Inflated Bubbles

What makes people who hold an extreme opinion think that they represent the majority?

[After 3,000 words on statistics, I deserve a condescending politics / culture war post. I have put these posts under the “hedgehog alert” category because if that’s not your cup of bitter acid rain, you should enjoy this hedgehog instead.]

hedgehog flowers.jpg


Minority Retort

I made a claim in Climbing the Horseshoe that even Sarah Constantin misunderstood, which means that I wrote it poorly. I’ll try to spell it out again, and set it apart from other arguments.

My point was that it’s important to recognize when you’re holding an unpopular opinion and to change your tactics accordingly. Even if normatively you are right and everyone is wrong, instrumentally you should pursue your goals one way if 5% share your goals and worldview and another way if 80% do. For example, shaming others and calling them names (e.g. bigot or traitor) works (sometimes) if you’re part of the majority and doesn’t work if you’re part of the fringe.

Even if your entire social circle shares your views, you have to be cognizant of the amount of support your position has in the broad public. It’s not quite what outside view is, but it requires a similar mental process of stepping outside your immediate surroundings. Here are a couple of examples from my own life:

  1. I’m an atheist, and many of my friends are atheist, but I realize that on a national scale atheists are a tiny minority (~4%). If I want to promote atheism, I should be able to tell the difference between ardent religious zealots and the median American who believes in God and goes to church every other week but isn’t a talking snake-ist. When I talk with the latter about atheism, I politely explain for example how an atheist can share the intuition that murder is wrong with a holy book. I don’t tell anyone who believes in a deity that they’re a deluded fanatic.
  2. I’m a left-libertarian, and I engage intellectually with many left libertarians. For example, I think that regardless of how much welfare we have raising the minimum wage will hurt the poor because it dminishesthe employability of the 102 million adult Americans who don’t have a job and increases the prices they pay. I also think that regardless of where the minimum wage is, we should have more unconditional welfare to help the poor (whether food stamps or basic income). And yet, I’m aware that “abolish the minimum wage but raise taxes to implement basic income” is an extreme position. When I talk to liberals about the minimum wage or to conservatives about welfare I try to gently convince them with stats and numbers, I don’t call them heartless monsters who hate the poor.
  3. On the other hand, homophobia has finally become a minority position and it’s not counterproductive to shame homophobes.

This seems like common sense to me – you fight differently when you’re outnumbered than when you’re dominating. I thought it would be obvious for example to Jamelle Bouie that calling the NY Times racist for encouraging dialogue with Trump voters is a minority opinion.

It may not have been obvious at all.


No True Liberal

A Facebook friend of mine shared the NY Times op-ed “Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump“.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s words from the second presidential debate: “It is important for us as a policy not to say, as Donald has said, we’re going to ban people based on a religion.” […] Here Clinton establishes a minimum standard of liberal decency that few American Jews would be inclined to deny. […] Yet insofar as Israel is concerned, every liberal Zionist has not just tolerated the denial of this minimum liberal standard, but avowed this denial as core to their innermost convictions. Whereas liberalism depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish.

[…]

Palestinians in fact do not demand a “right of return” to their pre-1967 homes, but to their pre-1948 homes. In other words, the issue isn’t the occupation, which many liberal Zionists agree is a crime, but Zionism itself. Opposition to the Palestinians’ “right of return” is a matter of consensus among left and right Zionists because also liberal Zionists insist that Israel has the right to ensure that Jews constitute the ethnic majority in their country.
[…]
The following years promise to present American Jewry with a decision that they have much preferred to avoid. Hold fast to their liberal tradition, as the only way to secure human, citizen and Jewish rights; or embrace the principles driving Zionism.

The article explicitly states that opposing the right of Palestinians to move to Israel proper (right of return) is beneath a minimum standard of liberal decency, and thus Zionism is incompatible with liberalism. I commented that regardless of your normative opinion on Zionism, the right of return, as a matter of fact, has very little support among Jews. The article itself agrees that this is a consensus. Israel has 4 million more Jewish citizens than Muslim citizens, allowing 5 million Palestinian refugees to immigrate will immediately end Jewish majority in Israel and the character of the country as we know it. Even if one thinks that it’s the moral thing to do, it’s a very unpopular opinion among Jews, on par with the percentage of Americans who would be in favor of allowing 300 million Muslim immigrants into the US.

I wrote that if you present Jews with the dilemma of accepting the right of return or not being a “liberal”, this sort of “liberalism” will not attract many Jews. This is the immediate response I got:

glinoah 1.png

So far, nothing out of the ordinary. The argument I make requires separating normative claims and factual claims which is an unusual and difficult exercise. It’s predictable that at least one person will try to insult me out of the conversation instead of trying to address the argument itself.

Then came the first warning sign:

glinoah-2

This absurd accusation that rationalists are sympathetic to Trump is from the friend who originally defended me. The meme that the sun is a hummingbird is based on zero evidence. The meme that rationalists like Trump is based on negative evidence.

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote at length about how Trump is terrible.

Scott Alexander wrote at length about how Trump is terrible.

Julia Galef, Rob Wiblin and other prominent Effective Altruists debated back in the spring whether donating to Clinton’s campaign may be better than saving kids from malaria. Yes, many rationalists admire Peter Thiel. They were all pretty confused when Thiel endorsed Trump.

Truth seeking, charity and concern for the future of humanity are anathema to Donald Trump. He’s the rationalist Antichrist. So how could anyone believe that rationalists are sympathetic to Trump?

glinoah-3

I’m not sure what to do when people straight up tell me I’m lying. I assumed they’re just confused by the math, so I explained the math: let’s imagine again that we put all Americans on a single axis from least liberal (1st percentile) to most liberal as defined by current political affiliation (100th percentile). The 50th percentile American barely chose Trump over Clinton, and I imagine that I’m about as far to the left of the marginal Trump voter as I am to the right of a 90th percentile leftist. Thus, 70th percentile liberal.

But people were not in the mood to do math.

glinoah 4.png

glinoah 5.png

Hey, math is hard, I get it.


Inflated Bubbles

Why did these liberals react so venomously to the suggestion that I’m more liberal than the average American? Why do they think that rationalists, a group of strange but certainly left-of-center people, are enemies of liberalism?

My first hypothesis was that they’re trying to make their ideas unpopular on purpose, by insulting and bullying outsiders who try to engage with them. Collectively this makes “liberalism” lose, but individually they gain status by signalling the extremity of their faith in the true cause. I wondered if Mr. Bouie doesn’t mind that his tactics are counterproductive to fighting racism, I would wager that Slate‘s ratings are higher with Trump in office than they would have been had Clinton won.

I realized that this is too cynical. Organizations never solve the problem they were created to solve (as that would put the organization out of work), but it’s hard for people to be so explicitly hypocritical. It’s easier to convince others that you’re a fighter for liberalism / against racism if you actually believe this as well. I had to admit that these people really believed that they are helping the spread of liberalism as they see it.

My second hypothesis is this:

Theory of inflated bubbles – When your ideological bubble becomes small and tight enough, you start thinking that almost everyone outside the bubble agrees with you. In your mind, your bubble has inflated to encompass the entire world.

I work hard to make holes in the bubbles I live in. I have neoreactionary friends, Marxist friends, anti-Semitic friends and apparently a friend who thinks that rationalists are villainous freaks. I engage all the time with people who strongly disagree with me, I know that they’re out there in great numbers.

But once you slide down the horseshoe into extremism and attack anyone who disagrees with you, the heretics to your worldview evaporate out of your bubble. If you live in a very liberal city (these three guys are from D.C., New York and Silicon Valley), consume very liberal media, and tell everyone who isn’t very liberal to choke on a dick, your entire world becomes exclusively made up of very liberal people. All perspective is lost. Availability bias and confirmation bias will then work tirelessly to convince you that those who disagree with you are an extremist fringe minority.

If  you think that the NY Times or Bay Area rationalists are terribly bigoted, you will start thinking that the NY Times and the rationalists are part of the conservative minority even thought they’re both more liberal than the vast majority of the United States. No one can handle the cognitive dissonance of imagining that they live in a world that is 90% monster.

This is a self-reinforcing phenomenon: you think that those who disagree with you are a small minority and thus their views are extreme, and if their views are extreme they must be a  small minority.

This explains why so many leftists blame this election on the alt-right (who are a tiny minority on the right that most Trump voters don’t care about) and rightists blamed Obama on groups like liberal university professors (who are a tiny minority on the left that most Obama voters don’t care about). They believe that anyone who voted against them is part of a small cult that somehow got lucky. How can merely losing an election convince anyone that they’re a minority when three of the fiercest biases a brain can employ work to convince them otherwise?


This is a half-baked hypothesis. I don’t know how likely it is to be true (that many extremists think the majority agrees with them) and how to precisely define the phenomenon. It’s not charitable and it’s not scientific and it’s very condescending. But, it really makes a lot of what I’ve been seeing since the election make a lot more sense.

The only question that remains is: what crazy ideas do hold that I deludedly think most people agree with? I hope it’s not my faith that every human has the capacity for reason and kindness.

Climbing the Horseshoe

“Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.” – Adam Smith

Exposition (plus an example exculpating exports)

Trump won the election, and people are blaming polarization. WSJ – Trump benefited from polarization, Global Research – polarization made Trump unavoidable, Reason – Trump won because of the PC culture war, Guardian – Did fake news and polarized politics get Trump elected?, Road and Track – polarized glasses don’t work with LCD screens. That last article makes a great point. The other ones miss it.

Trump most dangerous failing is that he sees every human interaction as a zero sum game, a contest with winners and losers. Trump has made a lot of his money by exploiting others, his gains were someone else’s loss. He operates as if he can’t imagine things being any other way. And yet: our society and our economy are based on cooperation and dealings with mutual benefit. As long as spiteful deities don’t interfere, every time humans have tried cooperating with each on larger scales the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Case in point: American trade with China is perhaps the greatest win-win game in human history by the pure number of winners. It helped lift 600 million Chinese out of poverty, reduced the risk of World War III, and saved American consumers hundreds of billions of dollars which they redirected to create American jobs in retail and in services. It also cost about 2 million American jobs in manufacturing. Bottom line: 1,000 million winners and 2 million losers. That’s a 99.8% win rate.

Smarter redistribution within the US could have made it a 100% win-win by helping those who were affected negatively, but polarized American politics prevent smart redistribution from happening. International trade can create winners and losers within a country, but it’s always a win-win for each country on aggregate. It makes no sense to talk about “beating someone” in trade, the same way you don’t “beat someone” at dating.

Of course, making sense is never high on Trump’s priority list:

We don’t win anymore. We don’t beat China in trade. […] I beat China all the time. All the time.

But this isn’t an essay about trade (so save your nitpicking about labor market theories). And this isn’t an essay about Trump (although he shall again prove unavoidable). This is an essay about cooperation versus polarization.

If Trump doesn’t start a nuclear war, the greatest damage he will do is to the norms that allow us to cooperate, globally and domestically, for the next four years. But polarization destroys these norms forever. Those who would sacrifice the norms of compromise, respect and democracy itself in order to fight Trump are doing the Devil’s work for him.

And by “Devil” I don’t mean Trump. I mean Moloch.

moloch-1


This essay was inspired, among many others, by the work of Jonathan Haidt, Arnold Kling, Sam Harris, Scott Alexander and Eliezer Yudkowsky. You are encouraged to read them for more detail, better writing and superior wisdom on this topic. But since you’re here, you may as well read my essay first.

Content note: politics, culture wars, and everything that is wrong with human society. If you don’t want to read about everything that is wrong with human society, please enjoy this photo of my own hedgehog looking very fluffy af and come back next week.

Dip small.png
Disclaimer: you’re allowed to enjoy this photo even if you’re planning to read on

Everything that is wrong with human society

…mostly comes in two flavors: coercion and failures of coordination. Coercion is the bad things we can’t avoid: wars, slavery, exploitation. Coordination failures are the good things we can’t achieve: win-win free trade, nuclear disarmament, climate change control, eliminating poverty, universal love.

Coercion is a bigger threat to weak societies subjugated strong adversaries: a peasant village under the thumb of a despot, a European town in the path of the Mongol horde, an African community raided by slavers. Coordination failures are a bigger threat to strong societies being devoured from the inside. That’s us.

When people appoint governments to solve their problems, the government ideally tries to solve the most coordination failures using the least coercion. For example, a basic coordination problem is having everyone in a society agree to abide by a certain set of rules regarding violence and property. Governments solve this through coercive institutions like courts, jails and the police. There is a balance to be struck – the Soviet Union had lower crime rates than the USA, but most people wouldn’t be willing to accept secret police and gulags just to have less car theft.

But the government doesn’t really decide how to solve coordination problems. More often, it just implements the solutions people already live by, and codifies the social norms that naturally evolved among its citizens. For example, public acceptance of gay unions in the United States has been shifting for decades, and The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage many years after it became the plurality opinion. Politicians have their own incentives, they will not promote honesty, kindness and tolerance beyond what people already live by. Governments are often slower to react to changing norms than even corporation are.

Point is: it is up to us to live by the norms that we want our government to have.

Social norms are themselves a coordination problem: we would all prefer to live in a society in which everyone (including us) is always honest, kind and tolerant. Yet, we often have much to gain from occasionally being dishonest, selfish and intolerant. The harm that these behaviors do to social norms is often ignored when a personal struggle is more pressing.

And yet, social norms are the only way to achieve cooperation without coercion. In most interactions it is rational to cooperate if you expect your opponent to do the same, but only then. This means that the social norms that promote cooperation are the most valuable thing we have, they are the ones that allow us to even start addressing other problems. And this means that nothing is more harmful than the norms that promote polarization and hamper cooperation.

We may imagine that polarization is at its worst today in the era of social media, outrage clickbait and demagoguery. It’s not: polarization is the result of human weakness, and humans were humans long before Facebook. My favorite quote about political polarization predates the United States itself by two decades:

In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties.

Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.

-Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments III.I.85, 1859


Horseshoes, bubbles and evaporation

The horsehoe theory holds that extremists on either side of a political/cultural divide share more similarities with each other than they do with centrists. It doesn’t apply to every single debate, but I noted the horseshoeness of the “gender wars” here and alluded to the similarities between the political extremes of left and right in my pre-election essay.

From the top of the horseshoe, society looks like a complex network of compromises and trade offs. On crime and terror, a compromise between liberty and security. On multiculturalism, a compromise between diversity and social cohesion. On trade, a compromise between growing the global pie and fairly dividing the domestic pie. On Nice Guys, a compromise between everyone’s personal desires to be safe, be respected and get laid.

This doesn’t mean that the horseshoe is always perfectly balanced – the moderate reasonable position on a topic depends on moderation and reason, not on its distance from the fanatics. The virtues of racial equality don’t depend on the number of white or black supremacists and their opinions.

From the ends of the horseshoe, the world looks completely different:

  1. A single sacred value defines the worth of every person and action, and cannot be traded off for anything.
  2. An eternal and eternalist conflict, in which every historical or novel issue is politicized to seem part of the same unending war.
  3. Zero sum game: any action that hurts the enemy is good, anything that helps the enemy is bad, regardless of other consequences.
  4. The outgroup is seen as a homogenous glob of menace, with no nuance or differentiation.
  5. The enemy is easily comprehended, seen clearly across the narrow gap. The enemy’s tactics (conformity for the in-group, condemnation for the rest) and the enemy’s worldview (same sacred value, just with a flipped polarity) are very familiar.
  6. The moderate centrists are utterly incomprehensible, hidden from view by the horseshoe curve of almost-sympathizers. To extremists of either end, the centrists are despised as traitors. “All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties.”

You can see why people sliding down the horseshoe is worrying from the point of view of someone who believes in epistemic charity, the pursuit of truth, and that policy debates usually have two sides. You can see why this slide away from cooperation is the scariest thing in the world to someone who believes that we are facing massive and existential challenges that can only be solved by global cooperation.

At the very bottom of the horseshoe, where cooperation is unimaginable and win-win games turn into mutually assured destruction, sits Moloch and devours the souls of his zealots.

Molochs horseshow.png

I called the top of the horseshoe “normalizers”, I don’t mean that in the sense used commonly since the election just yet. We’ll talk about that “normalization” later. For now, it means – pulling people towards normalcy, and away from the eternal war and the soul-devouring demon. Most people try to nudge each other left and right on the horseshoe, but my goal is to pull everyone up.

Speaking of, how do smart people even find themselves slipping down towards the nasty edges of the horseshoe? The answer is bubbles and evaporation.

  • Everyone has heard a million times by now that we live in echo-chamber bubbles that protect us from beliefs we disagree with. Yet people don’t appreciate that two of the most powerful forces in the universe conspire to keep us bubbled up: confirmation bias and the algorithm. The latter latches on to your slightest deviation from equanimity by feeding you content that nudges you ever so slightly further in that direction. The former keeps you blind to the fact that anything nefarious is happening at all. In combination, they make the slope very slippery.
  • Bubbles keep us from hearing those we disagree with, evaporative cooling keeps them from hearing us. When a social group begins to drift towards an extreme position, the sanest people are first to leave and the fanatics remain. The crazier the position becomes, the more devoted to it the remaining members are: anyone capable of doubt has long ago departed.

Evaporative cooling of group beliefs down to extremism happens to media outlets as well, especially as they chase a shrinking pool of revenue. Slate.com is one of the very few media companies that publishes a poll of how their staffers vote in each election. In 2000, over 20% of Slatesters (their terminology) voted for Bush or Browne, the Libertarian candidate. By 2012, that number was down to 11% for Romney and Johnson. This year, as Slate’s centrist contributors evaporated along with their centrist readership – the number was 0.0%.

But I’m not picking on Slate because they disclose their voting patterns, I think this is commendable. And I’m not picking on them because they’re the worst, if you’ve noticed I already linked to a Slate article positively in this essay. I’m talking about Slate because its senior political editor, Jamelle Bouie, just wrote an article forged straight in Moloch’s furnace: There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter.


There’s no such thing as a good hate article

Let’s run through the checklist.

A single sacred value – as Jonathan Haidt explains: “The new sacred values on the left are about anti-racism and fighting discrimination”. Bouie doesn’t entertain the notion that people could have voted for Trump because they care about terror, or abortion, or taxes, or they just think that Hillary Clinton is a horrible and corrupt person. To him, all voting is single-issue voting on racism: “People voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes. They don’t deserve your empathy.”

Eternal conflict – Bouie sees everything as part of a perennial struggle against racism. Journalists who urge empathy for Trump voters in 2016 are compared to when “Between 1882 and 1964, nearly 3,500 black Americans were lynched. At the peak of this era, from 1890 to 1910, hundreds were killed in huge public spectacles of violence. And the people who watched these events, who brought their families to gawk and smile, were the very model of decent, law-abiding Americana.”

Zero sum – Can empathizing with Trump supporters actually increase tolerance and improve outcome for blacks? It doesn’t matter, any aid to the enemy is condemned as sin: “To insist Trump’s backers are good people is to treat their inner lives with more weight than the actual lives on the line under a Trump administration. At best, it’s myopic and solipsistic. At worst, it’s morally grotesque.”

Homogenous outgroup – “Trump’s 59 million votes… Meanwhile, more than 300 incidents of harassment or intimidation have been reported in the aftermath of Trump’s election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.” To me, it sounds like 58,999,700 people voted for Trump and did not proceed to harass minorities the next day. To Bouie, all 59 million share the collective guilt.

The enemy’s tactics are familiar – Two paragraphs after condemning 59 million people for the actions of 300, Bouie writes: “[Trump’s] campaign indulged in hateful rhetoric against Hispanics and condemned Muslim Americans with the collective guilt of anyone who would commit terror.” You see, according to Bouie there’s nothing wrong per se with employing the tactic of collective condemnation. It’s only a problem if you condemn the wrong collective.

The moderates are incomprehensible – Who are these terrible racists who are compared to the people who cheered at lynchings? Who are these right-wing extremists that Bouie calls “morally grotesque”? The New York Times and the Washington Post. Reminder: these are the two media companies that Trump has personally threatened to sue while remarking of the former: “They don’t write good. They have people over there, like Maggie Haberman and others, they don’t — they don’t write good. They don’t know how to write good.”

When you decide that even your enemies’ enemies are your bitter enemies, maybe you should consider making fewer enemies.


Intermission: why does everyone hate me?

I admit that it’s somewhat self-indulgent to position myself in Smith’s quote and assume that I’m “held in contempt and derision” because I’m the honest voice of calm reason. But I have a sneaking suspicion of reversed causality here. I mentioned some of the thinkers who inspired me: Haidt, Kling, Harris, Alexander, Yudkowsky. I noticed that we have one more thing in common besides fighting polarization and promoting rationality – we’re all (ethnically) Jewish.

For all our talents, Jews’ most remarkable ability is ending up equally hated by both sides of a polarized conflict. Naturally, whenever Sunni fight Shia they accuse each other of conspiring with Jews; so do Russia and Ukraine. In American culture wars, the SJ left hates Jews because they’re the rich and powerful oppressors. The alt-right accuses Jews of sacrificing babies to Moloch, which is very confusing to the Jews who try to use Moloch as a metaphor for cooperation failure.

Personally, I couldn’t find a home at the horseshoe’s tips even if I tried. I’m the worst kind of Jew you can imagine: an Israeli cosmopolitan liberal with an MBA. According to Malcolm X, this makes me an agent of the Zionist-capitalist conspiracy. According to the alt-right, this makes me an agent of the Zionist-capitalist conspiracy. The good news is that I’m bridging the gap between extremists just by existing. The bad news is that I’m only pushing this propaganda of tolerance and cooperation to further my Zionist-capitalist plot of global peace and prosperity (peace and prosperity increase stock prices).

I’m a bit worried that what led me to the center of the horseshoe isn’t cool rationality, but the fact that I was held in contempt and derision to start with. This shall be the new motto of the centrist moderates: “Does everyone hate you? You should try using reason, you have nothing to lose!”


Climbing the horseshoe

Ok, so you want to avoid being at the bottom of the horseshoe where everyone is your enemy and you’re destroying the social norms of cooperation that humanity depends on. How do you ascend to a more judicious position on the horseshoe?

Option 1 – convert to Judaism.

Option 2 – follow this simple, four-step plan:

  1. Find some you disagree with, but don’t hate.
  2. Figure out what they know that you don’t, and vice versa.
  3. Figure out what goals and values they hold that you don’t, and vice versa.
  4. Offer a compromise.

Let’s see if it works.


“Dear Mr. Bouie,

I have read your many articles regarding Trump supporters. I disagree with their content both factually and instrumentally. I don’t think they present the entire truth about racism in the United States, nor offer an effective way to fight it. But I admire your motivation in writing them, and I want to cooperate with you in our fight against racism.

There is no question that you know more than most about racism in the United States. From your writing I learned both about the historical cycles of racial integration and backlash, and about the present experience of being black in America. I don’t know much about either the past or the present of racism, all I know are bell curves.

Your article treats “attitudes about racism” as the only variable that mattered in the election, so that will be the bell curve’s axis. I will grant your implicit assumption that every Trump voter is more racist than every Clinton voter if you’ll grant me the mathematical assumptions needed for a Gaussian transformation. I want to “normalize” the racism of Trump’s voters, if you will.

racism-curve

If half the country voted for Trump, the median Trump voter is at the 75th percentile of racism. That’s 0.67 standard deviations more racist than the median American, and 1.33 SDs more racist than the median Clinton voter (and people like the New York Times). On the other hand, there are 6,000 registered KKK members out of 242 million American adults, that more than 4 SDs out on the racism axis. Even if we assume 100,000 white supremacists, a very pessimistic estimate, they occupy the area on the curve beyond 3.3 SDs. That’s twice as far from the median Trump voter as the latter is from the median Clinton voter.

Your main goal in opposing Donald Trump, Mr. Bouie, is fighting racism. I actually consider other issues more important. Yes, some Trump endorsers wonder if Jews are human (we’re actually dancer), but I am still more worried about nuclear war, the erosion of governance institutions and threats to global economic freedom. I know, I’m a weirdo. But for now, let’s put all that aside and concentrate solely on your goal: fighting racism.

Trump is especially worrying in regards to racism because he’ll be the first president to include the always-present minority of white supremacists in the government coalition. To combat that, we need to build an overwhelming anti-racist coalition. We can’t risk having just 51% of people on our side, we need at least three-quarters of the country. That means we need the “orange quarter” on my chart, the 25% of Americans who voted for Trump but are less racist than the median Trump voter.

Who are they? One of them is my old Jewish colleague who voted for Trump because of tax policy. One of them is my gay black friend who voted for Trump because he worries about illegal immigrants. Millions of them are the older rural whites in Pennsylvania and Michigan who swung the election Trump’s way. The same people whose great grandparents bled for the Union to end slavery a century and a half ago.

We need to compromise with these people because we need them. We need to tell them: ‘We don’t care as much about taxes and immigration and revitalizing the rural Midwest, and you don’t care as much about white supremacists, but we’ll help you out on all of the above if you help us kick the idiots shouting “Heil Trump” far outside the Overton window (and maybe out a physical window as well). Besides, what’s more embarrassing than pasty white dudes calling themselves Children of the sun? Are those the friends you want?

These “orange voters” don’t really care what the New York Times thinks of them, let alone what Slate does. If Breitbart accused you of being politically correct, you would wear that as a badge of honor. All we’re doing by calling everyone “racist” is redefining “racist” to mean “people who disagrees with Slate on anything”, the same way “politically correct” now means “people who disagree with Breitbart on anything”.

You know that dude Carl Higbie, the one who thinks that the WWII internment camps for Japanese were a good precedent? There are many ways to describe him. He’s a Navy SEAL who was honorably discharged and then had that honorable discharge revoked for writing a book about the war in Iraq. Quite a character, huh? And yet the only way anyone in the media describes Higbie talking about the interment camps is as a “Trump supporter”.

Look, we need these orange Trump supporters in our coalition to fight racism and we are telling them that internment camps are something on their agenda. Actually, forget the supporters. Trump himself has only one agenda: “winning”. Let’s not tell him that his policy is locking Muslims up.

Now let’s get to the N-word: normalization. You’re saying that this isn’t just another normal election, that this isn’t politics as usual. Look at that orange person in the middle of the bell curve, the 270th elector. He (or she) is the normal one. To them, it was a normal election, and they voted for Trump. We don’t get to decide what’s “normal” in America, America decided what’s normal on November 8th.

This doesn’t mean that what’s “normal” isn’t wrong, just that treating normal people as if they were evil mutants isn’t the way to make them right. I believe that “normal” is wrong on many things, like altruism, welfare, and football coaching. I try to persuade people to my position with friendly arguments, not by calling them names. We don’t decide whether to normalize the orange voters or not, they are normal. We decide if we’re going to polarize and radicalize these people, or if we work with them to achieve our goals.

And yes, if a bunch of people who aren’t evil mutants voted for someone, that should give us some evidence that this person also isn’t an evil mutant. This isn’t a political point, just a Bayesian one.

You know what this is reminiscent of? Obama’s refusal to associate jihadi terrorism with Islam to avoid radicalizing Muslims. We both agree that Obama is pretty smart, so let’s make a deal. We’ll both reach out to people close to us on the political horseshoe and ask them to adopt the anti-radicalization logic. You’ll tell the New York Times not to call Trump voters racist, and I’ll tell Sam Harris not to call terrorists Islamic. He’ll listen to me, we’re both in the Zionist-capitalist club together. Let’s build our coalition at the top of the horseshoe and at the middle of the bell curve.

Because when Jews and blacks cooperate, beautiful things happen.

drake-hotline
Did you know that Drake is also a Zionist-capitalist Moloch worshipper?

Respectfully yours,

Jacob.”

Year 1 Redux – Trump

Putanumonit’s birthday week continues, this is the second of my year 1 review posts.

Smart students, stupid charts

I stand behind everything I wrote in I Smell a Chart, at least until someone shares it with FiveThirtyEight’s Leah Libresco who will politely explain why I’m an idiot. My post focused on the abuses of data and statistics in the article, but I neglected an important point: if your data shows that affirmative action doesn’t help Hispanic students at all, but you still claim that it does, you’re doing actual harm to Hispanic students.

Affirmative action by definition evaluates people based on factors other than academic qualification, so employers who only care about qualification will try to counteract the effect of affirmative action. Let’s say that a university will accept a person named Leigh if their SAT is above 600, but they’ll only take Li if he scores 650, while Luis needs a mere 550 score. When an employer receives job application from all three students, they can conclude that Li was likelier to have a higher SAT score than Luis, which will influence their hiring decision. Even if they don’t aim to discriminate, companies in a competitive market have a huge incentive to hire the most qualified people they can.

I don’t know how large this effect is, but it’s not zero. It also depends on the perception by employers of affirmative action, not the actual effect of AA. If some people face severely limited educational opportunities and AA helps them get to college, AA may well have a positive effect even when rational employer discrimination is accounted for. But if AA doesn’t help Hispanics get into college, and the perception of AA hurts them coming out of college, it causes them net harm. Articles that increase the perception of AA while doing nothing to actually make it more effective exacerbate the harm even further.

Trump in the cockpit, journalists in the seats: story of a plane crash

With all that said, the AA article is an outlier on FiveThirtyEight. On the whole, the site is consistently smart, informative, and more or less objective.

To wit, FiveThirtyEight is practically the only mainstream (i.e. left-leaning) outlet that I can stomach following election coverage on (right-wing sources are no better). A lot of mainstream media companies chose to self-immolate in a Trumpnado of journalism malpractice. I was a loyal reader of Slate for years, until August 1st. On that day, they devoted 10 of the 12 articles on their homepage to attacking Trump, including “Trump Eats Fried Chicken Like a Sociopath”. I deleted the slate.com bookmark in disgust.

People have argued that it’s OK for journalists to follow their conscience and sacrifice their hard-earned credibility for a political goal they think is important. Fair enough, but guess what? Now these journalists are fresh out of credibility. The “fried chicken” guy writes almost exclusively about Trump, but who’s going to trust him on the topic now?

The worst part is, I really believe that Slate and NY Times and the rest of them are helping Trump, not hurting him. Contra the Donald, it says nowhere in the election rules that the media owes him fair coverage. If you’re unfit to be president, people will report that you’re unfit to be president. If you’ve assaulted women, the media will probably mention that. But when an outlet devotes a week to “Trump kicked crying babies out of a rally” (which didn’t actually happen), who’s going to take their word or even notice when they try to report serious news?

I have nothing but contempt for people who spit on truth-seeking the moment the truth becomes the slightest hindrance to the pursuit of their political goals. This goes both for presidential candidates and for journalists.

Bowling alone

Speaking of Trump, do you remember when I encouraged everyone not to vote?

My recommendation was based on four premises:

  1. Mathematically, your vote is really unlikely to swing an election.
  2. People judge candidates on personality more than on policy, and personality shouldn’t matter.
  3. The actual policies enacted are unpredictable and will (on expectation) be very similar no matter who gets elected.
  4. Being engaged in politics will turn you against friends and family, the miniscule chance of a positive public impact not worth the personal cost.

Point #1 still stands. If you want to know your exact chance of tipping the election you can adjust the baseline 1-in-10-million chance using FiveThirtyEight’s Voter Power Index for each state.

On the other hand, points #2 and #3 were dispatched quite decisively in the 10 months since my post. Personality doesn’t matter when the choice of personalities comes from a pool of basically respectable people like Bush, Gore, Kerry, McCain, Obama and Romney. Trump is an extreme outlier, and it’s no coincidence that 0 of the 6 people mentioned in the previous sentence are on his side. On policy, I don’t know what’s scarier: that Trump, if elected, will actually enact his proposals on immigration, trade, taxes, NATO and abortion, or that he really has no ideology and will make shit up as he goes along. I’m with Sam Harris on this one: the important part of picking the lesser evil isn’t that it’s evil, what’s important is that it’s less evil.

But point #4 is the important one for each person to realize individually: that you pay the price for political engagement by letting hate into your heart and discord into your relationships.

I followed the 2012 election from a graduate program that was about evenly split between Obama and Romney voters. This caused many of my classmates to get angry at each other, but at least they sometimes talked. That’s why I recommended that people match up across party lines and go bowling on election day, they’d have the same impact on democracy but without losing half their friends.

In 2016, there’s no one to bowl with. It’s almost impossible to imagine a social or professional group that splits 50-50 between Trump and Hillary. The two sides have consolidated their bubbles, purged all thought enemies, and have nothing but disdain for each other. I’ll give a blue tribe example because that’s the tribe I live in, and a controversial example because it has to be controversial to make the point.

Four weeks ago, the blue tribe declared total war on Scott “Dilbert” Adams for predicting that Trump will win the election.

100,000,000 enemies

On 9/30, Slate (who else?) wrote a hit piece on Adams calling him a “horny narcissist” in the article’s title. The next week Adams was shadowbanned on Twitter, a company that seems to have abandoned its ideals at the first sign of financial hardship. In the weeks since, an avalanche of hate piled up on Adams from online mobs and the media.

By now, a month of unrelenting abuse has curved the trajectory of Adams’ posts towards the crazy end. But when I browsed his blog in early October, he seemed at worst like someone who came up with a half-true hedgehogian theory (the “Trump is a master persuader” hypothesis), and stuck with it too long through a combination of doubling down on a bet and plain old confirmation bias. If it’s a crime to have an ego and an online platform, let him without sin cast the first tweet. But Adams’ crime is triple: an ego, a platform, and an association to Donald Trump.

I don’t have any reason to sympathize with Adams besides empathy for a person targeted by a bullying mob. But this post isn’t for Adams, it’s for the 100,000th person who tweeted “you’re dumb and your comic sucks too” at him.

43% of Americans support Trump. That’s 137 million people. The vast majority of these hold more extreme political opinions than Adams did a month ago when he declared his main concerns to be Hillary’s health and her estate tax plan. If you declare Adams to be an unredeemable enemy, an evil alien whose psychology is incomprehensible to right-thinking folk, the same goes for at least 100,000,000 other Americans.

Unlike a political argument with your uncle or classmate in 2012, these 100 million in 2016 will never get the chance to convince you of their humanity. The tribes barely intersect as it, and now Trump supporters see that nothing comes from interacting liberals except derision and harassment. 100 million people now hate and fear the blue tribe. And what really sucks, most of them will also hate and fear people like me and Scott Aaronson, even though we write blogs in defense of Trump defenders’ right to defend him.

Scott and I are educated coastal Jewish liberals. Trump supporters don’t read our blogs, but they can tell we’re from the tribe of their enemies. And I really don’t want to live in a country with 100 million who see me that way. So that’s why I defend Scott Adams’ right to be an idiot online. Because those who attack him drown out the voices of reason and tolerance, the voices of actual liberalism. I’m a liberal, and I can’t stomach that.

 

What this overpaid man has to say about the gender wage gap is shocking!

How come women make 79 cents on the dollar? Here are two prominent explanations that are clearly wrong, and two uncommon explanations that are possibly true.

A couple months ago, Vox tried to explain economic inequality using cartoons. That article was so deficient and misleading that it inspired me to write a whole rant on how reporting about inequality is often deficient and misleading. The income gap between the rich and the poor struck me as a subject that is actually amenable to an intelligent and balanced analysis. That’s in contrast, just to throw a random example, to the income gap between men and women.

So of course, this week Vox decided to explain the gender wage gap using cartoons. And guess what? It’s excellent. It’s well researched (by Claudia Goldin, a woman economist), well written (by Sarah Kliff, a woman editor), and describes an interesting explanation of the gender wage gap – the differing value of specific work hours.

Actually, I should say “factor that plays into” instead of “explanation of” the wage gap – it’s a complex effect that is driven by many causes that also interact with each other. The best we can do is identify several such factors and see if they fit data to build a better understanding of what’s going on. So, emboldened by Vox, I will offer two more possible developments contributing to the wage gap that neither invoke nor employ sexism. Also, unlike Mesdames Goldin and Kliff, I will not make a single penny from writing this. Thus I will be counteracting the gender wage gap through personal effort and example.


What’s wrong with arguments from sexism?

The two “arguments from sexism” regarding the gender wage come from the two ends of the gender-politics horseshoe,  and are thus pleasingly symmetrical and equally wrong. The argument from the RadFem-left side of the horseshoe is that women are paid less because oppressive men conspire to pay them less. The argument from the MRA-right is that women are just naturally less talented then men, with some allusion to evolutionary psychology accounting for the talent gap. Prior to collecting any data, we should notice the first argument contradicts basic economic math and the second argument contradicts… evolutionary psychology.

Economics tells us that if a wage gap existed, smart companies would profit by hiring women, driving the sexist companies out of business. People often dismiss this argument because of its simplicity, but it’s much more powerful than they realize. The average profit margins for businesses in the US are a mere 9%, while wages and benefits make up more than 60% of employer costs. If the wage gap of 79 cents on the dollar was for equal labor, employers hiring women would save 21% on labor costs, or more than 12% on total costs. This would more than double their profits ,while employers hiring men would go bankrupt. Overpaying for equal labor even by 5% increases your costs by 3%, that’s one third of an average company’s profits. In a competitive economy with high costs of labor, any sexist discrimination in wages large enough to be noticeable is also too costly to survive.

60 Playmate Bunnies Celebrate Playboy's 60th Anniversary
Hugh only hires women for the labor savings. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Playboy)

The evo psych talent argument seems to me like a classic fake explanation: it fails to predict the very effect it purports to explain. Consider this story:

Lacking the ability to resolve conflicts in their favor using brute strength, women have evolved to manage conflicts through interpersonal skills. Thus, women are less aggressive but better at persuasion, empathy and cooperation. These talents lead women to dominate occupations that require talking people over to your side, such as: politics, education, sales, entertainment, humanities academia, marketing, law, and all managerial positions in large corporations. This list of occupations covers every single highly paid career except for STEM and medicine. As a result, we see few women wasting their time trying to become doctors but otherwise most women earning higher incomes than men.

– Falkovich et al. Why men make 79 cents on a woman’s dollar (2016)

Now compare that, backed by the fact that women outpace men in educational attainment, to whichever just-so evo-psych story you heard about how women make less because evolved to be less assertive/analytical/hardworking. Which story sounds more reasonable?. Of course,  the plausibility of explanations should matter little if we have data. So what does the data say? It says that apparently you can find bias against women, bias against men or no bias at all depending on chance, researcher attitudes and whether Mercury is in retrograde.

If these arguments are supported by neither theory nor practice, why do so many people tout them passionately? (Just trust me, you don’t want to see links for this claim, they’re all horrible). I think that these are “beliefs as attire“, they are used mainly to signal loyalty to the RadFem/MRA political group that unifies around blaming the patriarchy/feminism for all its problems.

It’s important to remember that reversed stupidity isn’t intelligence: the explanations from sexism aren’t wrong because people believe them for dumb political reasons, they’re independently wrong. 5,000 years ago in Egypt someone proclaimed the crazy idea that the sun is larger than the earth just to curry political favor with the priests of Ra, and was correct by accident.

So, here are my two stories, and the data that backs them up:


It’s not all about the money

Jobs offer many different things besides compensation, Vox mentions only the obvious one that women trade-off for money: flexible hours needed to raise children. But a job isn’t just the hours and the wages.

Plumbers make almost 50% more than teachers, because the latter job is rewarding, high status and lets you work with children, while the former is boring, low status, and lets you work with sewage. This is also true at the higher end of the pay scale: MBA graduate women are likelier to work for non-profits, men likelier to work in corporate finance. Corporate finance isn’t cool, but it pays.

Also among MBAs, women are much likelier to work in marketing for big corporations like Coca Cola or Kraft: a very stable job but one with lower wage growth. Men are much likelier to work for hedge funds, where the salary is higher on average but also very volatile, as is the survival of entire company. Remember, when a hedge fund blows up and its male employees find themselves on the street, they immediately drop out of the wage-gap calculation which only includes the fully employed.

In happy-nomics terms, women are making the much smarter trade off. The effects on happiness of job security and finding purpose and meaning at work far outweigh the effects of salary increases beyond a certain point. So why do men value money more than flexibility, fun, coolness and stability?

There are likely many reasons, one of them is that 72% of women think that men should pay for the first date, and 82% of men agree. More broadly, men’s income correlates very strongly with being married, while women’s income barely does (raw data here). The fact is, both men and women care much more about a man’s salary than a woman’s, and that can be both a cause and an effect of men trading off other benefits for money.


It’s hard for men to earn little

Let’s imagine a simple economy consisting of three kinds of jobs. Half the men in our fantasy economy are fighters and make $20,000 a year. Half the women are rogues and also make $20,000. Finally, half of all men and women are wizards, and wizards make $100,000. The average wages for full time employees are $60,000, the same for men and women.

oots___lineup_by_tensen01
Art credit: tensen01, awesomeness credit: OOTS

Now let’s imagine that the economy outsources all the fighter jobs to orcs/skeletons/China and the fighter men are fired. These men drop out of the employment statistics, and the average wage for employed men shoots to $100,000 since only male wizards have jobs. “Fie the gender wage gap, women make 60 cents on the dollar!” cry the newspapers, even as men face a much worse economic employment situation than the women.

There’s some evidence that this is actually happening in our world (the male employment shift, not the orcs).

Here’s a gender-composition breakdown of various job categories, and here are the occupations with the largest employment changes. The occupations doing the worst are carpenters, laborers, freight movers and construction workers. These sectors are losing hundreds of thousands of (mostly male) jobs a year. It’s becoming harder and harder for men to find year round, low-paying jobs that would count against the average male wage in the statistics. Some of the men who are laid off from low paying jobs count as unemployed, but many give up on working full-time again and drop out of the labor force entirely. From 1994 to 2014, women’s labor force participation fell by 1.8%, while men’s dropped by a whopping 5.9%.

The fastest growing occupations are nurses and personal care aides (and also nursing aides and medical assistants, which is apparently a completely different occupation). These latter jobs also have a constant year-round demand. If you’re a “personal aide to a home nursing assistant” you definitely count in the fully employed statistics.

Basically, if you’re doing any sort of assisting or aiding in a medical or home setting, you have no trouble finding stable employment and your wages are slowly rising but still low. Also, you’re probably a woman, which means that you’re contributing to the gender wage gap. Shame on you.


So, is there sexist discrimination or not?

If that’s the question you’re still asking, you haven’t paid attention. Asking “is there discrimination or not?” is only important for recruiting soldier-arguments in support of your political position. The useful question is: “what should we do to allow men and women thrive in their jobs?” and the answer is: “it’s hard”.

My two proposals, that women choose different trade-offs and that the stats are skewed by there being less low-paying jobs for men, are just two of the myriad ways in which the desires, opportunities and paths to employment are different for each gender. The policy takeaway isn’t that there’s no discrimination so we shouldn’t do anything. The takeaway is that we should be careful about proposing solutions to issues that result from a dozen complex developments happening in parallel, until we really understand what’s going on.

Understanding this complexity and working to untangle it one piece of data at a time is the fox approach. Unfortunately, the more politically polarizing a subject is, the less patience people have for complexity, and the foxes (and Voxes) are rarely heard over the din. But we can’t make progress on a fox issue with hedgehog answers, we have to keep untangling. But it’s worth it: just look how cute these foxes are!

Love and Nice Guys

Are Nice Guys just guys who are nice? If so, why can’t they get a date and what can a BDSM class teach them? And what does this all have to do with bell curves?

Are Nice Guys just guys who are nice? If so, why can’t they get a date and what can a BDSM class teach them? And what does this all have to do with bell curves?

[Content warning: you will learn little math in this post. Instead, this is a straight white guy talking about gender issues and giving unsolicited dating advice. If that’s not your cup of matcha latte frappuccino, enjoy this picture of a hedgehog on cocaine and come back next week.]

hedgie coke
No, I’m not sharing the hedge. Listen, you got any blow?

 I.

When I was 21, I first heard about PUA, or the seduction community. A two-year romantic dry spell was beginning to shake my normally high confidence. The fact that at that point I had accumulated more math Olympiad trophies than sex partners wasn’t lost on me. A friend who attended a PUA seminar told me about it, then I ran into another guy who regaled me with tales of abundant casual sex. Then a few more acquaintances started whispering about it. It sounded adventurous and edgy, even used cool words like “evolutionary” and “neurolinguistic” that sounded  impressive even though I was a bit fuzzy about their actual meaning.

In retrospect, I don’t know how surprising it was that I was never tempted to attend a PUA class or even read a blog. Perhaps it went against my instinctual preference for relationships that are involved and egalitarian rather than shallow and adversarial. Perhaps I just couldn’t imagine my female friends, or the girls I wanted to date, actually falling for a bag of “tricks”. In all likelihood I was just lazy and PUA sounded like a ton of work.

Another thing that kept me away from PUA is feminism – the fact that I knew little about it. Because I knew so little about feminism, I thought I knew everything. “Equality and respect for people regardless of gender” didn’t sound like insidious propaganda; I was very confused that the PUAs I talked to regarded feminism as a bitter enemy spouting lies and corruption. It never crossed my mind to google what feminists were actually going on about.

I probably still don’t what most feminist writing is about, I assume that a lot of it is stuff like here’s how women can deal with Issue X“. Not being a woman, and not having to deal with Issue X myself, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to it. Some feminist writing is women have to deal with issue X because of Behavior Y by men. This is interesting and useful to me as a man with behaviors, and I would occasionally stumble into a couple of such stories online, but stories like this don’t tend to go viral. The ones that do are invariably of the form women’s issues are all because of the dudes in Group Z, look at how disgusting these Group Z dudes are“.

wwz.jpg
Typical outcome of an online culture-war debate

The “Group Z” stories don’t become prominent because they are good, the do so because they’re the worst. The arguments in these stories are just strong enough to be endorsed by the ingroup, dishonest enough to infuriate the outgroup, in particular Group Z. The reward  of these stories isn’t long in coming – within hours, the it’s all the fault of the evil feminists reply will materialize like the second chunk of plutonium needed to breach critical mass. The nuclear outrage explosion radiates outwards, vaporizing in an instant innocent bystanders, epistemic charity and any shred of human dignity and tolerance.


Intermission: you’ve noticed there aren’t any links to sources regarding PUA, feminism or culture wars in general in this post. I even resisted the urge to link to the pretty hilarious story of an eminent PUA calling for a boycott of “Mad Max : Fury Road” on the grounds that the latter is feminist indoctrination. However, I’m sticking with the no-culture-war-link policy for a few reasons:

  • I don’t have any expertise or authority in these matters, and I won’t try to claim transitive authority from other sources by linking to them. 
  • I am sharing a candid story of personal experience. When I write “Group X does thing Y” please read it as “Jacob has seen people he counts as belonging to Group X do things that look to him as Y”. If you want to argue definitions and true Scotsmen, or if you simply disagree about the facts, feel free to stop reading.
  • No matter what link I add, someone will object to the link, or object to my objection of the link’s content, or object to my lack of objection to the objectionable link. Putanumonit objects to objectification and will avoid it.

II.

Back to our story: the worst non-Trump parts of the internet involve an eternal struggle between people who call themselves [third wave / radical / no prefix] feminists and Group Z. It would have been a great relief if Group Z had simply turned out to be the seduction community or men’s rights activists (MRA). Since I was neither PUA/MRA nor a feminism activist at the time, I could have observed the skirmish dispassionately from the sidelines and then shaken my head and gone away. But, it turns out that PUAs attract only a small fraction of feminist scorn, and these battles when fought are confined to distant corners where people like me can safely ignore them. I was pretty confused to discover that the targets of the worst and loudest feminist derision are, in fact, nice guys. Or, depending on whether you’re attacking or defending them, Nice Guys (TM).

There are no winners in identity wars, but you have a chance to escape unscathed and with your mind intact if you keep your identity small. If someone talks about the mass-murders perpetrated in the name of communism, and you happen to be a fan of centralized economies, the worst thing you can do is call yourself a communist and suddenly find yourself defending Stalin’s purges. If communism for you is a matter of economic theory and not your identity, you can safely ignore discussions of Stalin and talk about dialectical materialism or whatever.

It seems like not making Nice Guy (TM) part of your identity shouldn’t be a problem. Why would anyone describe themselves as a Nice Guy (TM)? The problem is, no one can tell that you aren’t a Nice Guy (TM) either! If the conversation was only about Nice Guy behavior it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, the pieces that echo the loudest talk about people and not behaviors. In story after story, these Nice Guys are marked with certain identifiers, whether explicitly or connotationally. The implication is that if you fit the criteria, you’re part of the group. And if you’re part of the group, you’re guilty of the group’s sins. If 21-year old Jacob read down the list of criteria, he would have reason to worry.

  • Male Check
  • White Check
  • Straight Check
  • Thinks he’s nice Check, who doesn’t think they’re nice?
  • Sexually inexperienced Check
  • Outside mainstream fashion / culture Only the worst of it, but that’s most of it
  • Plays video games, reads science fiction Uh-oh
  • Doesn’t understand women Yes, but wait, that just what I’m trying to…
  • Thinks that romance should work according to simple formulas Come on, that’s not what I…
  • Nerd Fuck.

who me

I can hardly think of a more efficient tool of pushing normal, friendly, feminist-leaning guys into PUA, Red Pill and MRA. It’s easy to tsk-tsk about silly fights from the outside, but when the bullets are flying right at you, you take cover and return fire; ask questions later. I stumbled onto the Feminist-Nice Guy Conflict (abbreviated: FHTAGN) after years of studying rationality self defense and it’s still hard to keep my cool. It’s very hard to have objective discussions about female issues X and problematic behavior Y when the loudest conversations are about the evil Group Z that just happens by coincidence to match me on 100% of observable characteristics. Very hard, but not impossible.


III.

People use different methods to calm down: hum a tune or kick a trashcan. I like to draw distribution density curves. Here’s my mental distribution model of women worrying about gender issues:

Bellcurves Fem NG.png

I don’t know if that’s a reasonable model, it’s based on my sample size of being exactly zero women but talking to quite a few of them. It’s based on a simple assumption: complex traits are distributed on a bell curve, extreme opinions don’t represent the majority but show which way it’s leaning.

This can turn meaningless violence into a learning opportunity and more importantly, into instrumental rationality: a strategy for achieving good outcomes. I’m a guy, and I’m nice, and I think that nice guys should win. Instead of poking holes in the worst arguments against Nice Guys, we should steelman (or more appropriately: steelwoman) them. We should consider the most reasonable version of each argument. The principle of charity asks that we find the sane version of the argument, the one that makes sense in the head of the person making it. We must go beyond that. We should arrive at the sanest, most justifiable version that makes sense to women reading it, women who aren’t feminist bloggers but hear an echo of truth in them.

left alone
A Softer World was my absolute favorite webcomic, now concluded after 12 years of gorgeous photography and jokes that make you cry. Do yourself a favor by getting lost for an hour or five at asofterworld.com

That reasonable version is always “I’m uncomfortable when guys do this thing, especially in a specific context and under uncertainty”, it’s never “guys who stereotypically do this thing are evil rape lords”. The solution to each issue is usually about finding what’s useful (i.e. in allowing people to connect romantically). Sometimes, the solution requires deciding what’s good and right. In these, my moral guideline is consequentialism: the greatest good for the greatest number. If men were categorically prohibited from initiating conversation with women, that would reduce harassment. It would also reduce love, romance, connection and friendship and maybe be the end of the human race. If men could face no repercussions from saying anything at all to a women, a small amount of liberty for men would have been traded off against a huge cost in discomfort and danger for women.

Human issues require sensible trade-offs to solve. If you hold sacred values that trump all others at any exchange rate (like freedom, personal pleasure or fighting oppression), you won’t find purchase in this conversation. However, if you accept trade-off choices and the personal responsibility of making them, you may find the following suggestions reasonable. I practice everything I preach below, and it kinda seems to be working out.


IV.

OK, 1700 words in and with all but two or three intrepid readers gone screaming, let’s see how we can turn angry criticism of Nice Guys (TM) into useful dating advice for nice guys. Strap in.

Nice Guys complain that dating isn’t fair

Dating among humans should be fair and proper, like it is among elephant seals. Elephant seals are polygamous, meaning that a single male can mate with many females. The way a single male achieves this is by biting and goring any other males in his vicinity, often injuring or killing females and seal pups in the process. At the end of the mating season, 4% of males will have had 80% of the sex but 90% of males will carry scars and injuries from fighting. In elephant seal dating, you’re more likely to bleed to death than to get laid.

EleSealFight1.jpg
Speed dating event, Manhattan, NY

It makes sense to complain about fairness if someone’s enforcing the rules, but there’s no congressional committee in charge of dating. There’s only life. Life isn’t fair: belief in a just world is called “just world fallacy“, that last word there’s a hint. Complaining about unfairness makes you feel angry and helpless, neither of which is a good mindset for achieving success in dating. I really don’t see a middle ground on this: whether deep down you believe that dating is fair or unfair, you’ll always do better by never saying it out loud, even to yourself.

Nice Guys complain that “jerks” get all the women

Wait, who’s a “jerk”? If someone’s a jerk to you but is a devoted and attentive to his girlfriend, does that count? Maybe someone can afford to be a jerk because they’re handsome, rich and great in bed. In that case, they get women despite their jerkiness, not because of it. I think that the perceived jerk-attractiveness correlation might be due to one of my favorite statistical effects, the “cornerless distribution”:

cornerless.png

Let’s assume that guys who are both unattractive (in a broad meaning) and jerks are doomed to be alone. Let’s also assume that decency and attractiveness are completely uncorrelated, each green point is distributed randomly. If we look just at the guys with women, it would seem that among them attractive guys are likelier to be jerks.

This is the same effect that makes it seem like hotter actors aren’t as good at acting (if an actor is neither pretty nor good they wouldn’t work at all) and why restaurants that are more fashionable have worse food (since if a place is neither hip nor tasty it will go bankrupt). Shit, I promised that I won’t teach you any math, but I couldn’t help it.

In reality, it certainly doesn’t seem like jerks get all the women. Yes, PUAs get laid a lot, but they also approach hundreds of women. Any strategy will work on 1% of people at least, no matter if it’s good or bad. At most, it seems like jerks get all the women-who-like-jerks, which is a legitimate preference for these women. If you want to date women who want to date jerks, then being a jerk is in fact the correct move. Just be careful not to want to date someone who might want to date someone who might want to date a racist.

Another confusion is conflating jerkiness with any refusal to defer to a woman. Asking to split the bill on a third date is not being a jerk, and whether the woman finds fault in this is not a moral issue.

Nice Guys are unattractive

Recall a woman whom you find really unattractive. Now try to make yourself attracted to her by sheer force of will. Come on, I’ll wait.

Attractiveness is a function of two things: how you look, and how a woman perceives the way you look. The second one is out of your reach. The first one isn’t. You can’t change some aspects of your appearance, but advice on how to improve your fashion, posture and grooming is screaming at you from every billboard and ad. You’ll get it from women too, if you ask them. If you don’t want to confirm to whatever standard of appearance is preferred by the women you’re after you need to realize that your trading off attractiveness for your own personal comfort. No one can force you to dress or groom a certain way, but it has costs and benefits.

If you refuse to acknowledge this trade-off it’s probably because it seems unfair, and we already discussed complaining about unfairness. Just be thankful that current male fashion doesn’t include carrying an ornament on your ass that’s bigger than your entire body and makes you more likely to be eaten by foxes.

peacock.jpg
Makes more sense than skinny jeans

Nice Guys aren’t actually nice at all

This is a tricky one: you know that you’re a kindhearted, loving, good person. Who is she to accuse you of just pretending to be nice? The problem is, everyone thinks that they’re a good person, even bad people. People will judge your behavior with utter disregard for your own self-image.

Being nice to the subject of your affection isn’t convincing because you’re incentivized to do so whether you’re a nice person or not. You have to prove your kindness by being nice when you don’t have to, that’s why “be nice to the waiter on a date” is universal dating advice. You should go beyond that: be nice to the pedestrian bumping into you on the way, the clueless tourist, the homeless person on the curb. Be nice to people who aren’t there: don’t spend the first date talking shit about your coworkers, your family, and most of all the last girl you went on a date with.

In the end, and women aren’t stupid and niceness is hard to fake. The good news is, I don’t think that many people are hateful or bitter by nature (because I haven’t read the comments to this post yet). Niceness is as much a function of context and situation as it is an inherent characteristic. The best predictor of stopping to help a stranger is how much of a hurry you are in. Use this to your advantage: plan dates for times when you are happy and relaxed. Don’t invite your date to a restaurant that’s out of your price range, the stress you’ll feel about overspending will undo any impression the lobster will make. And most importantly: don’t talk politics.

Nice Guys could be rapists

OK, it’s one thing if women can’t immediately see that you’re an awesome person, but accusing you of being a potential rapist is preposterous. Hold on, do you know how a rapist looks like? Does she? In fact, she might have some idea but if you’re a guy it’s very rare that someone assaults a woman when you’re there to see it. You can complain that it’s not fair to be presumed guilty until found innocent, or, you can make a woman comfortable.

shrodingers rapist.jpg
That’s totally what a rapist would say.

For the first date, invite her for a 1 pm brunch instead of an 11 pm bar. If it has to be late, set the date up in her neighborhood, so she doesn’t have a long commute by herself at night. Buy her coffee instead of shots. If you do nothing in the first half hour of an OkCupid date except proving that you’re a safe person to be around, you’re not doing terribly.

Nice Guys are afraid ask a woman out directly / Nice Guys are creepy / Nice Guys fake friendship to get sex

These are complex, pernicious problems with a simple, obvious solution: ask a girl out as soon as you decide you want to date her. No exceptions.

The only reason men don’t do it is fear of rejection. The longer you wait, the worse rejection will hurt, the greater the fear of it grows, the longer you’ll wait. There is no way for it to get better until you ask her out. If you want to ask her out and she doesn’t know it, she won’t figure it out by herself with enough confidence to approach you first. How good are you at guessing what’s on a woman’s mind? Every man in history has asked women to be straightforward instead of dropping vague hints, we should at least practice what we preach.

be my gf
Donuts always help

The real trouble is when you want to ask her out and she knows it. If she’s going to say yes, you’re wasting everyone’s time and nerves. If she’s going to say no, you’re not going to change her mind by being creepy and hanging around. Both of you are spiraling into a vortex of becoming more and more uncomfortable around each other with each passing day. She can’t save you from the awkward creepiness – she can only say no once you ask. Every day you don’t, you’re killing the option of the two of you staying friends or even cordial acquaintances.

Many summers ago, there was a girl at work that I started hanging out with a lot. After a few months of that we ended up going on a long drive together. It took me a whole hour to work up the courage to invite her on a date. She said no. I didn’t really have a response to that. It took us the rest of the drive and three more weeks to get over the awkwardness and go back to talking to each other like normal.

Last year, I asked out a girl on my soccer league team after our second game. She said no. I said “Cool. Good game today, I’ll see you next week.” We kept playing together like nothing happened and won the league championship because I’m a monster goalkeeper. (She’s pretty decent in midfield as well.) There’s a lesson here, and it’s not about soccer.

What if you don’t want to be friends? Don’t! Lust is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s a basic human emotion. Whether lust was your only interest or just the overwhelming one, the only cure for unreciprocated lust is distance (and porn). Take a breath, accept it, move on.

It’s best to decide ahead of time if you’ll agree to be friends or not. Think: would you enjoy her company if she was ugly? Of the twenty-plus ladies I’ve gone on dates with in NYC I decided to remain friends with only two. Both of them gave me a clear and unambiguous rejection as a romantic partner. I took a couple of weeks for my crush to cool off, and now we’re just friends: one of them just invited me and my girlfriend on a Mexico trip with her.

Like fairies, fantasies and free will, friendzones only exist in men’s minds, not in real life. This doesn’t mean that there must be a strict demarcation between friends and lovers. Friends-with-benefits, polyamory and relationship anarchy are all great as long as you know exactly where you stand. “Friendzone” implies that you and the other person disagree on where your relationship is and where it should be. The longer you wait to find out where you are, the worse it gets.

One last thing: getting asked out can be scary and uncomfortable to women. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it: when there’s a trade-off between your chance of finding eternal love and a woman’s discomfort, the sensible thing isn’t to give up but rather to reduce the discomfort. Ask someone out when they’re comfortable and safe. Don’t ask a girl out when you’re in a car together (like I did tin my youth). And if you’re alone with a woman in an elevator in a foreign country at 4 am, consider waiting until breakfast. It’s just good tactics.

Nice Guys pedestalize women / Nice Guys treat women as vending machines, expecting sex to be dispensed as a reward for following some formula / Nice Guys are exasperated that there isn’t a manual for women

All toasters of a certain brand are the same, so toasters have manuals.

rtfm
RTFM

People aren’t toasters.

I dated a Chinese girl once. She was emotional, promiscuous, flaky and loved classical music. So, I figured that all Chinese girls are like that. Then I dated I another Chinese girl who was cool, careful, dependable and loved hip hop. So, I figured that all Chinese girls are different and it’s remarkably stupid to stereotype a nation based on one person.

Guys who have dated a lot usually realize how different every woman is and are careful about generalizing. Guys who have dated one or two partners may not be aware of just how idiosyncratic every relationship is, but at least they have a useful point of reference. Guys who haven’t been in serious relationships, and this includes everyone in high school, can fall into the trap of thinking that there should be a tactic that applies to all women. If they’re lacking for good role models, they may get confused by Hollywood and fantasy novels and imagine that this tactic is pedestalization.

Ozy has the stage:

I have to be clear that pedestalization does not work. In general, people do not like to be supplicated to. Being like “I have done everything you want, Mistress! I ask only for the touch of your lips!” works well in BDSM scenes and fairy tales, not so much in real life. And while some women like all that Hallmark shit, a lot of women don’t, and ignoring the desires of your partner in favor of the desires of All Women Everywhere rarely ends well. Most people don’t want to be a plaster saint: they want to be treated as a person by their partners.  [Emphasis mine.]

In some cases, a guy tries pedestalization, fails horribly, and then concludes that the universal-tactic-to-seduce-all-women must simply be the exact opposite of supplication. At that point someone is usually around to hand him a PUA leaflet. In fact, PUA and supplication are very similar: they both aim to unlock the desires of All Women Everywhere.

In romance, you’re dealing with a person, so your approach should probably be personalized. The problem is, every relationship starts with a person you know nothing about. How can you discover an individual and unique approach to connect with someone you’ve just met?


V.

I found a cool group in NYC that describes itself as “TED with friends”: we gather to listen to a speaker on topics like neuroscience or comedy writing, then have a group game or discussion about the topic. That’s how I found myself sitting in a basement of a coworking/meditation office in Williamsburg (where else?) and listening to Olive B. Persimmon talk about vulnerability and a cool idea she picked up in BDSM class. She spent 40 minutes sharing personal, embarrassing stories. After she was done, I turned to the person next to me, a young Asian guy with a stylish haircut whom I’ve never seen before, and did the BDSM exercise. I looked into his eyes and told him everything I was deeply ashamed of. Then he told me, and we switched partners.

It felt like an intense drug trip: an avalanche of emotions, my heart swelling with affection, ego dissolving. All I wanted after the exercise was to squeeze every person there in a hug and hold them for a few hours or so. Who the person was, how they looked like, where they worked, none of that mattered beside the joy of completely opening up to another person and seeing your honesty and vulnerability reciprocated.

It reminded me of the famous New York Times article about the 36 questions and 5 minutes of eye contact that will make you fall in love. We like to think of ourselves as sophisticated being with intricate desires, but simple parts of our brains react to simple stimuli, and these stimuli can be supercharged to take over our bre. We delight in fine cuisine, and yet concentrated sugar + fat + salt = irresistible junk food. We execute complex tasks, and yet fine tuned difficulty + intermittent reinforcement + clear feedback = video games that people play until they die. Can it be as simple as Liberty from fear +Openness + Vulnerability + Eye contact = falling in L.O.V.E?

love confession.jpg
Show your heart

The emotion of falling in love is just a small part of what “love” is, and even that is vastly more complicated than a simple formula. Still, this formula is a much better bet than the usual inane recommendations for first date conversation: “stay away from heavy topics”, “don’t scare him off”, “ask about her job”. What the fuck is this, a LinkedIn profile?

Openness and honesty alleviate the first obstacle to building a relationship: uncertainty. Eye contact is the strongest “hack” humans have to reinforce the feeling of openness on an emotional level. Removing uncertainty also reduces the anxiety and paves the way towards feeling safe and secure around each other: there’s nothing to fear when there’s nothing to hide. We are afraid of being vulnerable when it can be used against us, but when we feel open and secure vulnerability encourages reciprocation.

Openness, security and vulnerability build on each other in a virtuous cycle. When you start with candor, the other person feels safe. When they feel safe, they will share something personal as well. When you learn something personal you repay them with a confession of your own. Suddenly, instead of a stranger you are looking across the table at someone you begin to know intimately and can address as a unique person.

A couple of years ago, my then-girlfriend broke up with me three weeks after we signed a yearly lease on a 1 bedroom apartment. This being New York, neither of us could afford the place by ourselves, and we both loved the apartment and the bargain of splitting the rent. We made a radical decision: we would just keep living in that room together.

roommates
Normal New York living situation

When I plunged into the crazy world of NYC dating, I faced a dilemma: when do I tell dates about my unusual living arrangement? At first I decided to wait until “the right moment” comes. As you may have guessed, there isn’t really a right moment to slip “by the way, I’m sharing a room with my ex-girlfriend, but it’s strictly platonic between us now” into a conversation. By the time a third date rolls around, the embarrassment of the confession itself is compounded by the embarrassment of having hidden it for so long.

I changed tack: I decided to confess it straight up on the first date as soon as we got over the initial jitters and built a rapport. The response was overwhelmingly positive, most women appreciated my honesty and shared their own crazy and funny stories of NYC living (everyone has one). One girl really freaked out and told me it was absolutely unacceptable. 15 minutes later she confessed to me that she was still obsessing about her own ex-boyfriend, was sneaking out to sleep with him and was feeling hella guilty about it. I was the second person she ever told this to.


VI.

It seems that creating safety and trust by being honest and vulnerable is a no-brainer, but it’s anathema to the stereotypical approaches of both PUAs and Nice Guys (TM).

The stereotypical PUA doesn’t want the woman to feel safe and in control, the Nice Guy (TM) can’t understand why she wouldn’t ever feel safe around him. But unless both partners feel secure, they can’t even really talk.

The stereotypical PUA never confesses to faults because it lowers his status, the Nice Guy (TM) doesn’t because he won’t admit them to himself. But when you confess your shortcomings, it turns out that people’s take away is that you’re honest and self-aware, the actual shortcomings forgotten or forgiven.

The PUA and Nice Guy (TM) mislead women about their intentions. But being upfront about your aims turns a competitive game into a cooperative effort to achieve those aims by both partners.

The PUA doesn’t ask a woman questions to appear cool and disinterested. The Nice Guy (TM) asks about her job because he read that people like talking about themselves. But when you open up to another person you invite them to share the things they really care about, the questions you would never have thought of asking.

The PUA and the Nice Guy (TM) have a single approach to the Needs of All Women Everywhere. But when someone opens up to you, you know their personal needs and what they, and only they want and look for.

The stereotypical PUA and Nice Guy (TM) tactics occasionally persuade someone into having sex with them. That usually happens not because the tactics are hot, but because women like sex too. But once it happens a couple of times, a man could conclude that confusing people into bed is the extent of romantic relationships. He could conclude That loving, growing, reciprocal relationships are a sappy fantasy or a feminist conspiracy.  He would suspect that perhaps men and women are natural enemies, and if they stumble upon a certain feminist blog, that suspicion turns into certainty. He would conclude that honesty is foolish, vulnerability is weak, being nice is naive.

If you find these thoughts occurring to you: be nice, try L.O.V.E, and remember the bell curve:

bell curve love.jpg