The Real Reason Uber Pisses Off Left Intellectuals

By Graham Peterson

Yet another criticism of Uber popped up on Slate today, leading with: “The world’s brashest startup spent 2014 expanding aggressively and infuriating just about everyone.”  Once again a small community of upper middle class leftist journalists has crowned itself “just about everyone.”  Uber might infuriate these people, but it makes everyone else’s day, if its explosive growth in employment and consumers is any evidence.

Uber is, technically speaking, not news.  Companies innovate technologically every day.  The logistics software, Cobra, that my father used in the 1980s to coordinate electrical contracting bids has undergone massive improvements.  Companies erode government privileges every day.  A carpenter buddy of mine hasn’t worked a day for a Union because he prefers working for himself.  So why do Uber, or Airbnb, or any of the companies in the sharing economy get so much press?

Because they touch directly the lives of bohemian, college educated, upper middle class lefties who need cheap cabs to get to their reclaimed salmon taco brunches and booty calls cheaply — to wit, the friends of left journalists and bloggers.  Uber has caused a stir because of the particular symbolic impact is has on a very particular community who enjoys particularly good access to public conversation — not because of its economic impact.  The success of Uber undermines a lot of wrong ideology about the economy, and that hurts a lot of intellectuals’ feelings.

The sharing economy isn’t any different than the economy economy, but it is an especial threat to intellectuals who see their friends becoming convinced, through their own lived experiences, that capitalist progress is pretty great.  Uber has unquestionably improved cab service and raised driver salaries.  It’s also probably made cabbing safer (have you ever called a traditional cab company trying to complain about your driver?).  Critics don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to the traditional economics they’re hurt about, so they’ve reached for a smear campaign.

Uber is sexist.  Uber is racist.  Uber is classist.  And finally, “aha!  Uber is anti-left-cultural-critic!” after Uber had had enough and (wrongly) toyed with retaliation.  We might forgive people who take exception to being relentlessly smeared on the new left’s critical theory slash meet-me-at-the-swings-at-recess gossip rag, Buzzfeed.

The recent and explosive economic success of lowly nerds, cab driving stiffs, and apartment renters is the latest evidence that legacy money doesn’t buy power.  But some will apparently leave no crappy argument unturned to maintain the specter of Big Bad Business Owners.  The facts — that markets are ultimately about sharing, giving, creating, connecting, and helping — are what really bothers the left.  It’s too bad they find the facts so offensive.


How Do We Know the US’ Cuba Policy Failed?

By Kindred Winecoff

Dan Drezner has a good post on the US-Cuba détente and how it is consistent with Obama’s foreign policy pattern of seeking to alter undesirable status quo situations. I agree with all of it but the ending:

…it’s hard to deny that America’s Cuba policy had failed.

It’s worth asking what objective motivated America’s Cuba policy before concluding that it failed. Several possibilities:

1. Limiting the expansion of global communism into the Western Hemisphere (c. 1960-1990).

It’s easy to forget that this actually was a thing once upon a time. Castro’s early Cuban government was not only brutal on the island but also actively sought to export revolution elsewhere, and provided material support to rebels pursuing that end. Castro encouraged Khrushchev to deploy nuclear weapons during the Missile Crisis and, at least for a time, sought those weapons for himself. The embargo did limit Castro’s material influence during the Cold War, and thereby cut off one of the main potential routes of activity for the USSR in the West. It meant that Castro would no longer be able to credibly promise to assist those seeking to overthrow US-friendly governments. And, among other things, this ensured that on the occasions where the Cold War hotted up it would not be near the US’s territory.

2. Limiting the influence of left populists in the Western Hemisphere (c. 1990-2010).

The post-Cold War era was greeted triumphantly in many parts of the West, but not so much in Latin America. The devastating effects of the debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s, along with IMF-mandated structural reforms, reinforced anti-American sentiment in the region. There remained a pervasive idea that Latin America was stuck in a dependent relationship with the US that would forever forestall development. Faced with this and rapid development elsewhere in the world, new leaders like Chavez, Morales, and Correa looked to the Cuban regime as a model of resistance and pushed for solidarity in opposition to the US-led international order. Discrediting this idea — using both carrots and sticks — has been a key objective of the US in the years since, and as regional alternatives to the US stagnate or collapse that goal looks closer to being achieved than it possibly ever has.

3. Winning elections in Florida (c. 1990-present).

Who says the embargo was about primarily about foreign policy objectives in the recent past? Successive presidential elections more or less came down to several thousand votes in Florida (or were expected to do so), and until quite recently the Cuban expat community has vociferously opposed normalization with Castro’s regime. There’s a pretty simple electoral math here: keep the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans happy, or you could lose to the person who does.  

4. The end of the Castro regime.

Was this a true foreign policy goal of the US after the Kennedy Administration? Maybe they would have liked to see it happen, but Castro was very much contained and the US foreign policy apparatus has traditionally been comfortable containing regimes it doesn’t like. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the US was pursuing regime change per se at any point since the 1960s, and it certainly isn’t doing so today. Regime change is risky, and the US has had no compunction about isolating, but otherwise tolerating, distasteful governments.

So did the US’ Cuba policy fail? The answer depends on what is meant by the question, but it seems to have achieved much of what it wanted to achieve at very little cost. I’d call that a limited win or, at the very worst, a slightly aggravating stalemate. Given that it had achieved limited success, and that the course of history rendered other objectives moot, the Obama administration was quite right to change the policy. But that does not constitute an admission of failure.


Chill Bro: Dubunking Our Fervor for Debunking

By Graham Peterson

Social scientists love to debunk other social scientists.  In the case of Jordan Weissmann’s debunking of the paper claiming that porn is destroying marriage, we’ve got a journalist on the job, but the sentiment is the same — a totally disproportionate trouncing that is supposed to be about standards of evidence but smells a lot like “I hate these people.”

Philip Cohen is into it; he’s ceaselessly  blasted Hannah Rosin for her stuff on declining male outcomes.  Jeremy Freese is into it; he repeatedly went after a stupid study that claimed female named hurricanes are more devastating because we aren’t afraid of girls and don’t run.  My former adviser just wrote a fifty-five page review of Piketty’s Capital, because the book has problems and the left still loves it.

When Durkheim wrote on mechanical (think “knee-jerk”) solidarity, he noted that some punishments were so wildly disproportionate, that deterring individuals from committing crimes couldn’t be their only function.  There’s something more too it when a hundred people cheer while someone has his intestines removed and salted.  That something more, he reasoned, is a collective conscience.

That something more, in the case of social scientific trouncing, is often our own politics, and at a minimum our own prestige and expert pretense.  There’s no sneakier way to stand up for one’s politics, or defend one’s occupational status, than to channel one’s tribal rage through methodology and theory.

I think it is a problem for science because we hide the fact that beliefs are always subject to our community loyalties.  The only way we can make science better is by continually diversifying, and the principle way to do that is to not embarrass and diminish those we disagree with.

We want to raise standards of debate, and a way to do that is channel debate through theory and evidence.  But note how people maintain double-standards for their team and the other team.  That’s what’s not making science any better, and the only solution I can see is to resist the urge to publicly accuse people of being dishonest, lazy, and motivated.

In my (maybe naive) estimation, social scientific trouncing in the long run make us more insular, less open to debate, and ultimately harms scientific progress.

I should note, though I think they know it, that I respect a great deal the people I cited in this article and I emulate most of what they do outside the trouncing (and have even emulated the trouncing, which was mistaken).

Are We Becoming More Polarized or More Tolerant?

By Graham Peterson

Andrew Sullivan has a nice discussion of liberal discourse at The Dish.  He’s troubled by the way that the media and activists swallowed without question the latest campus rape hysteria, cooked up by Jackie.  But then he points out that the right also swallows without question its own hysterical narratives, and shames public dissent (see Benghazi, the Dixie Chicks, etc.).

Everyone would like to protect members of their group from being attacked, especially if they believe they are under consistent attack.  Both feminist women and police officers operate under that beliefs, so both take limited physical violence against their populations and connect it to much more prevalent negative attitudes toward themselves.

This has the advantage of upping the urgency of their concerns with their audience.  More adherents to their beliefs imply greater confidence that their beliefs are correct.  It’s a win situation.

So when we can’t find evidence that cops get shot constantly (because they don’t), or that rape is common (because it’s not), we resort to blaming culture for deviant cases.

Thus police are blaming anti-brutality protesters because Ismaaiyl Brinsely just murdered two cops —  just like feminists blamed “misogyny extremists” when Elliot Rodgers murdered two women.

Pronouncements on The Other Team’s Culture are prejudiced and unhelpful.  Values and their expression exist on a continuum, surely, and rape is connected to rape jokes just like cop killing is connected to police protests.  But turning every tragedy into an opportunity to scream at half of the nation doesn’t get us anywhere.

Andrew Sullivan thinks that the screaming indicates we’re becoming more polarized, holing ourselves into corners and content with our ideological narcissism as long as we stack up “likes.”  I disagree.

It is possible that the amount of discourse has actually increased, while the average quality of it has (temporarily) decreased.  The price of discourse has fallen.  It’s cheap to argue with strangers on the internet; you don’t lose babysitters and best friends like you would in traditional social spaces.  And when the cost of something falls, you get more of it.

As the marginal arguer logs on, she betrays her inelegance and meager practice.  He screams loudly, commits logical fallacies, and when lots of him appear in a rush, it looks like people are getting worse at arguing.  But which people?  You cannot compare public discourse in 1970 to public discourse in 2014 because a ton more of the public is talking.

There is a similar issue in economics.  Intuitively, we take Wal Mart as evidence that average quality of goods has plummeted.  “Look at these flimsy toasters they sell nowadays.”  True.  In the first act, new competitors often bring a lower quality good to people who wanted a toaster but could not afford the nice one.  But in the second act, in the long run, that competition inspires greater quality across toasters.

People are not getting dumber and less tolerant, and democracy is not in decline.  The number of people thinking and commenting and engaging has exploded, and most of the newbies are atrocious at it.  I sure was.  If you add a bunch of short people to a room that was full of tall people, average height drops.  But height drops as an artifact of statistical observation, not because nutrition is in decline.

So let’s keep being tolerant and talking.  And let’s not dismiss swaths of the polity, economy, races, genders, and so on because of their culture.  It’s a sophisticated argument for category prejudice.

Would You Rather Be Rich in the Past or ‘Comfortable’ Today?

By Kindred Winecoff

Scott Sumner:

In a recent post I suggested that one could argue that the entire increase in per capita income over the past 50 years was pure inflation (and hence that real GDP per capita didn’t rise at all.) But also that one could equally well argue that there has been no inflation over the past 50 years. The official government figures show real GDP/person rising slightly more than 150% since 1964, whereas the PCE deflator is up about 6-fold. …

Here’s one thought experiment. Get a department store catalog from today, and compare it to a catalog from 1964. (I recently saw Don Boudreaux do something similar at a conference.) Almost any millennial would rather shop out of the modern catalog, even with the same nominal amount of money to spend. Of course that’s just goods; there is also services, which have risen much faster in price. OK, so ask a millennial whether they’d rather live today on $100,000/year, or back in 1964 with the same nominal income. Recall the rotary phones and bulky cameras. The cars that rusted out frequently. Cars that you couldn’t count on to start on a cold morning. I recall getting cavities filled in 1964, without Novocaine. Not fun. No internet. Crappy TVs, where you have to constantly move the rabbit ears on top to get a decent picture. Lame black and white sitcoms, with 3 channels to choose from. Shorter life expectancy, even for the affluent. No Thai restaurants, sushi places or Starbucks. It’s steak and potatoes. Now against all that is the fact that someone making $100,000/year in 1964 was pretty rich, so your social standing was much higher than that income today. So it’s a close call, maybe living standards have risen for people making $100,000/year, maybe not. Zero inflation in the past 50 years may not be right, but it’s a reasonable estimate for a millennial, grounded in utility theory. In which period does $100,000 buy more happiness? We don’t know.

I think if we really don’t know the answer to this question then it’s only because happiness is subjective. To me it’s obvious that a $100,000/year salary is worth more today than it used to be. For one thing, in 1964 tax rates in basically every Western economy were absurdly high, so that that $100,000 would really be somewhere from $10,000-30,000. George Harrison wasn’t exaggerating; how would you like to live in a country where your best artists and creators were forced into (or simply chose) tax exile?

But let’s leave that aside for now. In 1964 a $100,000 salary would make you an elite, but your real income would actually be much smaller than that because of all of the 2014 goods you could not purchase at any price. Sumner runs many of them down, but the point is that $100,000 is still enough to live quite well in this country — even in the expensive cities — but the range of choice has exploded, and many of the modern choices now come at very low cost.

Let’s not forget that politics was quite different in 1964 as well: segregation persisted, the Cold War was raging, and even in the U.S. the “elite” were defined as much by their pedigree as income. We weren’t far removed from McCarthy, and were in the midst of a succession of assassinations of American political leaders and overt revolutionary threats in many Western societies. No birth control, no abortion, few rights for women and homosexuals in general. Being an elite in that world would likely feel very uncomfortable, and of course this blog (and essentially all media I consume) wouldn’t exist. So for me 2014 is the obvious choice.

Tyler Cowen has a more interesting question:

But here’s the catch: would you rather have net nominal 20k today or in 1964? I would opt for 1964, where you would be quite prosperous and could track the career of Miles Davis and hear the Horowitz comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. (To push along the scale a bit, $5 nominal in 1964 is clearly worth much more than $5 today nominal. Back then you might eat the world’s best piece of fish for that much.)

I’m still not sure. $20k/year back then wouldn’t be enough to make you very well off, and the marginal cost of culture consumption today has sunk almost to zero. Was Miles Davis really so much better than anyone working today? For everyone in the world who does not live in NYC, is it better to be able to watch his concerts on YouTube now, and on demand, than not to have seen them at all? Lenny Bruce was still active in 1964 but almost no one ever saw him (for both technological and political reasons). I might still take the $20k today, and I’ve lived on less than that for my entire adult life until last year, so this is an informed choice. But I agree that it’s a much more difficult decision.

It is an interesting question, mostly because it reveals what people value most. It’s a mutation of the “veil of ignorance”. So what would you choose?

We Should Trust Biased People

By Graham Peterson

It’s become common to judge whether or not one should trust an intellectual source based on whether or not that source is biased.  It has to stop.  Everyone has biases, or things they would like to believe.  The sources we should trust are the ones that are transparent about their biases.  Self awareness and honesty about a person’s own biases should suggest that that person is honest enough to change his biases on new information.

Bias, ideology, and so on don’t really mean what they originally meant anymore anyway.  People now translate “unbiased” to mean “my beliefs,” and “biased” to mean “the opposition.”  However noble the intents of  “unbiased discourse” were at first, they’ve become a shitty excuse to ignore information.

One thinks one knows ahead of time the bias of the person they’re talking to, or source one is reading.  But thinking you know something bad about a person — like that she’s biased —  and then dismissing that person preemptively, is called prejudice.  Nothing more.  It’s ignorant and destructive, and no less so if you couch it in scientistic jargon about bias.  It’s just a fancy way to say, “I don’t have to listen to her because I know she is biased and doesn’t listen.”

My scientific peers purport that there is a difference between people who know the answer to their question before they go looking, and those who don’t. That’s a colossal lie: scientists without hopes, faiths, wishes, and preferences do not exist.  Neither do scientists exist who can turn those dreams off.  We need scientists who can explain precisely and honestly what they want to believe, and how their search for evidence updates their beliefs.  We need to take the “null” out of the null hypothesis — there are only competing alternative hypotheses — there are no blank slates.

Here’s what happens when people believe they are unbiased.  Their biases go unexamined, and they stretch like a gymnast trying to maintain that they’re unbiased.  They start calling certain things “well known facts” that are just assertions and conventions.  They use scientific looking instruments to perform their unbiasedness, and then run from any real argument.  They find themselves in homogenous communities and think it’s legitimate because their peers are “unbiased.”  It’s toxic stuff.

Calling someone or some source biased is one of the lowest forms of argument, though it sure does feel fancy.  It has to stop.  Be extremely wary of people who believe they are not biased, and slap yourself if you think you’re unbiased.  Everyone is biased, and we should be all the more willing to engage people who are up front about what they want to believe and why.

Shaming Women Into Being “Women” Doesn’t Work

By Graham Peterson

Lots of women don’t want to have kids, but how many women feel like they can be honest about that?  It appears that lots of women either hide that feeling or try to shame themselves into feeling otherwise.

But you can’t shame yourself into loving a job you hate, or loving a kid you don’t want.

It is absurd to shame women into “taking responsibility” for their pregnancy, either when they’re accidentally pregnant, or already have a child they don’t want.  The tactic is especially unfair to the unwanted (and hence neglected) children of the mothers we shame.

Aborting an unwanted pregnancy, or offloading unwanted kids onto someone who will love them, is the most responsible thing a parent, who doesn’t want to be a parent, can do.