Curious Conversations

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson investigate human communication and ask why we are so quick to speak, communicate, and share information we have acquired, even if we acquired that information at great personal costs. Humans communicate a lot, and we generally like to be the one talking and expressing something about ourselves and our experiences. The problem however, is that it would make more sense for us to do all the listening, and only talk when absolutely necessary or when we were getting a reward.

 

If I spend a lot of time reading a book and learning something interesting and useful, I should desire a reward for the cost of learning the information I know. Before I write a blog post about interesting information, pontificate at the water cooler, or tell my family something I find fascinating, I should ask to be compensated. Instead, what we usually see, is that we can’t wait to tell people about the interesting thing we have learned. We expend a lot of effort in learning new information, and then we give that information away as quick as we can to anyone.

 

We also don’t do a great job listening. Rather than spending a lot of time absorbing what the other is saying, we prepare ourselves for what we are going to say next, missing the entire thing that is actually being said as we mentally prepare for our turn to talk. From an economic standpoint, this does not make sense.

 

“We aren’t lazy, greedy listeners. Instead we’re both intensely curious and  happy to share the fruits of our curiosity with others.” Write Simler and Hanson, “In order to explain why we speak, then, we have to find some benefit large enough to offset the cost of acquiring information and devaluing it by sharing. If speakers are giving away little informational ‘gifts’ in every conversation, what are they getting in return?”

 

I’ll explore this idea a little more in coming posts, but the authors argue that conversation is not really (at least not solely or even primarily) about conveying information. We do a lot of group and alliance signaling in our conversation. We show how creative and insightful we are. We demonstrate to others that we are willing to go learn new and useful information that can benefit the whole group and we show how altruistic we are by sharing this information which we acquired at a great cost. These are important but often unrecognized or unacknowledged parts of our communication. When we speak and when we share information, we are doing much more than just telling people what is inside our head.

Wasteful Signals

One of the great things about competitive markets (in an economic sense) is that they reduce waste. If multiple firms are competing against each other to sell a good, each firm has an incentive to find a new way to produce their good that makes the process cheaper and quicker. This allows each firm to eliminate waste, and over time the efficiency of the market improves, costs come down, and we are able to produce a given thing using less energy and resources.

 

But when we look at living creatures and consider evolution, we don’t always see the same thing happening. “The problem with competitive struggles, however,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “is that they’re enormously wasteful.”

 

The simple view of evolution that I always held was that animal species evolve over time to become better. Survival of the fittest meant that smaller, slower, weaker animals in a population would die out, and we would be left with the best individuals and the best genes reproducing into the future. The resulting population would be smarter, faster, sleeker, and in some ways more efficient. But evolution, it turns out, is more complicated than this simple model, and survival of the fittest is not always the best way to describe how evolution works. There is still a lot of random chance, random accidents, and waste that can occur in evolution.

 

In an earlier post I shared Hanson and Simler’s story about redwood trees competing against themselves to become taller. The trees did not compete to live in as diverse an ecosystem as possible, and if they had, Simler and Hanson suggest the trees could have been much shorter and could have occupied more space. The trees are wasteful, driving toward new heights in a confined area rather than efficiently spreading out and remaining at a smaller size.

 

In many ways we do the same thing. Creating a beautiful painting is wonderful, but it is also a bit wasteful. One reason we may want to create art is to demonstrate that we can do something relatively difficult to impress other people. We deliberately create something that uses resources for no practical value as a way to demonstrate that we have extra resources to burn and extra time to spend practicing and creating art. It is an indirect way to say, look how impressive I am and look how many resources I have that I don’t have to spend my time accumulating more resources and can instead use them in any way I choose.

 

We create art and buy fancy sports cars to be wasteful with resources to show off and signal something about our suitability and desirability as a mate. There are other things happening here of course, but this is a key component. Animals develop expensive plumage to signal to mates. Some birds will build fancy nests with shiny objects in them to catch the eye of a potential mate, and others will battle among each other to show which animal is the most physically dominant. Shows of skill, strength, and suitability as a mate can be very expensive using energy, time, and resources that could otherwise go toward finding more food. Evolution has lead animals to be very wasteful in a way that we would not expect if evolution worked like an ideally functioning market. Evolution is not simply survival of the fittest, sometimes there are other elements that get us to waste a lot of resources in our signaling competitions to pass our genes along. Sometimes evolution is selecting for things that really don’t seem to demonstrate a lot of great fit in a direct sense for a species.

The Purchases We Make

In their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who lived about 100 years ago. Simler and Hanson write, “When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.” The other pieces of the argument, the good performance of the item, the colors we were dying to have, and the durability of the product might be the true reason we made a purchase in some instances, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our behavior. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these types of excuses to justify our actions. Further, they argue that our behaviors often signal something about ourselves implicitly that we don’t want to say explicitly.

 

In the case of luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth. Our wealth demonstrates our financial resources and can be used as a proxy for our social capital and human value. Our wealth may give others insights into our skills and abilities to do hard things, helping us stand out against a crowd. And, our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two social traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes on in small political tribes.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we face major negative externalities from our consumptive habits. We spend a lot of money on unnecessary luxury goods, and many people go deeply into debt to signal that they are the type of person who would own a certain type of luxury good. Our unyielding desire in the United States for ever further and greater consumption leads us to buy larger houses that we have to heat, faster cars that use more energy, and to own more clothes that will take millions of years to break down thanks to the new synthetic fibers we use to make them. Our consumption and our drive to continuously signal our wealth and social value, some would argue, is poisoning and heating our planet to dangerous levels.

 

Simler and Hanson don’t focus on the externalities of our signaling behavior in their book, but they do acknowledge that they are there. The authors simply make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives and reasons we don’t want to talk about. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher because you need to understand what people are really doing when they rally politically or make economic decisions.  For the rest of us, in our daily lives, we can take a lesson from Hanson and Simler that stems from an awareness of our self-centered behavior. We can think about our signaling behaviors and ask if conspicuous consumption is really worthwhile. We can step back and ask if the ways we signal our wealth help or hurt the planet, and we can start to make decisions with positive externalities and attempt to avoid the negative externalities I mentioned above.

Slavery in the American Constitution

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis examines the debates leading up to the adoption of the current United States Constitution and the actions of four men in particular to drive the nation toward true nationhood and the adoption of the Constitution. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay all played crucial roles in advocating for a constitution that gave strong power to a centralized national government that could bring unity and cohesion among the former British Colonies. A central tension and challenge in uniting the colonies existed around slavery and today, as we look back at the founding of our nation and at our Constitution, we cannot help but think about the role that slavery played in the founding of our nation and about the meaning of its inclusion in our Constitution. Regarding slavery, Ellis writes, “Whether this was a failure of moral leadership or a realistic recognition of the politically possible can be debated until the end of time.” Our views of our nations founding and the role that slavery played is hard to think through and is something worth evaluating on a deeper level. Precisely why it was included in the Constitution and the role it played at the nation’s birth is challenging and the meaning attached to it changes as you shift the perspective through which you understand the Revolutionary War and America at the time of the Constitutional Convention.

 

The quartet in Ellis’ book wanted to bring together the North and the South in a single nation, but the economies of both were moving in different directions, with the South becoming increasingly reliant on slaves for economic production (as a side note: a recent comment to my blog suggested that the North enabled slavery by purchasing slave produced products from the South – something I don’t know about but certainly seems likely). To have truly put an end to slavery in the newly independent America would have required a monarch (or tyrant) who could have stamped out the practice by force (something the colonies had just revolted against). Manumission, the process for freeing slaves was also expensive, often requiring that freed slaves be provisioned with enough resources to sustain themselves once free. It is no wonder that the forces of economic self-interest and a fear of tyranny forced an impasse between abolitionists and those whose future and society relied on slavery. A compromise on the issue appears to be absolutely necessary in order to bring the former Colonies together under a single government.

 

At the time our constitution was written, many delegates to the Constitutional Convention recognized the abhorrent evils of slavery. Ellis includes a notebook entry from John Dickinson, a delegate from Delaware who wrote about the compromise written into the new Constitution, “Acting before the World, what will be said of this new principle of founding a Right to govern Freemen on a power derived from Slaves. … The omitting of the WORD will be regarded as an Endeavor to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.” The fact that slavery cut against Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence was not lost on all of our founding fathers. Dickinson and others were aware of the contradiction between the words and principles of our revolution and the structure we built into the Constitution. The political dynamic that united our nation allowed for such evil to continue, but at the same time also provided a way for it to be dismantled. The unending debate in the United States will continue to grow as we debate the best way to interpret the inclusion of slavery in our constitution.

Our Experiences of the World are Unique to Us

I often find myself extending my own experiences and feelings to other people, and assuming that other people have the same thoughts, reactions, and expectations about the world that I have. I know that this is not the case since I don’t enjoy watching much television, I am really interested in politics from a policy side, and get really excited about exercising and running (three traits of mine that I know set me apart from most people). Nevertheless, it is hard for me to remember that everyone is experiencing the world differently, and thinking about and interpreting what goes on around them in a different lens. Michelle Alexander looks at this reality in her book The New Jim Crow, specifically when she addresses economic changes and the way that people experience disruptive technology and market changes.

In her book, Alexander looks at the impact that policies and decisions have had on different races throughout our nation’s history and she specifically looks at the disparate impact that policies have had for black people relative to white people. What is important to consider when thinking about what we can learn from her writing is that our subjective experiences are just that, subjective. Other people will experience and have different reactions to the same economic and cultural realities. We must consider what this means from an equity and racial perspective, especially if we want everyone in our society to participate and have a chance to be socially and economically successful.

When our economy shifted in the 1970s and we implemented policies to help people adapt, we did so from a single point of view with a single group of people in mind. Changes in our economy had different implications for black people who had already been left out of societal progress. Alexander writes,

“As described by William Julius Wilson, in his book When Work Disappears, the overwhelming majority of African Americans in the 1970s lacked college educations and had attended racially segregated, underfunded schools lacking basic resources. Those residing in ghetto communities were particularly ill equipped to adapt to the seismic changes taking place in the U.S. economy; they were left isolated and jobless.”

I don’t have advice for how to best help those who are vulnerable to economic change and disruptive technology as it is not something I have ever looked into or studied. Technological change and advancement in many ways seems inevitable and while many individuals can potentially be left behind, many more have a chance to better themselves and their lives with the adoption and inclusion of new technologies. What we should do better, at least what I know I must do better, is understand that my perspective is limited and does not encompass the experiences and realities other people. At the end of the day we, and our politicians, must make decisions, and we must do the best with the information we have. What I feel challenged by, and what I think we should all challenge ourselves with, is incorporating more views than our own thoughts and reactions when making decisions. We must be careful and recognize when we are generalizing our thoughts and experiences to the larger population. Becoming more considerate means recognizing when we are thinking from only one perspective and making broad assumptions about other people. We do eventually need to make a decision and come to a conclusion, but we must make sure that decisions is based on more than just our own subjective experiences.

What Moves us to Action

Economic decisions drive human decision making more than we like to admit. We are not often driven and motivated by causes that are larger than ourselves, and at the end of the day, we fall back on economic decisions and can’t seem to escape questions about money, about possessions, and about whether we as individuals get more or less from a decision. Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow looks at how economic decisions are shaping the criminal justice system and finds that concerns about fairness and justice fall short of the impact of economic outcomes when we think about how the system should change. As an American, I want to believe that things such as a concern for individuals and families should drive our considerations of how the criminal justice system operates, but nevertheless, these factors do not seem to be able to influence the system the way that economic arguments are able to. Alexander writes,

“Many of the states that have reconsidered their harsh sentencing schemes have done so not out of concern for the lives and families that have been destroyed by these laws or the racial dimensions of the drug war, but out of concern for bursting state budgets in a time of economic recession. In other words, the racial ideology that gave rise to these laws remains largely undisturbed.”

I think that Alexander’s quote ties in nicely with a lesson from John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series, Seeing White. Biewen looked at the history of slavery, especially American slavery, and explains the ways in which slavery and racism followed from the desire for economic exploitation. People had the ability and opportunity to subjugate others and to exploit people for economic purposes. From that exploitation followed excuses to rationalize those exploitative behaviors. Racism, in other words, followed from a desire to subjugate other people and to hold them down for economic benefit.

The war on drugs and our system of policing has disproportionately affected communities of color. We have incarcerated black and brown men to a much greater degree than we have arrested white men, but crime and drug use rates between white men and black men are almost identical. Alexander explains that we see changes in the criminal justice system in states where maintaining massive prison populations is becoming economically unsustainable. We are not changing our behavior out of moral principles, but out of economic hardships.

Looking at Alexander’s and Biewen’s work together reveals a common theme. Racial exploitation and subjugation follow economic incentives, and racial parity and justice is only possible in our country today if it is obviously economically beneficial. Our attitudes about others, about fairness, about justice, and about race take a back seat to our attitudes about our personal economic situation, allowing us to maintain mass incarceration systems today, and allowing our nation’s founders to exploit slaves two hundred years ago.