I Can Get Annoyed
an uncharitable post
My blog used to have a motto “Being charitable to those who disagree.” I am about to violate that. Unless I think better of it before this post goes up, in which case you won’t see it. But I am struck at how bad ideas can survive and propagate, and thinking about the issue leads me to be uncharitable.
I may be in a bad mood, because I went to a dance camp recently, and as I started working on this post I was still sleep-deprived. At any dance camp we attend, when it comes to politics, my wife and I are the only ones on the right foot, so to speak. I managed to avoid getting annoyed with anyone’s politics until the last day, when at breakfast a teacher complained that in her very affluent suburban Chicago school district parents successfully lobbied the school board to require in-person instruction during the pandemic. “They didn’t care about us,” she snarled. All of the other (left-footed) dancers at the table nodded their heads in sympathy. Somehow, the idea that teachers were uniquely put upon during the pandemic has managed to propagate.
I asked how many teachers got badly sick as a result. I did not get an answer, and I let the matter drop. But what I might have said is that the virus had an unequal impact on people’s lives. For me, it was an improvement, because my daughter, her husband, and her new baby came to stay with us for several months. So I got to spend much more time with my grandchild than I would have otherwise. My wife dubbed this our “COVID blessing.”
But life is not fair. For this teacher, and others whose jobs required in-person work, the impact was that they were put at risk. Others reaped the benefit of what these workers provided with the risks that they took. The teacher resented having to take the risks involved in coming in to teach her 4th-graders. But if people in every occupation decided that providing services was not worth the risk, and if society went along with that, we would all be dead.
The workers in the food supply chain put up with the risks. The workers in medical facilities put up with the risks. I don’t know how the idea became entrenched among teachers that they suffered an inhumane imposition.
And here is Bryan Caplan’s review of Garett Jones’ new book, The Culture Transplant, which warns that immigrants tend to bring their values with them, and, contrary to common belief, they do not quickly assimilate into the culture of their new land.
Yet Jones' evidence argues for radical liberalization of immigration: if not fully open borders, then at least 50 percent open borders—at a time when borders are somewhere around 2 percent open.
This reminds of me of the experiment demonstrating confirmation bias, in which the same evidence is given to people with opposing priors, and each one reads the evidence as favoring his opinion. Bryan’s style is characteristically self-referential and pugilistic. With his right hand punch, he says that the empirical results in the book are not reliable. And with his left hand punch, he says that the empirical results actually support Bryan’s own views, not Jones’ conclusion. If and when I review the book, I will stick more closely to the issue of the reliability of the results.
Moving on, Swarthmore College recently invited alumni to take a survey evaluating various aspects of the college. The only category which I gave the most negative rating for was Diversity. The description of the category included “viewpoint diversity,” and my reading of the alumni magazine is that there has not been a conservative opinion expressed on campus this century. The college has been progressive since its founding, but when I was there you could still find openly right-of-center faculty. Anyway, the survey did not allow for any comments, so I could not explain my answer. My guess is that if my survey response has any impact at all, it will be taken as saying that blacks are oppressed and the college needs to double down on DEI bureaucrats.
Speaking of education, awhile ago a friend told me that she took her 4-year-old grandson to a Drag Queen Story Hour. I would never do that.
My basic approach to life is that when something has a high potential upside and a low downside, try it. When it has a low upside and a high potential downside, don’t try it.
Someone who takes it upon himself to put on a sexual display in front of little children is a pervert, by definition. If there is an upside for a 4-year old going to a show by a pervert, I can’t imagine what it would be. As for the downside, probably that is low. But I have no idea how a 4-year-old mind is supposed to process seeing a human with male characteristics and large breasts. It is conceivable that the potential downside is large.
My friend clearly saw things differently. My uncharitable view is that she was trying to demonstrate her moral superiority to people who get upset over Drag Queen Story Hour. She probably assumed I was on her side. I don’t out myself to all of my friends.
In my opinion, the power of the idea of Drag Queen Story hour to spread is not based on its intrinsic value. It does well because it allows people on the left to show off to one another. Rob Henderson coined the term “luxury beliefs.” In the evolutionary process, ideas do not have to be correct or even sensible in order to survive. They just have to be useful to the hosts that carry them.
Which finally brings me to Matt Yglesias. At the risk of being uncharitable, I find that Yglesias personifies naive realism, meaning that he writes as if he is utterly convinced that his view of the world is the true one.
Often, he comes up with ways to solve problems using technocratic ideas. One recent inspiration is to spend a fortune on research to develop plant-based alternatives to meat. Not his own money, of course, but money from taxpayers. The goal is to eventually come up with products that are cost-competitive and taste-competitive with meat, with lower carbon dioxide emissions than the meat production cycle.
Yglesias does not talk about the possibility that the project could fail along some dimension. He does not mention that $3.8 trillion invested in renewable energy over the past ten years reduced the share of fossil fuels in energy consumption by just 1 percent. He does not talk about risks, such as the possibility that artificial meat will require additives that when consumed in large quantities turn out to cause cancer. He does not talk about how this sort of program typically turns into a keg party for rent-seekers.
There is no room for doubt. Since he has a solution to a problem, then by golly, he has a solution. And government is just the institution to implement it.
More recently, Yglesias wrote,
the Congressional Black Caucus stands out as a bastion of ideological diversity, including some very left-wing members but also many stalwarts of the moderate faction of the Democratic Party.
In his framework conservatism is not an ideology, merely an annoyance.
Unlike Yglesias, I often worry that I might be wrong. I might be wrong to think that teachers should have sucked it up and met their classes. I may be wrong about viewpoint diversity at Swarthmore. I may be wrong to call men perverts for putting on fake breasts in front of little children.
I may be wrong to complain about Yglesias. Much of his post on artificial meat is devoted to comparing it to ideas that are even worse. Perhaps his intent is not really to get an artificial meat Manhattan Project funded; instead the Straussian message might be for people to notice the lunacy of other proposals for dealing with climate change.
Perhaps I am simply suffering from jealous resentment of his popularity.
It seems that a hubristic self-described problem-solver has the good fortune to inhabit a really large niche in the Internet ecosystem. The niche for uncertain, Chesterton Fence-wary folks may always be a small one. That is a problem I wish could be solved.