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2 Mail 2 Bag
Don Winslow, the wisdom of high school physics teachers, and some nuance on homelessness.
Welcome to the second edition of the mailbag! A few notes before we dive in…
We received a good number of questions related to meat and animal welfare. I’m skipping them today because I wrote on related matters for yesterday’s post, but these topics will be addressed again on Slow Boring in the near future.
Folks also had administrative questions about asking repeat questions. I don’t mind if you repeat, but if I keep passing you over there may be a reason so you might want to try something else or even just rephrase. But who knows? There is of course an element of randomness when we get so many questions (we included a repeat this time), and this whole thing is still in its experimental phase.
Now for your questions!
Kyle: I'm interested in your thoughts on citizens' assemblies – where you take a stratified random sample of the population (usually 30-50 people), give them time (4-5 days), information (experts and pre-reading), resources and authority and ask them to solve an issue by finding agreement on solutions.
I think this is a reference to Hélène Landemore’s proposals in “Open Democracy,” and I think it’s a very interesting idea.
To take a step back, I think that democracy in Lincoln’s sense of “government by the people, for the people, and of the people” is a good idea, but the current American tendency to want to hold tons and tons of elections for everything is a bit dysfunctional. I would generally like to see fewer elected officials, more reliance on a strong civil service, and more centralization of authority. And then to the extent that we think a regime of that sort would be too distant and technocratic, we should incorporate something like Landemore’s idea of direct consultation with a representative group of citizens who aim to have genuine dialogue and reach consensus rather than a group of small-time politicians staging pitched battles for show.
But I also think it could be useful on an ad hoc basis. D.C., for example, periodically does these “updates” of different aspects of land use policy that very rarely amount to all that much due to a mix of timidity and learned helplessness from the professionals and conflicting pressures from elected officials. It would be amazing to see the city commit to blowing up the whole thing. The district could convene a Citizens’ Assembly of 45 members to work with the Office of Planning, the Department of Transportation, and outside experts to decide on a definitive re-write of the whole kit and kaboodle. One benefit of a framework like that would be to force people to actually decide what they think about pretty basic questions like “should the city be more affordable with drastically lower CO2 emissions or should the city empower citizens to stop things from changing?”
Because I think most residents right now very sincerely — but also quite shallowly — want to do both things. The electoral process just rewards people who are skilled at pandering to that dissonance, whereas an assembly-style process challenges them to think through the implications of their views and come to some kind of reconciliation.
Liam Kofi Bright: Would rational representative agents choose one billion Americans from behind the veil of ignorance?
Or to try to say something serious about this, I think it’s interesting as an intellectual time capsule that Rawls addresses economic growth purely as a question of the national savings rate. So he has this little discussion of justice between generations that has basically no dimensions other than the tradeoff between present-day consumption and long-term accumulation of capital goods. Today, I think basically anyone considering this topic would have environmental issues in mind, as well as questions related to family policy.
But even just construed as a narrowly economic issue, it’s a big shift in how economists tend to think about this issue — for a rich, world-leading country like the United States, I think most analysts today would put a lot more weight on innovation and the diffusion of ideas than on savings and capital accumulation as the key factors.
Josh Morrison: Which of Don Winslow's books is your favorite and why?
I like “The Force.” Rip-roaring thriller, good politics, and a great standalone read.
Marie Kennedy: A repeat from last time- why did you choose to major in philosophy, and was it a good decision? How does philosophy help you think more clearly about politics and culture?
My high school physics teacher, Mr. Harless, was a font of wisdom, as cooking fans may know from his occasional appearances in Kenji López-Alt columns. And he once told me I should look into philosophy when I got to college because I liked to ask questions about science that he thought were dumb and annoying. And if there is anything I’ve learned from the study of philosophy, it is, indeed, that practicing scientists find philosophy of science questions dumb and annoying.
Fall of my freshman year, I enrolled in Introduction to Philosophy. The professor for that class, Kwame Anthony Appiah, is not only a brilliant scholar but an unusually charismatic lecturer and popular communicator who has for years written the New York Times’ ethicist column. If you’re interested in learning what philosophy is all about (an interest I do not necessarily recommend), you should definitely check out his intro philosophy book, “Thinking It Through.” The TA for that class, the late Waheed Hussain, was also an unusually compelling teacher and he suggested to me unprompted that I should consider majoring in philosophy. Nobody else told me I should major in anything, so I took that suggestion seriously. In the spring I took a deductive logic class that’s required for philosophy majors but also fulfilled the quantitative reasoning requirement of the college core curriculum in case I ended up majoring in history or something. But I liked the logic class, so philosophy it was.
I think that philosophy was a very valuable thing for me to study, and I definitely encourage anyone who is interested in philosophical questions to pursue that interest and not be put off by the perceived lack of practical application. Philosophy departments and philosophy classes are small, and philosophy professors are smart people with high GRE scores. You’ll learn a lot.
But if you’re not interested in philosophy I don’t really know what would be gained by trying to force yourself to become interested. It’s pretty famously a discipline in which no progress is made!
Jordan Stein: If you were elected president and had to pick one priority for your first major bill what would you pick and how would you sell it to the American people?
I think this question embeds a misconception in terms of what presidents realistically can or should try to do. If I’m president and my party has slim majorities in Congress and I hold my first meeting with the caucus leaders and tell them I want to push a federal zoning preemption bill, they’re going to look at me like I’m insane. The president is a very prominent person and has more ability to steer the party than a backbench House member. But no one person can call all the shots and it’s foolish to try.
EJ: You’ve said elsewhere that traditional forms of political volunteering like phone banking and canvassing don’t work and just annoy people. As someone who hates getting unsolicited calls, this makes sense to me! Do you have thoughts about what types of political volunteering would be more effective, and is there research being done on that/something akin to effective altruism, but for politics?
This is not the emotionally validating answer that people want to hear, but I think the EA concept that is most relevant to politics is “earning to give.” In other words, if you’re really fired-up about the midterms and want to help, don’t spend hours of your time door-knocking — go get a part-time job and give the money to candidates. There are of course people constantly doing research on optimal expenditures of campaign research (my friend Aaron Strauss who wrote for Slow Boring once does this work), but really one of the best things a normal person can do is simply give money so the money can be spent optimally.
That said, the other thing I would really urge everyone to do is to try to be more mindful about their posting.
Suppose that door-knocking was a highly effective way to communicate with people. Like suppose it was very cheap to organize volunteers and people didn’t mind strangers popping up at their door wanting to talk politics. Well, it would still be the case that it matters what you actually say. If you’re knocking on the doors of swing voters in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, you’d want to try to think of something that might be convincing to those people. And the same principle applies to the posts you make about politics on social media. Any time you comment on Joe Biden or Donald Trump or electoral politics, you are communicating with at least some potentially persuadable people. If you try to use language calculated to convey the appeal of progressive ideas to people with conservative values, that might work. If you use language that is immediately off-putting and alienating to moderate people, that might be counterproductive.
Now are you under an obligation to care about the partisan political impact of random posts you make or of which articles you choose to share and how you frame them? Not really. It’s your life, you can do what you want. But social media posts are not private communications. And if you’re talking about politics at all, you probably care about politics. And if you care, I think it’s a good idea to try a little harder to take it seriously, just as you would if you were knocking on strangers’ doors.
Jake Wegmann: What was your YIMBY red pill moment?
Watching how hard it was to get this particular house in my neighborhood get approved and built.
Rory Hester: Density and housing. What is the actual demand for dense housing/transit zones i.e. NYC? Also, given remote work... and eventually automated vehicle which will make commuting more palatable, and recent revealed preferences for suburbs... how does this effect the density argument.
Either there is demand for higher residential density in a given area, in which case prohibiting it is costly, or else there is not demand for higher residential density in a given area, in which case prohibiting it is pointless. In either case, there is no good reason for regulations that restrict density.
Michael H: How do you interact with media? Are you getting the news from twitter? Are you listening to podcasts? Are you reading the front pages of news papers online or in print? If so, what are they? What other Substacks do you read every day, or multiple times a week? Do you read books? If so, paper, kindle or audiobook? What speed do you listen to them at? How many books a year? Do you watch tv? Sorry if these are too intrusive, but I am curious as to how you manage to filter in so much information.
My media consumption is really boring. I read the big famous newspapers and follow a lot of political reporters on Twitter. Politico and Axios and Punchbowl all have really good coverage of the nitty-gritty of politics.
I mostly don’t listen to work-related podcasts, but I do listen to a lot of podcasts while walking around the neighborhood, working out, or folding laundry. I like The Big Picture and The Rewatchables on movies, the Accidental Tech Podcast on tech, and Revolutions and Tides of History on history. In terms of newsletters, there’s a lot of good stuff happening. I really like Full Stack Economics and Noahpinion and I’m excited about Josh Barro’s new thing.
I mostly read nonfiction books and, frankly, I skim and skip around a lot in them. People publish tons of interesting books, but I think they tend to be padded and sometimes a bit repetitive. I’m generally more of a movies person than a TV person, but I’m watching The Book of Boba Fett and season four of Ozark right now and looking forward to the return of Better Call Saul whenever that happens.
But I really do think that Twitter is a great source of information. Twitter has a bad reputation because arguments on Twitter tend to be tedious and uninformative. But people on there are constantly linking to interesting articles in both the popular press and academic journals, they’re talking about new books, they’re sharing charts and data. It’s genuinely a great way to learn.
Matt Cowgill: Does Matt plan to elaborate on why he left Vox? Where is the media landscape headed — is it going to be the NYT plus Substacks and nothing else? etc etc
I’ve probably said enough about Vox. But I think that in the digital era, the optimal size of a media bundle is either really large or really small. So not just “the NYT plus Substacks,” but a few giant global media conglomerates and a lot of tiny niche outlets.
Tim Lee: What do you think of the theory that the recent rise in homelessness is driven more by the rise of opioid addiction than a shortage of housing? The theory seems to be that people addicted to opioids (maybe especially fentanyl?) are especially likely to have mental health problems that prevent them from living in shelters or traditional apartments (either because they refuse to or because they behave in ways that get kicked out).
I’ve been trying to dig more into this, and I think it’s useful to take a look at these numbers to get a sense of what we’re talking about. Homelessness fell pretty steadily from 2007-2017 even while the opioid problem was getting worse and worse, so I don’t think the rebound since then can plausibly be attributed to drugs.
But if you look at the unsheltered homeless, there’s a more significant increase that starts back in 2014. And quantitatively, it looks like the reason overall homelessness is going up is because the rise in the number of unsheltered individuals is large enough to swamp a continued gentle decline in family homelessness.
So is this caused by a rise in drug abuse? I’m not sure. But the hypothesis that it is fits the broad facts and is consistent with the cross-sectional evidence that overall homelessness is mostly about housing scarcity. So I need to read more, but it’s plausible, and I think my exciting contribution to the discourse will be to say that we need to all try to be precise as to what we are talking about.
Dysphemistic Treadmill: Tell us more about the mental life of the aphantastic.
To me the most striking contrast is with sound. I can “play” pieces of music that I know well in my head. And critically I can do this even though I don’t know anything about music theory or the technical aspects of playing music. I can’t really describe John Williams’ Superman Theme at all because I don’t know enough about orchestras to say which instruments are even playing. But I can recreate the sound in my head.
Visual stuff to me is different.
I can’t make pictures appear in my head. And one concrete manifestation of that is I can’t really remember things that I don’t understand analytically. If I see a car with a Toyota logo, I know that’s a Toyota logo and I can say “it had a Toyota logo.” And if it was an unfamiliar logo that clearly looked like something specific I could say “it was a stylized H.” But if I see some abstract shape whose significance I don’t recognize, I’d struggle to tell you anything about it because I don’t really store visual memories. I can play music I don’t understand in my head, but I just remember factual information about things that I saw.
One issue that recurs from this is that if I’m supposed to meet someone who I haven’t seen in a while or don’t know that well, it will sometimes occur to me that I don’t really know what the person looks like. I’ll try to recall facts about him and be like “uh… it’s a white guy with average height whose about my age and has brown hair” and realize there are tons of guys like that around. I’ll try to picture him but I can’t. And unless he has some really obvious distinguishing characteristic — giant beard, weird scar, whatever — I’ll get baffled. How do I tell which middle-aged white guy is which? But then when the guy shows up, the fusiform face area in my brain works and I can tell who is who with absolutely no problem.
To me, the extent to which cognitive processes are compartmentalized like that is fascinating. The face-recognizing system is distinct from the explicit-recall-of-what-faces-look-like system.
Bryce Nelson: We need to hear what is truly your most important and potentially controversial opinion...who is your all time Wizards/Bullets starting 5?
It’s good to close out with the really important issues. Instead of cheating by claiming Ben Wallace and Michael Jordan, let’s say we’re going to be a little bit flexible with the positions and get Earl Monroe at point with Gilbert Arenas and Bradley Beal on the wings then the classic Unseld/Hayes frontcourt from the 1970s. Obviously in the real world, playing a 1970s frontcourt in the contemporary NBA gives you bad spacing blah blah blah, and probably given improvements in conditioning there’s some sense in which Antawn Jamison is a better player, but I don’t think that’s the spirit of the enterprise.