Violence and Statelessness Within a State

Violence and Statelessness Within a State

Recently I have been making efforts to take longer views of history, to understand how things that happened and developed a long time ago still impact the world today. Sometimes this is easy to do. In a city, infrastructure decisions are evaluated and planned with 30 or more years of useful life intended for the investment. A building, bridge, or park is expected to stick around for a while, shaping its immediately area for a long time (or possibly forever if we chose to maintain the infrastructure indefinitely).
What is harder to see is how cultural products, as opposed to physical infrastructure products, stick around and continue to shape the culture and development of human social worlds. We are used to thinking of humans as individual actors who have the power to change and adapt to any given situation. We don’t think about how specific cultural arrangements could influence people for the long term. But the reality is that cultural interactions, products, and institutions can have a dramatic long term impact on people, just as a park or bridge can have a long term impact on a city.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker discusses how lower-income African Americans ended up with higher rates of violence due to poor policing. These higher rates of violence translated into discriminatory practices that have lasted for a long time, and are still with us today. It is easy to think that any black person in the US today can simply chose to be different, to ignore the long influence of history, but that is to ignore the real social institutions that shaped how African Americans understood themselves in our nation. Just as it would be foolish to ignore the impact that a park had in making a city an enjoyable place to live, ignoring the discrimination that African Americans faced and the subsequent violence that grew within African American communities would be foolish.
Pinker writes, “communities of lower-income African Americans were effectively stateless, relying on a culture of honor (sometimes called the code of the streets) to defend their interests rather than calling in the law.” When government discriminated against black people, when the police were not a reliable and trustworthy source of justice, when black people had to defend their own honor or risk being taken advantage of, violence became a solution. By segregating black people, denying them access to quality services, and by racially profiling communities of color in policing, a stateless people were created within our country. The law did not afford equal protections and the state did not provide the same opportunities and engagement for black people relative to white people. This created situations in which violence flourished, furthering the very systems of inequality and injustice that created the situations for violence in the first place.
This history is long. It is not something that can be understood simply by looking at the violence that exists in African American communities today. To understand how we ended up with Black Lives Matter, to understand why rates of violence in communities of color are what they are, and to understand racial tensions, we have to take a long view of history. We have to acknowledge that cultural factors can have long-term impacts and consequences, just as infrastructure decisions can. Discrimination created a stateless people within the United States, and that statelessness incentivized violence. None of this is a matter of individual moral failings, but a consequence of decades of institutional and governance failings.
Eviction & Poverty - Housing First

Eviction & Poverty

Housing first is a common saying among those who advocate for the poor and impoverished in our nation. Instead of housing being a capstone to a responsible, socially adjusted, and respectable lifestyle, housing is seen by housing-first advocates as a cornerstone to those things. Without a stable place to live, it is almost impossible for people to rise from poverty, advocates of housing first policies argue.
Matthew Desmond shows support for a housing first approach in his book Evicted by connecting eviction with poverty and a downward life spiral. Once a stable housing situation is taken away from an individual, whether due to their own poor decisions or unfortunate circumstances, maintaining any sort of respectable and laudable lifestyle becomes nearly impossible. Desmond writes,
“Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness – this is eviction’s fallout.”
Eviction is a cause of poverty Desmond argues. When you lose your house and have to scramble to find a new place to live, don’t have a safe place to leave your children, and don’t have a place to store your things, you can hardly continue to work or search for a job. By losing your housing, you often lose your job, eliminating any hope of increasing your financial well-being. Evictions may also cause you to lose government housing aid or the support of neighbors and family members, making it even harder for you to get by. Employers won’t want to hire you if you live in a homeless shelter and you may become estranged from children or relatives. All of this only drives you deeper into poverty and despair.
A housing first approach gives people a stable place to live. It gives them an address that they can use on job applications, it takes away the stress that comes from trying to find a place to rent and gives people time to engage with neighbors or search for a job. Housing is necessary to take steps to better ones life, and can’t be seen as a capstone to reach once one’s life is on track.
The Quest of Science & Life

The Quest of Science & Life

“It is an irony of history that Galton started out in search of causation and ended up discovering correlation, a relationship that is oblivious of causation,” writes Judea Pearl in his book The Book of Why. Pearl examines the history of the study of causation in his book suggesting that Galton abandoned his original quest to define causation. Galton, along with Karl Pearson is a titanic figure in the study of statistics. The pair are in many ways responsible for the path of modern statistics, but as Pearl describes it, that was not the original intent, at least for Galton.
Pearl describes Galton as trying to work toward universal theories and approaches to causation. Correlation, the end product of Galton’s research is helpful and a vital part of how we understand the world today, but it is not causation. Correlation does not tell us if one thing causes another, only that a relationship exists. It doesn’t tell us which way the arrow of causation moves and whether other factors are important in causation. It tells us that as one thing changes, another changes with it, or that as other variables adjust, outcomes in the specific thing we want to see also adjust. But from correlation and statistical studies, we don’t truly know why the world works the way it does. I think that Pearl would argue that in its best form, statistics helps us narrow down causal possibilities and pathways, but it never tells us with any certainty that a relationship exists because of specific causal factors.
The direction of Galton’s research is emblematic of science and of our lives in general. Galton set out in search of one thing, and gave rise to an entirely different field of study. For his work he clearly became successful, influential, and well regarded, but today (as Pearl argues) we are living with the consequences of his work. We haven’t been able to move forward from the paradigm he created. A paradigm he didn’t really set out to establish.
Quite often in our lives we follow paths that we don’t fully understand, ending up in places we didn’t quite expect. We can make the most out of where our journeys take us and live full lives, even if we didn’t expect to be where we are living. We can’t fully control where the path takes us, and if we chose to stop, there is no reason the path has to stop as well. What we set out to do can become more than us, and can carry far beyond our imaginations, and the world will have to live with those consequences, even if we walk away or pass away.
They key point in this post is to remember that the world is complex. Remember that what you see is only a partial slice, that your causal explanations of the world may be inaccurate, and that the correlations you see are not complete explanations of reality. The path you walk shapes the future of the world, for you and for others, so you have a responsibility to make the best decisions you can, and to live well with the destination you reach, even if it isn’t the destination you thought you were walking toward. Your journey will end at some point, but the path you start could keep going far beyond your end-point, so consider whether you are leaving a path that others can continue to follow, or if you are forging a trail that will cause problems down the road. The lesson is to be considerate and make the most out of the winding and unpredictable path ahead of you as you set out on your quest.


One of the epistemic vices that Quassim Cassam describes in his book Vices of the Mind is closed-mindedness. An epistemic vice, Cassam explains, is a pattern of thought or a behavior that obstructs knowledge. They systematically get in the way of learning, communicating, or holding on to important and accurate information.
Regarding closed-mindedness, Cassam writes, “in the case of closed-mindedness, one of the motivations is the need for closure, that is, the individual’s desire for a firm answer to a question, any firm answer as compared to confusion and/or ambiguity [Italics indicate quote from A.W. Kruglanski]. This doesn’t seem an inherently bad motive and even has potential benefits. The point at which it becomes problematic is the point at which it gets in the way of knowledge.”
This quote about closed-mindedness reveals a couple of interesting aspects about the way we think and the patterns of thought that we adopt. The quote shows that we can become closed-minded without intending to be closed-minded people. I’m sure that very few people think that it is a good thing for us to close ourselves off from new information or diverse perspectives about how our lives should be. Instead, we seek knowledge and we prefer feeling as though we are correct and as though we understand the world we live in. Closed-mindedness is in some ways a by-product of living in a complex world where we have to make decisions with uncertainty. It is uncomfortable to constantly question every decision we make and can become paralyzing if we stress each decision too tightly. Simply making a decision and deciding we are correct without revisiting the question is easier, but also characteristically closed-minded.
The second interesting point is that epistemic vices such as closed-mindedness are not always inherently evil. As I wrote in the previous paragraph, closed-mindedness (or at least a shade of it), can help us navigate an uncertain world. It can help us make an initial decision and move on from that decision in situations where we otherwise may feel paralyzed. In many instances, like purchasing socks, there is no real harm that comes from being closed-minded. You might pay more than necessary purchasing fancy socks, but the harm is pretty minimal.
However, closed-mindedness systematically hinders knowledge by making people unreceptive to new information that challenges existing or desired beliefs. It makes people worse at communicating information because their data may be incomplete and irrelevant. Knowledge is limited by closed-mindedness, and overtime this creates a potential for substantial consequences in people’s lives. Selecting a poor health insurance plan as a result of being closed-minded, starting a war, or spreading harmful chemical pesticides are real world consequences that have occurred as a result of closed-mindedness. Substantial sums of money, people’s lives, and people’s health and well-being can hang in the balance when closed-mindedness prevents people from making good decisions, regardless of the motives that made someone closed-minded and regardless of whether being closed-minded helped solve analysis paralysis. Many of the epistemic vices, and the characteristics of epistemic vices, that Cassam describes manifest in our lives similar to closed-mindedness. Reducing such vices, like avoiding closed-mindedness, can help us prevent serious harms that can accompany the systematic obstruction of knowledge.

On Consequentialism

In his book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam argues that patterns of thoughts and mental habits that obstruct knowledge are essentially moral vices. Ways of thinking and mental habits that enhance the acquisition, retention, and transmission of knowledge, according to Cassam, are moral virtues. Cassam defends his argument largely through a consequentialist view.
Cassam is open about his consequentialist frame of reference. He writes:
“Obstructivism is a form of consequentialism. … Moral vices systematically produce bad states of affairs. … The point of systematically is to allow us to ascribe moral virtue in the actual world to people who, as a result of bad luck, aren’t able to produce good: if they possessed a character trait that systematically produces good in that context (though not in their particular case) they still have the relevant moral virtues.”
I think that this view of epistemic vices is helpful. I know for me that there are times when I fall into the epistemic vices that Cassam highlights, and they can often be comforting, make me feel good about myself, or just be distractions from an otherwise busy and confusing world. However, recognizing that these vices systematically lead to poorer outcomes can help me understand why I should stay away from them.
Epistemic vices like scrolling through Twitter to look at posts that bash on someone you dislike are structurally likely to produce bad outcomes by wasting your time, making you more prone to distractions, and prejudicing yourself against people you don’t agree with. What you spend your mental energy on matters, and in the case of Twitter scrolling, you are allowing your mind to indulge in shallow quick thinking, closed-mindedness, and biases. It plays off confirmation bias, giving you the ability to only see posts that confirm what you believe or want to believe about a person or topic. It feels nice to bash on someone else, but you are reinforcing a limited perspective that might be wrong and rewarding your brain for being shallow and inconsiderate. In the moment it is rewarding, but in the long run it will lead to worse thinking, shorter attention spans, and biased decision-making that is hard to get away from once you have closed the Twitter tab. Consequentialism helps us see that the epistemic vices involved in Twitter scrolling, which feel harmless in the moment, are more likely to result in negative outcomes over time. The systematic nature of these epistemic vices, the consequences and outcomes of indulging them, is what defines them as vices.
Consequentialism, Cassam’s argument shows, can be a useful way to think about how we should behave. People who try to do good but experience bad luck and don’t produce the same good outcomes as others can still be viewed as morally virtuous. Even though in their particular situation a good result did not occur, those who practice moral virtues can be praised for behaving in a way that is systematically more likely to produce good. Conversely, people who behave in ways that systematically produce negative outcomes can be deterred from their negative behavior through social taboos and norms, even if a poor behavior might provide them with an opportunity to succeed in the short term. It is hard to take absolute stances about any position, but consequentialism gives us a frame though which we can approach difficult decisions and uncertainty by recognizing where systematic patterns are likely to lead to desired or undesired outcomes for ourselves and our societies.
The Time for Nudges

The Time for Nudges

One of the most common examples for why nudges should be used by governments, employers, parents, and grandparents is the example of using nudges to encourage financial savings, especially for retirement. People don’t save enough for retirement, and are often quick to spend their money before they even have it, leaving themselves financially vulnerable to job losses, car breakdowns, and severe weather events. Governments can offer tax breaks for savings, employers can default employees into retirement savings accounts at high levels, parents can teach children to save allowances, and grandparents can start long-term savings vehicles for young children and nudge them to use the money wisely at a reasonable age. What the retirement nudge examples all show, is the importance of thinking about time when considering nudges and behaviors.


In their book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “Self-control issues are most likely to arise when choices and their consequences are separated in time.” Nudges, the authors explain, are incredibly valuable when time is an important factor. When our behaviors and actions provide small immediate rewards at the cost of larger later returns, then nudges can play a huge role.


Teaching children self-control, and encouraging them to show restraint and save their weekly allowance for a larger purchase that will last longer than some gum or candy does the same thing as helping employees contribute more than 5% of their paycheck to a retirement account. In the present moment it would be nice to have a dopamine hit from a candy bar, but a new Gameboy game is going to provide hours of entertainment after the candy bar is gone. Similarly, a lease on a new sports car might be affordable, but an earlier retirement, sending a kid to college without saddling them with debt, and surviving a costly MRI during an unemployment spell in an economic downturn is much more important than impressing the neighbors.


Self-control is easier when there is a short time period between our action the consequences we will face. If I know that yelling at someone on the phone while I’m in the presence of my boss could cost me my job, I’ll probably be able to hold back. But many of our self-control requirements have much longer time spans for the benefits or costs to become apparent. While it doesn’t feel like we lose anything by scrolling through Twitter for a few minutes after lunch each day, those minutes add up, and could be the difference between a promotion a year from now and missing out on a big break for career advancement.


Nudges are helpful because they can help us better understand costs, use better discount rates for the future, and make the difficult decisions that payoff in the long run.  This is why the retirement examples are so common when discussing nudges, because they are the precise examples of where our brains make cognitive errors that could harm us in the future, and they are spaces where small actions can help us overcome poor decision-making, impulsive behaviors, and short-term thinking to behave in ways we would chose if we were acting more rationally.
Thoughts on Personal Responsibility

Complex and Conflicting Thoughts on Personal Responsibility

I’m really hesitant to criticize others for not taking sufficient personal responsibility for the ways they live and the outcomes of their lives. A lot of factors influence whether you are economically successful or whether you are fit and healthy. Some things we seem to have a lot of control over, but many things are matters of chance and circumstance. Placing too much blame on the individual doesn’t seem fair, yet at the same time, there is clearly an element of personal responsibility involved. I’m not sure where I land on how we should think about this division.


What is clear, however, is that there can be negative consequences when we take away people’s agency in their decision-making and life outcomes, and when we erode the authority of those who are reasonably critical of negative lifestyles and ways of thinking and being, we can put ourselves and societies in vulnerable positions.


Sam Quinones writes about these tensions in his book Dreamland and he highlights how patient responsibility and physician authority devolved between the 1980’s and twenty-teens as a quick fix, there’s-a-drug-for-that mindset took hold of the American healthcare system. He writes, “…patients were getting used to demanding drugs for treatment. They did not, however, have to accept the idea that they might, say, eat better and exercise more, and that this might help them lose weight and feel better. Doctors, of course, couldn’t insist. As the defenestration of the physician’s authority and clinical experience was under way, patients didn’t have to take accountability for their own behavior.”


I’m usually hesitant to say that the problem is people’s lack of accountability, because how often do we really control how much exercise we can get when many of us live in places where walking is difficult because our streets are not safe, or are not well designed for pedestrian use, or because half the year it is dark early and we get lots of snowfall? How often do we not know what kinds of exercises we should do, and how often do we have people who are only critical of our current state rather than supportive and encouraging? How often have we had a bad break and poor advice on how to get back, only leading to a further defeat, deflating our sense of self worth? In addition to all this, how often have we seen people use the personal responsibility argument in bad faith? To justify not helping others or to rationalize their greed or excessive self-aggrandizement?


But at the same time, as Quinones shows, responsibility is important. We need to think about what we can and should be doing to help improve our own lives, without hoping for an easy fix in the form of a miracle pill. We can’t just throw out the opinions of experts and devalue their authority because they are willing to say things that are discomforting for us, but are likely correct in terms of how we can make our lives better. Somehow we need to work together to build a society that recognizes the barriers and challenges that we face toward becoming the successful and healthy people that we want to be, but encourages us to still work hard and overcome obstacles by taking responsibility for our actions and (at least some percentage of) our outcomes. I don’t know what this looks like exactly, and I’m not sure where the line falls between personal responsibility and outside factors, but I am willing to have an honest discussion about it and about what it all means for how we relate to each other.
Interconnected Inequalities

Interconnected Inequalities

Inequality isn’t something I have thought of at a truly deep level, but its consequences are becoming more apparent to me the more I learn about the world. I grew up believing that anything was possible for anyone, and that anyone could become president of the United States or successful in their own endeavors as long as they worked hard. While I still do believe that we can all become successful through hard work, and while I do think we should still encourage some form of this myth, I don’t fully believe the myth myself. I think that luck and structural factors of our lives play a huge role, in other words, inequalities matter.


In the myth that I grew up believing is that inequality was purely a result of one’s natural skills and how hard one worked. It was an end product, not an input. Many people choose to see the world this way, especially, in my experience, if they themselves are lucky, wealthy, and privileged. Inequality simply doesn’t matter in this worldview, and it is in some ways a good thing, reaffirming that the successful people are smart, hardworking, and deserve what they have.


I now think that our interconnected inequalities are much more serious that I had believed. Inequality is visible, and it is understood across the globe. It shapes how people think about themselves, about their futures, about the way other people value them, and about what they can and cannot be. A character introduced in Sam Quinones’ book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic speaks to this reality. A character by the name Enrique opens the book and Quinones writes, “Growing up in a poor Mexican village had attuned Enrique to the world’s unfairness. Those who worked hard and honestly got left behind. Only those with power and money could insist on decent treatment.”


From this mindset Enrique chose the only way out of his situation (being the son of a poor sugar cane farmer in Mexico) that he thought could get him money, prestige, and power. He chose to become a heroin dealer. His story is told in the book, and in the opening introduction we see Enrique feel guilty about his life choices, but confirm to himself that it was his only way out of destitute poverty as he watches a group of farm-hands/construction workers be deported in an airport.


It is global inequality that drove Enrique to drug trafficking. Through no fault of his own, Enrique was born into a family in a poor village, and the clearest path toward employment for him was pursuing his family’s sugarcane business. A career that meant hard work, near subsistence wages, and little respect. Sure, he could have found other options and become a rags to riches/slumdog millionaire story, but expecting everyone to do so ignores the reality of the message that inequality pushes in the face of those born into such adverse situations. Enrique learned that people didn’t treat him and his family with respect, but saw the respect shown to people in the town with more means.


Enrique eventually came to the United States to chase money and status back home in Mexico. The inequality he first saw in his home village never left him. He found inequality everywhere, and the interconnected inequalities between the United States and Mexico in many ways created his lifestyle and enabled his drug dealing.


I don’t have a solution to our interconnected inequalities, but I think we need to acknowledge them. I am sure that some level of inequality is inevitable, and likely even healthy, but I’m also convinced that the inequality we see between people and between nations is part of what drives much of our global conflict and grief. So much of the world’s inequality seems completely unnecessary, and in many ways should be addressed head-on, so that people at the bottom don’t believe that the only way to improve their lives is through illicit means, and so that people at the very top don’t use resources in such wanton ways to signal how wealthy and successful they are at the expense of others.

Press Secretaries

I have written in the past about the idea and model that our brains act as press secretaries, taking the information that comes into the mind and presenting it in a way that makes everything happening in the mind look as good as it possibly can. This idea comes back in Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain where the authors expand on the idea. They write,


“Above all, it’s the job of our brain’s Press Secretary to avoid acknowledging our darker motives – to tiptoe around the elephant in the brain. Just as a president’s press secretary should never acknowledge that the president is pursuing a policy in order to get reelected or to appease his financial backers, our brain’s Press Secretary will be reluctant to admit that we’re doing things for purely personal gain, especially when that gain may come at the expense of others. To the extent that we have such motives, the Press Secretary would be wise to remain strategically ignorant of them.”


I really like the way that the authors describe the role of the conscious part of our brains as acting as a press secretary. By keeping us consciously unaware of our motivations for action, we can be strategically ignorant of why we do what we do. Strategic ignorance is common when we pretend that the things we do don’t have external consequences for others, when we don’t want to face the reality of science, or when we just want to avoid doing some unappealing task. In most cases we probably recognize that we are not fooling anyone when we claim we don’t know what’s really happening, but at least it gives us a slight cushion to be comfortable while hoping that the negative consequences don’t come back to bite us.


Hanson and Simler continue the metaphor, “What’s more – and this is where things might start to gt uncomfortable-there’s a very real sense in which we are the Press Secretaries within our minds. In other words, the parts of the mind that we identify with, the parts we think of as our conscious selves…” It is easy to ignore the parts of ourselves that don’t align with the story we want to tell and present to the world about what great people we are. It turns out it is so easy because we are not consciously aware of those parts of ourselves. We are just the press secretary who is handed the script about all the great things happening within us.  We purposefully avoid those parts of us that look bad, because we don’t want to acknowledge they are there and have to explain ourselves in spite of those negative aspects of who we are. By simply ignoring those parts of us and sticking to the happy script, we can look great and feel great about the wonderful things we do, even if those wonderful things don’t measure up to the sanitized version we present to the world. There is a lot taking place behind the scenes, but lucky for us, we are just the front facing conscious press secretary who doesn’t see any of it.

Fear of Consequences

“It doesn’t actually matter where our fear of consequences originates.  What’s important is acknowledging that it’s there,” Colin Wright states in his book Considerations. What Wright is addressing in his chapter about consequences is the way we tend to think about the repercussions of our actions. He lays out the idea that very few of the negative consequences we fear are permanent. Throughout the chapter he dives into our fear of consequences, where that fear originates, and ways to bypass that fear.


For Wright, pretending that we do not have any fears does not help us move forward. He believes it is important for us to open up about our fears and identify them through processes of self awareness. When we begin to look at what we are afraid of and what keeps us from acting, we begin to see ways to overcome the obstacles that scare us.  When we let go of the consequences of our actions and examine ways in which we can overcome negative reactions we are preparing ourselves to have courage and handle the negative in a respectable manner.  This idea is similar to those of Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds, where he identified studies which suggested that journaling about the obstacles we will face and how we will overcome those obstacles can better prepare us for our journey and help us feel better about our journey.


Wright also explains the ways in which we take small consequences and magnify them beyond their true scope. When we imagine that small consequences carry more weight than what they actually do, we begin making decisions as if they precede life or death consequences. This puts an unreasonable amount of stress on our lives, and complicates our decision making process.  When we begin to understand our fear and thoroughly think through the consequences of our actions, we can begin to enjoy more freedom in our life without being paralyzed by the ‘what if’ mindset of life.