Have we become uniquely stupid?

For those of you who have read the essay, the title of today’s blogpost is a dead giveaway: I am referring to Jonathan Haidt’s essay in the Atlantic, titled “Why The Past 10 Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid“. The subtitle is equally depressing: It’s Not Just a Phase.

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.
Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?


The essay is a lengthy read, but a rewarding one. Jonathan Haidt takes us through the evolution of the internet, with the emphasis on the social aspect really beginning to take off post 2010 or so, and gives us a book to read that goes on my to-read list: Nonzero: History, Evolution and Human Cooperation.

The next section is where the story really picks up, for we are introduced to the “villains” of the piece: the Like, Share and Retweet buttons. It’s not the buttons themselves that are to blame, of course, much like the atom not being at fault for the atom bomb. It’s what we have done with the Like, Share and Retweet buttons that is the problem:

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.


Goodhart’s Law is massively underrated. Rather than optimizing for the quality of the content of one’s creation, we optimize for it’s virality. The virality ought to be a function of the quality, but we’ve skipped the intermediate step, with consequences that have become manifest and deep-rooted. Or as Jonathan Haidt puts it, “these platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves”.

He then goes on to quote from Madison’s Federalist No. 10 on the innate human proclivity towards “faction”.
I have watched “The Last Dance” on Netflix more times than I should have, but this reminds me of Michael Wilbon talking about how everybody in Chicago hated the Pistons (around the 28 minute mark in episode 4, if you’re interested). He repeatedly involves the phrase “this was personal”, and that’s one way to understand what factionalism means. Tribalism in sports, but elsewhere too, is the kind of factionalism you want to think about in this context, and you might also benefit from reading the transcript of Ezra Klein’s conversation with Tyler Cowen:


Factionalism (or tribalism. I’m not sure if the two mean exactly the same thing in an academic sense, but I am using them interchangeably here) hasn’t necessarily gone down, but we seem to have found new things to be “tribal” about.

As I understand it, Haidt is making the point that our tribalism when it comes to politics is now more deep-rooted than ever, but is also more trivial than ever before. Which politician is wearing what kind of clothes for which occasion excites more debate online than substantive issues that warrant more debate. Or as I prefer to put it, our agreement with stated positions and policies is these days a function of who said it, rather than what has been said. Such tribal loyalty when it comes to close friends is one thing, although even that has its limits, but fealty of such an extreme nature when it comes to political discourse ought to worry most of us.

And as an aside, the last question that Tyler Cowen asks in that extract above is a question to which I don’t have a great answer. I agree with the point in his question, but like him, wonder about the underlying cause.

An extract twice removed now:

The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.


Amit Varma made a very similar point in a recent podcast with Shruti Kapila recently, in which he pointed out that social media has, in effect, decentralized the news (I’m quoting from memory here, so please forgive me if I’ve got the exact wording wrong). Amit Varma says that this is on balance a good thing, but with some negative consequences. Jonathan Haidt disagrees:

Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naïve conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.


Where do I fall on this Haidt-Verma spectrum? Closer towards the Haidt end, I’d say, but I do have to remind myself that I have written this and you are reading it, so maybe decentralization isn’t all that bad? But that’s as far as I’m willing to go – on balance, I find myself closer to Haidt’s position, at least for the moment.

But the enhanced virality of social media thereafter made it more hazardous to be seen fraternizing with the enemy or even failing to attack the enemy with sufficient vigor. On the right, the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) was superseded in 2015 by the more contemptuous term cuckservative, popularized on Twitter by Trump supporters. On the left, social media launched callout culture in the years after 2012, with transformative effects on university life and later on politics and culture throughout the English-speaking world.


Haidt is writing this from an American perspective, for an American audience. But we in India have our own share of names for The Other, don’t we? It’s not just the fact that we have relatively trivial tribalism in areas as important as political discourse, but the fact that the discourse itself is not just trivial, but downright nasty. And the nastier it gets, the higher the support from your own side!

I’ll skip talking about a couple of sections from Haidt’s essay, not because they’re not important, but because they aren’t directly relevant to us here in India. But the subtitle of his essay gets an entire section, where he speaks about how things are likely to get much worse in the years (months) to come:

in a 2018 interview, Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, said that the way to deal with the media is “to flood the zone with shit.” He was describing the “firehose of falsehood” tactic pioneered by Russian disinformation programs to keep Americans confused, disoriented, and angry. But back then, in 2018, there was an upper limit to the amount of shit available, because all of it had to be created by a person (other than some low-quality stuff produced by bots).
Now, however, artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation. The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become far more capable. In a 2020 essay titled “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained that spreading falsehoods—whether through text, images, or deep-fake videos—will quickly become inconceivably easy. (She co-wrote the essay with GPT-3.)


Speaking of the amount of shit that had to be created by a person, read this article written by Samanth Subramanian in February 2017.

So what might be done? Jonathan Haidt has a three-pronged solution:

What changes are needed? Redesigning democracy for the digital age is far beyond my abilities, but I can suggest three categories of reforms––three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable in the post-Babel era. We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.


He outlines the steps involved in each of these, and if you haven’t already, I would encourage you to go read the entire essay, and these outlines in particular. I find myself to be in broad agreement with both the suggestions as well as how they might be implemented, but also worry about whether we have the political and social will to actually do so.

Finally, a coda of sorts:

The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is confirmation bias, which refers to the human tendency to search only for evidence that confirms our preferred beliefs. Even before the advent of social media, search engines were supercharging confirmation bias, making it far easier for people to find evidence for absurd beliefs and conspiracy theories, such as that the Earth is flat and that the U.S. government staged the 9/11 attacks. But social media made things much worse.


And I would feel very bad if you, the reader, were to read either my post or Haidt’s essay in order to confirm your already existing fears about the ill-effects of social media. And so I urge you to read this column by Tyler Cowen next:

Calling something “extremist” is not an effective critique. It’s a sign that the speaker or writer either doesn’t want to take the trouble to make a real argument, or is hoping to win the debate through rhetoric or Twitter pressure rather than logic. It’s also a bad sign when critics stress how social media have fed and encouraged “extremism.”

What the U.S. needs is more consideration of more extreme ideas. If you see someone inveighing against “extremism” or “extremist ideas,” beware: That is itself an extreme position. True moderation lies in calm and reasoned debate.


My take on this essay? I think Tyler is saying that we shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Social media has done two things: made it easier to spread “extreme” ideas, and made it much more likely that we will react with extreme prejudice and nastiness to these ideas.

The first of these is A Very Good Thing and the second of these is a Very Bad Thing. But we would do well to hold on to the first, rather than abandon both.

How? Ah, now if only we had some extreme ideas about that.

On Sri Lanka

Back in 2014, out of the blue, I got the chance to travel to Sri Lanka thrice in the space of two months for work. It was my first visit to the country, and I haven’t been back since. I spent time in Galle, Colombo and a place called Puttalam. As with most other people who have been to the country, I found it to be a beautiful place with fabulous food. Oh, the food. What food it was.

And the deep irony, of course, is that the current tragedy revolves so much around the same word: food. Only now, there simply isn’t enough of it.

But what happened, exactly? How did Sri Lanka get to where it is today?

The answer to that question must necessarily be another one: how far back do you wish to go? To borrow an analogy from another field, where should you begin if you want to explain the 2008 Great Financial Crisis? Should you begin with Bear Sterns going belly up in March 2008? Or should you begin with low interest rates in the early 2000’s? Maybe 9/11 and the lowering of interest rates immediately after? The S&L crisis of 1984? How about tulips in the 16th century?

In Sri Lanka’s case, thanks to the excellent Amol Agarwal, let’s begin with a book written by the son of the guy who founded Bata shoes:

At that time, the only oasis of peace in the area was Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was called before decolonization. When I first went there in the late 1940s, it was a Shangri- la full of smiling people, ambling elephants and king coconuts with delicious milk to quench one’s thirst. Almost in defiance of the horrors that were raging all around it, Ceylon was an island of tranquility and racial tolerance. Forty years later the Indian subcontinent, along with Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia all enjoy peace and varying degrees of prosperity, and our enterprises in these countries are among the strongest pillars of the Bata organization.


But then things started to go wrong in 1948, and who better than Samanth Subramanian to make a complicated history simple to understand? Read the entire book, but the introduction is a good way to come to grips with how things started tear apart at the seams:

It is curious to locate the proximate cause of a war in something as noble as a desire for education. When Sri Lanka broke free of British rule in 1948, the seats in its universities were occupied to disproportionately high levels by the minority Tamils, who through quirks of colonial history spoke better English and were better educated than the majority Sinhalese. The Tamils then went on, after university, to fill the civil service, the country’s most reliable provider of employment at the time. To the country’s Sinhalese who suddenly found themselves empowered with a vote, and therefore to the government, this state
of affairs appeared too lopsided and unfair to continue. When laws and quotas were enacted to protect the interests of the Sinhalese, the Tamils felt they were being discriminated against. The frictions between the two communities erupted repeatedly into ghastly riots; in the worst of them, the Black July riot in 1983, roughly 3,000 people were killed, many of them burned alive. Tamil houses and shops were looted and burned, and 150,000 Tamils were rendered homeless.
When a clutch of Tamil militant groups had begun to emerge in the 1970s, to agitate for a free Tamil state, they found only a trickle of willing recruits; after Black July, though, they were flooded by young
men and women wanting to fight, and none more so than the Tigers. Starting as a ragtag outfit carrying out the odd guerrilla attack, the Tigers grew into a fearsome terrorist organization. They ran arms and drugs, pulled in funds from a Tamil diaspora scattered across the planet, killed thousands of civilians, assassinated presidents and prime ministers, and perfected the art of the suicide bomber. They kept their own people, the Tamils, in line by intimidation and murder. In their full pomp, the Tigers controlled vast wedges of territory in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where flat, hot, sandy coasts meld gradually into jungle. Here they ran their own country in all but name, collecting taxes and policing the streets and adjudicating disputes. But the Sri Lankan state was always just outside the door, impatient to snatch back its land, working itself up into a state of angry nationalism.
Buddhism, the religion of most Sinhalese, developed a vocal right wing; its monks entered politics, pressed for a more merciless war, and dreamed of a purely Buddhist island.

Introduction, This Divided Island (Life, Death and The Sri Lankan War) by Samanth Subramanian

Even by my usual standards, this is a bit of a whopper, this extract, but I hope it nudges you into reading the entire book. (Actually, given that it is Samanth Subramanian we’re talking about, pick up anything written by him. It’s guaranteed value for money.)

The war ended, finally, in the year 2009, but it ended with a very high cost. The Wikipedia article serves as an introduction to the war, and Samanth’s book is a deep, thought-provoking reflection on the aftermath.

That’s a ridiculously brief background, and now let’s get down to the economy. The Sri Lankan economy, much like the Indian economy, is mostly a service based economy. Around sixty percent of their GDP comprises of services today, but that’s where the similarity with the Indian economy ends. A large chunk of this sixty percent, as you might imagine, is down to the tourism sector. And the pandemic has devastated this segment – not just in Sri Lanka, of course, but the effects are felt with much more severity in a nation that is so very dependent on it.

But it gets worse!

The economy is highly-dependent on imports for essential items such as food, and oil. The economy finances these imports mainly via agricultural exports (tea, rubber, and coconut), industrial products (textiles), and remittances from abroad. The revenues from exports, and remittances have not covered the cost of imports, and Sri Lanka has always been in a current account deficit (CAD). The average CAD in 2010-19 was around 1.2 percent of GDP.
The CAD has been met mainly by the government borrowing from abroad. As the government borrowing from abroad has been larger than the CAD, the balance has been pegged to the foreign exchange reserves. What can one make of an economy where the forex reserves consist of mainly borrowings from abroad!


So an economy that was, at best, precariously placed during the Covid-19 pandemic. And then, of course, going 100% organic.

Here’s a part of the conclusion from Seeing Like a State, by James C. Scott:

Take small steps: In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move. As the biologist J. B. S. Haldane metaphorically described the advantages of smallness: “You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mineshaft; and on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away. A rat is killed, a man broken, a horse splashes.”

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve The Human Condition Have Failed, by James C Scott

Or, if you prefer pithier statements, Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum about crossing the river by feeling the stones comes to mind (although the quote isn’t originally by him). But Sri Lanka, of course, went straight to 100% organic farming, and well, if you’ve read even a single newspaper in the last two months or so, you know how that turned out.

The rest of the story is predictably depressing, and depressingly predictable. Rapidly depleting forex reserves, a drying up of foreign investment, stratospheric inflation, a weakened currency and all the rest of it.

And the knock-on effects of each of these on the ordinary person on the street are equally horrible. We’ve all heard about postponement of exams because of a lack of ink, long lines at petrol pumps, rising protests, people fleeing the country and so on.

And most tragic of all perhaps, is the ostrich-like approach of the government, which insists on coming up with ridiculous (there really is no other word) responses in terms of policy making. Long story short, this is a problem that is going to get much, much worse before it gets better.

I’ve tried to keep the story as simple as possible, but if you’re looking for a good in-depth read about this, here are some recommendations:

  1. Via Splainer.in (which you really should subscribe to!), an excellent in-depth macro analysis of the crisis, but in English (with jargon explained at the end, imagine!)
  2. The political fallout, which is rapidly evolving, and may well be out of date by the time you read this.
  3. Best of all, try and play around with the data if you happen to be a student of macroeconomics. What charts and tables would you create using this data, for example, and why? Best of all, pick an article such as the first one here, and try and see how many of these charts you can recreate in Excel. Trust me, ’tis the best way to learn.

Samanth Subramanian on Out of Print Cricket Books

…and much more besides (including a lovely excerpt on Sachin’s batting)

Kindle, Vancouver, Onions, Government Size and Quizzing

Five articles that I enjoyed reading this week, with a couple of sentences on why I think you might benefit from reading them.

The extent to which Amazon, via the Kindle, tracks your reading habits. Most of this article did not come as a surprise to me, and of course the Kindle and the books on it are as cheap as they are precisely because Amazon makes money by tracking precisely what this article says they do. Personally, I am OK with that – but you might want to read this before you make your own decision.

Could Amazon’s monopoly over the publishing industry change the nature of books themselves? As a result of the economic pressures of the streaming industry, the length of the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3 minutes and 50 seconds to 3 minutes and 30 seconds between 2013 and 2018. Will books be the next art form to be altered? Greer said it is possible.

“Never underestimate the power, or willingness, of tech companies to do almost anything to make a little extra money – including shifting the entire way we make music or read and write books,” she said. “They are perfectly willing for art to be collateral damage in their pursuit of profit.”

The equilibrium is being solved for in Vancouver, by observing the lack of an equilibrium in other cities. On Uber, Lyft, British Columbia, and the last mover advantage:

“A decade after Uber got its start, and eight years after Lyft changed the ride-hail model by allowing anyone to use their everyday car to pick up passengers, British Columbia thinks it has nailed how to regulate these companies, which have often slipped into the gray areas between transportation and labor laws. Call it the last mover advantage. Government officials in the province have spent years studying how other places dealt with an influx of ride-hail vehicles—and the sometimes unfortunate effects they had on local transportation systems.”

Vivek Kaul explains one application of the law of unintended consequences in this article in the Livemint, about onions.

When prices of an essential commodity, like onions, go up, state governments can impose stockholding limits. This leads to a situation where wholesalers, distributors and retailers dealing in the essential commodity need to reduce the inventory that they hold in order to meet the requirements of a reduced stock limit. The idea is to curb hoarding, maintain an adequate supply of the essential commodity and, thus, maintain affordable prices. This is where the law of unintended consequences strikes. Instead of ensuring prices of the essential commodity remain affordable, ECA makes it expensive.

Small governments aren’t necessarily great governments, but large governments don’t always do well either. But if you must choose when it comes to government, size does too matter! Via Marginal Revolution.

The plots do not support the hypothesis that small government produces either greater prosperity or greater freedom. (In reading the charts, remember that the SGOV index is constructed so that 0 indicates the largest government and 10 the smallest government.) Instead, smaller government tends to be associated with less prosperity and less freedom. Both relationships are statistically significant, with correlations of 0.43 for prosperity and 0.35 for freedom.

Samanth Subramanian on the joy of quizzing.

To attend these contests, quizzers rearrange the furniture of their lives, budgeting their time away from their families, or ensuring that they don’t travel overseas for work during a quiz weekend. I know one quizzer who switched jobs because his city’s quiz scene wasn’t active enough; I know another who scheduled his wedding to avoid a clash with a quiz. Once, while we were waiting around for a popular annual quiz to begin, a friend remarked that his wife was heavily pregnant; he hoped she wouldn’t go into labour over the next few hours. That would be unfortunate, we agreed.
“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “If my daughter’s born today, that means she’ll have a birthday party on this date every year. Which means I can never come to this quiz again.”

Etc: Links for 29th Nov, 2019

  1. “When the British actor Jonathan Routh published the first edition of his Good Loo Guide (“Where to Go in London”) in 1965, he singled out the device for mention every time he found one. Only five toilets, out of more than a hundred, held hand dryers – of the pedal-operated kind that, in the 1965 movie Help!, inhale the jacket sleeves of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Mostly, Routh encountered towels of cloth or paper, and quite often, he had to pay to use these products. (“Do loos ever advertise their attractions?” he wondered, while extolling the virtues of the splendid restrooms of Hyde Park in the 1968 update. “Has anyone ever seen an ad saying ‘Just arrived – new free electric hand-drier at the so-and-so loos.’”) Even in the third and final edition of the guide, released in 1987, I counted more instances of electric razors, armchairs and pre-pasted disposable toothbrushes than of hand dryers.”
    The excellent, excellent Samanth Subramanian in this lovely article about (of all things) paper towels and hand driers. Yes, really. What’s more, Samanth won the Financial/Economic story of the year award for this write-up. Read the book by clicking on his name here, also read Following Fish, and definitely read this article itself. Congratulations, Samanth!
  2. “And which book takes the very top prize for best of the year? You can’t compare the Alter to the others, so I will opt for Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift and also Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America, with Julia Lovell on Maoism and Alain Bertaud on cities as the runner-ups. But again a strong year all around.”
    Tyler Cowen’s list of books he found worth his time in 2019. As he would say, self-recommending.
  3. “So what’s a desperate founder to do? Smith impulsively flew to Las Vegas and played blackjack with the last of the company money .Amazingly, when he came back the next week, he had turned the remaining $5,000 into $27,000 – just enough for the company to stay in operation for another week.

    In the book “Changing How the World Does Business: FedEx’s Incredible Journey to Success – The Inside Story,” Roger Frock, a former senior vice president of operations at FedEx, describes the scene when he found out what Smith did. “I said, ‘You mean you took our last $5,000 – how could you do that? [Smith] shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘What difference does it make? Without the funds for the fuel companies, we couldn’t have flown anyway.'””
    A lovely story about how Fedex came back from the dead.

  4. “The money of the world’s mega-wealthy, though, is heading there in ever-larger volumes. In the past decade, hundreds of billions of dollars have poured out of traditional offshore jurisdictions such as Switzerland and Jersey, and into a small number of American states: Delaware, Nevada, Wyoming – and, above all, South Dakota. “To some, South Dakota is a ‘fly-over’ state,” the chief justice of the state’s supreme court said in a speech to the legislature in January. “While many people may find a way to ‘fly over’ South Dakota, somehow their dollars find a way to land here.””
    Oh hey, Tiebout. Whassup.
  5. “Behavioral finance is finance. That individual human beings can sometimes do silly things, for reasons to do with either nature or nurture, is not under dispute. That they may make these same mistakes in the aggregate is no longer heretical. That is the gift of those that have been “misbehaving” by attacking hallowed, efficient market doctrine. Economists now can consider potential irrationality versus a standard model of profit-maximizing utility without being disinvited to (those wild and crazy) economist parties. Economists can now suggest that cognitive biases can affect asset prices without threatening their tenure.”
    The term may be overrated – the logic isn’t: in defense of behavioral finance.

RoW: Links for 23rd October, 2019

Five books that I have read about our neighboring countries that helped me understand them a little bit better. If you ‘re looking for books to read during the holidays, this list might help:

  1. From a while ago, and set many decades ago, but I loved reading The Glass Palace. Anything by Amitav Ghosh is worth your time, I’d say, but this helped me learn more about Myanmar.
  2. Samanth Subramanian is a magnificent writer, and that is not hyperbole. In this book, This Divided Island, he brings us a raw, disturbing and depressing account of Sril Lanka today, and how it is divided, perhaps beyond repair, on grounds of ethnic and religious conflict. He doesn’t pull his punches, but more: he doesn’t take sides. If you are looking to understand Sri Lanka today, this is the book to read.
  3. How did Bangladesh come to be Bangladesh? What was Pakistan’s role in it? What was India’s? What was – and this might come as a surprise to some – the USA’s? The Blood Telegram answers these questions, and more besides, in a always interesting read about the war of 1971.
  4. And two recommendations about Pakistan. The first is a book by Stephen Cohen: The Idea of Pakistan. Is Pakistan an army with a country or the other way around? Why? Will this change in the future. What is (or what used to be) the political calculus of the United States of America when it came to Pakistan? This book answers these questions, and then some.
  5. And finally, Pakistan: A Hard Country, by Anatol Leivin. A Ukraininan journalist who has spent some time in the country, and is equally horrified and fascinated by it. Somewhat sympathetic in its treatment, it still helped me understand the country a little bit better – without, of course and unfortunately, ever having been there.