). It is true that this is demanding work. But if we can’t figure out how to do what it takes (or if indeed failure is inevitable given deep features of human nature), then it is harder to gainsay the increasingly popular (but in fact ancient) claim that there might be more attractive alternatives for governance than democracy (CE*).

(Thanks to Andrew Cohen for his thoughts on a previous version of this piece.)

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Schools, Teachers, Parents, and a Bad Assumption

In my last post, I discussed the problems surrounding opening schools and, importantly, how we discuss them. In this post, I want to raise an issue about schooling more generally that is rarely discussed at all. I want to show how our current system encourages a false belief about parents and teachers that has pernicious results.

I begin by noting that my wife is a public school teacher and, given how Georgia is handling the pandemic, I have a clear preference for her to not teach in her school building. I also have a school age child who was, until a month ago, in a private school. The administration of that school is, I think, approaching the situation far better than most, but we still worry about both health and pedagogical risks. Thinking about both returning (or not) to school has me once again wondering about fundamental social problems—especially regarding schooling and parenting.

I think most of us are pretty bad at parenting. (Philip Larkin understood this well, but I should be clear that I think there are a huge variety of ways that we are bad at it—some are overbearing and some are entirely too loose, for opposing examples.) Worries about increased child abuse with school closures are therefore not at all surprising. On the other hand, I also think most K-12 schools are pretty bad at educating. Having served on committees for two charter schools and volunteered and watched at my son’s schools, I’ve been amazed at how unwilling school administrators can be to make use of evidence about best educational practices. (This is sometimes true even when they clearly know the evidence—in such cases, they tend to point out that they are constrained by budgets, politics, etc.) Schools don’t, in my view, offer enough music or art or time to relax, run, and breath outside. They also tend to start too early in the morning, foolishly insist children sit still and at desks, force students to maintain logs of reading, and even penalize students that read unassigned books at the wrong time. Worries about children being stifled and losing their innate curiosity because of school rules are therefore also not surprising.

Many parents are aware of problems with their children’s’ schools. Some even work to correct them. Most, though, seem to “mind their own business”—as if the education of their children were not their business. Indeed, many parents seem to think that because schools are provided and mandatory, they are themselves absolved of the responsibility for educating their children. (As schools feed and medically nurse children, parents may feel absolved of even more responsibility.) Even the best of parents tend to assume their children are being well taken care of at school. Unfortunately, too many parents assume their children are the school’s responsibility during the day. Interestingly, the pandemic helped some see that their school was not working for them. (See this interesting NY Times piece.)

I do not think any of this is surprising or unexplainable. We live in a society wherein government has encouraged parental abdication of educational responsibilities. Parents often rightly feel that they cannot opt out of government run schools. Where they can, they usually are constrained to choose either the local government school or a nearby private school. Only in some locales is there a simple and straightforward process through which you can legally educate your own child. (The option is, I think, available everywhere in the US, but with more or less red tape involved.) Encouraged is a belief that I suspect drives the problems that beset schools: that parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct and must be kept separate.

Our system of K-12 education relies on the idea that parents are not teachers. Indeed, some homeschooling parents have been condemned for thinking they could teach their own children. Parents, on this view, are supposed to feed, clothe, love, and maybe socialize children. Schools, on the other hand, provide teachers to educate children, too often including moral education (and might also provide food and healthcare for the children). And schools—or the administrators thereof (or, worse, politicians)—decide where a child will learn and how. A parent that tries to send her child to a better public school than the one closest may face jail time—because the school system decides, not the parent. (See this and this.) Parents, after all, don’t know about education.

Two problems emerge when people believe parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct. The first, I’ve discussed above: schools operate with a variety of problems and parents don’t work to change them or do so but face insurmountable difficulties in the attempt. When they don’t try, it is likely at least partly because thinking that parents aren’t teachers makes parents think teachers have an authority they do not. And, of course, they assume teachers run schools. The second problem is a corollary: because parents are led to believe schools and teachers have an authority they do not themselves possess, parents don’t think they need be active participants in their children’s education. In short, parents take less responsibility for raising their children, leaving more and more to schools. What society gets, too often, is school graduates who learn to do as they are told, conforming to societal requirements. If parents were more active, we’d get more diversity in how children are educated, resulting in many benefits (though admittedly also costs in terms of equity). I think we are seeing some of this already and hope to see more. We’d get more people contributing in more and more varied ways to society, creating more and more varied benefits for all.

In short, the all too common belief that parents and teachers are necessarily distinct lets parents off the hook for too much and grants schools too much leeway. Challenging that belief would encourage parents to challenge their children’s schools, thereby either improving the schools or having the schools lose students to other alternatives.

The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate many things. Hopefully, one positive outcome will be a healthier view of the relationship between parenting and education–one that emphasizes parental responsibility and acknowledges the limits of career educators (especially those in what might be called “educational factories”). One might even hope that this would help make parents better at parenting.

(Conversations with my wife and with Lauren Hall, JP Messina, and Kevin Currie-Knight inspired, and helped me with, this post.)

On School Openings

Back in April, I “predicted” we’d see 150 to 200 thousand deaths from COVID-19 in the US.  As we are now in that range, I’m hoping I was right and we don’t go past the 200,000, but of course this is so far outside my expertise that my guess means little.  But here we are and school openings approach.  Some seem deadly afraid of school openings and some seem deadly afraid of schools not opening. (I’m primarily thinking here about K-12, but much of what I say applies to colleges as well—and of course, high school juniors and seniors are more like college freshman than kindergarteners in terms of COVID-19 transmission and symptoms.)

Those conflicting views often accompany two others: that people favoring school openings foolishly think young children are immune to the effects of COVID-19 (or otherwise don’t understand the risks of reopening) and that people opposing school openings don’t care about education (or otherwise overestimate the risks of reopening).  

Meanwhile, I don’t believe any thinking person really thinks any children are immune to COVID-19, despite claims coming from the White House.  Of course, young children do seem to get badly sick from the virus much less than anyone expected back in March.  And there is no reason to believe that those worried about sending kids into closed buildings with hundreds of others don’t care about education.

My biggest issue with discussions about this—and many things—is that people seem unable or unwilling to keep the pros and cons in mind at the same time.  But schools are, by and large, run by groups of people that have to be able to do just that in order to make rational decisions about whether to open, close, reopen, re-close schools—sometimes despite political pressures by governing bodies, unions, parental organizations, and more.

This has to be a hugely difficult question and cannot be made without considering both the costs and the benefits.  At a minimum that includes the following assumptions (yes, I think both of these are true):

-if schools are open, kids and teachers are going to get sick (plexiglass around the kids, masks all day, etc, is not going to stop it). They will also bring the disease to their families, friends, and neighbors.  We’re likely to pass 200k deaths more quickly (and with more children) than we would if schools stay closed.

-if schools are closed, children of working class parents will suffer long term consequences.  Their parents can’t stay home with them and help them with their schoolwork.  Middle class and wealthier parents will hire tutors or join “educational pods” where parents pool resources to monitor children doing school work, but not those from poorer backgrounds.  (And as others have noted, there will be more cases of suicide and spousal and child abuse.)

There are further economic issues that would follow either decision as well, but I’ll not delve into those here.  What I want to urge now is simply (a) not demonizing those you disagree with about this and (b) bearing in mind both the pros and cons if you have decision making capacity here.  

I keep myself limited to those two points as I really don’t know what the best route is for any school (and, of course, different schools in different locales with different population densities and with different student bodies, will be different).  I suspect a lot of thought will be going into it, and not just from current school administrators and school boards.  (And parents—the topic of a future post.)

Hopefully, new ideas will emerge that actually bring new approaches and new institutions that do better for children than schools now do.  Smaller schools with more parental decision making, more variety of teaching techniques, and yes, better use of technology to not merely monitor children and allow for physically distanced communication, but also to spark curiosity.  I can’t predict the innovations; I remain optimistic that they will come and that innovators will consider the many concerns as they seek to appeal to a wide customer base.

This pandemic is going to have long term effects.  We are likely to see more work at home across the board and less use of commercial office space and that may bring new opportunities for housing, lower rents in some areas, and reductions of city populations.  Better systems of education responding to these changes and the above challenges would be a wonderful outcome of a bad situation.

(Thanks to Ronit Elk for the impetus to write this and to  JP Messina for helpful suggestions and comments.)

Social media censorship: Further reflections on suppressed coronavirus disinformation

On Wednesday August 5th, Donald Trump posted a snippet of a Fox and Friends segment to his social media accounts. Discussing the important matter of school reopenings, the president said the following:

Schools should be reopened. When you look at children, children are almost—and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease…they’ve got stronger—it’s hard to believe depending how you feel about it—much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this and they…don’t have a problem…and I’ve seen some doctors say that they’re totally immune.

Trump goes on to cite as evidence the fact that only one person under 18 died from the virus in the state of New Jersey, which he (no less than his viewers) should know falsifies any claim of total immunity. Charitably, he likely means that children are shielded from the worst effects of the virus. Evidence: Just weeks ago, Trump made more reasonable claims that (1) children face less risk from the virus (they recover quicker) than adults and (2) that they may transmit it less readily than adults. As in the case of transmission to and from animals, the evidence concerning children’s role in transmitting the virus is still coming in. Whereas about a week ago, experts were optimistic about children’s role in transmission (believing on the basis of limited evidence that it might be lower), a recent German study has raised doubts (though has yet to pass through peer review). But regarding this risk, Trump admitted that further research was necessary and that his administration was taking this factor seriously.

Speculation about what he really means aside, the false and misleading nature of the letter of his claim (that children are immune) led Facebook and Twitter to remove the video for violating their policies around misinformation and covid-19. Were they right to do so?

In my previous post, I indicated that there was good reason to worry that this was actually the best way of promoting what might be dangerous content. Once again, I awoke to numerous headlines which repeated Trump’s claim. Thanks to the Streisand effect, people will see this claim, that children are ‘almost immune’ to coronavirus, repeated over and over again; thanks to the illusory truth effect, people may be more susceptible to believing it, even if they know it’s false.

Here, I want to emphasize a different strategic aspect of all of this. Suppose that Trump knows that the more strident claims are strictly false and that they will cause controversy. (If you watch the video closely, he indicates that he knows as much when he hedges: “I hate to use the word totally because the news will say, ‘oh, he made the word totally and he shouldn’t have used that word”.)  Might censoring it frustrate the aims of the censoring parties and ultimately serve Trump’s interests?

Perhaps. It is unprecedented for social media platforms to remove the president’s speech. Their policy, to date, has (reasonably in my view) been that, though what the president says might be false, misleading, or harmful, the people have a right to know that he’s said it (even if they should also be informed that it is misleading). But such platforms have been facing increased pressure by representatives of more traditional media, by politicians, by advertisers, and by some users to exercise a heavier hand in this regard, and to stop exempting Trump’s speech from their community standards. Trump, already so annoyed by the ways in which social media platforms have handled his content as to issue an executive order barring them from engaging in censorship, presumably knows this. The more he can get social media companies to censor him, the more he may be able to convince his base that these platforms are untrustworthy.

Supposing that it is true that a majority of users of social media platforms (including 38% of democrats) already believe that social media platforms are biased against conservatives, censoring the president’s speech in this manner might further negatively impact the reputations of these platforms (reputations which have already taken a large hit in the past year). Not only can this sort of censorship further increase polarization by leading conservatives to disengage (costing the platforms active users, and, ultimately, advertisement revenue), it may also cause people more generally to doubt social media platforms’ disclaimers about the dangerous or misleading content they choose to leave up, reducing their credibility and leaving vulnerable persons more susceptible to misinformation (though see Goldman’s Knowledge in a Social World, ch. 7). In the particular case at hand, these effects may be amplified because the censored party here is the president and it is reasonable to believe that voters have a legitimate interest in knowing what their leaders are saying, true or false, good or evil (though some evidence suggests that, with respect to offensive content in particular, many think this kind of censorship, even of the U.S. president, is desirable).

One thing that these considerations put into sharp relief is that despite the bare facts that social media companies have a right to censor and legitimate interests in censoring, there is no guarantee that they will censor well, even relative to their own goals (somewhat narrowly construed). If they are sufficiently bad at choosing which content to censor to advance their ends (was this really the most dangerous segment we’ve heard?), this establishes a weak presumption against their censorship—not as a matter of law or even of ethics, but a matter of organizational rationality.

Still, the claim that children are basically immune from coronavirus is false and may mislead parents into taking risks with their children that they ought not to take. While I think Trump did not mean exactly what he said (and that most people can understand this), surely an interest in protecting children favors censoring the content, outweighing this presumption.

Yet, whether this consideration is decisive in favor of censorship does not simply depend upon the magnitude of the risks unreflective uptake of the content poses (which might be slight). It also depends crucially upon censorship’s being sufficiently effective in stopping parents from taking such risks as to outweigh people’s legitimate interest in hearing what our elected officials say about important topics and the costs to credibility that platforms might incur as a result. Here, it is important that the censorship will not achieve this much unless enough people who would have otherwise seen and taken Trump’s words at face value are now shielded from their harmful effects. My other worries about the unintended consequences of censorship aside, I wonder how many now find themselves in such a position.

In the end, though Trump is wrong that children are immune to covid-19, he might well be right that the evidence favors reopening schools. Given plausible hypotheses about the importance of early education in socializing children, for adding meaning and purpose to their lives, for helping parents get back to work, for taking children out of deprived and abusive environments, and for ensuring that vulnerable children are not left behind, reasons to favor reopening hang heavy in the balance. These reasons must be weighed carefully against risks to children and to teachers and family members from reopening, risks that Trump himself has previously acknowledged. If the United States chooses to reopen its schools, it will not be alone. Sweden never closed them, and a number of other countries (many of them apparently faring better in the fight against coronavirus) have similar plans.  All other matters aside, it would be unfortunate if discussion of these serious issues were to take a back seat to the political theater of a battle between Silicon Valley executives and the commander in chief. Sadly, all parties involved are acting in ways that may predictably realize this unfortunate outcome.

Social Media Censorship: Four Lessons from the Recent Suppression of Covid-19 ‘Disinformation’

On July 27th 2020, a group of physicians calling themselves “Frontline Doctors” posted a video to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The video displays licensed medical doctors in front of a supreme court building (1) advocating the reopening of schools, (2) suggesting that there are public health costs of lockdowns (e.g., excess suicides, cases of depression, domestic violence, and substance abuse) and (3) extolling the virtues of zinc and hydroxychloroquine (a drug whose robust supply is essential for managing lupus and other ailments) in treating and preventing COVID-19 infections. By the morning of July 28th, the video had roughly 14 million views and had been removed from every mainstream platform that had initially hosted it for violating their coronavirus misinformation policies. On the same morning, I became curious and watched the video elsewhere. It was not hard to find.

Lesson one: Despite claims that private social media companies regularly violate persons’ free speech rights, actions by private companies to censor content are much less worrying than similar actions by state agents. This is partially because it’s relatively easy to access content that private parties take down. Less so when the state does it.

On July 29th, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt ran a “morning briefing” indicating that the video had been removed for suggesting that hydroxychloroquine was an effective cure and that masks were unnecessary. The remark on masks was a mere snippet of the much broader message. “You don’t need a mask,” Stella Immanuel said, “there’s a cure.”  She herself admits to wearing a surgical mask, so presumably she does not mean that there is no reason to wear a mask in the absence of the drug’s widespread deployment. Other doctors who spoke at the event clearly advocate social distancing and mask-wearing practices.

But leaving this claim aside, there is at least some truth in the main of what these doctors were saying. The segment lasted over 45 minutes, only a small portion of which contained anything about masks and only some of which concerned hydroxychloroquine . Many of the group’s claims about the safety of reopening schools and the hidden public health costs of lockdowns are largely uncontroversial. Others, e.g., that Sweden’s response represents an alternative approach to locking down are likewise true, even if the results of Sweden’s alternative approach have been mixed. Labeling the entire segment false or misleading thus does disservice to what’s true in it.

Lesson two: John Stuart Mill was right that censored content that is false often contains important half-truths and that this matters when considering whether to suppress it.

In the same piece, Leonhardt claimed that confusion induced by social media platforms’ failure to aggressively censor content is among the most noteworthy causes of the United States’ comparatively bad coronavirus outcomes. (Leonhardt also cited Sinclair’s media network, which broadcasts content downplaying the risks of the virus.) Let’s leave aside the fact that the causal explanation of the U.S.’s performance relative to its peers is a matter of some complexity and focus instead on something striking about the causal claim he in fact makes: that social media companies’ lack of censorship deserves a large portion of the blame for these outcomes.

But notice that reporters like Leonhardt at mainstream media outlets have likely done more than any social media platform to spread this particular video’s message. Had the message merely remained on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook (as so much content does) I would not have watched it. The same is surely true for countless others. But because the video’s content, which might have otherwise maintained a kind of cult viewership, was covered by all of the major news outlets, lots of people sought it out. This is the Streisand Effect in action: very often, attempts to suppress information lead to its viral spread. This matters because there are in effect two possibilities: either the ineptly suppressed content is dangerous or it isn’t. If it is genuinely dangerous, then Leonhardt (and others like him) have acted irresponsibly by their own lights by drawing much more attention to it. If the content of the video is not genuinely dangerous, on the other hand, then the main justification for removing the content in the first place is implausible.

Now, you might say the way that mainstream outlets spread the speech was not dangerous insofar as it was framed explicitly as containing disinformation. The problem is twofold. First,  the current media climate is so polarized right now that even once reputable outlets like the New York Times are deemed untrustworthy by a significant subset of the population. (Some go so far as to claim that these outlets are anti-reliable.) When such outlets declare something to be disinformation, then, there is real reason to worry that people skeptical of the outlet will be more favorably disposed to the bad speech than they’d otherwise have been. Second, some research has uncovered an Illusory Truth Effect, according to which people are more likely to believe things that they hear constantly repeated, even if listeners know the repeated claim is false.

Lesson Three: If there’s dangerous content out there, it’s often better to ignore it than draw increased attention to it. Paradoxically, censoring content is among the best ways of promoting it. Given the newsworthiness of social media censorship, were these companies to do what Leonhardt wants them to do and censor content more often, the effect might well be that the allegedly dangerous content reaches a wider audience than it otherwise would.

None of this is to deny that some of what these doctors said sounds crazy. (Though, notably, for some of them, their professional views on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine are among their most innocuous.) Still, it’s important not to pretend that the coronavirus treatment science is settled—there is still much that we don’t know, and the mainstream medical researchers at least deem the hypothesis that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment worthy of study in high profile scientific outlets. Until these questions are settled, it’s important for professionals, even fringe professionals, to make their arguments without being dismissed out of hand and derided. Importantly, the arguments regarding hydroxychloroquine offered by the so-called “Frontline Doctors” are largely anecdotal, rely on small sample sizes (n=350), and are afflicted with other problems evident to anyone remotely well-versed in critical thinking. Were these arguments to become widely accepted, it would be important to recognize their flaws and to draw public attention to them. But to think that the conclusions of such arguments are beyond the pale—especially in the context of the broader pandemic, during which those insisting on proper data collection techniques have been derided for not acting quickly enough—is, frankly, not credible. Thus even if these arguments should be discredited and derided, it’s important to take care not to similarly deride and discredit those who argue for similar conclusions from more solid grounds.

Lesson four: If you must draw attention to a bad argument that someone makes on some important issue, focus on the argument’s substance, rather than discrediting what speakers say by taking small claims they make out of context. Doing so is a small first step toward establishing credibility with those who disagree with you. Again, there is no first amendment issue here, but even the most fastidious protection of our rights to speak against government interference is insufficient for ensuring a healthy atmosphere for discourse.

Post-Modernism and Economics

I’m neither an epistemologist nor an economist; I offer this nonetheless.

  1. Post-modernism is, at root, a rejection of the view that knowledge has foundations.  This does not entail that there is no knowledge or no objective truth.  Nonetheless,
  2. Some post-modernists seem to mistakenly believe there is no objective truth.
  3. Economics, as the study of exchange, accepts—indeed, relies upon the assumption—that people have subjective preferences.  This does not entail that all preferences are equally good or that there is no such thing as “objectively better.”  Nonetheless,
  4. Some economists seem to mistakenly believe there is no objective value.

I’ve long wondered whether those in 4 making the same sort of mistake as those in 2.

Note that for those in 2, there is no objective truth to discover, so nothing other than the (somehow always subjective or inter-subjective) project of learning why people believe what they do and how this affects them. This is, to be sure, an interesting and valuable project, but not one that can be objectively defended if it’s own reasoning is right.

Similarly, for those in 4, there can be no objective defense of their project–whatever value it has is subjective.

Better views of both post-modernism and economics are, obviously, available. Lack of foundations can leave us finding objectivity in coherence, pragmatics, or reliable truth-finding methods (or even correspondence). Reliance on the subjectivity of preferences for one purpose is consistent with objectivity (of the goodness,* for example) of the same preferences for other purposes—and with objective value elsewhere. Indeed, I think the group noted in 2 only includes some (the worst) post-modernists and I think the group noted in 4 only includes a few (and not the best) economists. I worry, on the other hand, that students in many college departments (not, usually Philosophy Departments) do fall into 2 and many economics students fall into 4. We should seek to prevent both.


*People can subjectively value, or not, items without objective value and people can fail to subjectively value items with objective value.

Reflecting on The Box

I just finished Marc Levinson’s book The Box (CE*), which traces the introduction and development of the shipping container and its impact on global trade. You might think from that description that it was quite a dull read, but actually it was fascinating. (Steve Davies has a very useful 3-minute overview here. Check it out, I’ll wait.) The story includes an interesting take on the nature of innovation – while Malcom McLean is clearly an important innovator whose role cannot be discounted, lots of other people and events are indispensable parts of the story, which, as Hayek would be happy to remind us, is vastly complex and is the result of more inputs that one might guess. Levinson notes that single-actor “a-ha!” stories stir the imagination, but tend to obscure the actual process by which change occurs. Individual insight and entrepreneurship are real, of course, but if we want to fully understand innovation, we need to know about the other inputs as well.

Levinson’s story is a great illustration of unpredictability and the difficulties in planning. The book shows how both governments and private actors made some bad mistakes along the way, and the way things are in 2021 were largely unforeseen in 1956. Not only would the people in 1956 not have been able to predict the way the shipping business would evolve, they also couldn’t have predicted the way those changes would impact manufacturing, global supply chains, urban planning, the economic impact on then-undeveloped countries.
Another thing I found useful in this book is that it’s a great illustration of the tensions between classical liberal proponents of free markets, and actual business leaders. Levinson’s story is rife with lobbying, subsidies, and regulation. The regulatory activity is an important part of the story; sometimes helping move progress along, often hampering progress or promoting malinvestment. In some cases the regulatory structure reveals the political influence of industry leaders, other times that of unions. Indeed, labor unions come off as not particularly more noble than the captains of industry, as we see them press for rules that allow for make-work and featherbedding, and to shield themselves from the disruption innovation frequently entails. But the business leaders are, in a different way, seeking protection from competition and subsidies for their experiments – the exact opposite of “laissez-faire.”

Levinson tells the story in a fair-minded way – he’s sympathetic to the dock workers who stand to lose jobs, even as he describes rules and practices that are plainly self-serving and can’t withstand rational scrutiny. Meanwhile, he’s very up-front about the way the business leaders transparently seek favorable regulatory systems, as if skillful lobbying is as much a part of business as entrepreneurship and competition. It’s a prime example of “Horwitz’s First Law of Political Economy”: no one hates capitalism more than capitalists. More precisely, in this case, they simply take it as a given that there is a regulatory apparatus, and therefore do see “competing” via lobbying for a favorable place in the regulatory regime like competing in the market. And when Levinson shows us the point of view of the legislators who are on the other end of the lobbying efforts, it’s sometimes almost comedic, as they have to juggle “protecting” the interests of shipping companies, railroads, trucking companies, manufacturers, longshoremen’s unions, the Teamsters, stevedores’ unions, and so on – all of whose interests are often at odds with each other, and with that of the general public.

Interestingly, despite all the intervention by regulators and lobbyists from both labor and business, the innovation happens, the industry evolves, and millions of people experience an increased standard of living as global poverty declines massively. So is “capitalism” the story of businesses and unions “competing” via lobbyists for special legal protections? Or is “capitalism” the word for exchanges and competition that happen without government intervention? Obviously the word gets used to mean both, although that’s oxymoronic (which is a good reason to avoid the word – a topic for another day’s blogpost). But the story of the shipping container shows that despite, if not because of, political pull and self-dealing, dynamic innovations have the power to help millions of people lead better lives, often in ways no one could have predicted.

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The Quadruple Threat to America Today

America faces a quadruple threat. The four threats are related in various ways, too often mutually supporting. I am not including COVID-19, though it could easily be considered a 5th threat. My reasons for doing this are: (1) it’s a threat everywhere, in no way distinctive of American life; indeed, it would be best considered a global natural disaster; (2) it is related to the threats I do discuss; indeed, like all natural disasters, it’s impact is determined by our responses—and the other threats make bad responses more likely. I offer these for consideration as I think they must all be addressed if liberalism is to survive.

The first threat is straightforward. We might call it xenophobia or extreme in-group bias. It manifests in multiple ways, especially racism, sexism, anti-immigrant biases, and anti-semitism. This may seem to be largely confined to those on the so-called “right,” but it applies to many on the left as well. On the left, one need only think of Bernie Sanders’ anti-immigrant views or Joe Biden’s recent pro-American economic policy; on the right one need only think of talk of the “Wuhan flu” or “China flu” instead of “COVID-19”—both play on the insider/outsider distinction to blame someone else for our problems (or at least prevent outsiders from becoming insiders). Maliciously shifting the blame provides cover for those who seek to refuse to take action to limit the harm. Taking responsibility (not necessarily blame) means working to fix the problem. Many of our governments—and many individuals—refuse to do so. This, of course, is at least part of why the number of COVID cases and deaths in the US is on the rise. Like all natural disasters, how we react to it determines the overall impact it has. Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement is currently the most straightforward evidence of in-group bias, in the form of racism, as protestors correctly point out how institutional racism, especially (but not only) by way of police actions, are extremely unjust and, indeed, a matter of life and death for many. This seems to be a concern primarily of “the left,” but with leading support from libertarians (defying the standard left/right dichotomy). For those interested in that, see Radley Balko’s and Chris Coyne and Abigail Hall’s books (CE*).

The second threat is the economy, as we fail to institute a reasonable response to the COVID-19 pandemic and as we face the repercussions of widespread use of collateralized loan obligations (see this Barron’s piece and this piece in The Atlantic), much as the 2008 recession was at least partly caused by widespread use of collateralized debt obligations. Regarding the latter, it is unfortunate in the extreme that the federal government failed to learn any lessons from the collapse of the housing market bubble or its past support for big banking and the latter’s issuing of bad debt (itself encouraged as the big banks correctly realized that even if the debts really went south, they would be bailed out by taxpayers—because in the US the one thing we like to socialize is big business’s losses). Unfortunately, we may see the same thing repeat. Indeed, it may be worse since there is more invested in CLOs than there was in CDOs and the CLOs largely include commercial debt—and the pandemic is hard on many commercial enterprises. Regarding the government response to the pandemic, we can only note what has been often noted—widespread, enforced, and complete shut-downs of multiple markets may or may not help reduce spread of the disease, but would only do so at the obvious cost of making it more difficult—and more expensive—for people to get necessities. While middle and upper class professionals are often able to work from home with no or little loss in pay, many—especially those in the restaurant and entertainment businesses—cannot. At the end of the day, shutting everything down to save lives is foolhardy as it will cost lives. If markets are all closed, we won’t have food and other necessities. Those who live paycheck to paycheck (and many more) won’t be able to pay rent, etc.

The third threat is authoritarianism, partially with a populist demagogue. We now have a president who is likely more of a demagogue than any president since Andrew Jackson. Of course, he was enabled by changes to the office and the workings of the federal government over the last several decades. The expansion of presidential powers under the past several presidents—Republican and Democrat alike—enabled what we have now. The populism is perhaps as dangerous as anything else—promising voters bread and circuses is always worrisome. Those voters are often not well informed about how government works or about science. Now, of course, we see both the populism and the authoritarianism emerging from the debased Republican Party. The populism is clear in the MAGA crowd’s following their leader in insisting on not wearing masks. The authoritarianism is perhaps worse, as witnessed in federal law enforcement agencies frightening behavior in Portland—with the threat that such behavior will go national. The use of ICE and The Border Patrol Tactical Unit deep within the US Border started months ago (see this in the NYTimes) but seems to be picking up steam—ostensibly because the federal government is so worried about graffiti on federal buildings that they are unwilling to leave such crimes to local authorities. (See Jake’s great piece, which also indicates why this is also about populism.) In reality, of course, this may be merely a piece of political theater, aimed at distracting voters and rallying the president’s base. As already indicated, though, this is not an issue for the current Republican party alone. Presidents Clinton and Obama also expanded their powers while in office. And even now, we see scary authoritarianism from the left, when local authorities claim to have knowledge about what is necessary to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and claim that such knowledge justifies them forcing people to live under house arrest (see this piece about a couple in Kentucky) for refusing to sign a paper saying they would not self-quarantine (whether or not they would self-quarantine). Neither left nor right is blameless and neither seems to recognize that their actions are as scary (at least to their opponents) as those of the other side are (at least to them). Those on “the right” seem to think the Feds behavior in Portland is worthwhile because local authorities aren’t stopping looters. They seem to forget the value of federalism and the freedom of individuals that helps ensure (though they remember it clearly when it serves their interests). Those on “the left” seem to think the Kentucky authorities are doing the work needed given public health concerns. They seem to work with a reified sense of “the public” and forget the freedom of individuals that threatens (though they remember it clearly enough when it serves their interests).

The fourth threat is related to my last post. Its a dangerous lack of commitment to there being anything that is objectively true and to seeking such. Its not just our president that seems to lack any commitment to truth. Our culture is riddled with people who claim their beliefs form “their truth” which may be different from “your truth” or “my truth” but that must be treated as if of equal value. Never mind that there really are experts out there in all sorts of areas. Some believe their views of morality are as valuable as those of academics who spend their lives working out intricate details of moral theories and defending those theories against all manner of objection—though they themselves never subject their own views to criticism. (Why should they, when their view is “true to them,” whatever that means?) No wonder people now consider their views about disease transmission (and curing) as valuable as the CDC’s or Dr. Fauci’s. Or who consider their view of other countries as valuable as people who have actually travelled to or lived in those countries. Or who think their views of politics and economics as valuable as academic political scientists and economists who have been studying these things for decades? Admittedly, insisting that there is objective truth might sometimes sound dogmatic to those who feel insulted when faced with any intellectual opposition—as if insisting that a proposition is true entails rejecting any objection or evidence to the contrary, which it decidedly does not. Giving any belief its due can be considerably difficult. As Schumpter said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” We must remain open to the possibility that we are mistaken even when we are convinced we are not—that is what genuine commitment to truth and truth seeking entails.

I’ll end by making some of the connections between the threats explicit: 

-Its easier to favor economic policies that favor the rich (2) when one thinks everyone else is “other” (1). Its easier to favor authoritarian actions (3) when one believes they are only used against people vary unlike oneself (1). Its easier to deny there is any objective truth (4) when one is constantly told those unlike oneself have different values and beliefs (1)

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one mistakenly (4) think they threaten one’s own livelihood and that of those one cares about (2). It is likely easier to endorse authoritarian policies (3) if one thinks they are necessary to maintain economic stability or growth (2). (Less related to this discussion: it is apparently easier to deny there is any form of objectivity (4) if one believes that the only think that matters is subjective preferences (2).)

-Its easier to distrust or hate others (1) or to favor an economic policy (2) when blinded by an authoritarian repeatedly making false statements about them and grandstanding (3 & 4). Its easier, in general, to doubt there is any objectivity (4) when both that same authoritarian (3) and many others—including, if we are honest, many leftist college professors—encourage those doubts.

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one refuses to learn about them (4). Its easier to favor an economic policy (2) when one refuses to consider objections to it (4). Its easier to favor forcing people to live as one thinks they should (3) without doing the hard work of listening to them (4).

I hope its clear we need a response to these threats. Liberalism—and the great American experiment—depend on it.

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Undemocratic Policing in Portland

Federal law enforcement officers in various agencies in the Department of Homeland Security have been deployed to police protestors in Portland, OR. This development in the protests against police, and the police responses to them, highlight two different kinds of problems: those that come from the decentralization of local agencies and those that come from the centralization of federal agencies.

The federal officers, dressed in camouflage, have been detaining people in unmarked minivans. At least some of them are not wearing badges that identity their agency. The badges other officers are wearing are small and difficult to read, especially when a group of officers grab you and toss you into a van before speeding off. Federal agents are also using chemical irritants to disperse protests. In at least one incident, they attacked two people who appear to be medics providing care to someone laying on a sidewalk. It is hard to discern any legitimate police goal that was achieved from shoving them to the ground and threatening to strike them with batons. In another particularly awful incident, a protestor is shot in the face with an “impact” or “non-lethal” munition. In yet another, federal police repeatedly strike a protestor, who seemingly posing no threat, with a baton and then spray teargas into his face.

When asked what justifies the use of federal forces in Portland, the DHS has pointed to destruction of federal property. The list includes a broken window and many instances of graffiti, which is of course a far cry from their claim that the city has been “under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob.” Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli complains that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is “holding back” local law enforcement by not letting them “certain nonlethal tactics.” Meanwhile, the Portland police commissioner has said the federal officers should go home and that their presence is escalating the situation.

This is an unusual situation. Federal force is typically used to respond to protests only when local officials request it. The governor has called this political theatre. It looks worse than that to me. It looks more like the Trump administration probably violating the law to punish political enemies and to rile up his base. The administration has threatened to use similar tactics in other cities. And of course, since they are cities, they are Trump’s political enemies.

The situation demonstrates the importance of clearly marked law enforcement officers. One of the problems with “secret police” is the lack of accountability. If they violate your rights, who would you object to? Another is that it undermines one of the major justifications of a public police force, which is that a publicly accountable police force is supposed to give you reasons to comply and let the courts adjudicate the issue. But if you’re not sure who is tossing you into the back of a minivan, it is far from clear that you have a reason to comply. It is a different manifestation of the problem we see with no-knock SWAT raids in which people, fearing that their home is being invaded by criminals, use defensive force against unidentified officers. But this is probably not the main problem, which would remain even if the federal agents were more clearly identified.

The main problem is that the federal agents have little in the way of democratic authorization or other justification for their uses of force. The tactics to disperse protestors are clearly excessive. Further, the Trump administration is overriding the authority of local officials and police. The authority to deploy federal law enforcement to Portland apparently comes from regulations allowing CBP officers to operate with fewer constitutional restrictions in the “border zone” that extends 100 miles from the border. Though even that is unclear; the Trump administration has not explained the legal basis for these deployments. Like the Portland police commissioner, state and local officials have also requested that the DHS withdraw their officers.

A common complaint in criminal justice reforms circles is that the extreme decentralization of policing makes reform nearly impossible. With 18,000 police agencies, most reform efforts will need to occur independently all over the country. Another problem is that when officers are fired from one department, they often can find work at another nearby department. These are real problems, and they have contributed to the protests federal officers have been deployed to police.

But they are probably less significant than if the president was the head of a national police force in the way that the president is the head of the military. The Trump administration makes that clear. It’s true that local departments already have a less than stellar track record when it comes to policing protests. But police chiefs and commissioners don’t usually appear to be motivated to punish political opponents, in part because they’re not directly elected. And if they do punish political opponents, at least the voters in Portland or Chicago don’t have to worry about suburbanites who aren’t on the receiving end of the bad policing voting for a presidential candidate who promises to use the police to violate their civil liberties.

Another related problem is one of selection effects. People have long worried that eliminating residency requirements in local police departments will result in communities being policed by outsiders who lack local knowledge or sympathy with residents. When the agency doing the law enforcement is widely loathed, and staffed by people across the nation who simply accept that they are widely loathed, we can expect even less local knowledge and sympathy with residents. Using federal agents for local policing causes some of the same problems that having the military engage in domestic policing does.

These two problems undermine the democratic authorization of centralized police forces. Of course, there are few proponents of a national police force. If this is right, though, it informs normative questions about consolidating police forces. Elinor Ostrom researched this question and found that people are more satisfied with more local police power. Using federal police to respond to protests is probably illegitimate because it gives non-locals too much say over local issues. Similarly, a police agency that has a jurisdiction much larger than a city is likely to suffer the same problem. People who live in the city and are likely to be heavily policed, for example, probably have very different views about what good policing looks like than those who live in the suburbs and enter the city just to work.

Theorizing about justice in real political systems is a game of picking our problems. Decentralization surely leads to problems of its own, ones that have partially caused recent protests. But they also look less serious than ones we could expect if the Trump administration had more control over local policing.