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3 Stoic Lessons That Can Help Heal Our Toxic Political Culture

3 Stoic Lessons That Can Help Heal Our Toxic Political Culture

Back in the days of Ancient Rome and Greece, the founding fathers of the stoic school of philosophy taught the importance of rationalism.

Emotional. Tribal. Irrational. These are just three adjectives which could be applied to the political discourse of the 21st century. Both in the United States and Europe, discussions have reverted from constructive criticism and mutual understanding to name-calling, de-platforming, and retreats into echo chambers. None of this is particularly useful for a pluralistic society.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Back in the days of Ancient Rome and Greece, the founding fathers of the stoic school of philosophy taught the importance of clear-mindedness and rationalism in the development both of the self and of society. Here a three of these lessons which now, more than ever, need to be relearned.

1. “The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”

One of the great stoic thinkers, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, argued that emotional reactions to opposition were signs of weakness; to become enraged is to become a slave to emotions, surrendering your logic as you do so. In this way, once one has allowed himself to become angry at his opponent, he has lost the battle.

Instead, one should take the time to face problems and antagonism logically, and with a clear mind. For instance, anger at the ideas of a political opponent does little to highlight the flaws in their argument and even less to demonstrate the superiority of your own. Remaining calm and controlled in the face of opposition allows one the strength needed to change the situation, whether this is through changing the mind of the opponent or through gaining a deeper understanding of the issue yourself.

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What do I mean by Skin in the Game? My Own Version

What do I mean by Skin in the Game? My Own Version

When selecting a surgeon for your next brain procedure, should you pick a surgeon who looks like a butcher or one who looks like a surgeon? The logic of skin in the game implies you need to select the one who (while credentialed) looks the least like what you would expect from a surgeon, or, rather, the Hollywood version of a surgeon.

The same logic mysteriously answers many vital questions, such as 1) the difference between rationality and rationalization, 2) that between virtue and virtue signaling, 3) the nature of honor and sacrifice, 4) Religion and signaling (why the pope is functionally atheist) 5) the justification for economic inequality that doesn’t arise from rent seeking, 6) why to never tell people your forecasts (only discuss publicly what you own in your portfolio) and, 7) even, how and from whom to buy your next car.

What is Skin in the Game? The phrase is often mistaken for one-sided incentives: the promise of a bonus will make someone work harder for you. For the central attribute is symmetry: the balancing of incentives and disincentives, people should also penalized if something for which they are responsible goes wrong and hurts others: he or she who wants a share of the benefits needs to also share some of the risks.

My argument is that there is a more essential aspect: filtering and the facilitation of evolution. Skin in the game –as a filter –is the central pillar for the organic functioning of systems, whether humans or natural. Unless consequential decisions are taken by people who pay for the consequences, the world would vulnerable to total systemic collapse. And if you wonder why there is a current riot against a certain class of self-congratulatory “experts”, skin the game will provide a clear answer: the public has viscerally detected that some “educated” but cosmetic experts have no skin in the game and will never learn from their mistakes, whether individually or, more dangerously, collectively.

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Cognitive Biases Afflict Government “Nudgers” Too

Cognitive Biases Afflict Government “Nudgers” Too

Market-based decisions may not always be entirely rational, but there is almost no incentive for governmental decisions to be rational, either.

Economist Richard Thaler recently won the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics for his important work documenting widespread cognitive errors in human decision-making. All too often, people fail to act as rationally as conventional economic models assume, and at least some of those errors are systematic in nature. Such errors can lead to mistakes that greatly diminish our health, happiness, and welfare.

Thaler and many other behavioral economics scholars argue that government should intervene to protect people against their cognitive biases, by various forms of paternalistic policies. In the best-case scenario, government regulators can  “nudge” us into correcting our cognitive errors, thereby enhancing our welfare without significantly curtailing freedom.

Irrational Nudgers

But can we trust government to be less prone to cognitive error than the private-sector consumers whose mistakes we want to correct? If not, paternalistic policies might just replace one form of cognitive bias with another, perhaps even worse one. Unfortunately, a recent study suggests that politicians are prone to severe cognitive biases too – especially when they consider ideologically charged issues. Danish scholars Caspar Dahlmann and Niels Bjorn Petersen summarize their findings from a study of Danish politicians:

We conducted a survey of 954 Danish local politicians. In Denmark, local politicians make decisions over crucial services such as schools, day care, elder care and various social and health services. Depending on their ideological beliefs, some politicians think that public provision of these services is better than private provision. Others think just the opposite. We wanted to see how these beliefs affected the ways in which politicians interpreted evidence….

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Of boomers and doomers

Of boomers and doomers

One such reading is David Rieff’s recent book The Reproach of Hunger1. There are interesting commonalities between his critique of the now dominant aid/development paradigm, and my own critique of ecomodernism within environmentalist thought. Given the different (if overlapping) focus and personnel involved, perhaps this suggests quite a generic ideology of techno-utopianism (TU) within contemporary thinking. Rieff’s book has helped me see its outlines more clearly, so with his help here I’d like to describe briefly some of its key elements. Rieff also has some interesting, if frustratingly vague, thoughts on the possibilities for a peasant-focused development paradigm, but more on that another time.

So here, for your consideration, are seven elements of TU ideology, lightly tossed with a few counter-thoughts of my own:

  1. Ideology: our first characteristic of TU ideology is that it considers itself to have no ideology, but instead merely a pragmatic focus on solving practical problems (such as climate change or extreme poverty) by using whatever methods demonstrably work. Its critics have ideology – they are ideologues, partisans, spoilers, whose critiques reflect their own narrow political agendas – but TU rises serenely above all that.

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Tales From the Bizzaro World

Tales From the Bizzaro World

Back in the 1960s, DC Comics introduced a parallel Earth called Bizarro, where everything is inverted and everyone is insane. They even have their own wacky Superman, which ends up being a formidable foe of his sane counterpart in our world.

Or not in our world perhaps. Some events make us question in which of the two we might actually be living in: what if it was some version of Bizarro?

Over the last decades scientists have been researching certain quirks in our brain, or cognitive biases, that make us act in rather illogical and peculiar ways under certain circumstances. Since Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman first introduced this notion in 1972, a growing body of evidence suggests that we may not be as rational as we once thought. And this impacts many areas of our lives, including our beliefs, attitudes towards certain events, political affiliations and so forth.

A less scientific explanation for our illogical behaviors is that they may simply be the result of our imperfect human condition. That, or something in our environments could be poisoning our reasoning (we would argue, quite acutely in the case of Keynesian economists) similar to what happened to the Romans after they started using led in everyday life artifacts.

Whatever the reason, consider the examples presented below, drawn from the fields of economics, politics, health, society and even religion. Now, to be clear, we don’t mean to pick on any country or anyone in particular, much less on their beliefs (except for those Keynesians). Remember, in the Bizarro World everyone is mad so presumably we are all in this together.

Let’s proceed…

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