How Can We Learn If Decisions Are Disconnected from Impact?

Two years ago, there was a ballot initiative in California, Proposition 10, which would enable city governments to enact rent control on any buildings. I had no idea whether or not this was a good idea, and I was going to go to my default in situations like this, which is to vote no. But I decided to check with my friend, Steph, who works in affordable housing. She was thoughtful, knowledgeable, and even, and after my conversation with her, I decided to vote Yes.

This year, there was a similar ballot initiative, Proposition 21, which would enable city governments to enact rent control on buildings that was first occupied over 15 years ago. Once again, I had no idea whether this was a good idea or not. Once again, I turned to Steph. Once again, I voted Yes.

Here’s what troubled me about finding myself in almost the exact same situation two years later: I had learned absolutely nothing. I didn’t even remember whether or not Proposition 10 had passed. (It didn’t. Neither did Proposition 21.) Even if it had, I would have had no idea what the impact of that measure was.

I believe strongly in collaboration, democracy, and the wisdom of crowds. It’s why I do what I do. And I understand why folks don’t have faith in a population’s ability to govern itself. Our track record, especially recently, is terrible.

Here’s the thing: In order to act in intelligent ways, people need to be responsible for the impact of their decisions. If we don’t know the impact of our decisions, we are not going to make good decisions.

In his book, The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver explains that pundits are terrible at predicting financial markets, but meteorologists are exceptional at predicting the weather. Why? For starters, we are more likely to remember a meteorologist’s track record, because the feedback loop is tighter. Last night, the weatherperson said it would be sunny. Today, it rained. You’re going to remember that.

If we could figure out better ways to tie decisions with impact, I think we would find society generally doing the right things. This is obviously incredibly hard, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

On Markets, Government, and American Exceptionalism

On Election Day, Carmen Medina outlined ten beliefs underlying her views on the world and on politics. Read her whole post. It’s short, sharp, and thought-provoking.

Here’s what she wrote about regulations:

1. More often than not government (all) regulations do not entirely achieve their intended effects. Their unintended effects can be positive or negative. This is due to the world’s and society’s infinite complexity. Thus, I am skeptical of most grand efforts to “fix a problem”.

and a few points later on climate change:

4. Climate change is real and it is currently driven by humans. Given that regulatory approaches are often flawed, solutions should be emergent and market and locally-based. (See point 1) Thirty years ago I was debating pollution and energy with a friend in an English pub. He was advocating a large government program. I asserted that the first successful electric car would be created by a private company.

I don’t know enough about public policy to know whether her first point — specifically, “more often than not” — is true, although Carmen, as a long-time civil servant, would know infinitely more about this than me. I’m curious, however, what she means by “market-based solutions” in this light.

All markets are regulated, in the sense that someone gets to define the rules by which a market plays. Those rules impact how those markets work and whom they benefit. We saw this play out on Tuesday. Elections are a kind of market that serve as the cornerstone of our democracies. All elections are also regulated. Someone decides who gets to vote, the mechanisms by which they vote, and how those votes are counted. Subtle differences in those rules can have massive effects on their outcomes. This is true of all markets.

This complexity plays out in her electric car example. I assume she’s talking here about Tesla, whose founder, Elon Musk, has loudly endorsed market-based solutions to climate change (such as a carbon tax) and opposed government subsidies. However, he also happily accepted a $450 million loan from the federal government in 2010, which enabled him to scale up production of Tesla’s Model S (and which Tesla paid back with interest three years later). I’m also willing to bet that a good portion of the scientific and technological foundations on which Tesla and other electric cars are based were funded by the government. One might argue that these are all examples of market-based interventions rather than regulations. I’m not sure that the distinction is that clean or that it matters at all.

I think the more important point is that there’s no such thing as the perfect structure. Whatever you put into place will have unintended consequences (a point that Carmen makes right from the start). Without alignment around the desired consequences and a fair, equitable system for making adjustments (i.e. regulations), that structure will fail. Therein lies the rub, especially when it comes to elections. Elections are supposed to be that fair, equitable system for making adjustments, but if they start off flawed (the way all intentionally-designed systems in a complex world do), we are now relying on a flawed system to fix a flawed system. Messy, right?

(This is also what galls me about the current capitalism / socialism rhetoric. Most of the time, when I hear someone railing about one or the other, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Is the U.S. capitalist or socialist? It’s both, and it always has been, although the degrees have shifted over the years. The challenge is in finding the right mix, whatever you want to call it in the end, not in replacing one with a more “pure” version of the other and calling it a day.)

Earlier this week, Stephen Bates published a piece in Lawfare on Reinhold Niebuhr, where he wrote:

For Niebuhr, [Charles] Merriam-style complacency is all too common in the United States. Americans like to ascribe their success to moral virtue rather than good luck. Thanksgiving, he once remarked, is a time for “congratulating the Almighty upon his most excellent co-workers, ourselves.” Americans smugly presume that they have the gold-standard democracy against which all others must be measured. The framers, they think, fashioned stable, incorruptible, self-correcting institutions. Whenever part of the system goes haywire, the other parts compensate, and constitutional homeostasis prevails.

Not so, according to Niebuhr. “There are no such natural harmonies and balances …[,]” he wrote in a Hutchins Commission memo. “Whatever harmony exists at a particular moment may be disturbed by the emergence of new factors and vitalities.” In his view, the price of liberty isn’t merely eternal vigilance; it’s also eternal trial and error. New solutions create new problems. Virtues in one situation become vices in another. Measures to suppress abuses of freedom can end up suppressing freedom. Reason advances justice in some circumstances and camouflages injustice in others. The expansion of knowledge sometimes fuels global understanding and other times fuels imperialism. A free society, Niebuhr believed, demands ceaseless recalibration of unity and diversity, freedom and order, mores and mandates, state power and corporate power. The challenge is “a perpetual one,” he told [Henry] Luce, “for which no single solution is ever found but upon which each generation must work afresh.”

In this vein, I enjoyed how Carmen reframed American Exceptionalism:

10. America is the world’s most multicultural nation. That is its only true exceptionalism. We will prove to be either a successful example or a tragic one.

Mugabe, Democracy, and the Unbearable Intertwingularity of Structure and Culture

The November 17, 2017 issue of the Eurasia Group’s excellent Signal newsletter reminds us that the now deposed Robert Mugabe was not always a “cartoon dictator”:

Mugabe, a school teacher and freedom fighter, was jailed in Rhodesia in 1964, the same year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. But Mugabe’s country gained liberation before Mandela’s. In 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and Mugabe became prime minister.

In the beginning, Zimbabwe was a developing world success story, the “bread basket” of Africa. Its economy was dynamic and diversified. Mugabe the teacher governed a nation with one of the continent’s highest literacy rates. He became president in 1987. But over time, the economy slowed, and his hold on his people began to slip. In response, his newly radicalized policies began to drive the country’s economy into the ground. The liberator then used violence to essentially crown himself king.

Running for re-election in 2008, he promised to abide by the people’s verdict. He finished the first round in second place, and announced that “only God” could remove him from power. Preposterous levels of inflation made cash less valuable than paper. Unemployment hovered above 90 percent. Millions fled the country. The king is now 93, and his subjects are fighting in the open over what comes next.

Past a certain number of people and issues, pure (i.e. direct) democracies do not scale (although technology potentially changes this). (This is true in all group contexts, not just societal.) So we create shortcuts, which — in the case of societies — usually looks like representative democracies. Shortcuts are efficient, but they (willingly) shift power away from the people, creating opportunities for abuse.

When it comes to power, if there are opportunities for abuse, someone will generally exploit them. To counter this, we create structural checks and balances. This results in new kinds of complexity, which can not only defeat the purpose of the shortcuts, but can also end up being more inefficient and less effective than the original structure you were trying to improve in the first place.

What often happens in this case is that people lose faith in the structures. We see this all the time in countries (including our very own right now). We see it all the time in organizations too.

Often, the criticism is merited. It’s critically important to acknowledge and try to fix structural flaws. But it’s also critically important to remember structure is not everything. Culture — our norms and beliefs — matters too. Shifting those norms and beliefs is really hard, but it’s not necessarily harder than changing structures.

Changing structures can shift culture, but it’s not the only way. The other way can seem messy and unpredictable, because it involves people, but sometimes it’s actually easier, and often, it’s better.

I wonder what would have happened in Zimbabwe if they had had a truth and reconciliation process in 1980 as South Africa did post-Apartheid. Similarly, what would this country have been like if we had had such a process following the Civil War?

In general, what would happen if countries took the time to align around a truly shared, collective vision? What if we consciously and intentionally invested in developing empathy in our citizenry?

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt via Wikimedia Commons

Dealing with Bullies

I was a small, skinny kid for most of my childhood, which meant I occasionally had to deal with bullies. My mom had a little twist on the Golden Rule she instilled in me at a very early age, which helped me deal with these bullies.

“If they hit you,” she advised me, “hit them back twice.”

The best way to deal with a bully is to punch him in the mouth. Given that physical violence is generally (maybe even appropriately) frowned upon, I later realized that there is an equally effective technique that amounts to the same thing: Find his source of power, and neuter him.

Hysterically expressing moral outrage, however valid, is a waste of energy. It exhausts you and your allies while feeding the bully and his supporters. I’m not suggesting that you suppress these feelings. Find ways to channel them into things that the bully cares about — taking away his status, his power, his audience.

Turning his audience means that you have to take the time to understand them and be disciplined in how you communicate with them. If you listen, you might be surprised to learn that you actually have common ground. Put everything else aside, and focus on that common ground.

Finally and most importantly, have the backs of the people you care about and who care about you. Solidarity is strength.