The Joy of Discovering You Were Wrong

British environmentalist Mark Lynas, apologizing for being wrong about genetically modified crops.

British environmentalist Mark Lynas, apologizing earlier this year for being wrong about genetically modified crops.

I haven’t always been near the center when it comes to politics. In high school, where I began to love politics, I was a religious conservative. My conservatism eventually became so powerful that I had to find a way to become more right-wing, and I became a passionate libertarian, in the style of Ayn Rand. Finding that too moderate, I even became an anarcho-capitalist, favoring no government at all. Despite myself, I sort of came back to the mainstream after a while, and described myself as a conservative with libertarian tendencies. Over the course of my two-year volunteering mission I lost a lot of intellectual prejudices, and I’ve ended up with the beliefs I happen to have right now, of neoliberal economic views and moderate social views.

So I’ve proven myself wrong many times. And if the pattern continues, then in a few months’ time, I’ll probably have changed my mind on a lot of things. I can’t be certain that I won’t be persuaded to approve of the minimum wage I spent my last blog post criticizing, even though at the moment I’m pretty certain it’s a bad thing. And I’m okay with this. I’ve had my mind changed enough times that I can’t with much confidence privilege my current opinions simply because I happen to hold them now.

The moment you discover you’re wrong is at first painful. I used to spend a lot of time and effort convincing myself that anthropogenic climate change wasn’t real, pitting my biased worldview against a huge amount of scientific evidence. I was able to create barely-plausible chains of reasoning that could preserve my rational disbelief. But eventually I had the thought, as I so often now have, that I might be wrong. Fortunately, I gave myself permission to explore that thought. When I realized my blinding bias, there came the hot, almost moral shame of wrongness. But as it passed, I felt clearer, elevated and freed to think without the mental restrictions I had created for myself. It really was joyful. I’ve had similar moments on issues like immigration, tax policy and health care.

British environmentalist Mark Lynas made a public apology earlier this year for being wrong about genetically modified crops. He recounted his own process of realizing he was wrong:

“Incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage.

Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?

So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.”

This isn’t to convince you about climate change or genetically modified crops, or anything else in particular. Because who knows when we’ve really arrived at the right conclusion? Even our moments of clarity can eventually turn out to be tainted with untruth, as my continuous shifts in political ideology show.

What I’m fairly certain of is that I shouldn’t take my conscious beliefs too seriously. I’m a human–not a machine that produces truthful statements or that even can always accept them healthily. This perspective makes me much more sympathetic to people who disagree with me. I don’t see our differences as a battle between good and evil or truth and untruth–just as the natural consequence of imperfect humans thinking about things. I really love the moments that correct my ignorant (or even willful) errors, because I feel it’s then I’ve been given a gift–of having a little more truth in my life.

Let me know about the times you’ve found out you were wrong, and whether you found the same kind of joy in the discovery.

The Minimum Wage Probably Doesn’t Help

Last night Pres. Obama proposed a federal minimum wage of $9/hr.

Last night, Pres. Obama proposed a federal minimum wage of $9/hr.

A few posts ago I alluded to the fact that most economists oppose rises in the minimum wage, while non-economists in general support them. I’m not an economist. But I think we need to take economists seriously, just in case they know something we don’t.

During the State of the Union address last night, President Obama told Congress that he would like the federal minimum wage to be $9/hour, instead of $7.25/hour. His reasoning was that it isn’t right for full-time workers to earn less than $9/hr. That premise isn’t a bad one–I think we’d all like to see wages rise and the standard of living along with it. But the effect of the minimum wage isn’t generally to raise wages. What it tends to do is cause unemployment among unskilled workers. This is true especially for teenagers, who are new to the labor market and lack experience and skills. In the US, the minimum wage has also been shown to disproportionately hurt minority workers.

Here’s the intuition behind it. Imagine the President had proposed raising the minimum wage to $40/hour. You, like just about everyone, would quickly write the idea off as ridiculous. And it would be. Obviously, the costs of employing people would rise so much that employers couldn’t afford it. They’d have to lay people off, starting with the least valuable employees–in other words, the ones whose labor isn’t worth more than $40 to the company. But while not as drastic, minimum wages at any level work on the same principle. If the minimum wage were raised to $9/hour, then workers whose value to the company was less than $9/hour would over time lose their jobs, and companies would hire fewer low-skilled workers.

I’ve sketched out a really simplistic model of the labor market. I don’t want to get into the involved, jargony theory behind why the minimum wage is thought to reduce employment. So here’s the empirical data. In 2008, David Neumark and William Wascher published a book titled “Minimum Wages” that analyzed data from around 100 studies that included short-run and long-run data from many jurisdictions. They concluded that the minimum wage has a modest, but negative effect on employment, and that it especially makes it harder for teenagers and other new workers to find jobs. It has often been theorized that the minimum wage would delay entry into the labor market for new workers and reduce lifetime income for individuals, and the longitudinal data show just that. In other words, if you eventually want a high-paying job, your prospective employer wants you to have experience. But if you aren’t able to get experience because your base skills aren’t enough to justify a minimum wage, then the years you spend looking for a job will delay your wage increases throughout your whole life.

Others have analyzed the data since to check Neumark and Wascher’s findings. One study argues that Neumark and Wascher didn’t control enough for the differences in different geographic locations, and so the findings turn out a bit differently. But they also conclude that the minimum wage has a modest negative effect on employment which clearly outweighs any wage gains at the margin.

So when you hear voices from Congress (including some surprised Democrats) and the business sector arguing against this increase in the federal minimum wage, it probably doesn’t mean they don’t care about the poor. More likely is that they realize that the minimum wage is a well-intentioned but ineffective anti-poverty tool. A more effective way to promote a basic income would be simply to establish a basic income, via a negative income tax or earned income tax credits.

I can’t help myself from liking Pres. Obama, but I really hope the next president is more competent when it comes to economics, whichever party he represents.

Sarcasm is a Weapon

“As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death, so is the man that deceiveth his neighbour, and saith, Am not I in sport?” — Proverbs 26:18-19

Of all the tools we use to communicate with others, the sharpest one may be sarcasm. There’s hardly a quicker way to belittle someone than to meet their sincerity with a cutting, sarcastic remark. And “cutting” is the perfect word for it; the Greek meaning of the word “sarcasm” is to tear violently. While sarcasm is not always uncalled for, the leap from funny to irritating, then to offensive, can be quick.

Most of us know a few obnoxious, persistently sarcastic people. Here’s a scenario. Imagine yourself at lunch with a few friends you know well. You ask the friend across from you absent-mindedly after sitting down, “what’s that, chicken soup?” “No,” she says in a flat voice, smirking a little, “it’s a sandwich.” You respond awkwardly, “Oh. Haha, yeah.” The conversation moves on. You naturally hold nothing against the friend for it; it was only a joke. As the lunch and chat continue, everyone is feeling comfortable. A few topics later you’re all talking about your occupations–imagine you work with children–and you start going on about an magazine article you read yesterday that had highlighted your field. You had really enjoyed it. Without realizing it, you’re hoping your friends will join in your excitement. “Yeah, because I can totally relate to that.” one friend interrupts, not so much rudely as carelessly. You back off, embarrassed, “Oh, yeah … sorry. Well, how’s your job with the new company? Are you liking it as much as you hoped you would?” Satisfied with himself, he says, “Oh no, not at all. I just got a master’s degree for fun. I’d much rather babysit kids all day.” He belly laughs, eyeing the other friends, who join in, appreciating the mild humor. Of course, you laugh too. His laugh dies down and he says happily, “I’m joking, I’m joking! But yes, I love my job.” You’re a little taken aback, but you’re not going to act hurt, you’d look pathetic. Unconsciously, however, you start to conduct your conversation in a way that will not invite any sarcasm. You drop personal topics that could expose you to ridicule, however mild. The lunch discussion turns from talking about each others’ lives to impersonal, less risky topics: weather, sports, media, or maybe gossip about people not present.

This is an exaggerated example–chances are your friends aren’t so immature. But I think this is how communication breaks down in our society. Instead of a cooperative exchange of ideas, a conversation can be turned, by sarcasm, into a social game, with each individual attempting to top his peers, to make him or herself dominant. The only other option seems to be to join in the competition, meeting veiled hostility with veiled hostility–or else to simply leave the conversation.

If it’s used as an intimidation method , why is sarcasm so compelling to us? It’s a near-universal vice. You don’t, however, tend to see outright bullying past high school. Violence is certainly taboo. Straightforward insults are looked down upon. I think sarcasm is appealing because it is subtle. If a sarcast wants to put someone in his or her social place, he won’t resort to direct verbal or physical assault. He’ll hide his meaning behind a linguistic screen. “Sure, I’d love to spend my whole day carrying your furniture up and down stairs.” From the context and the tone, the meaning is gathered, but the humor caused by the incongruity of the words spoken can act as a pretended motive if the speaker is questioned. “Honestly, calm down! I was joking!”

Sarcasm finds uses beyond personal conversation. You don’t have to look very far to find sarcasm in politics. Liberal-leaning Stephen Colbert has made a successful career out of sarcastically stating conservative political positions. It happens on the right, as well; writer Mark Steyn relies on smart-aleck remarks for much of his material. Even presidential candidates drop sarcastic one-liners during their debates. The political appeal of being sarcastic is easy to see: you can make the same point you would make otherwise, but it’s easier to avoid accountability for what you say if you can later pass it off as a joke.

Culturally, we’ve gotten to the point where not being sarcastic is weird. Most TV protagonists in sitcoms, and even in adolescent-age shows made by Disney, are unendingly sarcastic. We like to think of these characters, and ourselves, as being the clever ones, seeing reality for what it really is, commenting cynically on what others do. We sympathize with the Jim Halperts (from The Office, US version) of our culture, sneering kindly at the hopelessly earnest Michael Scotts.

There’s certainly a place for sarcasm. When harmless, it can be comic relief in tense situations. Friends or couples who have a strong foundation of mutual respect can tolerate and enjoy some level of it, even if it’s at their expense. Sarcasm at the expense of nobody in particular is rarely offensive–but also less funny. But to expand on the earlier analogy–if methods of communicating are tools, then sarcasm must be a knife. It can sharply cut away conversational fluff when needed, but it is simply too dangerous a weapon to idly brandish in day-to-day life.