What You Don’t Know

“Every person you meet knows something that you don’t know.”

That was one of my grandfather’s favorite adages.

He died when I was quite young, so I don’t remember him well. I remember his appearance, his book-lined study, his beloved pipe, and the top left drawer of his desk that always had a fresh bag of M&Ms candy in it. I also remember the tree that I liked to climb in his front yard. That’s about all.

But my grandfather’s adage reflected millennia of human wisdom.

The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles (496-406 BCE) wrote about Antigone, whose brother had been killed in battle. In the play, the king declares her brother a traitor and orders that his body be left unburied.

Antigone defies the decree and buries her brother as required by moral law. She knows that she’ll probably be executed, but she faces her fate calmly, confident in the justice of what she has done.

As expected, the king orders her put to death. His son Haemon then tells him what no one else dares to say:

“‘No other woman’,
So they are saying, ‘so undeservedly
Has been condemned for such a glorious deed.
When her own brother had been slain in battle
She would not let his body lie unburied
To be devoured by dogs or birds of prey.
Is not this worthy of a crown of gold?’
Such is the muttering that spreads everywhere.”

The king doesn’t want to back down. He thinks that changing his mind would show weakness.

But — getting back to my grandfather’s adage — Haemon argues that open-mindedness isn’t weakness:

“The man who thinks that he alone is wise, that he
Is best in speech or counsel, such a man
Brought to the proof is found but emptiness.”

He concludes:

“There is no disgrace, even if one is wise,
In learning more, and knowing when to yield.”

The American President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) had a group of advisors called his “brain trust.”

If we’re wise enough to listen to each other, consider opposing viewpoints, and work together, then we don’t need to be elected president to have a brain trust.

Then, the whole world becomes our brain trust.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Trust Not in Ideologies

“Put not your trust in princes,” advises the Bible.

I would add “put not your trust in ideologies.”

Ideologies don’t make decisions. People make decisions, for good or for ill.

Every way to organize society has advantages and disadvantages. If you want the advantages of a particular method, you must accept its disadvantages.

And one way or another, the disadvantages usually come back to the human factor. Every social system is inevitably run by people.

Rarely, people are wise; occasionally, they are noble. Once in a while, they are lucky. Often, they are self-interested. Usually, they are blind to anything except what they want. And they’ll make up all kinds of reasons why what they want is the only sensible choice.

Let’s take capitalism versus socialism as an example. A couple of people were arguing about them on the internet Friday morning.

First, we should define the terms. Too often, people skip that step. Their arguments degenerate into shouting matches because neither side knows what it’s arguing about. Let’s go to The Oxford English Dictionary:

  • Capitalism: “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”
  • Socialism: “[an economic and political system in which] the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

In both of those systems, the devil is in the details.

Capitalism has two main advantages. First, it’s very efficient at making stuff. If it works right, people can have a higher standard of living than under socialism. Second, in theory, lots of private businesses compete with each other. That keeps any individual business or person from getting too powerful. Moreover, all those businesses compete for workers, thereby raising wages and decreasing inequality.

But capitalism needs rules. Whoever writes the rules can rig the economy to favor themselves.

If the political system is decentralized, then they can only write rules for their own small area. So they try to centralize all decision-making in the national government, where they can rig the system for the entire country. That’s how we got five big banks that control most finance; five big media companies that control publishing, entertainment, and communication; Amazon; and many of our current billionaires. It’s why open-borders activists have no clue that they’re being used by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which wants millions more workers to push down wage rates.

Likewise, in theory, socialism has resources owned “by the community as a whole.” But the community as a whole doesn’t get to decide how resources are used. Those decisions are made by a small group of people at the top.

If the people on top mean well, which happens once in a while, they try to make decisions for the common good. Unfortunately, their decisions are guesses, because socialism gives them no way to know how much things are worth. That’s one reason it’s inefficient.

If the people on top don’t mean well, then there’s not much that average citizens can do about it. That’s how the Russians got Stalin, the secret police, gulags, and mass starvation that The New York Times very helpfully covered up.

But in a homogeneous, high-trust society with good people running things, socialism can work well enough. It can satisfy people who value cooperation and material equality more than efficiency and a high standard of living. Sweden used to be like that.

The bottom line goes back to people, as well as to a lot of circumstances that nobody can control or predict. Whether you call it capitalism, socialism, Georgism, propertarianism, libertarianism, or anarcho-capitalism, what happens will depend mainly on a combination of people and sheer luck. The ideology is just the label we’ll give to it.

So hang on tight, and good luck. Don’t worry too much. Have some soup.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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A High School Psychology Experiment

I’ve criticized people for not getting their minds out of high school, and I stand by that criticism. Even when it applies to me.

On the other hand, high school is the first time we learn certain lessons about life. When we think about the lessons, we naturally think about where we got them.

One lesson I got was that how we act toward other people affects how they act toward us.

Another student seemed to dislike me intensely. The reason was mysterious, because we barely knew each other.

But I decided to try an experiment.

From that moment on, whenever I encountered him, I acted as if we were the best of friends.

No matter how hostile he seemed or what he said, I continued acting as if we were friends. I wanted to see what would happen.

Within a month, he had forgotten that he disliked me. We had become real friends, and we remained friends after that.

The Bible’s Psalm 15 advises that “a soft answer turneth away wrath.”

If it works in high school, maybe it can work sometimes in real life. It’s worth a try.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital.”

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Help Wanted: Wise Leaders

I won’t be watching the State of the Union address on television tonight.

It’s nothing against Trump, who will tell us about all the YUUUUGE things he’s accomplished.

Nor against Pelosi, who will be sitting there stone-faced with her minions. She might be waiting for a chance to shout “You lie!” to get revenge for Rep. Joe Wilson’s 2009 taunt of Obama (who, interestingly, had just talked about “illegal immigrants”).

It’s simply that watching the speech adds nothing to what I can learn from reading it and reading the rebuttals to it.

The first presidential debate I ever saw was the Carter-Reagan debate in 1980. Carter was all facts, facts, facts. Reagan had a few facts but his schtick consisted mostly of one-liners and folksy charm.

At the end of the debate, I thought Carter had absolutely destroyed Reagan. So I was surprised to learn that everyone else believed the opposite: Reagan won the debate by a landslide, as he later won the election.

It taught me that for most people, most of the time, presentation matters more than information.

Gosh, can it be almost 40 years since 1980? That was before “Back to the Future,” and now we’re past the future year (2015) depicted in “Back to the Future II.”

But I digress. In 2019, we get presentation 24/7, but we get very little real information. And most of the presentation incites social conflict, distrust, and hatred.

What’s worse, it incites without respect to education, intelligence, religion, sex, or ethnicity. It just pushes everyone to hate everyone else.

It’s bad. Is that even in question? If it continues, America cannot survive. Everyone will get hurt, a little or a lot. Mostly a lot. Does anyone care about that?

Whatever we think of America, there’s a reason that half the world wants to come here any way it can, legally or not.

It’s because, surprising as it sounds, we still have a fairly stable society. Most people obey the law. The law is imperfect but it’s better than in most other places. Our various social groups scream at each other a lot, but outbreaks of violence are fewer and less deadly than elsewhere around the globe. Most people here are poorly educated, but they’re still better educated than people in many other countries.

Those factors let us produce a standard of living better than kings could enjoy only a century ago — and, sadly, far better than most people in the world even today.

If there is hope for improving the lives of the most impoverished and unfortunate people in the world, it’s through helping them develop the social, economic, and political factors that have helped us.

But we can’t do it if we hate each other so much that we throw it all away. We can’t help others if we wreck our own country.

The improved economy has reduced unemployment, forcing companies to raise wages for some jobs. But what are arguably the most important jobs don’t involve learning to code. They require actual adults who can put aside their petty differences, stop trying to back-stab each other like gossipy teenagers, and provide real leadership to get America back on the right track.

I have a dream. It’s not a big and inspiring dream like Martin Luther King had, but it could end up being a helpful one.

In my dream, President Trump gives the State of the Union address. He says that we disagree about many things, but we’re ultimately working toward the same goal: an America that is good for everyone. He pledges to work with the Democrats as much as possible. Republicans applaud on cue. Surprisingly, Democrats applaud as well.

In their reply to the speech, Democrats commit themselves to work with the president when they can, and to offer reasoned arguments when they think he’s wrong. Republicans make a similar commitment to good faith and reasoned argument. Everyone renounces “the politics of personal destruction.” And they all make good on that promise.

Well, a guy can dream.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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The Bad Side of In-Groups

You’re in the bedchamber of the dying King Henry IV (1366-1413), who united England through a bitter civil war.

King Henry awakens and gives some final advice to his son, Prince Harry:

“God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crooked ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.
To thee it shall descend with better quiet,
Better opinion, better confirmation;
For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth.

Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.
More would I, but my lungs are wasted so
That strength of speech is utterly denied me.

How I came by the crown, may God forgive;
And grant that it may with thee in true peace live.”

That’s from William Shakespeare’s play “Henry IV, Part 2” (Act IV, Scene 5). Today’s academics would complain that the scene is “problematic.” Shakespeare would probably reply:

“It’s intended to be problematic. Human life is problematic. Get over it.”

But what about the King advising his son to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”?

Does that make any sense? Why go looking for fights?

It’s because having external “enemies” can unite people as an in-group. Such groups foster empathy, cooperation, and trust between the members of the group. That helps the group survive, and helps its members live happily and safely.

Lower animals do similar things, from apes all the way to down to insects. It’s not something we made up. It’s not a “social construct.” It’s a biological reality.

Every in-group requires at least one out-group. We define ourselves not only by what we are, but also by what we are not.

We often feel hostile toward toward the people who embody “what we are not.” They feel the same way about us. That can lead to violent conflict between groups.

If we could get rid of in-groups and out-groups, that might solve the problem. We’d be one big, happy family singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire.

But utopian ideologues have tried it, and it doesn’t work. It just makes things worse, such as the terror and mass slaughter of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions.

So if we’re stuck with having in-groups and out-groups, then how can we:

  • Maximize the good effects: empathy, cooperation, and trust within the groups; and
  • Minimize the bad effects: hostility and violent conflict between the groups?

What’s needed is wise political and social leadership. Yes, I know: it’s hard to get. Assume we can.

It’s been said that politics is show business for ugly people. To manage conflicts, leaders (ugly or not) have to “perform” like actors.

They’d keep group rivalries intense enough to generate in-group benefits. But they’d keep the intensity from getting so high that it spins out of control, causing hatred and violence.

There will always be people with “giddy minds” looking for someone to fight. So wise leaders give them someone to fight, but keep the “fighting” non-violent and at the lowest level needed to secure social peace.

What makes it really tricky is that all the leaders need to realize they’re playing a game. They’re trying to unite their own groups for peace, trust, and cooperation by growling at each other, but want to avoid letting it go any further than that.

It’s not impossible. In the United States, the Democratic and Republican Party establishments already do it. We just need to re-purpose the game from enriching politicians to serving the public good.

If human history is any guide, it won’t work perfectly. Maybe not even very well. But it might work better than what we’ve been doing.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Thought Experiments for Left and Right

Whether your politics lean left or right, a couple of thought experiments can help you understand people who lean the other way.

History’s most famous thought experiment inspired Albert Einstein‘s theory of special relativity. In 1895, aged only 16, Einstein imagined what it would be like to chase a beam of light. That image led him to insights that would revolutionize our views of space, time, matter, and energy.

My thought experiments for you aren’t nearly so grand, but they might help you see:

  • How left-leaning and right-leaning people feel about the world.
  • Why they believe the things that they do.

Experiment #1: For Lefties

Let’s start with the thought experiment for left-leaning people.

You’ve got a nice house. You picked out the furniture yourself. The walls are the color you like. For dinner, your spouse is making Jambalaya, which is your favorite dish. You like your neighbors and you’ve spent many happy hours talking with them about mutual interests. 

You get home from work, but something seems wrong. The front door isn’t where it should be: it’s been moved to the back of the house. Inside, the walls have been repainted a hideous color. The furniture has been replaced with weird arty stuff that looks uncomfortable. All the rooms have been moved. You’re still having “Jambalaya” for dinner, but the recipe has completely changed so the food is unrecognizable. You ask for a glass of water but your spouse says you can’t call it “water” anymore. Your old neighbors are gone, replaced by new people who don’t speak English and who seem unfriendly.

But you make it through the evening. The next morning, you go to work. When you return home after work, everything has changed again. The front door is on the roof. The inside of the house is chaos. Your neighbors’ houses and their inhabitants have been replaced by bail bondsmen, convenience stores, and pawnshops. A couple of seedy-looking characters are loitering around your mailbox.

What’s the problem? Why would you not like that situation?

The answer is obvious: People need some stability in their lives, not just to plan their activities but to keep their sanity. If too much changes too fast, it’s painful and confusing. That’s true even if the changes are good when considered abstractly, one at a time.

If you’re a lefty, then maybe you can see why most people don’t like having society turned inside out for reasons that make no sense to them. They especially don’t like being called nasty names just for voicing their concerns.

Experiment #2: For Righties

Now we’ll do the thought experiment for right-leaning people.

I admit that “righties” sounds a little weird, but let’s keep our terminology consistent. Changing it too much and too fast would confuse things (see Experiment #1).

Same situation: You’ve got a nice house. You like the furniture. You like the walls. You like Jambalaya. You like your neighbors. And the front door is in front, exactly where it should be. All is right with the world.

The years pass. Same house. Same furniture. Same walls. Same damn Jambalaya for dinner every damn night. Same neighbors talking about the same things. At least the front door hasn’t started to annoy you, since there’s not much that a front door can do except be in front and be a door.

But still, you cry: “Can’t we do something different for a change?”

“Nope,” says your spouse. “This is the way we’ve always done it, and that’s good enough for me.”

What’s the problem? Why would you not like that situation?

The answer is just as obvious as in experiment #1: Stability is great, but people also need change. Sometimes we think of ways to improve things. Sometimes our tastes evolve or technology advances. And sometimes, we need new experiences to make life interesting.

Life itself is change, every time we take a breath. Even though our lungs are the same ones we had a year ago, almost all the cells in our lungs have died and been replaced during that time.

If you’re a righty, then maybe you can see why lefties want to change things. They think there are better ways to do them. They think you’re just being stubborn and inflexible when you object. Whether they’re right or wrong about their wonderful new ideas, most of them have good intentions.

Not Just Politics, But Also Psychology

Many social disputes aren’t just about the merits of particular ideas. They’re also about how much different people like stability or change.

Psychologists have known since the early 1900s that some people crave stability or change more than other people do. More recently, neuroscientists are finding differences in brain function that correspond to the cravings. We can’t resolve such disagreements by logical argument because they’re not about logic. They’re about the social conditions in which different people feel comfortable.

Since no society ever has been or ever will be perfect, we have to figure out which imperfections we can live with and which we want to change. Every change will risk causing new and different imperfections, sometimes worse than the ones we “fixed.”

People who crave novelty will naturally want to make lots of changes. They will come up with plausible-sounding reasons why the changes are needed. And maybe the reasons will be good ones. But they started out just wanting to change things, and their reasons came later. People who prefer stability will make the same moves, just with the opposite goal.

The challenge is to handle such disagreements in ways that most people consider fair and mutually acceptable. It’s in everyone’s interest to do so. But if it were easy, we’d already be doing it.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Can You Feel the Love?

Can you feel the love?

It’s kind of a cliché, sometimes said as a joke. But it points to a real problem.

For any society to survive, its people need to cooperate. That requires at least a minimum level of trust and concern for each other’s welfare. We need to “feel the love.”

It’s easiest to feel that way toward our families and close relatives. Our biology makes it almost automatic. Humanity evolved to feel that way through the process of kin selection.

But it’s harder to feel that way toward non-relatives. We need empathy, the ability to imagine how they feel and the inclination to care about it.

The more that people differ from us, the harder it is for us to see the world through their eyes and know how they feel. Differences such as nationalities, races, belief systems, and languages can all become barriers — or even worse, triggers of hatred and aggression.

The English poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) is seldom read today, but he put it very well in his poem “The Stranger:”

“The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk —
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and eyes and mouth,
But not the soul behind.

The men of my own stock,
They may do ill or well,
But they tell the lies I’m wanted to,
They know the lies I tell;
And we do not need interpreters
When we go to buy or sell.”

For small communities where everyone knows everyone else, it’s not a problem. The same applies to very homogeneous societies, where people tend to react similarly, have the same basic beliefs, and make the same assumptions.

For diverse societies, however, it’s a challenge.

The more we differ, the more we need to communicate in order to understand and trust each other. Just saying “diversity is our strength” can’t solve the problem. It might make us feel good, but it won’t accomplish anything beyond that (or make it true).

Communication is key. We need to reach out to people “across the aisle,” whatever the aisle happens to be.

It will take extra work to understand each other. Maybe we can’t agree about everything, but we can at least try to live peacefully and cooperate for mutual benefit.

It’s not everything, but it’s a good start.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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