To Wear a Sweater or Not?

There is a story that I hear from time to time in different contexts. Depending on the context, it is framed as either positive or negative, with different ideas about what our future holds and how we should behave. The story manages to hit political and social identities, aspirations and fears for the future, and concerns over self-sufficiency and parochialism. The story is about a president who encouraged us to wear sweaters during the winter.

 

I’ll start off with the negative view, one perspective of which Tyler Cowen expresses in his book The Complacent Class. He writes, “Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and urged Americans to turn down the thermostat, representing a new era of lowered aspirations. In other words, the American response to economic adversity was to seek to restore comfort more than dynamism, and Americans pushed their culture in this direction all the more in the 1980s.”

 

Cowen’s critique is that as a response to inflation and oil insecurity from foreign oil dependence, Carter suggested we accept limitations and lower expectations. Our president at the time did not encouraging Americans to find new ways to make the world the way they want it. I think this critique is fair. Instead of imagining that the world could be better, that we could be comfortably warm and energy independent through new technology, the story suggest we should just deal with some level of discomfort.

 

I’ve heard others reflect on this story in a similar way. They criticize Carter for a defeatist attitude and for thinking small. People don’t like the parochial feeling of having an elitist person tell them to be tougher and to put on another layer rather than be comfortable but use more resources. Its easy to understand why someone might have the mindset that they deserve to run the heat, even if it is wasteful, because they worked hard to be comfortable and they can afford it.

 

I also think there is value to having our top political leaders signal that we can be more and that we can use science, technology, innovations, and a sense of purpose to make the world a better place. Perhaps encouraging us to keep the thermostats where they were, but also encouraging us to, as the line from the movie The Martian says, “science the shit out of this” would have landed us in a better place than where we are now.

 

But on the other hand, perhaps Carter was right. I have heard people praise Carter for being honest and realistic with the American public. I have heard people criticize Reagan, Carter’s successor, as being an out of touch elitist wearing a suit 24/7. I think people today desire a president like Carter who would signal that they were more in touch with America by turning down the temperature in the White House, making a personal sacrifice themselves before asking others to do the same.

 

Carter’s statement that we need to conserve resources and think critically suggest that we should not just use resources in a wanton fashion. This is a sentiment that climate activists today are trying to mainstream, and perhaps if we had listened more carefully to Carter, we could have shifted our technology to be more green, less resource demanding, and less polluting. After all, who are we to decide that the world should perfectly suit us for every moment of our existence? Isn’t a little discomfort OK, and isn’t it a good thing for us to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around us? Is it better if we turn the thermostat down, put on a sweater, and pull out a board game to play with friends and family rather than crank up the heat and stare at our screens?

 

My takeaway from this story almost has nothing to do with the story itself. Whether we decide Carter was right probably has more to do with who we want to be, who we want the world to see us as, and what is in our self-interest than it does with whether we truly believe his attitude reflected and encouraged complacency. My takeaway is that events happen in this world, and we attach stories and meanings to the events that can be understood in different ways depending on our background and context. The narrative we create and attach to an event matters, and it shapes what we see, what we believe, and in some ways how we feel about the things that happen in the world. Think deeply about your goals, what you want to achieve, and how a narrative can help you reach those goals, and you will find the ways to tie that narrative into an event. At the same time, watch for how others do the same thing, and when you have discussions with others and want to change their mind, be cognizant of the narratives at play before you go about throwing statistics and facts at someone. Maybe a new narrative will be more effective than a bunch of economics and math.

On Redistribution

In the United States people hate the idea of redistribution. I was remarking the other day while reading a political science journal article that American culture operates with a background sense that using public policy to improve ones economic fortunes is illegitimate. The only legitimate way, in American culture, to improve ones economic standing is through hard work in the traditional labor market.

 

This is one contributing factor to why redistribution is viewed so negatively in our country. To be seen as deserving, one has to be seen as hardworking, and hardworking and economically successful are tied in the way we think about people in our country. We use a heuristic to tell ourselves that rich people are hard working and that poor people are lazy because it is easier than considering the alternative, and it also confirms to how we want the world to work, at least if we are relatively well off or see ourselves as becoming more financially successful in the future. We want to believe that our good economic standing and future earnings potential reflect our own industriousness and not just a set of favorable circumstances beyond our control.

 

In their book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at our behavior around redistribution and consider how it fits with the framework for local action that they develop. Redistribution is an area where they find an interesting split between the role of federal and local governments.

 

“Major redistributive policies, such as the earned income tax credit, are best pursued at the federal level. Federal redistribution is more effective than more local efforts because the federal government has a larger pool of income from which to draw and there is less capacity to opt out. Federal redistribution is largely people based. State redistribution is generally linked to providing support for public goods in jurisdictions with taxing capacity disadvantages.”

 

I find it really interesting to think that the federal government’s redistribution programs are more people-based than local programs, but I think I understand why that might be. At the local level, we become upset when we see a person in our community who is accepting some form of assistance from the government while simultaneously driving a new car or leaving a nail salon. In some way, when we see an actual person who is benefiting from a redistributive program and using their resources in a way we find inappropriate given what we judge their priorities to be, we feel cheated. We feel that the economic assistance provided to them should have been spent on other local pressing problems rather than on supporting someone who using the financial aid unwisely. This makes local adoption of redistributive programs for individuals more challenging. At a national level, the quote from Katz and Nowak seems to suggest, we likely won’t recall as many of these hyper-local context examples, or just won’t be as aware of the aid, and won’t be as keen to notice the effects of a redistributive policy.

 

Another local level wrinkle that influences the policy appraoches from Katz and Nowak’s quote is that we don’t want to live in a city or region that is known for its slums. Those of us who are affluent enough will likely make efforts to avoid local trailer home regions and find ways around the lower socioeconomic parts of town. We won’t want to acknowledge these regions because they make our entire community look worse, especially from the outside or when commented on by national media. These pressures may make us more willing to have government take action to “clean-up” these economically depressed regions. We see a personal benefit to ourselves in having our city invest more in economically weak regions. We don’t see the same personal benefit from redistributive programs that help other individuals.

Five Factors To Consider Regarding Our Donation Behavior

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin simler and Robin Hanson ask just how much of our behavior is influenced by our self-interest. As an explanation for why we do what we do, simply saying that we did something because we gained some material good, gained more social status, or received some type of pleasurable outcome is generally accepted, but ignored. It is clear that we have self-interest in doing things that we benefit from, but in many ways, we like to ignore self-interest and we prefer to explain our behaviors with more complex rationalizations for why we do what we do. This motivated reasoning, however, creates models that account for many factors without acknowledging the main factor that we would all rather ignore, the elephant in the room (brain), our self-interest.

 

Simler and Hanson investigate charitable donations in the framework of self-interest and consider the warm glow feeling that we get when we make charitable donations, help the person on the street, and generally do good things for others. They look beyond simply “we do things because it makes us feel good” and ask questions to get to a deeper level understanding of human behavior:

 

“The much more interesting and important question is why it feels good when we donate to charity. Digging beneath the shallow psychological motive (pursuing happiness), what deeper incentives are we responding to?

 

To figure this out, we’re going to examine five factors that influence our charitable behavior:
  1. Visibility. We give more when we’re being watched.
  2. Peer pressure. Our giving responds strongly to social influences.
  3. Proximity. We prefer to help people locally rather than globally.
  4. Relatability. We give more when the people we help are identifiable (via faces and/or stories) and give less in response to numbers and facts.
  5. Mating Motive. We’re more generous when primed with a mating motive.
This list is far from comprehensive, but taken together, these factors help explain why we donate so inefficiently, and also why we feel that warm glow when we donate.”

 

I have been writing a lot recently about charitable giving. Part of the reason why is because I see great potential in the resources at the disposal of the average American. We have a lot of wealth relative to the rest of the world, a lot of time relative to previous generations, and a lot of information available to us. However, rather than using our wealth, our time, and the information available to us to maximize our lives, make the world a better place, and solve pressing problems, most people waste their resources. I have continually been thinking about what I consider The Stupid Economy where we feel pressured to buy things we don’t really want to keep up with and impress people we don’t really care much about, and use our resources in pointless and meaningless ways.

 

Our world today has incredibly bright people working at meaningless jobs. We use a lot of our human potential, our creative energy and brain power, and our money to get people to drink sugary water. We invest massive amounts of attention in celebrity news and we celebrate technological inventions like iPhones without applying our hunger for technological improvement to other problems that could potentially save more lives or do more to protect the planet from human caused problems – like trash in our oceans.

 

I want to encourage society to move in a direction that is more considerate and careful with our resource use. I want to be part of something that builds toward a society that has a smart economy, where instead of complaining about the diminishing purchasing power of our society while simultaneously buying $100 jeans we celebrate the resources we have and put them toward real use to create sustainable development. If we are going to set out to do good in the world, we have to understand what Simler and Hanson describe in the quote above. We have to understand how our rationality is derailed, and we need to understand why it is important to be truly effective when we try to do good with what we have.

Cory Booker on Cynicism

Being Cynical is easy. Being Cynical is also dangerous and damaging. Toward the end of his book United Senator Cory Booker reflects on the cynical state of politics and society today, and what it means for individuals and for the nation to be as cynical as we are today. Booker writes, “cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change.” When we don’t take action to be involved in our city, when our knowledge of politics (or anything else) is only cursory, and when we fall into a habit of not looking beyond our own perspective, we begin to think everyone is like us, and we accept the easy cynical story. Booker, in United, challenges inaction, challenges cynicism, and challenges the idea that only bad people are involved in how government and society operates.

 

I study Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and it has forced me to focus on the realities of government, which is that there are a limited number of resources available for society, and somehow we must decide who gets what, when, and how. Any time you think about the way the world operates and begin to consider the world, the word ‘should’ undoubtedly pops up, indicating that you are making a judgement statement about your beliefs of the world. I don’t use belief in the religious sense of the word, your opinion and worldview could be shaped and reformed by objective empirical data to a large degree, but ‘should’ indicates political preference, ideology, and what you think would work best for an individual or collection of individuals in a situation. The important thing about the word “should” is that there is almost never 100% clear evidence that the suggestion following it is the only answer. When dealing with limited resources we must make political decisions, meaning that we must write down our “should” and our perspectives influence how we decide what is the most important.

 

Cynicism fails to recognize what is happening when the word “should” is introduced into discussion. It assumes there is an easy answer, and assumes that resources are not constrained and that we do not have to make difficult decisions that undoubtably give some people more resources or access to resources than others. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we are looking at a shell of any given situation and seeing what we want to see. We look for the negative and criticize what is in front of us. Being cynical is not about finding the errors and problems in a given situation and looking for a solution. Instead it is about propping ourselves up and placing ourselves on the right side of a moral divide, in much the same way that we use outrage to feel better about ourselves.

 

Booker is critical of cynicism, arguing that it takes our power away from us when we need to take more action on our own. Rather than recognize that we can band together to improve the world, cynicism looks at the status quo and assumes that we cannot make a difference. It is the result of what Tyler Cowen calls the “Complacent Class” that does not want to put in the effort and focus needed to make a change in the world. Cynicism allows “should” statements to exist in isolation within the brain, never challenged by new facts, and never actually introduced to the world. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we accept complacency when the world needs action and initiative. Cynicism is self-perpetuating, and fighting it off is a struggle, but if we want to grow individually, and if we want to see the world improve, we must understand that our world view will always be incomplete, that other people will have different motivations and will make mistakes, and that it is only by our actions that we can change the world for the better, even if our actions will be infinitesimally small in the course of history.

Preservation of Our Environment

Taking care of our shared spaces and maintaining our environment is not something we do a great job of. Fields, rivers, lakes, and outdoor areas are everyone’s shared responsibility, and because of that, they are no one’s individual responsibility. We will maintain our own lawns or pay people to do our home landscaping, but when it comes to our public outdoor spaces, we often fail to maintain and preserve the land we share. These spaces are expensive to maintain, the threats of invasive species are hard to understand, and it is not clear who should be the person that spends the time and energy taking care of our public places. In political science this dilemma is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, and Cory Booker addresses it in his book United.

 

Booker writes, “We are all dependent on nature, so we all have a stake in the preservation of our environment.” Taking care of our planet is important because it is the only one we have, and it is what sustains our individual lives, our societies, and the only life we know of in the universe. At the same time, taking care of the planet is unclear with ecosystems connected and dependent on each other in complex ways, with connections we are not always able to understand. Scientific research is expanding, but still not at a point where perfect models of natural processes such as rainfall, erosion, or phosphorous cycling are possible. But we depend on what we know about nature, and must continue to push forward and be cautious with how we use nature so that we can maintain what we have for not just our generation’s use, but for the use of future generations.

 

The truth is that we must use nature. We need to extract minerals, metals, and plant based materials from the earth. The physical structures that protect us and allow us to thrive come from what we pull out of the earth. Our medicines are dependent on plants and compounds that plants create, and our smartphones rely on rare elements mined form across the planet. Our dependence and demand for what the earth has to provide is very real and feels much larger than any one individual, making our personal responsibility feel tiny in comparison. Nevertheless, it is important that we use what the earth has to provide in a rational and reasonable manner, recycling what we can, eliminating waste when possible, and constantly striving to take things from the planet in the least disruptive manner. This responsibility is difficult and expensive, which is why the commons are ignored leading to the tragedy they face. We must understand that pollution, imbalanced extraction, and continued consumption do have costs that are greater than their immediate benefits, even if we only see the benefits now and can’t understand the costs of the future.

Communities of Fear

Our nation today faces challenges of concentrated poverty and dangerous neighborhoods that lead to stress, fear, and trauma for the families and children living within them. Senator Cory Booker looks at what life is like for people in these neighborhoods and how it impacts our nation’s well being in his book United. Booker served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey and shares a story about a concerned mother whose child was dealing with trauma and symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a gun fight in an impoverished neighborhood in Newark. Focusing on the dangers that these neighborhoods produce and the mental trauma facing those living in such neighborhoods, Booker writes,

“When fear becomes the norm, it stalks your life relentlessly, lurking and casting shadows over your daily routine. Fear changes you. Fear changes us. My parents worried about me, but they never had to deal with an ever present fear that violence could erupt at any moment and consume their child in an instant, affecting him or her in ways that no hug or loving assurance could heal.”

The fear that Booker describes is a result of concentrated poverty and unsafe neighborhoods. Our society has decided that the best way to organize people’s living spaces is to segregate individuals and families based on income. Honest concerns for property values and natural desires to be surrounded by similar people and nice things has pushed societies to split regions and housing based on income, creating wealthy neighborhoods and neighborhoods of intense poverty. The fear that Booker describes in the quote above is the result of living in a situation where poor people are pushed together and in some ways ignored. Regarding the trauma present in these neighborhoods Booker writes, “This is not normal, but somehow we behave as if it is. We accept it. If anything we think it is ‘their’ problem.”

I don’t have a perfect solution to end housing problems and neighborhood violence, but I think that Booker demonstrates that concentrated poverty and the problems it creates are unfairly faced by those with the fewest resources to overcome such challenges. Society often turns a blind eye to the ghettos we have designed to house our poor, and fail to see the choices society has made in establishing neighborhoods in the way we have. The fear and trauma that so many face makes it nearly impossible to overcome the obstacles present in such communities.

Consumer Spending

In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer gives examples of people living various lifestyles as effective altruist.  He explains that deciding to live off less money and making significant monetary donations helps people find a more aligned life than those who live a life of continuous consumer spending.  Many of the individuals he references say that they expected making sacrifices and living as effective altruists to be challenging, but ultimately found the lifestyle strangely liberating. Singer explains why consumer spending does not lead to happiness by sharing the example of one effective altruist who can see that he is not missing much by not using his money to purchase items. “Ian Ross is familiar with psychological research about the “hedonic treadmill” of consumer spending, which shows that when we consume more, we enjoy it for a short time but then adapt to that level and need to consume still more to maintain our level of enjoyment.”

 

Singer shows that effective altruists who learn to live off a small portion of their income avoid the cycle of continually buying goods to boost their happiness. For them, their happiness comes from knowing that they are doing the most they possibly can to improve the lives of those who may be suffering the most. They do not direct their resources toward new items which are marketed toward them that they do not need. In order to boost the good they can do their budgets have to be carefully monitored and thought out which allows them to buy what they need and use the rest resourcefully.  They are in control of their spending instead of letting their spending and desire to have the most up to date items control them.

 

Rather than moving through life adjusting their expectations to have more and more goods, bigger houses, and more expensive cars, effective altruists focus on continually using their resources in ways that will allow them to help others. They may expect to move up a corporate ladder and earn more, but as they earn more it will not be directed toward more debt and more payments. Effective altruists maintain a basic lifestyle, and use their additional resources to help others.

Minimal Ethics

In his book, The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer discusses living a life driven by moral excellence. The secular philosopher builds on the idea of moral good based on our ability to reason and the faculties of mind which allow us to rationalize society and measure the positivity we add to the universe.  Singer explains that we can be very ethical in our approach to life, mostly ethical, or somewhat ethical in our actions without truly pausing to consider our ethics and our actions or decisions.  Throughout his book he contends that we can begin to understand just how ethical we truly are if we can honestly evaluate our actions through self awareness and through the difficult process of quantifying and measuring the benefits of our actions.

 

Singer writes, “Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.” In this sense Singer is approaching the world with the view that a minimalist lifestyle should be promoted if we want to do the most good possible with the time and resources we have available to us.  We should look for areas where we have surplus, and find ways to share those surpluses with people who are not as fortunate.  However, he would advocate that we find the most effective use of those resources to make the biggest possible impact with them.

 

Throughout The Most Good You Can Do Singer explains that simply directing spare resources toward charities and the disadvantaged does not reach the most people and provide the most good. Finding an area where your extra resource will go the furthest and provide the most for those who are in need is what Singer argues should be the main goal of an effective altruist (his term for the most ethical individuals). An example from the book of an area where an effective altruist can have the greatest impact is in developing countries in Africa and other tropical regions. The greatest thing that can be done to prevent unnecessary deaths in these countries is the provision of bed nets for a greater portion of the population.  A single bed net can save a life for roughly $100, and it is hard to find another form of charitable giving or donation that can have as great an impact for as little of a cost.  Singer presents multiple examples of powerful uses of extra resources throughout his book.

 

He also addresses areas of confusion and misrepresentation in ethical behaviors and actions.  Singer contends that making donations impulsively, in situations where donations are being asked for in front of grocery stores or after tragic events, does not do as much good as we tell ourselves. According to Singer donations during these moments may be beneficial and help those involved, but we do not donate in these situations to be altruistic. The donations we make in these situations serve more to a help us avoid feelings of guilt, and we should never consider our own guilt when considering charitable donations.