The Pursuit of Solid Answers

The Pursuit of Solid Answers

Human’s have egos, and that causes a lot of problems. To be clear, it is often not the ego itself that causes problems, but our feeling that we need to be right, that we need to be powerful, that we need to have important friends and connections that becomes problematic. Humans evolved in small tribes where survival often depended on being high status. Men had to be high status to pass their genes along and being high status meant that people would come to your aid if you needed help. Knowing useful things, being physically imposing, and having useful skills all contributed to make us higher status. Today, the drive for higher status is often understood as ego, and it is still with us, even if survival and evolutionary pressures toward super high status have declined.
One way in which this status and ego pursuit manifests to cause problems in our lives is in our intellectual discussions and debates. We often pursue our own ego rather than accurate knowledge and information when we are in debates. We are both signaling to our tribe and trying to dominate a conversation with our strong convictions rather than trying to have constructive discussions that help us get to correct answers.
Mary Roach writes about this phenomenon in her book Spook when discussing paranormal phenomena. She writes, “hasty assumptions serve no one. To make up one’s mind based on nothing beyond a simple summary of events – as believers and skeptics alike tend to do – does nothing to forward the pursuit of solid answers.” When we get into debates on religious topics, questions of psychic or paranormal phenomena, and complex social science questions, we often fall into reductive arguments that are mostly aimed at people who hold the same assumptions and beliefs that we already hold. We make hasty assumptions because our ego wants us to appear decisive and correct without spending time in ambiguity carefully considering the truth. The goal for us should be to become less wrong, but that is not a mindset that is generally rewarded by the ego, which for much of human evolution was rewarded by conviction and demonstrations of loyalty. Making changes so that more considerate thought is rewarded over ego-centric thought is crucial for us to move forward, but it runs against evolution, our self-interest, and what gets the most attention on social media today. Hasty assumptions may not be helpful, but they do get strong reactions and generate support among like-minded individuals.
Self-Interest & A Banking Moral Hazard

Self-Interest & A Banking Moral Hazard

I have not really read into or studied the financial crisis of 2008, but I remember how angry and furious so many people were at the time. There was an incredible amount of anger at big banks, especially when executives at big banks began to receive massive bonuses while many people in the country lost their homes and had trouble rebounding from the worst parts of the recession. The anger at banks spilled into the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is still a protest that I only have a hazy understanding of.
While I don’t understand the financial crisis that well, I do believe that I better understand self-interest, thanks to my own personal experience and constantly thinking about Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain. The argument from Hanson and Simler is that most of us don’t actually have really strong beliefs about most aspects of the world. For most topics, the beliefs we have are usually subservient to our own self-interest, to the things we want that would give us more money, more prestige, and more social status. When you apply this filter retroactively to the financial crisis of 2008, some of the arguments shift, and I feel that I am able to better understand some of what took place in terms of rhetoric coming out of the crisis.
In Risk Savvy, published in 2014, Gerd Gigerenzer wrote about the big banks. He wrote about the way that bankers argued for limited regulation and intervention from states, suggesting that a fee market was necessary for a successful banking sector that could fund innovation and fuel the economy. However, banks realized that in the event of a major banking crisis, all banks would be in trouble, and dramatic government action would be needed to save the biggest banks and prevent a catastrophic collapse. “Profits are pocketed by executives, and losses are compensated by taxpayers. That is not exactly a free market – it’s a moral hazard,” writes Gigerenzer.
Banks, like the individuals who work for and comprise them, are self-interested. They don’t want to be regulated and have too many authorities limiting their business enterprises. At the same time, they don’t want to be held responsible for their actions. Banks took on increasingly risky and unsound financial loans, recognizing that if everyone was engaged in the same harmful lending practice, that it wouldn’t just be a single bank that went bust, but all of them. They argued for a free market before the crash, because a free market with limited intervention was in their self-interest, not because they had high minded ideological beliefs. After the crash, when all banks risked failure, the largest banks pleaded for bail outs, arguing that they were necessary to prevent further economic disaster. Counter to their free-market arguments of before, the banks favored bail-outs that were clearly in their self-interest during the crisis. Their high minded ideology of a free market was out the window.
Gigerenzer’s quote was meant to focus more on the moral hazard dimension of bailing out banks that take on too many risky loans, but for me, someone who just doesn’t fully understand banking the way I do healthcare or other political science topics, what is more obvious in his quote is the role of self-interest, and how we try to frame our arguments to hide the ways we act on little more than self-interest. A moral hazard, where we benefit by pushing risk onto others is just one example of how individual self-interest can be negative when multiplied across society. Tragedy of the commons, bank runs, and social signaling are all other examples where our self-interest can be problematic when layered up to larger societal levels.
Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic Ignorance

TV shows and movies frequently have scenes where one character has been putting up with something they dislike in order to please another character, only to find out that the other character also dislikes the thing. I can think of instances where characters have been drinking particular beverages they dislike, playing games they don’t enjoy, or wearing clothing they hate, just because they think another character enjoys that particular thing and they want to share in that experience with the other person. It is a little corny, but I really enjoy the moment when the character recognizes they have been putting themselves in agony for the benefit of the other person, only to realize they have been in agony as well!

 

This particular comedic device plays on pluralistic ignorance. We don’t ever truly know what is in another person’s head, and even if we live with someone for most of our life, we can’t ever know them with complete certainty. When it comes to really knowing everyone around us and everyone in our community or society, we can only ever know most people at a minimal surface level. We follow cues from others that we want to be like, that we think are popular, and that we want to be accepted by. But when everyone is doing this, how can any of us be sure that we all actually want to be the way we present ourselves? We are all imagining what other people think, and trying to live up to those standards, not realizing that we may all hate the thing that we think everyone else considers cool.

 

The whole situation reminds me of AP US History from my junior year in high school. My friend Phil sat toward the back of the classroom and the year he and I had the class was the very last year for our teacher before he planned to retire. He was on autopilot most of the year, a good teacher, but not exactly worried about whether his students payed attention in class or cheated on tests. For one test, Phil was copying off the girl next to him, only to realize halfway through class that she was cheating off him! When Phil told the story later, we all had to ask where any answers were coming from if they were both cheating off each others test.

 

Pluralistic ignorance feels like Phil and his AP US History test. However, pluralistic ignorance can be much more important than my little anecdote. Yesterday’s post was about collective conservatism, a form of groupthink where important decision-makers stick to tradition and familiar strategies and answers even as the world changes and demands new and innovative responses. Pluralistic ignorance can limit our responses to change, locking in tradition because we think that is what people want, even though people may be tired of old habits and patterns and ready for something new.

 

In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “An important problem here is pluralistic ignorance – that is, ignorance, on the part of all or most, about what other people think. We may follow a practice or tradition not because we like it, or even think it defensible, but merely because we think that most other people like it.”

 

A real world example I can think of would be driving cars. Many people in the country absolutely love cars and see them as symbols of freedom, innovation, and American ingenuity. Thinking that people would be willing to give up their cars or change anything about them seems delusional, and public policy, advertising campaigns, and car designs reflect the idea that people want more, bigger, and faster cars. But is this actually true for most Americans?

 

Our cars emit toxic fumes, tens of thousands of people die annually in crashes, and the lights and sounds of cars can keep those who live along busy streets or next to car enthused neighbors awake at night. People have to pay for auto insurance, vehicles break down frequently, require constant costly maintenance, and in the US there is a constant pressure to have a newer and nicer car to signal how well off one is. My sense is that people generally dislike cars, especially anything dealing with purchasing or repairing a car, but that they put up with them because they think other people like cars and value and respect their car choice. I believe that if there were enough reliable, fast, and convenient alternative transportation options, people would start to ditch cars. I think lots of people buy fancy, powerful, and loud cars because they think other people like them, not necessarily because they actually like the car themselves. If we could come together in an honest way, I think we could all scale back our cars, opting for smaller, quieter, less polluting vehicles or public transportation. There are certainly a lot of problems with public transportation, but I think our obsession and connections with cars is in part pluralistic ignorance as to how much other people actually like and value cars. We are trapped in a vehicular arms race, when we would really all rather not have to worry about cars in the first place.
Nudges Versus Regulation

Nudges Versus Regulation

“Libertarian paternalism, we think, is a promising foundation for bipartisanship.” Write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge. The authors are in favor of a governance structure that does not eliminate choice and possibility for people in the world. They are in favor of a system that allows flexibility for the people who have the time and capacity to consider all of their options before making a choice, and they prefer subtle and almost invisible forces to shape public opinion and behaviors. Throughout the book they argue that heavy handed regulation can be harmful to the long-term success and progress in some areas because people may push back against laws and regulations that limit freedom.  Nudges, in their view, can be an avenue toward real bipartisanship and cooperation because they can make real world changes without heavy handed government action.

 

The authors present the standard view of American politics where the Republican Party is presented as the party of small government while Democrats are the party of big government action. Republicans are all about freedom of choice and individual responsibility while Democrats are the party of government planning and the use of public institutions to improve people’s lives. I think this view is wrong. I think people are primarily self-interested, and gravitate toward the party that better reflects their identity, personality, and self-interests, and through motivated reasoning find high-minded excuses for supporting the party that generally aligns with the overarching political preferences that the standard view of American politics presents. But does this mean that Sunstein and Thaler are wrong about the ability of nudges to bring together Republicans and Democrats for action on public policy?

 

They write, “In many domains, including environmental protection, family law, and school choice, we will be arguing that better governance requires less in the way of government coercion and constraint, and more in the way of freedom to choose.”

 

When we consider whether Sunstein and Thaler are correct, we have to ask what is meant by better governance. Better governance might be reaching actual goals and actually improving people’s lives. It might mean creating a system that people are happier to interact with. Better governance may also mean a system that is more equitable, creates more social cohesion and trust, or that operates quicker. Each of these concepts is different, yet related, and we demonstrate that how we chose to measure better governance can shape the approaches we take. A focus on greater equity might come at the cost of quicker hiring and firing processes. Creating a system that leaves individuals who interact with governance happier may mean a system that is bigger and more expensive, but might not mean that it actually solves people’s problems. What we mean by better governance can conflict with what someone else means by better governance, so it is important to be clear about goals and expectations.

 

And that gets to the question – do nudges actually do any of these things? In terms of addressing environmental protection, I don’t think nudges are adequate. I think we are at a point where catastrophic environmental damage and climate change are unavoidable unless we have massive societal and technological changes. Simple nudges that tax oil and gas while offering rebates or incentives for purchasing electric cars won’t change the landscape quick enough to help mitigate climate change and create a sustainable world moving forward. I think we are at a point where we need real action to produce meaningful changes that lead to better governance in environmental policy. It might be time for outright bans on sales of gasoline and diesel engines, billion dollar prizes for green technology, and other heavy handed government interferences in markets and people’s daily lives.

 

However, within family policy, nudges do seem like they can be meaningful. Tyler Cowen recently shared research correlating child car safety laws with the number of children a family has. The argument being that car seats and seat-belt requirements may make it more difficult to have multiple young children who take a long time to get situated in a car before driving, reducing incentives for parents to have more kids. Family decisions, it seems, can be highly influenced by seemingly inconsequential factors. If this is accurate, then nudges, such as child care rebates, really might reduce the costs of childbearing, and might encourage larger families, shaping the actual outcome of people’s lives and securing a young tax base to support social service programs. Nudges might be an effective approach to encouraging more family formation.

 

To continue analyzing policy in areas where Sunstein and Thaler’s quote suggests nudges would be helpful, my argument on school choice would be that it is effectively 100% signaling and self-interest. Religious parents probably don’t care too much about what their children actually learn in school or where they go. They do care about how much their school choice argument and energy demonstrate their religious devotion. Wealthy parents care about the signaling power of elite schools and universities, and similarly care about how much their children will be able to signal and benefit from a private school education that is out of reach for the majority of families who send their children to public schools. Race, socio-economic status, and other identity markers seem to be core to the self-interest of most school choice freedom advocates in my opinion. From my point of view, better governance would enhance social cohesion, encourage more opportunities for those individuals who otherwise would be left out, and help us manage diversity collectively. If school choice is overwhelmingly dominated by signaling and self-interest, then I see little reason why nudges would be the best approach to shaping policy. Nudges that increase costs of signaling end up creating stronger signals for those who can afford to still send their children to private institutions, therefore increasing their value and creating more division and contention within the debate.

 

Nudges seem to have real power in shaping public policy and can likely bring together Republicans and Democrats in some instances, but if governance is not about public policy, but is instead about identity, self-interest, and signaling, then I don’t think nudges can truly do much to improve governance or bring together Democrats and Republicans. Similarly, for massively consequential policy areas, I don’t think we can leave our future and success up to nudges. They may take too long and not be forceful enough to really shape public behavior and attitude, especially if they face entrenched opposition.
Instagram Vacations - Joe Abittan

Instagram Vacations

An important goal of our vacations these days is to take pictures of the unique, interesting, and memorable experiences of our trip. We will go out of our way to get the perfect picture, whether it is with a celebrity, atop a waterfall, or with a plate of food at a busy restaurant where we had to wait an hour for a table. The actual experience of getting to the point where we can take our famed picture may require a long wait in a cold line, a difficult hike up a steep mountain, or a boring car ride for miles to get to a random yet delicious dinner in the middle of no where. We put ourselves through unpleasant experiences while on vacation because the remembering self wants a story to tell about the trip we took.

 

Getting back to the office, returning to school, or catching up with family after our trip is where the remembering self will be in action. Telling our friends and family that we went to the same beach as last year, sat on the shore, read, and didn’t do anything novel or exciting will make the whole vacation feel less meaningful. Perhaps we really just need a boring and relaxing break, but the remembering self doesn’t want us to have a forgettable experience.

 

So instead of the boring and uninspiring vacation where we caught up on sleep and enjoyed lounging around eating simple food, we set out for the perfect Instagram vacation. We relentlessly photograph all the interesting things we do, the famous people we can pose next to for 2 seconds, and the tasty food we eat. We give up a little of the present moment experience in order to capture a picture that we likely won’t spend much time looking at in the future. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored, but as a future memory to be designed.”

 

Instead of taking vacations to get away, relax, and relieve stress, we plan vacations to give us the best possible memories. “In many cases,” Kahneman writes, “we evaluate touristic vacations by the story and the memories that we expect to store.” In his book Kahneman shares research to suggest that students misremember how enjoyable a vacation was when it didn’t have unique and memorable experiences. They become less likely to say they would repeat the trip if it was enjoyable but not unique.

 

This ties in with ideas from Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brian. Hanson would argue that vacations are not about relaxing and taking time away from work or school. He would go further than Kahneman and say that vacations are not about memories but are instead about showing off our wealth, our connections, and how interesting we are by traveling to unique places. We pick memorable vacations because the remembering self wants to craft an interesting story about who we are and the trips we take. We want to signal something to the people around us. We want to impress them, and a boring vacation at the same beach as last year just won’t cut it, even if we would enjoy it more in the moment.
Money Isn't About Economic Security (For Most of Us)

Money Isn’t About Economic Security (For Most of Us)

Tyler Cowen started his February 28th, 2018 podcast interview with his colleague from George Mason University, Robin Hanson, with the following:

 

“Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

 

Hanson goes on to explain that conversations are not really about imparting useful information and finding out useful things, but that conversation is likely more about showing off and signaling. When you share new information to someone, you are showing them that you are a valuable ally who knows useful things that might one day be helpful. When you share a particular piece of knowledge, you are signaling that you are the kind of person who would know such knowledge.

 

I think that Hanson’s views toward signaling are correct and deserve more attention and consideration. A lot of what we do has more to do with signaling than about the reason we would give to an observer for what we are doing. Hanson is not alone in recognizing this reality.

 

In Thinking  Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, the following about money:

 

“Except for the very poor, for whom income coincides with survival, the main motivators of money-seeking are not necessarily economic. For the billionaire looking for the extra billion, and indeed for the participant in an experimental economics project looking for the extra dollar, money is a proxy for points on a scale of self-regard and achievement. These rewards and punishments, promises and threats, are all in our head.”

 

Money is not really about economic well-being (for most of us). Its not really about the things we can purchase or the vacations we can take. Money is really about social status. Having more of it elevates our social status, as does using it for impressive and expensive purposes. There is no objective ranking out there for our social status, but we act as if our social status is tangible and will reveal something important about our lives and who we are. Pursuing money gives us a chance to pursue social status in an oblique way, making it look as though we are doing something for high-minded reasons, when in reality we are trying to climb a social ladder and use money as our measuring stick of success.

 

Realistically, we are not going to be able to do much of anything about our signaling behaviors, especially if Hanson is correct in estimating that well over 90% of what we do is signaling. However, we can start to acknowledge signaling and chose where and how we send signals about ourselves. We can chose not to rely on money to signal something about who we are and can seek out more healthy avenues for signaling, with more environmentally friendly and socially conscientious signaling externalities taken into consideration.
Signaling Fairness with Altruistic Punishment

Maintaining the Rules of Fairness with Signaling and Altruistic Punishment

Society is held together by many unspoken rules of fairness, and maintaining rules of fairness is messy but rewarding work. We don’t just advocate for fairness in our own lives, but will go out of our way to call out unfairness when we see it hampering the lives of others. We will protest, march in the streets, and post outraged messages on social media to call out the unfairness we see in the world, even if we are not directly affected by it or even stand to gain by an unfair status quo.

 

Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, shares some research studying our efforts to maintain the rules of fairness and why we are so drawn to it. He writes, “Remarkably, altruistic punishment is accompanied by increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain. It appears that maintaining the social order and the rules of fairness in this fashion is its own reward.”

 

This idea reminds me of Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain, where Hanson suggests a staggering amount of human behavior is little more than signaling. Much of what we do is not about the high-minded rational that we attach to our actions. Much of what we do is about something else, and our stated rationales are little more than pretext and excuses. Altruistic punishment, or going out of our way to inflicting some sort of punishment (verbal reprimands, loss of a job, or imprisonment) is not necessarily about the person who was treated unfairly or the person who was being unfair to others. It is quite plausibly more about our own pleasure, and about the maintenance or establishment of a social order that we presumably will benefit from, and about signaling to the rest of society that are someone who believes in the rules and will adhere to strict moral principles.

 

Troublingly, Kahneman continues, “Altruistic punishment could well be the glue that holds societies together. However, our brains are not designed to reward generosity as reliably as they punish meanness. Here again, we find a marked asymmetry between losses and gains.”

 

The second part of Kahneman’s quote is referring to biases in our mental thinking, connecting our meanness or niceness toward others with our tendency toward loss aversion. Losses have a bigger mental impact on us than gains. We might not be consciously aware of this, but our actions – our willingness to inflict losses on others and our reluctance to endow gains on others – seems to reflect this mental bias. We are creating social order by threatening others with loss of social standing at all times, but only with minimal hope of gaining and improving social standing. Going back to the Hansonian framework from earlier, this makes sense. A gain in social status for another person is to some extent a loss to ourselves. Maintaining the social order involves maintaining or improving our relative social position. Tearing someone down signals to our allies that we are a valuable team member fighting on the right side, but lifting someone else up only diminishes our relative standing to them (unless they are the leader who we want to signal our alliance with). Kahneman’s quote, when viewed through Robin Hanson’s perspective, is quite troubling for how our social order is built and maintained.
Ignoring Larger Causes

Ignoring Larger Causes

“Focusing only on this smaller aspect and ignoring the much larger causes is one of the reasons why our responses to this crisis are failing so badly,” writes Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. The smaller aspect he refers to is the chemical hook of drugs. The story we tell ourselves is that drugs are addictive because they have powerful chemicals hooks that grab onto receptors in our brain and leave us continually craving more and more of the drug, and nothing else. He presents information, mostly from tobacco cessation studies, which suggest that chemical hooks are really only a small explanation of drug addiction, and that much larger and more powerful social factors are at play. If we truly want to address addiction, Hari argues, we have to think big and address the larger causes.

 

It is very tempting to take a small aspect of a problem and make that the entire focus of our solutions. For drug addiction, the chemical hook of a drug is an excellent scapegoat. It removes the moral failure argument, making the addict a victim of a dangerous chemical that can’t defend itself. It may allow us to vilify the pharmaceutical company that made the drug, and it allows us to rail against the rich whose pursuit of wealth causes harms to the rest of us. Finding a narrow scapegoat allows us to pick our wrong doers, and to make sure that we are not part of the group responsible for the problem.

 

I think this is why we so often fail to truly address problems at the level that is necessary. We want to signal our concern and stand up against a wrong, but only if we are not implicated in the action against the problem. In the example of drug addiction that Hari highlights, a big problem is the structure of American society. Jobs have been changing for decades, but we never did enough to truly invest in our communities to make them resilient in the face of changing work in a new technological society. We have punished drug abusers and addicts for years, because  providing them the support they need, truly caring for them and allowing safe places for them to overcome the challenges that lead to their drug use in the first place, would be costly. To solve addiction requires that all of us, including those of us who have never used drugs and think of ourselves as good people, acknowledge that we have fallen short in many ways and that we might be part of the problem.

 

It is comfortable to focus on a small aspect of the problem, especially when it places blame on others. But it is inadequate, and will never give us the outcomes we want to see. We will always be making insufficient investments, and we will fail to help those who we claim to actually care about and claim to want to help.
Fears and Symbols

Fears and Symbols

“Its a natural human instinct to turn our fears into symbols, and destroy the symbols, in the hope that it will destroy the fear,” writes Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. Hari writes this to explain the ways in which American culture has responded to drug use and addiction. We have demonized drugs and cast out drug addicts as moral failures. Our mindset is that the eradication of drugs and the expulsion of addictions will solve many of our countries ailments. If only there were not dangerous tempting chemicals to hook our brains, and if only people were more strong to resist the temptations to use use drugs, we could all be happy, productive, and united again.

 

In reality, drug use and societal ailments are more complicated than this paradise lost narrative. Hari’s quote continues, “It is a logic that keeps recurring throughout human history, from the Crusades to the witch-hunts to the present day. It’s hard to sit with a complex problem, such as the human urge to get intoxicated, and accept that it will always be with us, and will always cause some problems (as well as some pleasures). It is much more appealing to be told a different message – that it can be ended. That all these problems can be over, if only we listen, and follow.”

 

I think it is really interesting that we have such a tendency to turn our fears into symbols. We take the things we are afraid of, the things that disgust us, and create symbols to represent that evilness and reprehensible aspect of the world. The symbol could be a president you dislike, a foreign religion or character, chemical substances, or personality traits (laziness, close-mindedness, selfishness). This gives us a heuristic for addressing the thing we don’t like. It creates a less complicated version of the thing we fear, and allows us to draw a moral line in the sand, separating us (the good ones) from them (the bad ones associated with the evil symbol).

 

As Hari’s quote reveals, these symbols, and our efforts to destroy these symbols, can be problematic themselves. The Crusades were costly wars waged on outsiders, witch-hunts wrap up innocent people and threaten lives, and political polarization fueled by the hate of one political party or candidate only increases the gulf between us and our fellow citizens and human beings. Fears and symbols might be useful for galvanizing action, but they can have a wide range of negative externalities, and they can be misunderstood and over-generalized. Additionally, our fears and symbols can be captured by actors and institutions which seek to further their own ends, deliberately harming others in pursuit of their own agendas.

 

I don’t think Hari would tell us to abandon all of our symbols for our fears. He might agree with me that it is likely impossible to do so. The alternative seems to be to recognize when you are using such symbols and to understand how you are reacting to them. Are you allowing a symbol to stand for something you will avoid in your own life, or are you allowing a symbol to stand as a marker of your own righteousness? If you are using fears and symbols for self-control and discipline, you might be ok, but if you are using them simply to judge others and to justify avoiding or out-casting them in an effort to signal your virtue to others, you may be more of a problem than you realize. When these symbols and our efforts to destroy them start to harm others, we have a problem and need to redirect our energy to find real solutions to the real problems that underlie the fears and symbols in our lives.
Buying Insurance

We Don’t Buy Insurance for Ourselves

Why do we buy insurance of any kind? Is it really for ourselves and our own benefit, or is there something else going on with insurance decisions? According to Venture Capitalist Chris Brookfield, as quoted in Dave Chase’s book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, there is something beyond our own self interest at play when we decide to buy insurance.

 

Brookfield is quoted as writing, “Persuading individuals to buy insurance is kind of backwards. I saw this in India all the time. Individuals do not value their own risks – their relatives and neighbors do.” 

 

Buying insurance is actually more about our loved ones and our responsibility to our community than it is about ourselves. It is about protecting the financial standing of our relatives and those who would help us if we were down as much as it is about protecting our own financial standing. The standard story tells us that insurance shifts risk from ourselves to a group of individuals, but as Brookfield continues in the book, it really shifts risks from our immediate known allies, into a broader group of people that we don’t necessarily know.

 

If I don’t have health insurance or auto insurance and die in a terrible car crash, I am not the one who will bear the costs of the accident. My loved ones and other people in the community involved with the crash (other drivers or the owners of any private property that was damaged) are the ones who will face the costs. On their own it would be hard to manage the costs, but pooled together, the costs and the risk could be shared. In a situation where my death occurs, it is other people who derive the value of the insurance.

 

I’m sure there are some insurance products that are pretty solidly just about the individual buying the isurance, but it doesn’t seem to always be that way. Buying insurance seems to be an act of signaling, as Robin Hanson discusses in his book The Elephant in the Brain. Buying insurance isn’t all about sharing risk, it is also about showing others how much you care about them and about showing the community how responsible you are.