Incentives and knowledge work

A lengthy mea culpa recently appeared in the German newspaper Der Spiegel about the unmasking of one of their star reporters as a fraud.  Claas Relotius spiced up his stories with made-up or exaggerated details and people and quotes, and pulled it off for decades without being caught by the paper’s internal fact-checkers.  (It would be amusing and appropriate if he were to turn to fiction-writing now, since like top art forgers he’s a very talented man in his overall field, in this case writing.  Apparently he has an excellent eye for telling and poignant detail.)

On an immediate level I’m reminded of the replicability crisis in academia.  A very high percentage of papers, particularly in the social sciences, report finding results which were theoretically discovered using the scientific method– but which can’t be replicated by repeating the experiment.  That is of course a key component– arguably THE key component– of that method.  A related problem in science is p-hacking.  That’s the drive to find significance– the idea that what is being tested does actually make a serious difference– which is strong enough to lead some people to adjust the parameters of their experiment so significance is found.

To me the common thread appears to be the way incentives are set up in society in general.  Society rewards writing and other forms of storytelling that offer instructive narrative and confirmation bias, simply because there’s a market among human beings for reducing uncertainty.  You tell a story that makes people feel that we understand the world better, you get rewarded with grants and tenure and journalism prizes.  But life is messy and rarely comes in parable form.  It’s a lot of work to dig out the details that can be emphasized to serve as the components of a moral narrative.  And so people have a perennial temptation to solve the difficulty by cutting corners and manipulating anything they can control to evade the actions of fact-checkers.  Which there aren’t that many of anyway because there’s no money or glory in finding that we’ve been wasting our time.

Porcupine’s First Law

Elizabeth Warren has floated a new statist idea– let’s get government into the business of making generic drugs!– and Megan McArdle does her usual fine job of demolishing the notion.  Megan’s focus is mostly on the lack of alternatives to capitalism.  It is perennially difficult in most places of finding government-sponsored entities or agencies that actually do a good job while eliminating the nasty ol’ profit motive.  The problem there isn’t that the claimed benefits don’t exist, it’s that they’re much more than completely washed out by the costs imposed by the inefficiency, cronyism, bureaucracy and lack of price discovery pressure that come along with a lack of competition.  Government theoretically has the same or greater power to punish inefficiency than capitalism does, but in practice the executive Deep-State swamp-dwellers all seem very cozy with one another, and lower level bureaucrats have enormous influence because they join AFSCME or organize into voting blocs otherwise, and therefore their votes influence their ultimate bosses.

To me the problem with the high price of many generics is more the other side of the coin: the problems with the current capitalist supply.  Regulations are preventing capitalism from having its usual effect.  Generics would ordinarily be commodities– that is, something which everyone can produce and in which no one’s product stands out in the consumer’s mind so that they try to buy that brand specifically.  Such a happy situation results in a race to the bottom on price as everyone tries to get an edge by cutting prices, and a race to the bottom on prices is WONDERFUL for the consumer.

Instead, for example, each company wishing to broaden its business and devote its manufacturing facilities to getting into the market of making a generic drug must go through an extremely expensive and time-consuming process of getting approval– even if their expertise and manufacturing facilities have been proven to be safe and of good quality many times over in making other drugs.  These regulatory roadblocks, such as Scott Gottlieb at the FDA is trying to reduce, are, as Megan points out, preventing a lot more companies from getting into the business of making generics.  The fewer the companies, the more inefficient the market and the higher the prices.

But all this stuff is decidedly unsexy, both for policymakers and for the public, and it’s quite profitable for the few market participants that currently do make generics, who therefore devote profits to lobbying to try to ruin any attempt at reform that might increase the level of their competition.  Call it Porcupine’s First Law:

“The probability of getting any policy in place varies directly with the multiple of its profitability to lobbyists with the degree to which it’s too boring for the public to care about it.”

One jargon to rule them all

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

In a recent Twitter discussion someone replied to me using the term “marginalized groups”.

Earlier in my life, I would have been willing to continue past and debate them about the original topic under discussion.

I no longer do that.

When in an intellectual contest you allow past jargon created by the other side, you have in essence agreed to fight on terrain of their choosing.  When a side knows where you must fight, they of course craft weapons and fortifications specifically to give them the victory.  These words and definitions have been carefully and deviously arrived at by reverse engineering.  Beginning with the end result, they work backwards to figure out which beginning place, linguistically and intellectually, would proceed, rationally, logically and inexorably, to the desired policy conclusion.  Moralists and pseudo-moralists (and this includes moralism based on ideas about God, fully as much as based on ideas about government) are particularly guilty of this sort of crime against rationality and debate.   It is emotion, with a thin veneer of rationality.

Originally words were created as a shortcut– a way of expressing a part of reality that both sides know and accept, so that the speaker doesn’t need to spend inordinate amounts of time reinventing the wheel, linguistically speaking, every time he or she wants to say something.  These days, the shortcuts have taken over the language.   The Cultural Marxists have become a group of Humpty Dumptys.

Moralistic jargon is by its nature crafted to serve only one master.  It’s the One Ring of politics and society.  I’d love to carry the modern Left’s concept of sin to Mount Doom and cast it into the lava.  Failing that, however, and unlike the monarchs of our political parties, I can decline to accept any of the other rings, powerful-seeming or no.

Maslow’s hierarchy of political needs

How do you get people to care about what you’re offering them?

Trump is Teflon.  No accusation, however accurate, of stating falsehoods sticks to him.  Y’know why?

His supporters– and I suspect a high percentage of other Americans– don’t much care whether what he says is factually accurate.

We all know, of course, what the elite would say about that.  Deplorable yada yada yada bitter yada yada yada ignorant.  The elite, however, are idiot savants when it comes to this.

The President is not the 5th grade teacher of his supporters.  There is not going to be a quiz in which if he puts out some statement that isn’t true, and they rely on it, something important to them turns on it.  It’s ironic, but when Barack Obama said “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” it actually had something to do with something that affects their lives– and because “does it affect my life” is the core consideration, that lie– and yes, it was a knowing lie by a sitting President– actually winds up being more significant to ordinary Americans than some stupid Tourette’s-like suggestion that illegal immigrants are rapists.

What the elite are continuing to fail to see is this:  You care about what you feel you can afford to care about.

If you’re part of the “new economy”– information services, startups, Kickstarters, et cetera– you’re pretty well set for life.  Whether you get richer is a matter of whether you can control your spending.  You have the luxury of caring about self-actualization and generosity and society and so on.  Secure in the world, you believe the government and President represent you personally, in some sense, and it upsets you if they say things that aren’t true.

If, on the other hand, you’re part of the old economy– the coal miners, the truck stop diner waitresses, the welders– you’re lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  You can’t successfully be offered the things that information workers are offered.  You’re transactional.  You want less immigration, you want less regulation, and you want to hurt the people calling you bad names so that they cut it out.  You want a weapon against the elites, and you don’t much care if the weapon says this or that– because even if you care about what he’s talking about, you believe his words are just words.  Even if you care about what he’s talking about, his words can’t affect the truth about it.

The George Costanza Presidency

It sometimes seems to me that Trump’s seeming successes are of a piece with his election.  That is, they’re not so much a matter of his own vision as they are a photographic negative of the failures of the elite consensus pre-2016.

Trump’s successes remind me of one particularly memorable moment on the sitcom Seinfeld involving Seinfeld’s friend George Costanza.  George told his friends, “It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong.  My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be.  Every instinct I have, in every of life, be it something to wear, something to eat… It’s all been wrong.”

After some interplay, his friend Jerry Seinfeld says he should do the reverse of his instincts.  “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

“Yes!”  George appears to have an epiphany.  “I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!”

Basically, that appears to me to be Trump’s approach.  He won the Presidency by being the opposite of everything elites have been assuming and offering the country for the past several decades.  And his administrative policy is more or less to be the opposite of most pieces of conventional wisdom about policy and public opinion and elections for that time, also.

What his administration is, more than anything, is an indictment of the particular virtue of elites and elite values and opinions.  I stress “particular” because I do not mean that elites and their values and opinions are worthless.  Or worth less.  Trump does not demonstrate that.  I mean that those values and opinions leave certain valuable things behind, or minimize or backburner them.  Over time, those things add up and come to seem disproportionately attractive.

Did the real estate developer in the White House realize that those ideas and values left behind were like great houses left behind in a deteriorating neighborhood, which become more and more of a potential bargain over time as their prices drop?  I don’t know.  I don’t know what he really believes.  For all I know he blundered across it by simply “doing the opposite” like George Costanza, and had cunning enough to sense it.  But I do think the past couple years have been very much like the sudden gentrification of an intellectual neighborhood.

An open Election-Day letter to the Left

In writing about politics, I always try to imagine how my writing will read if the current political situation– regardless of which side currently holds power– is reversed, and to write accordingly.  That consideration doesn’t affect today’s open letter to the Left, whose main party I expect will most likely at least take the House in today’s elections.

Dear Left,

This is something you won’t want to hear, especially on a day like today.

Your ambition is limited by cold, hard facts that you can neither change nor dismiss.

I can understand how you thought otherwise.  Things came so easily that the stars beckoned.   “The End of History” seemed no hyperbole.  You controlled entertainment, news and academia, and relied on those things having that cultural influence to make your arguments and change people’s minds.  But now the monopolies enjoyed by those institutions has been shattered by technology– especially the Internet.

Entertainment’s fragmentation began in the late 1970s with cable television, though as usual, no one could see it yet.  Airwaves were limited and rights were held by an oligopoly, making almost a monopoly out of broadcast television.  Technology continued its march.  Home video arrived.  VCRs, and later DVD players, meant that people could build up libraries of their favorite old shows, providing eyeball competition for new shows.  Then the Internet arrived and broke everything wide open.  Hollywood’s top levels have always been like tenure at Harvard, with a hierarchy, strict control over professional mobility, and rich, rich rewards for the Elect.  Talented actors, like graduate students and adjuncts, have always greatly outnumbered the places at the top.  But now anyone can put out entertainment on their YouTube channel.

News?  The mid-to-late-20th century era when newspapers became few and very profitable was an historical anomaly, created by the long, slow decline of newspapers as a result of technological alternatives.  Television and radio, its partial immediate successors, were as mentioned above even more of a monopoly due to their limited airwaves, but then the Internet, which reduced production and distribution costs to almost nothing, completed the process.

Academia?  The economics have been hijacked by academic unions and bureaucrats, and the content by the politically correct, with overproduction causing degree inflation and galloping credentialism.  Inevitably the Internet struck here too, with Massive Open Online Courses and places like Wikipedia and Youtube instructional videos, information’s chief cost became nothing more than a minimal level of time and effort.

You have gotten fat and lazy, both intellectually and politically.  You have forgotten how to argue.  In particular you’ve forgotten that in order to persuade someone, you have to speak the same language as them.  Bill Clinton knew how to do that.  Surrendering at least part of your identity narrative will be needed for that to happen, and unfortunately for you, identity is the last thing most people surrender.  You’ll be able to find reasons why you don’t need to.

Finally, in the midst of all this unfocused political energy, you’ve forgotten that people hate what they hate over twice as much as they like the equivalent amount of good.  If you try to accomplish too much with marginal political tricks– “phone and pen”, “50.1% making mandates for sweeping social change”, or the Supreme Court acting as a sort of unelected super-legislature– you will suffer from the one three-word sentence that limits your ambitions more than anything else:  ENEMIES BUILD UP.

Even if you regain both the House and the Senate today, and the Presidency, somehow, tomorrow, there is still nothing you can do about how people feel about you.  You can’t wave a wand and make them not enemies, or not dedicated to fucking you over in revenge.  Your favorite labels, created back in your cultural-hegemony days, are burning out by abuse and overuse.  You can’t take away your enemies’ votes.

Are there such relevant things as the Electoral College, the Senate voting being by equal representation per state, and gerrymandering?  To be sure there are, but they are not that significant.  The entire significance of those structural factors is to affect exactly how much ambition you can have and how many enemies you can make before you are stopped by the buildup of toxicity.  Public opinion is the true battleground, which is why the collapse of your means of swaying it is so catastrophic for you.  Structural factors like gerrymandering won’t change the fact that you need new ways of swaying it.  (I predict that at some point, Hollywood will begin to produce entertainment sympathetic not to Trump but to his supporters, perhaps even at the cost of killing some sacred cows of the Left on the way.)

Is this true of the Republicans also?  Yes.  They can’t take away your votes, or shut you up, or make you not hate them.

It’s still more a problem for you than for them.  Over the past fifty years, you’ve gotten most of what you ever wanted in terms of cultural victories.  If politics is now a stalemate, a political trench war of attrition, with the same few yards being taken and retaken, back and forth, then reversion to the mean in results is unavoidable.  The policy victors of the past fifty years– the free-traders, the cultural Marxists, the tax-cutters, the gun rights people, the warmongers, and so on– will be forced to surrender territory until a new equilibrium is reached.


R. W. Porcupine


P.S. Don’t even think about impeaching Trump unless you have something more substantial up your sleeve than is commonly known, unless you want to be lumped in with congressional Republicans in 1996 and birthers.  Trying to retroactively undo election results is lazy, narcissistic and harmful to American democracy, regardless of how self-righteous you feel.

Outrage appropriation

David Freedlander writes in Politico about unexpected results in that NYC election in which the socialist Ocasio-Cortez shockingly defeated a 10-term Congressman in the real contest there, the Democratic primary:

Ocasio-Cortez’s best precincts were places like the neighborhood where Bonthius and his friends live: highly educated, whiter and richer than the district as a whole. In those neighborhoods, Ocasio-Cortez clobbered Crowley by 70 percent or more. Crowley’s best precincts, meanwhile, were the working-class African-American enclave of LeFrak City, where he got more than 60 percent of the vote, and portions of heavily Hispanic Corona. He pulled some of his best numbers in Ocasio-Cortez’s heavily Latino and African-American neighborhood of Parkchester, in the Bronx—beating her by more than 25 points on her home turf.

Actual minorities there bewailed the loss of the incumbent’s seniority, which translates into influence and Federal money for their district.

When coupled with the desperation of people like Elizabeth Warren or Rachel Dolezal to identify as the socially privileged among Democrats, along with things like the poll results of American Indians about their opinions of the Washington Redskins team name (91% either liked it or didn’t care), these results seem to make it clear that identity politics has gone from a retail issue for ethnic minorities to a luxury issue for rich, white elites.  (Or perhaps a retail issue for the latter, since their identity narrative seems to be the main thing they want.)

The latter yammer on and on about “cultural appropriation”, but this must be a form of projection, because they themselves are doing the real appropriating– of the right to be outraged at some usually tiny alleged form of racism, homophobia, or what have you.  Actual minorities, these election results make clear, are ironically like Trump’s voters in being far more transactional, far more practical, in their priorities.

Diminishing returns to extremism

I don’t have something I want to talk about at length right now, but I did just realize something.

A considerable amount of the lack of compromise in politics has been driven by the belief that you have to act extremist or be thrown out of Congress or wherever by angry, motivated extremists in your own party.  At some point, elected officials are simply going to factor in that cost and accept that something like that is almost surely going to happen– in which case, they’re going to stop kissing the asses of the extremist activists.  That is, the chance of them getting re-elected are going to get low enough that they have no reason not to say what they actually think.  Then we’ll see a different kettle of fish.


The slow corruption of ideals of the Democrats makes sense if you see making hay as the point of the whole thing for many (not all) people.  Some people– many of the base– believe that supporting the ideals and trying to fix problems is what the party or group is actually trying to do.  But even they have to be pretty sharp to notice how political priorities subtly steer idealism away from politically unprofitable solutions, and frequently stop being a source of energy once the reputation for trying has been established.

The hay that they’re making takes different forms, of course.  Sometimes it’s votes, sometimes it’s grant money, sometimes it’s a feeling of moral superiority.  But sooner or later they run out of grist for the grievance mill, and then they have to start putting other stuff through. And that’s when the bullshit begins.  That’s when the tail comes to wag the dog.  That’s when the process becomes more important than the result.  This happens on the Republican or conservative side too, of course; military spending is hay.

I suspect that if he exists somewhere, Martin Luther is having a quiet chuckle at the universality of human nature, because the capture and deterioration of moral institutions is exactly the circumstance he fought against.

The Democratic field in 2020

Who will the Democratic nominee be in 2020?  That was the chatter at Nate Silver’s 538, in a sort of Round Table discussion that they call a snake draft.  As a libertarian-ish Independent in a swing state, I just wanted to mention my thoughts about some of their top possibilities.

  1. Elizabeth Warren.  Ugh.  About the only things she really has going for her (not with me, with the electorate) are that she’s fairly well-known nationally, she’s a woman and she has a portfolio, as it were, akin to Bernie Sanders’s– superficial egalitarianism.  She could probably win the Democratic primary, but not the general election.  The policy superficiality aside, her flaws are the long, public history of her whoring after minority status as a Leftist status symbol, and the fact that she’s condescending and schoolmarmish in an intensely irritating way.
  2. Kamala Harris.  Who?  Yeah, I know, a senator from California.  As though that were a swing state.  Yes, she’d get lotsa donations from the Golden State, but 2016 proved yet again that money has a limited impact on political victories.  Apart from that, she’s just another generic Democrat chasing after “historic!”
  3. Kirsten Gillbrand.  Known to me chiefly for having been handed Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in deep-blue New York.  This was after Hillary was handed it, served without much distinction, lost her one competitive race before 2016, and was handed the Secretaryship of State.  That particular office is not exactly one that tempers a politician in the white-hot flame of competitiveness.  (True, fewer are these days.)  Basically a nobody, as far as I’m concerned.
  4. Joe Biden.  A long-experienced politician, originally from purple Pennsylvania, nationally known with Executive branch experience.  That he’s not at the top of everyone’s list speaks volumes about the Democratic Party’s poisonous addiction to identity politics and party identity narrative.  He’d be the one candidate who could actually get the Presidency by winning it, rather than by the Republican candidate losing it.
  5. Eric Holder.  In baseball terms, near as I can tell, Holder would be the equivalent of a .240 hitter in AA ball.  What does he have apart from being black and anyone at all having heard his name?  (Another generic Democrat chasing after “historic!”– but Obama has picked most of the low-hanging fruit.)
  6. Beto O’Rourke.  Why on earth are so many candidates with tiny resumes at the top of the Democratic list?  On the list at all, sure, but he’s like the 50-1 shot at the Kentucky Derby, and should be way down the list.  His inclusion here is likely an example of recency bias.  Unless he wins, which isn’t likely, a year or two from now people will barely remember him.
  7. Cory Booker.  Probably one of the stronger candidates, not because he’s black (see above about the low-hanging fruit) but because he actually has something resembling a struggle, as mayor of Newark, and executive experience, and some history of bipartisanship.
  8. Bernie Sanders.  Not a likely event, due to his age.  Yes, Trump’s almost as old, but seems one hell of a lot more vigorous.
  9. Michael Avenatti.  He brings to mind O Brother, Where Art Thou?  In that movie, the challenger in the Mississippi gubernatorial election is winning in the polls with a shtick about being for the “little man”, with a midget on the platform to agree with him, and the governor’s son says, “We could hire our own midget, even shorter than his.”  Avenatti would be the Democrats hiring their own midget.
  10. Oprah Winfrey.  She might actually be formidable against Trump– nationally known and admired, being at least somewhat self-made through fighting her way upward, having been successful in business.  But on the other hand, maybe not; being on a TV show where she gets to pick the guests and topics probably doesn’t prepare you that well for politics.  And in any case, she’s not running, which is probably why she’s at the bottom of the 538 discussion.

There were other candidates on the list, but the 538 people were really scraping the bottom of the barrel at that point, and my remark about most of them would amount to “who?”.