Things I Learned From Working With A Marketing Advisor

Epistemic Status: Opinions stated without justification

I’ve been getting a bunch of advice and help at LRI from a marketing/strategy expert, and it’s been an education. She’s been great to work with — she kicks my ass, in a good way.  Basically, she takes my writing, rips it apart, and helps me put it back together again, optimized to make the organization look better.  Every kind of writing, from professional emails to website copy to grant proposals, gets a makeover.  I’m thinking of the experience as something of an introduction to the conventions of business/promotional communication, which are very different from the kinds of writing norms I’m used to.

Here are some of the general patterns I’ve been learning about, stated in my own words (and maybe mangled a little in translation).

Discretization

“People hate reading,” she tells me.

Seriously? You’re going to rip up my nice, fluent, carefully-written essay explaining my rationale and replace it with a table?

Yes. Yes we are.

She’s not wrong, though. I’ve had the experience of meeting with executives after sending them a two-page document, worrying that I should have written something more comprehensive, and finding they didn’t even read the two-pager.  I learn best through text, but clearly not everyone does. So promotional content needs to make allowances for the skimmers, the glancers, the reading-avoidant.

Hence: tables. Headers. Bolding key phrases.  Bullet points. Pictures and graphs. Logos. And, of course, slide decks.

Layout matters. If you cross your eyes until the page turns blurry and don’t read anything, how does it look? Is it a wall of text? If so, you need to break it up.

The principle of discretization is things should be broken up into separate, distinctive, consistently labeled parts.

What things? Everything.

Your website has parts. Your five-year plan has parts. Your value proposition has parts.

LRI doesn’t have a “product”, but in companies that sell a product, your product has parts called “features.”  Even when the “product” is sort of an abstract, general thing like “we produce written reports”, in order to make them legible as products, you have to have a list of distinct parts that each report contains.

Once you have parts, you need to get obsessive about matching and parallelism. Each part needs to have one, and only one, name, and you have to use the same name everywhere.  If your organization has Five Core Values, you don’t use near-synonyms to talk about them — you wouldn’t interchangeably talk about “single focus” or “narrow mission”, you’d pick one phrase, and use that phrase everywhere. Matchy-matchy.

You match your website navigation links to your page headers. You match your website to your grant proposals, your slide decks, your email phrasing, everything.  You put your logo on every-fucking-thing. It feels repetitious to you, but it just looks appropriately consistent to an outside observer.

When I was a child, I was into American Girl dolls. My favorite thing was the parallelism. Each doll had five books, with matching titles and themes — “Changes for Felicity”, “Changes for Samantha”, etc.  Each book came with its own outfit and accessories. The accessories were even parallel-but-unique  — each doll had her own historically-accurate school lunch, her own toys, and so on. Even more than I liked actually playing with my doll, I liked reading through the catalog and noticing all the parallels.  Ok, maybe I was a weird kid.

Anyhow, marketing is full of that stuff. Separating things into parallel-but-unique, hyper-matchy parts.  Same principle as tables of correspondences.

I suspect that what you’re doing is reifying your ideas into “existence.”  (In something like Heidegger’s sense).  You translate a general sort of concept (“I think we should test drugs to see which ones make animals live longer”) into something with a bunch of proper nouns and internal structure, and I think the result is the overall impression that now your organization exists, as a…thing, or a place, or a personage.  Like, the difference between an idea (e.g. the general concept of lifespan studies) and an agent (LRI).  It activates the “animist” part of your brain, the same part that believes that Facebook is a place or Russia is an agent, the part that feels differently about proper nouns from improper nouns.

(Proper nouns, btw, are another big thing in themselves, because of social proof. Just naming people or institutions in connection with your work — whether they be advisors or partners or employees or customers or collaborators or whatever — is legitimizing.  And proper nouns are, themselves, “discrete parts.” )

All this discretization imparts a sense of legitimacy. After discretizing my writing, it feels much more like “LRI exists as a thing” rather than “Sarah is proposing an idea” or “Sarah is doing some projects.”  Yeah, that’s a spooky and subjective distinction, but I think it’s probably a very basic marketing phenomenon that permeates the world around us. (Maybe it has a name I don’t know.)  I feel slightly weird about it, but it’s a thing.

Confidence + Pleasantries = Business Etiquette

One thing that came as a big surprise to me is how confident language you can get away with in a professional, non-academic context.

For example, not phrasing requests as questions.  “I look forward to hearing back.”  My instinct would be to worry that this was overly forward or rude; you’re essentially assuming the ask; but people don’t seem to mind.

Or removing all uncertain language. All the may’s, mights, and coulds.  How can you do that without making overstated or misleading claims? Well, it’s tricky, but you can generally finagle it with clever rephrasing.

I’m used to assuming that the way you show respect is through reticence and reluctance to ask for too much.  Especially when communicating with someone higher status than you.  To my surprise, really assertive wording seems to get better results with business types than my previous, more “humble” email style (which works great for professors.)

So, how do you keep from sounding like a jerk when you’re essentially bragging and making big requests?  A lot of pleasantries. A lot of framing phrases (“as we talked about in our last conversation”, “circling back”, “moving forward”, etc).  Wishing them a good weekend/holiday/etc, hoping they’re doing well, etc.

I’d previously noticed in office contexts how vital it is to just keep your mouth making words smoothly even when there’s not a lot of information density to what you’re saying.

Business “jargon” and “buzzwords” are unfairly maligned by people who aren’t used to corporate culture. First of all, a lot of them originally referred to specific important concepts, and then got overused as generic applause lights — e.g. “disruptive innovation” is actually a really useful idea in its original meaning.  But, second of all, it’s honestly just handy to have stock phrases if you need to keep talking fluently without awkward pauses.  People respond really well to fluency.  Palantir’s first exercise for all new employees is to give a software demo, which taught me that it is really hard to speak in public for five minutes without pausing to think of what to say next.  Stock phrases help you reach for something to say without appearing hesitant or afraid.

I was trained on writing style guides from literary or journalistic contexts, like Strunk & White, which teach you to be relentless in removing cliches and using simple short Anglo-Saxon words wherever possible.  Business language constantly violates those rules: it’s full of cliches and unnecessary Latinate locutions.  But I suspect there may actually be a function to that, in making you sound smoother, or setting the scene with comfortable and familiar wording before introducing new ideas.  “Good writing” is original and vivid; a good (i.e. effective) business email may not be.

 

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Fasting Mimicking Diet Looks Pretty Good

Epistemic status: pretty much factual.

CW: diets, calories

One of the odd things about working on longevity is that now people ask me for lifestyle advice.

Or they ask me what I, personally do to live longer.

Mostly my response has been a lame “um, nothing?”

There are, as of now, no interventions shown to make humans live longer or slow or reverse the human aging process. And, of the interventions reported to make animals live longer, many are doubtful, and many are too risky or unpleasant to make the cost-benefit tradeoff look good for healthy people.

Also, as a personal matter, I’m just not very interested in my own “lifestyle optimization” for the most part. My motivation is about helping people, not especially staving off death for myself; I think I’m more mentally prepared for death than most people my age. Certainly I’ve thought about it more concretely. (BTW, if you too like to know all the gory and technical details about how people die, this blog by an ICU nurse is gold.)

And “lifestyle optimization” turns out to be heavily about diet and exercise, and…I confess, diet culture really creeps me out.  Not at all my thing.

That said, there is a lifestyle intervention that seems pretty evidence-based and also pretty low on risk and inconvenience: the Fasting Mimicking Diet, developed by Valter Longo of USC.

It’s actually been tested in a clinical trial on 100 healthy participants, where it improved a bunch of biomarkers related to aging and disease (reduced IGF and blood pressure, though no change in glucose, triglycerides, cholesterol, or CRP.)

The really good results are in mice, where it rescues both Type I and Type II diabetes as well as a mouse model of MS, reduces tumors by 45% and dermatitis by 50%, increases mesenchymal stem cells by 45x, improves motor and cognitive performance, and results in an 11% lifespan extension.

So, what is the FMD?

It’s a 5-day low-calorie, low-carb, low-protein diet, followed by a period of eating however you would by default.

Caloric restriction (reducing calorie intake about 1/3 from baseline or ad-lib) is probably the most replicated lifespan- and healthspan-extending intervention in animals. It’s about 30-40% life extension in mice and rats.  In monkeys, it extends lifespan little if at all, but delays age-related disease and hair loss.  However, the side effects are nontrivial — humans on CR experience weakness, lethargy, depression, muscle wasting, and neurological deficits. (Undereating also stunts growth in children and adolescents, and underweight in women causes infertility, miscarriage, and preterm birth.)

Mice seem to get most of the benefits of CR, including an equally extended lifespan, from an isocaloric but low-protein or low-methionine diet. Low-protein diets are safe for humans and might not be as damaging to quality of life, but they do definitely inhibit physical fitness/performance.

Alternate-day fasting in mice has a bunch of benefits,  including lifespan extension of 10-30% depending on mouse strain, as well as reduction in cancer incidence, and lower levels of neural damage in mouse models of Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and acute brain injury.  In a randomized controlled trial in humans, alternate-day fasting caused weight loss but no improvement in metabolic/cardiovascular parameters.

The FMD seems like the least amount of dietary restriction that is still known to cause life extension. 5 days/month of low calorie intake isn’t that big a commitment.

Valter Longo sells patented packaged foods for the FMD, but they’re pricey ($300 for five days).

What I find more aesthetic, and cheaper, is an adapted version, which I’m trying now:

For the first five weekdays of every month, eat nothing but (non-potato) vegetables, cooked in fat if desired.  The rest of the time, eat whatever you want.

It’s low-calorie and low-protein while containing vitamins, but it skips the calorie-counting and allows you to actually cook tasty food.

Since I’m breastfeeding, which is about a 500-calorie daily expenditure, it’s a little harder on me than it would be by default, so I’m adding the modification of if you feel weak or lightheaded, eat a fat source until you stop feeling that way.  I expect this is probably a good conservative measure for people in general.

This ought to be generally safe for healthy adults under 65.  The clinical trial reported no adverse effects more serious than fatigue.

It’s definitely not a good idea for children, diabetics, pregnant people, or people with disordered eating.

If you basically believe the science that periods of little or no food promote good metabolic processes (autophagy, reduced inflammation, increased neurogenesis & stem cell production) but you don’t want the nasty side effects of prolonged caloric restriction, some kind of intermittent or periodic fasting seems like a sensible thing to try.

I don’t think there’s any direct evidence that the FMD is better than intermittent fasting for health, but it seems easier to do, and maybe a bit better in terms of results from randomized human trials.

If you (like me) really don’t like the aesthetics of dieting — “special” pre-packaged foods, appearance insecurity, calorie counting, having to make excuses to the people around you for eating “weirdly” — a homebrew FMD is pretty ideal because you are spending very little time “on a diet”, and you are eating normal things (vegetables).  Also, it’s not necessarily a weight-loss diet, and you can conceptualize it as primarily about health, not looks.

don’t expect it to have nontrivial lifespan effects on humans, but it might be good for healthspan or disease risk, and that seems worthwhile to me.

Reflections on Being 30

Epistemic Status: Personal

I haven’t written a lot of personal stuff here recently, because I’ve been doing a lot more private contemplation, and been busy with life things. (Nonprofit and baby, among other things.)  But I thought I might want to put out some thoughts about what growing in maturity means to me and what I’ve come to believe — since I still believe firmly in the blogging medium and the practice of transparency.

Prudence

There’s a transition that a lot of people go through as they get older, that has to do with “practicality” or “prudence.”  They no longer want to do things that will predictably fail.  They are no longer as willing to deal with people who will predictably fail at life. They are no longer as interested in ideas that can’t stand up to practical tests.

I’ve noticed more of this spirit in myself as I get older, but I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about it.  I like interestingness.  I want to avoid the natural tendency to stop exploring as I age.  Meeting new people, learning new things, having new experiences, expanding my boundaries, are still important to me.

On the other hand, I’ve really enjoyed becoming more adept at the “practical” or “operational” side of things — schedules, housework, childcare, managing a small organization, etc.  My identity up until now has been “talented mess” — so much so that I got an ADHD diagnosis quite by accident, and am now exploring the very different world of practicality and detail-orientation and organization.  It’s strange. It’s very calm, and it’s a satisfying challenge to keep up with things and bring more order to different parts of my life, and it’s completely non-narrative.  Life becomes a series of tasks, rather than a story.  I’m continually marveling that this is how some people have been living all along.

Of course, the real reason for being more prudent in your thirties or as a parent is hard necessity. You have less energy, and more responsibilities, and so you have to be more cautious with resources and time.  This isn’t something I really want to spin as a good thing — it’s scarcity, plain and simple.

You have to give up something, and the cheapest thing to give up is being a dumbass.

want to have an “abundance mentality”, to be generous and spendthrift with my time and energy; but sometimes I come up against irreducible scarcity.

A friend advised me last year to “have an ego.”  He meant it in Freud’s sense of the “rational self-interest” part of the psyche.  An ego is an institution you build around yourself, like the Republic of Sarah, or Sarah Incorporated.  Your household, your career, your reputation, your health, all these structures around yourself that you build and maintain and use to interface with the world.

So I did that.

I do a lot of adjusting and updating on these structures; in a sense that’s most of what I do all day long.  Taking care of my work, my family and household, my physical body, etc. Like a hermit crab, the little soft emotional creature that is me is hidden within all this prudence and structure.  I notice it works better. I notice people like it better.  But I’m a little melancholy about it.

Humanism

One value I still hold very firmly is something I call “humanism”, or being “pro-human” or believing in the worth of the human spirit.  I don’t think that has to go away with age.

The whole human mind, which is a general intelligence, which can learn anything and create anything, is a beautiful thing and not to be destroyed.

This is in contrast to some people who become traditionalists or authoritarians when they hit the age where they realize they need prudence. The temptation is to believe “people just need to be kept under tight enough control that they can’t do dumb shit, because the consequences of doing dumb shit are tragic.”

The thing is, I don’t think that controlling people actually is a feasible way to prevent tragedy.

A child prevented from making mistakes isn’t a perfect child, but an underdeveloped child.

If you manage to control someone’s behavior well enough to “keep them out of trouble”, there’s a good chance you’ve damaged their ability to problem-solve, and — I don’t know how to say this any other way — injured the sacred thing that makes them human.

People who say “autonomy is a figment, some people need to be controlled for their own good” are sometimes the same people who do actually really bad things to human beings, by dehumanizing them.

As I get less easily susceptible to opinions I hear, and more interested in the boring-but-true over the hot take, I become more humanist, not less so.  It’s not naive. It’s actually looking at what people are, and noticing that they are a lot more complex and able than cynics give them credit for, that “people aren’t all that special” or “some people aren’t really people” is a brute’s excuse.

You can totally be a mature person, or a parent, and still believe in humanism and autonomy.  People have been doing it for hundreds of years.

 

Direct Primary Care

Epistemic Status: PSA and raising questions

Medical care in the US is expensive. There aren’t that many demonstrated ways to make it drastically cheaper.

Direct primary care seems to be an exception.  It makes routine medical expenses 95% cheaper.

Yes, really.

If you have a cash-only, or “direct”, primary care practice — i.e. you don’t accept insurance — you can negotiate much lower wholesale rates from providers of tests (like EKGs, MRIs, blood tests) or prescription drugs. Why? Because you can guarantee the providers immediate payment, rather than the uncertainty and inconvenience of insurance reimbursement.  They’re willing to give you a discount for that.

Direct primary care also cuts down on paperwork for doctors, because they don’t have to document everything with the ICD codes that insurance companies require.

Atlas MD is an EMR designed for direct primary care practices that use a subscription model, founded by Dr. Josh Umbehr, who also uses it in his own direct primary care practice in Wichita.  I’ve spoken to him via phone and tried to poke holes in his model, and came away even more impressed.

My question is, could this model scale up nationwide — and would it still be as effective at cutting costs if it did?

Right now, as I understand, direct primary care practices negotiate individually with suppliers to get discounts. I imagine that it would be much more efficient if done by a nationwide chain of direct primary care practices.  Bulk wholesale purchases, after all, could be even cheaper than what a single practice might hope to get.

With Amazon moving into healthcare, direct primary care might get a chance to shine. Amazon has a lot of experience cutting prices through economies of scale & supply chain optimization. Jeff Bezos even funded direct primary care startup Qliance, which went bankrupt last year.

Direct primary care only works as a complement to insurance that pays for more catastrophic care like emergency room visits and specialists.  And if you can get a “minimalist” insurance plan that’s not redundant with the direct primary care membership, your total healthcare costs (membership + premiums) can be much lower.  The potential problem arises if it’s difficult (or illegal) to sell sufficiently “bare-bones” insurance plans — in that case patients wouldn’t be willing to pay out of pocket for a direct-care membership in addition to their already pricey insurance.

Umbehr has managed to negotiate deals with insurers to offer lower premiums when patients bought insurance along with direct care subscriptions, but maybe Qliance, which apparently struggled to keep customers, didn’t successfully pull it off.

At any rate, if I’m not missing something, this seems like an ideal opportunity for Amazon to make healthcare a lot more affordable. Are there barriers I haven’t thought of?

Oops on Commodity Prices

Epistemic status: Casual

Some patient and thoughtful folks on LessWrong, and, apparently, some rather less patient folks on r/SneerClub, have pointed out that GDP-to-gold, or GDP-to-oil, are bad proxy measures for economic growth.

Ok, this is a counterargument I want to make sure I understand.

Is the following a good representation of what you believe?

When you divide GDP by a commodity price, when the commodity has a nearly-fixed supply (like gold or land) we’d expect the price of the commodity to go up over time in a society that’s getting richer — in other words, if you have better tech and better and more abundant goods, but not more gold or land, you’d expect that other goods would become cheaper relative to gold or land. Thus, a GDP/gold or GDP/land value that doesn’t increase over time is totally consistent with a society with increasing “true” wealth, and thus doesn’t indicate stagnation.

paulfchristiano:
Yes. The detailed dynamics depend a lot on the particular commodity, and how elastic we expect demand to be; for example, over the long run I expect GDP/oil to go way up as we move to better substitutes, but over a short period where there aren’t good substitutes it could stay flat.

Commenters on this blog have also pointed out that the Dow is a poor measure of the value of the stock market, since it’s small and unnormalized.

These criticisms weaken my previous claim about economic growth being stagnant.

Now, a little personal story time:

Nearly ten years ago (yikes!) in college, I had an econ blog. My big brush with fame was having a joke of mine hat-tipped by Megan McArdle once. I did most of the required courses for an econ major, before eventually settling on math. My blog, I realized with dismay when I pulled it up many years later, consisted almost entirely of me agreeing with other econ bloggers I encountered, and imitating buzzwords. I certainly sounded a lot more mainstream in those days, but I understood — if possible — less economics than I do now.  I couldn’t use what I’d learned in school to reason about real-world questions.

I think I learn a heck of a lot more by throwing an idea out there and being corrected than I did back when I was not even asking questions.  A shy person cannot learn, an impatient person cannot teach” and all that.

Admittedly, my last post may have sounded more know-it-all-ish than it actually deserved, and that’s a problem to the extent that I accidentally misled people (despite my disclaimers.)  I actually tried, for several years, to be less outspoken and convey less confidence in my written voice.  My impression is that the attempt didn’t work for me, and caused me some emotional and intellectual damage in the meanwhile.  I think verbally; if I try to verbalize less, I think less.

I think the M.O. that works better for me is strong opinions, weakly held.  I do try to learn from knowledgeable people and quickly walk back my errors.  But realistically, I’m going to make errors, and dumber ones when I’m newer to learning about a topic.

To those who correct me and explain why — thank you.

Monopoly: A Manifesto and Fact Post

Epistemic Status: exploratory. I am REALLY not an economist, I don’t even play one on TV.

You can call it by a lot of names.  You can call it crony capitalism, the mixed economy,  or corporatism.  Cost disease is an aspect of the problem, as are rent-seeking, regulatory capture, and oligopoly.

If Scrooge McDuck’s downtown Duckburg apartment rises in price, and Scrooge’s net worth rises equally, but nothing else changes, the distribution of purchasing power is now more unequal — fewer people can afford that apartment.  But nobody is richer in terms of actual material wealth, not even Scrooge.  Scrooge is only “richer” on paper.  The total material wealth of Duckburg hasn’t gone up at all.

I’m concerned that something very like this is happening to developed countries in real life.  When many goods become more expensive without materially improving, the result is increased wealth inequality without increased material abundance.

The original robber barons  (Raubritter) were medieval German landowners who charged illegal private tolls to anyone who crossed their stretch of the Rhine.  Essentially, they profited by restricting access to goods, holding trade hostage, rather than producing anything.  The claim is that people in developed countries today are getting sucked dry by this kind of artificial access-restriction behavior.  A clear-cut example is closed-access academic journals, which many scientists have begun to boycott; the value in a journal is produced by the scholars who author, edit, and referee papers, while the online journal’s only contribution is its ability to restrict access to those papers.

Scott Alexander said it right:

LOOK, REALLY OUR MAIN PROBLEM IS THAT ALL THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS COST TEN TIMES AS MUCH AS THEY USED TO FOR NO REASON, PLUS THEY SEEM TO BE GOING DOWN IN QUALITY, AND NOBODY KNOWS WHY, AND WE’RE MOSTLY JUST DESPERATELY FLAILING AROUND LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS HERE.

 

Except that it’s pretty easy to see why. We have a lot of trolls sitting under bridges charging tolls to people who want to cross. Modern Raubritter can easily maintain a hard-to-refute image that they’re providing value, and so make it hard for anyone to coordinate to avoid them.  It’s genuinely risky to unilaterally skip college, refuse to publish in closed-access journals, or leave an expensive city with a booming economy.  You know you’re being charged a ton for some stuff you don’t want or need, but it’s hard to tell where exactly the waste is; it’s dissipated and concealed and difficult to disentangle.  As 19th century businessman John Wanamaker said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the problem is, I don’t know which half.”

But, for now, let’s try to get a factual picture of what’s actually going on.

Stagnant Commodity-Denominated Growth

GDP is supposed to be adjusted for inflation, but the calculation of the inflation rate is pretty political and might be misleading. What happens if you instead denominate in commodities?

dow-to-gold-ratio-100-year-historical-chart-2018-05-30-macrotrends

This is the Dow-to-gold ratio for the past 100 years; as you can see, there are three major contractions in the places you’d expect: one in the Great Depression, an even deeper one that began around 1972, and the most recent in the Great Recession that began in 2008.

You get a similar picture looking at the US GDP-to-gold ratio:

and the global GDP-to-gold ratio:

In 100 years we’re looking at something like an average of 1.4% growth in gold-denominated stocks or GDP; and gold-denominated GDP is comparable to where it was in the 1980’s.

But maybe that’s just gold. What about GDP denominated in other commodity prices? Here’s US GDP in terms of crude oil prices:

fredgraph

Once again, this shows US GDP never really recovering from the 2001 tech bust, and not being much higher than where it was in the 80’s.

fredgraph (3).png

Compared to the global price of corn, again, US GDP barely seems to have an upward trend since 1980; something like 1.5% growth.

fredgraph (1).png

Compared to a global commodities index, once again, GDP seems no higher than it was in the 90’s.

This should make us somewhat suspicious that “real” GDP growth is overestimating growth in material wealth.

Of course, since median income has grown slower than GDP, this means that median income relative to commodities has actually dropped in recent decades.

fredgraph (4).png

Stagnant Productivity

Labor productivity, in dollars per hour, has risen pretty steadily in advanced economies over the past half-century.

laborproductivity.gif

On the other hand, total factor productivity, the return on dollars of labor and capital, seems to have stagnated:

Image result for total factor productivity

Total factor productivity is thought to include phenomena such as technological improvement, good institutions and governance, and culture. It’s been stagnating in other developed countries, not just the US:
Image result for total factor productivity

A Brookings Institute report broke down US total factor productivity by sector, and concluded that the declining growth from 1987 to today was in services and construction, while manufacturing and other sectors continued to improve:

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 6.37.51 PM

Services and construction, please note, pretty much match the “cost disease” sectors whose prices are rising faster than the rest of the economy can grow: education, housing, transportation, and especially healthcare.  As services become more expensive, they’re also becoming less efficient.

Declining productivity means that we’re doing less with more.  This is particularly true for innovation, where, for instance, we’re not getting much increase in crop yields despite huge increases in the number of agricultural researchers, and not getting much increase in lives saved despite increasing volume of medical research.

agyield

lifeexpectancy

Monopoly and Declining Dynamism

The Herfindahl Index is a measure of market concentration, defined by the sum of the squares of the market shares of firms in an industry. (If a single firm held a monopoly it would be 1; if N firms each had equal shares, it would be 1/N.)

US industries have become more concentrated since the mid-1990s, with the number of firms dropping and the Herfindahl index rising:

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 7.55.33 PM

Firms have also gotten larger:

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 7.57.30 PM.png

You can also look at concentration in terms of employment.  Education and healthcare are the most concentrated industries by occupation, while computers are the least:

Occupational groups by industry concentration, May 2012

There has been a steady increase in market power since 1980, with markups rising from 18% above cost in 1980 to 67% above cost in 2014.

 

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 8.40.26 PM.png

More concentrated industries can charge higher prices relative to costs.

As industries are becoming more concentrated, they’re also becoming more static. Fewer new firms are being created:

Fig. 2: Firm Entry and Exit Rates (1978-2011)

Americans are moving less between states:

Image result for falling labor mobility

And self-employment is dropping:

Image result for declining entrepreneurship

As market power increases (i.e. as industries become more monopolistic), you can get a scenario where the financial value of firms outpaces their investment in capital or their spending on labor.

With an increase in market power, the share of income consisting of pure rents increases, while the labor and capital shares both decrease. Finally, the greater monopoly power of firms leads them to restrict output. In restricting their output, firms decrease their investment in productive capital, even in spite of low interest rates.

If you divide the economy into “capital” and “labor”, you find a long-term decline in the share of labor and increase in the share of capital. But if you decompose the capital share, you find that the returns on structures, land, and equipment are static or declining, while pure profits are on an upward trajectory:

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 8.13.58 AM.png

This story is consistent with other long-term trends, like the increasing share of the value of firms that consists of intangibles — that is, “the value of things you couldn’t easily copy, like patents, customer goodwill, employee goodwill, regulator favoritism, and hard to see features of company methods and culture.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 6.19.07 PM.png

Those intangibles constitute barriers to entry, precisely because they can’t be easily copied by new firms.  The rise of intangibles is also a sign of a more monopolistic economy.

It’s Not (Just) Regulation

Alex Tabarrok, a libertarian economist, argues that the decline in dynamism is not due to regulation.

Since the 1970’s, the most stringently regulated industry by far has been manufacturing:

Regulatory stringency by major sector

(“FIRE” here refers to finance, insurance, and real estate.)

However, more stringently regulated industries are not less dynamic:

Startup rates vs. regulatory stringency

Some of these results are weird, since #622, marked as a lightly regulated industry, is “Hospitals”, which I don’t really think of as freewheeling.  Maybe these numbers don’t include indirect effects like occupational licensing for medical professionals restricting the supply of people to work in hospitals.

But at any rate, regulations are not the only way to enforce monopoly power, and it seems that they’re not the decisive factor.  Governments have means other than regulation to promote monopoly (for instance, grants, contracts, or subsidies to insider firms, or increases in the scope of what can be patented and for how long).  And there are purely private mechanisms (like prestige/signaling in the scientific publishing industry) that can preserve monopolies as well.

Problems for the Middle and Lower Classes

US income inequality is rising; in real dollar terms, this looks like the rich getting richer while everyone else stays the same:

inequality

On the other hand, it’s worth moderating this picture by awareness of cost disease. High-income people as well as lower-income people are spending a larger fraction of their budget on housing and healthcare, which aren’t really improving much in quality.

Image result for household consumption in high income

Income mobility is also dropping:

Image result for declining income mobility

 

Some Slogans

Why is monopoly bad?

Monopoly drives up prices while depressing production.  That means we have fewer nice things. Yes, even for the “winners” of this negative-sum game, though of course the problem is worse for everyone else.

Monopoly and lack of innovation go together, since monopolists have less incentive to produce or compete.

Monopoly and intangibles go together.  Branding is a form of market power. As are patents.

Monopoly causes inequality; it also causes absolute economic insecurity (if necessities cost more, the poor are most harmed).

Monopoly is anti-meritocratic. It’s a troll guarding a bridge, not a hardworking genius inventor.

 

None of this tells us what to do about monopoly. I’m not at all confident that antitrust law works or is a fair solution to the problem.  There’s also reason to doubt that deregulation would fix everything, though fixing zoning and occupational licensing laws seems like it would at least help.

Introducing the Longevity Research Institute

I’ve just founded a nonprofit, the Longevity Research Institute — you can check it out here.

The basic premise is: we know there are more than 50 compounds that have been reported to extend healthy lifespan in mammals, but most of these have never been tested independently, and in many cases the experimental methodology is poor.
In other words, there seems to be a lot of low-hanging fruit in aging.  There are many long-lived mutant strains of mice (and invertebrates), there are many candidate anti-aging drugs, but very few of these drugs have actually been tested rigorously.
Why?  It’s an incentives problem.  Lifespan studies for mice take 2-4 years, which don’t play well with the fast pace of publication that academics want; and the FDA doesn’t consider aging a disease, so testing lifespan isn’t on biotech companies’ critical path to getting a drug approved.  Mammalian lifespan studies are an underfunded area — which is where we come in.
We write grants to academic researchers and commission studies from contract research organizations.  Our first planned studies are on epitalon (a peptide derived from the pineal gland, which has been reported to extend life in mice, rats, and humans, but only in Russian studies) and C3 carboxyfullerene (yes, a modified buckyball, which prevents Parkinsonism in primate models and has been reported to extend life in mice).  I’m also working on a paper with Vium about some of their long-lived mice, and a quantitative network analysis of aging regulatory pathways that might turn up some drug targets.
We’re currently fundraising, so if this sounds interesting, please consider donating. The more studies that can be launched in parallel, the sooner we can get results.

Wrongology 101

Epistemic Status: Speculative.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, available online here, is a really interesting study of the psychology of anti-Semitism, written in a time (1940’s France) when it was common for people to talk overtly about how much they hated Jews.  Sartre, being Gentile and from a culture where anti-Semitism was much more common than it is in 21st century America, had an opportunity to observe these people that I do not.  So while he paints an extremely unflattering picture of anti-Semites, one that’s almost hard to believe, I take it seriously.

What are anti-Semites like, according to Sartre?

They are lazy. Sartre gives the example of a man who believes Jews are given unfair advantages in passing an exam he failed, but readily admits that he didn’t study for it.

They are people-oriented rather than thing-oriented.  “They behave toward social  facts like primitives who endow the wind and the sun with little  souls.  Intrigues, cabals, the  perfidy of one man, the courage and virtue of another —  that is what determines  the  course of their business, that is what determines the course of the world.”

They are impulsive.  “the anti‐Semite understands nothing about modern society.  He  would be incapable of conceiving of a constructive plan; his action cannot reach the level of the methodical; it remains on the ground of passion.  To a long‐term enterprise he prefers an explosion of rage analogous to the running amuck of the Malays.”

They are bullies.  “He has chosen also to be terrifying.   People are afraid of irritating  him.   No one knows to what lengths the aberrations of his passion will carry him  —  but he knows, for this passion is not provoked by something external.  He has it well in hand; it is obedient to his will: now he lets go of  the reins and now he pulls back on them.”

They are conformists.  “This man fears every kind of solitariness, that of the genius as  much as that of the murderer; he is the man of the crowd.   However small his stature,  he takes every precaution to make it smaller, lest he stand out from the herd and find  himself face to face with himself.  He has made himself an anti-Semite because that is something one cannot be alone.  The phrase, “I hate the  Jews,” is one that  is  uttered  in  chorus;  in  pronouncing  it,  one  attaches himself to a tradition and to a community  —  the tradition and community of the mediocre.”

They are irrational.  “The anti-Semite has chosen to live on the plane of passion.” They like being angry (at the Jews), and seek out opportunities to work themselves up into a rage.  They deliberately say trollish things that make no sense: “Never believe that anti‐ Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies.  They know  that  their remarks are  frivolous, open to challenge.   But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right  to play.”

They are mystical and anti-intellectual.  “The anti‐Semite has a fundamental  incomprehension of the various forms of modern property:  money,  securities,  etc.   These are abstractions, entities of reason related to the abstract intelligence of the Semite…What his subtle sense seizes upon is precisely that which the intelligence cannot perceive.” In other words: he cannot understand complicated abstract ideas which in principle anybody could grasp, with enough time and effort and ordinary thinking; but he believes he has magical powers of intuition that reach beyond the intellect and which the Jews innately will forever lack.

They are a mob. “He  wants  his  personality  to  melt  suddenly  into  the  group  and  be  carried  away  by  the  collective  torrent.   He  has  this  atmosphere  of  the  pogrom  in  mind  when  he  asserts  “the  union of all Frenchmen.”

Why would a person want to be wrong on purpose?

Sartre explains:

How  can  one  choose  to  reason  falsely?  It  is  because  of  a longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he  gropes for the truth;  he  knows  that his  reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene  to  cast doubt on it.  He never sees very clearly  where he is going; he is “open”; he may even appear to be hesitant.   But there are people who are attracted  by the durability of a stone.   They wish to be massive and impenetrable;  they wish  not to change.   Where, indeed, would change take them?   We have here a basic fear of oneself and of truth.  What frightens them is not the content of truth, of which they have no conception, but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation. It is as if their own existence were in continual suspension.

In other words: the person who is wrong on purpose is afraid of the vulnerability of trying at a task that may fail.  In particular, he is afraid of the process of learning.  The “indefinite approximation” Sartre mentions is the process of double-checking, doubting, asking questions, second-guessing, saying “oops”, moderating or complicating one’s views, all the millions of mental motions involved in trying to understand things accurately. The person who is wrong on purpose wants to just stop all of that motion, forever.

Only  a  strong  emotional  bias  can give a lightning‐like  certainty; it alone  can hold reason in leash; it alone can remain impervious to  experience and last for a whole lifetime.

People choose to be wrong so that they can play a game that is by definition impossible to lose.  They don’t like trying or working hard. They don’t like expectations being placed on them.

The  anti‐Semite  is  not  too  anxious  to  possess  individual  merit.   Merit  has  to be sought, just like truth; it is discovered with difficulty; one must deserve it.  Once acquired, it is perpetually in question: a false step, an error, and it flies away.  Without respite, from the beginning of our lives to the end, we are responsible for what merit we enjoy.

But the anti-Semite wants a respite from responsibility, very badly.  He wants to be done.  He wants an end to trying altogether.

 Anti‐Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition.  The anti‐Semite is a  man  who wishes to be pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt‐anything except a man.

Sartre’s “Anti-Semitism” Isn’t Just About Jews

Sartre says explicitly that the character that made a Frenchman of his time into an anti-Semite could in other contexts apply to other races: “The Jew only serves him as a pretext; elsewhere his  counterpart  will  make  use  of  the  Negro  or  the  man  of  yellow skin.”

Sartre’s version of anti-Semitism is a lot like the American institution of herrenvolk democracy, established around the time of Andrew Jackson, in which white people, no matter how poor, formed a coalition that allowed them to be socially superior to black people, given arbitrary privileges over them and free to enact unpunished mob violence against them.

Anti-Asian prejudice (“sure, they’re smart, but they’re not really a good culture fit“) is also structurally very similar to the defiant mediocrity that Sartre describes in anti-Semites.

More controversially, there is something about the concept of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is no longer officially a medical designation and was arguably never a natural category, that matches this pattern.  Smart, logical people who just aren’t one of us, who may technically fulfill the requirements of a job but don’t have the right intangibles, who aren’t good at politicking, who naively believe in the literal rules, and who inevitably get bullied.

Structurally, we’re talking about a cartel, or a mob.  Mob in both the “mafia” and the “riot” sense.  Collusion to keep unmerited privilege, enforced by acts of random violence.

If you are trying to enforce an eternal privilege, something that cannot be lost no matter what you do, then being wrong, or being bad at things, or treating others badly, is the fundamental test of the security of your status.  Being wrong is both a badge and one of the perks of class membership.

Fascism and Mysticism

This article on Jordan Petersen is infuriating in some ways — there are gratuitous digs at masculinity and self-help that I don’t endorse — but it’s worth reading because it outlines his historical influences.

A range of intellectual entrepreneurs, from Theosophists and vendors of Asian spirituality like Vivekananda and D.T. Suzuki to scholars of Asia like Arthur Waley and fascist ideologues like Julius Evola (Steve Bannon’s guru) set up stalls in the new marketplace of ideas. W.B. Yeats, adjusting Indian philosophy to the needs of the Celtic Revival, pontificated on the “Ancient Self”; Jung spun his own variations on this evidently ancestral unconscious. Such conceptually foggy categories as “spirit” and “intuition” acquired broad currency; Peterson’s favorite words, being and chaos, started to appear in capital letters. Peterson’s own lineage among these healers of modern man’s soul can be traced through his repeatedly invoked influences: not only Carl Jung, but also Mircea Eliade, the Romanian scholar of religion, and Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, who, like Peterson, combined a conventional academic career with mass-market musings on heroic individuals.

There is, historically, a connection between occultism and the study of mythology, on the one hand, and fascism, on the other. (I would add D.H. Lawrence to the list of fascist-sympathizing mystics.)  The literal Nazis were very fond of myth and magic — see the Thule Society.  Start exploring contemporary neopaganism and occultism and you’ll quickly run into people with some very disturbing politics.

There’s a historical explanation — both the Theosophists and the fascists drew intellectually from German Idealism — but Sartre gives a more psychological explanation.  Both the desire to enjoy unearned (racial) privilege and the desire to believe in occult forces essentially boil down to the desire not to be tested.  One can fail tests.

If you have an invisible, magical essence that makes you special, however — that can’t be taken away by any inconvenient facts.

Cartel Thinking

The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective “, an account of a Chinese immigrant’s experiences at Cambridge, Goldman Sacks, and Stanford Business School, talks a fair bit about the mentality of seeking to live insulated from fair tests.

“In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.”

When Puzhong makes a successful trade by accident at Goldman Sacks, he expects to be reprimanded for his mistake, but is instead rewarded. But “it was not enough to just be a good trader. It was also essential to be able to manage one’s boss, other colleagues, and those who report to them.”

In business school, he learns (amusingly enough) that the way one is supposed to express feelings in American elite culture seems a lot like falsifying them:

We talked about microaggressions and feelings and empathy and listening. Sometimes in class the professor would say things to me like “Puzhong, when Mary said that, I could see you were really feeling something,” or “Puzhong, I could see in your eyes that Peter’s story affected you.” And I would tell them I didn’t feel anything. I was quite confused.

One of the papers we studied mentioned that subjects are often not conscious of their own feelings when fully immersed in a situation. But body indicators such as heart rate would show whether the person is experiencing strong emotions. I thought that I generally didn’t have a lot of emotions and decided that this might be a good way for me to discover my hidden emotions that the professor kept asking about.

So I bought a heart rate monitor and checked my resting heart rate. Right around 78. And when the professor said to me in class “Puzhong, I can see that story brought up some emotions in you,” I rolled up my sleeve and checked my heart rate. It was about 77.  And so I said, “nope, no emotion.” The experiment seemed to confirm my prior belief: my heart rate hardly moved, even when I was criticized, though it did jump when I became excited or laughed.

This didn’t land well on some of my classmates. They felt I was not treating these matters with the seriousness that they deserved. The professor was very angry. My takeaway was that my interpersonal skills were so bad that I could easily offend people unintentionally, so I concluded that after graduation I should do something that involved as little human interaction as possible.

Puzhong is noticing that American elite businesspeople appear to be colluding rather than competing.  They’re not racing each other for profits, they’re signaling that they’re cozy insiders who will play nice and share the spoils with others who know the right buzzwords.  Cartel behavior, in other words.

I had always thought that things happen for reasons. My parents taught me that good people get rewarded while evil gets punished. My teachers at school taught me that if you work hard, you will succeed, and if you never try, you will surely fail.

If people are rewarded for reasons, then anyone who meets these publicly known criteria can gain rewards.  If rewards are given opaquely, then they can be safely restricted to existing insiders. Therefore, people who want to preserve cartel privilege have an interest in being mysterious and not making sense.

Applied Wrongology

I have never been an anti-Semite, for obvious reasons; I have never been a banker or MBA, either, and I like to think that racism is not particularly my vice.  But I do understand the longing for security.

It gets tiring to be tested all the time, to be subject to skepticism, to be second-guessed, to have expectations placed upon you.  It’s nerve-wracking to have to perform and worry that you’ll fail.  Merit is intimidating. Objectivity is daunting.

And, on the other hand, to float completely free, to have a space where you can just be, to feel the world is faintly gold-dusted and magical, to build castles in the air without any annoying people coming around to check on whether you’re being “productive” or whether the castles are, in fact, real…that would be lovely, wouldn’t it?  Doesn’t that seem more like the way life should naturally be?

And wouldn’t it be nice to be sure that nobody will ever come round to weigh and measure and count and judge?  Forever, no matter what?

I can’t, in sincerity, say people shouldn’t want that. It’s a very understandable thing to want, to be cut slack, to not be judged. At times I want it myself.

But Sartre’s anti-Semite only wants to be secure — he isn’t said to succeed.  Just because he wants to stop being human doesn’t mean he can get what he wants. Total security, and total absence of thought, is probably unattainable.

 

Good News for Immunostimulants

Epistemic Status: Moderate

Way back in 2015 I was writing about the connection between cancer remissions and the immune response to infection.  To recap the facts:

  • A plurality of recorded spontaneous cancer remissions happened when the patient had a strong immune response (often with fever) to a bacterial infection at the tumor site.
  • William Coley’s bacterial therapies for cancer at the turn of the 20th century, while not tested to the standards of modern experimental methods, did seem to produce recovery rates comparable or superior to chemotherapy.
  • Endotoxin, a poisonous substance found in the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria, can cause tumor regressions.
  • TNF-alpha, an inflammatory cytokine involved in the body’s response to endotoxin, is equally effective at causing tumor regressions; it is too dangerous to give to patients systemically, but is an effective cancer treatment for advanced melanoma when used in isolated limb perfusion.
  • There are quite a few cases, both in animals and humans, of inflammatory cytokines causing complete tumor regressions in metastatic cancers, particularly when injected directly into the tumor.

At the time, I predicted that if only there were a delivery mechanism that could more effectively isolate inflammatory cytokines to the tumor site, it might work safely for more than just special cases like isolated limb perfusion; and that there might be some delivery mechanism that made a bacterial therapy like Coley’s toxins work.

The heuristic here was that when I went looking for the biggest responses (remissions, complete tumor regressions) in the toughest cases (metastatic cancers, sarcomas which don’t respond to chemotherapy), many of them seemed to involve this picture of acute, intense activation of the innate immune response.

It turns out that two new therapies with very good results pretty much support this perspective.

CpG oligodeoxynucleotides,  a motif found in bacterial DNA, are the active ingredient in Coley’s toxins; they are the part of bacterial lysate that triggers the immunostimulatory effects.

Today, SD-101, a CpG oligodeoxynucleotide drug produced by the biotech company Dynavax, is about to present its results from two trials.

This January, Stanford scientists reported that SD-101 combined with another immunotherapy — but no traditional chemotherapy — eradicated both implanted and spontaneous tumors when injected into mice, both at the injection site and elsewhere.

We’ll have to see the results of the human trials, but this looks promising.

Another drug, NKTR-214, is an engineered version of the inflammatory cytokine IL-2, designed to localize more effectively to tumors.  The IL-2 core is attached to a chain of polyethylene glycols, which release slowly in the body, preferentially activating the tumor-killing receptors for IL-2 and resulting in 500x higher concentrations in tumors than a similar quantity of IL-2 alone.  This is the tumor-localizing property that could make inflammatory cytokines safe.

In patients with advanced or metastatic solid tumors, previously treated with PD-1 inhibitors, NKTR-214 resulted in 23% of patients experiencing partial tumor regression.

While this still doesn’t mean much chance of recovery, it’s still notable — any treatment for advanced cancers with more than a 20% response rate is remarkable. (Chemotherapy usually produces partial response rates in the 2-20% range for metastatic cancers, depending on cancer type and drug regimen.)

It’s early days yet, but I continue to think that immunostimulants have a lot of potential in cancer treatment.

Moreover, I think this is a little bit of evidence against the frequently heard claim that it’s impossible to “pick winners” in biotech.

The conventional wisdom is that you can’t know ahead of time which drugs that seem to work in preclinical studies (in vitro or in mice) will succeed in humans.

Most preclinical drug candidates do fail, it’s true. And there are a lot of reasons to expect this: mouse models are not perfect proxies for human diseases, experimental error and outright fraud often make early results unreplicable, and we don’t understand all the complexities of biochemistry that might make a proposed mechanism fail.

But the probability distribution over drug candidates can’t be uniform, or it would have been impossible to ever develop effective drugs!  The search space of possibly bioactive molecules is too large, and the cost of experiments too high, to get successes if drugs were tested truly at random.  We would never have gotten chemotherapy that way.

I think it’s likely that using the simple heuristic of “big effects in tough cases point to a real mechanism somewhere nearby” gets you better-than-chance predictions of what will work in human trials.

 

Naming the Nameless

Epistemic status: political, opinionated, personal, all the typical caveats for controversial posts.

I was talking with a libertarian friend of mine the other day about my growing discomfort with the political culture in the Bay Area, and he asked why I didn’t just move.

It’s a good question.  Peter Thiel just moved to L.A., citing the left-wing San Francisco culture as his reason.

But I like living in the Bay, and I don’t plan to go anywhere in the near future. I could have said that I’m here for the tech industry, or here because my friends are, or any number of superficially “practical” reasons, but they didn’t feel like my real motivation.

What I actually gave as the reason I stay was… aesthetics.

Wait, what?

Let’s Talk About Design

I’m not a designer, so I probably don’t have the correct vocabulary to express what I see.  Please bear with me, while I use simple and ignorant language; if any of my readers have a more sophisticated understanding, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Stuff that’s marketed to Bay Area bourgeois bohemians has a coherent appearance.  You see it in websites that are all smooth scrolling and gradients and minimalism — see the sample websites on Squarespace, for instance.  You see it in the product design on the labels and menus of cafes and juice bars and coffee shops — The Plant Cafe is a good example.  You see it in the almost-identical, smoothly minimalist layouts of every tech-startup office.

Professional designers may be getting bored of this “light-contrast, minimalist elegance” or “objectively beautiful, but mostly unremarkable, templates”, and are trying out more deliberately jarring styles like Brutalism.

But for your typical consumer, the generic California/BoBo style works fine.  It signals elegance, which means, more or less, that it’s designed for educated, high-Openness, upper-middle-class, urban people.  When I enter a space or a website with this aesthetic, or buy a product with this branding, it’s shorthand for “Ahhhh, this place is run by competent professionals who know how to give me a pleasant experience. I will not feel harried or inconvenienced or confused here; I will be well taken care of.  I will easily be able to slot my existing behavior patterns into the implicit “rules” of how to use and navigate this place or device or website.”

Apple products are, of course, the archetype of this kind of “good” design.  Smooth, urbane, almost childishly easy to use.  Most computers are still PCs; office workers, older people, hardcore programmers and gamers, and the price-conscious still go for PCs.  It’s among the style-conscious (who skew affluent, educated, aesthetically/socially sensitive, and slightly more female than male) that Macs are universal.  When I asked a Marine from Texas what kind of computer he used, he scoffed, Do I look like a Mac guy?

Let’s look at one of my favorite things to buy, GT’s Kombucha.

This is pretty much the most BoBo thing in the world. It makes a nod to Buddhism (“Enlightened”, the mandala-like radially symmetric logo), psychedelia (the rainbow label), Human Potential Movement-ish self-improvement (“SYNERGY” and “renew, rebalance, rebuild, reclaim, rekindle, recharge”) and environmentalism (“organic”).  But the design is simple and clean enough to seem like a modern company run by professionals.

In this case, it’s not just a pretty label: the probiotics in fermented foods like kombucha are probably good for you, kombucha is lower in sugar than juice but pleasantly tangy and fizzy, and in my experience it’s uncannily good at settling an upset stomach.  But the branding is a big part of what makes it delightful.  And, I’m almost embarrassed to say, being able to buy kombucha at the nearest drugstore is a non-negligible part of why I like living in this neighborhood.

Style-Blindness

I have a friend who’s very good at digging up evidence of crime and scam artistry.  It’s part hobby, part crusade; give her a public figure and she can investigate with great speed and accuracy what kinds of shady dealings he’s been involved with.

Once, she showed me some companies she had proved were fraudulent, and my first reaction was “I could have told you that in seconds; their web design looks scammy.”

Of course, it’s not really the same thing. She had hard evidence; I only had an intuition, and intuition can be wrong.

But, for instance, this penis enlargement website just looks noisy. It’s jam-packed with content, it’s screaming about sales and deals, there’s a bright red “Buy Now” button with a ticking countdown clock.  It’s not classy.  Even if you didn’t know anything about the product, you could see that it’s being packaged (pun intended) much differently than this website selling relationship workshops.

But my friend, like a lot of nerds, couldn’t see that difference in branding at a glance. She couldn’t see the difference in connotations that different aesthetic choices evoke.  She was almost completely style-blind.

Some people claim that aesthetics don’t mean anything, and are very resistant to the idea that they could.  After all, aesthetic preferences are very individual. Chinese opera sounds beautiful to people raised with it, and discordant to the untrained Western ear.

So, claim the skeptics, all descriptions of what aesthetic choices “mean” are basically pseudoscience. When design experts tell us that red evokes passion and blue evokes calm, they’re using associative thinking, which is no more fact-based than the Four Elements or the five colors in Magic: The Gathering.

Clustering things based on associations and connotations is risky.  It’s going to differ from individual to individual, and even more from culture to culture.  It’s easy to take intuitive leaps for granted and quickly get to the point where people are talking past each other.  So it’s safer just not to talk about what aesthetics connote, right?

To my view, the skeptics have a good point, but they’re too epistemically conservative. There’s obviously signal being carried through aesthetics.  Colors don’t have intrinsic meanings, of course, but they do have shared connotations within a culture.

Note that the M:TG color “meanings” and the design/marketing color “meanings” are very similar — not because everyone is tapping into some magical collective unconscious, but because Magic is a game designed in contemporary America, by designers who probably share the same color associations as the designers of websites and product labels.

When Pantone says their 2018 color of the year, Ultra Violet, “communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking”, they’re not just making up random nonsense.  Pretty much any present-day English-language “color meaning” summary for designers or marketers will associate purple with something like creativity or imagination or spirituality. I don’t know where this meme comes from originally, but it’s certainly not unique to Pantone or chosen at random.

Our physical environment is built primarily by corporations which employ designers.  Those designers draw inspiration from artistic or creative subcultures. Design has a life cycle in which it starts as an original aesthetic trope being used by some individual artist, to being imitated by other artists, to becoming trendy, to becoming ubiquitous.  Tastemakers may be a tiny minority of the population, aesthetics may not be a big deal for everyone, but everything manmade you see around you has its origins in someone obsessed with aesthetics.  Designers “rule” our visual world in the same way writers “rule” our verbal world, in the same way that “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”  In this sense, aesthetics very much mean things, and you have to look to their origins and contexts to understand what they mean.

This essay, worth reading in full, calls the process “subcultural sublimation” and tracks how Pantone’s 2016 colors, Rose Quartz and Serenity, drew inspiration from seapunk (a musical subgenre with an online visual aesthetic). Seapunk aesthetics propagated through fashion blogs, the NYT style section, and pop stars’ music videos, all the way to the Pantone Institute, which sets the tone for fashions in mainstream commercial design. The popularity of pastels began with feminist artists interrogating softness and femininity, propagated through Tumblr “aesthetic” blogs, and likewise eventually reached Pantone. Aesthetic tropes are “commodified” over time; they drift from artistic or countercultural milieux towards corporate branding.

Mostly implicit in the article, but worth mentioning, is that commercial design ultimately borrows from creatives who are politically opposed to business and resent this commercial appropriation.  More on that later.

If you’re style-blind, you’ll look at Rose Quartz and Serenity and say “they’re just colors! they don’t mean anything! all this cultural criticism is just pretentious noise!”  If you’re mildly style-sensitive, like myself, you’ll notice that the colors seem Tumblresque, and you’ll note that Pantone’s description makes a nod to “gender blur” and “societal movements toward gender equality and fluidity”.  If you’re actually an expert, like the author of the article, you can concretely trace where the popularity of that color scheme came from.

“Subcultural sublimation” runs on ordinary, non-magical cause and effect, the propagation of memes from their originators towards mass popularity.  It can be understood and analyzed.  You can isolate where aesthetic tropes come from, why they’re used, what their creators believe, and what channels govern their imitation and spread — and that tells you something about their “meaning” that’s not purely subjective.

Politics and Aesthetics

Artists tend to be on the political left; arts and media occupations are among the most heavily weighted towards Democrats over Republicans.

It’s not clear to me why. Maybe it’s a temperamental thing — high openness to experience drives both an interest in aesthetics and a preference for left or liberal politics.  Maybe it’s explained by education, which both inculcates interest in the arts and left politics.  Regardless of cause, it’s a real and important phenomenon.  And it’s a problem for anyone who’s not on the left, as Rod Dreher, the original CrunchyCon, pointed out years ago.

Beauty matters to people. So does health and emotional wellbeing. So does everyday kindness.  Living well, in other words. Quality of life.  You can’t cede all of that to the opposing political team without losing something valuable.

Rod Dreher points out that, while, say, organic vegetables are coded liberal, they also taste better and are healthier than processed food.  Yet conservatives often have a knee-jerk condemnation of anything “green” or “pretentious”, which means they’re boxed into being cultural philistines who miss out on flavor and beauty and health.

“It’s a PR disaster for the Right to allow discussions of fun and beauty and poetry and nature to be owned by the Left,” says a New York publishing executive and closet conservative. “The right wing just looks unappealing. Do they not understand this?” 

If you like the arts, if you’re temperamentally high-Openness and aesthetically sensitive, you’re going to be drawn to coastal cities and educated social groups, and those environments tend to skew left-wing. It’s hard to leave without giving up something intangible that’s hard to convey to people who don’t share your sensibility.

Dreher, a conservative Catholic who values tradition, can with some justice argue that beauty and art properly belong to his culture; after all, it was Catholics who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Libertarians are, if anything, in a tougher position, because we’re not traditionalists, and because strong individualism runs counter to even being able to talk about shared cultural sensibilities.  Ask a libertarian “Why don’t we have any good songs about our values?” and there’s a good chance that you’ll get the response “Ew, who’d want one?  That’s too collectivist for me.”

But the result is that you’re living in an aesthetic environment that’s largely created by your ideological opponents, and subjected to constant subliminal messaging that your values are uncool. This causes an evaporative cooling effect where the only people willing to express libertarian views are “style-blind” and sometimes even socially blind, people who do not perceive that they are being mocked or that their aesthetic signaling is clumsy.

It’s hard to argue to a skeptic why this even matters. Why care about aesthetics and culture? What do you care what other people think?  Surely an independent-minded person would simply refuse to succumb to social pressure — and the cultural connotations of aesthetics are inherently relative to social context, so maybe the best way to keep your independence is to choose style-blindness as a cognitive strategy.  What you can’t see, you can’t be manipulated by!

But I think it’s unvirtuous to choose blindness or ignorance. And it’s also ineffective. What you can’t see can sneak up behind you.  People who think they’re immune to social pressure get manipulated all the time.

Scott Alexander is honest enough to admit that it happens to him:

Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement.

Now, I could say “just don’t do that, then” — but Scott of 2009 would have also said he believed in being independent and rational and not succumbing to social pressure.  Good intentions aren’t enough.

And I’m seeing people in roughly my demographic going silent or submitting to pressure to conform, and it’s worrisome.

I think it’s much better to try to make the implicit explicit, to bring cultural dynamics into the light and understand how they work, rather than to hide from them.

Defensive Postures

There are a number of defensive strategies people (of varying political views) adopt against the cultural dominance of the left.

Reaction is what, say, Ann Coulter does, or Breitbart.com, or the Donald Trump campaign.  It’s defiantly anti- progressive, rejecting the “mainstream media” and “coastal elite” tastemakers.  It’s happy to be perceived as tacky and rude.

The problem with reaction is that it has no positive vision.  It’s just “the opposite of what my opponents want.”  It’s uncreative and it can easily descend into spitefulness.

Respectability politics is a different tactic, and, in this context, usually takes the form of (not very credible) claims to be apolitical.  Early forms of this include “Keep Your Identity Small” or “Politics is the Mind-Killer.”  By declaring the importance of not taking sides, you’re already asserting that you’re not wholly on one side; a progressive can reasonably infer that any avowedly “apolitical” person disagrees with them at least somewhere.

Claims of aloofness from politics have always, correctly, been identified as evidence of covert dissent from “good” politics: “formalism” was a political offense in Soviet Russia.  There are many thinkpieces like this one observing (rightly) that Silicon Valley culture is nominally apolitical but implicitly capitalist.

And then you see obviously defensive moves by the tech industry to distance itself from that allegation, like YCombinator’s announcement of its New Cities  project:

Just to get ahead of the inevitable associations: We want to build cities for all humans – for tech and non-tech people. We’re not interested in building “crazy libertarian utopias for techies.”

Once you have to defend against a stereotype, you’re already losing the messaging war.  As with reaction, there’s no positive vision, only the frantic assurance that you’re not really the bad guy.

Cooptation doesn’t seem to be that popular, and might be underrated.

It’s a kind of judo where you claim to be the true exemplar of the goal your opponents want.  They hate capitalism?  Well, you note that what most people think of when they hear that word is crony capitalism, which is indeed terrible, and that you are bitterly opposed to the system in which unfair legal privileges give vast wealth to a few and deprive everyone else.  C4SS does this, quite well in my opinion, but hardly anyone outside of libertarian-world has heard of them.

It’s still not fundamentally creative, though. You’re borrowing your opponents’ tropes and aesthetics, not building your own.  And if you get too good at it, you end up being easily confused for believing things that you don’t actually believe.

The Opposite of Defensiveness

One of the things I like best about Ayn Rand is that she staked out aesthetic and cultural territory without resorting to any of these defense mechanisms.  She actually made art that was fundamentally in a different style than that of the cultural establishment.  Of course, this left her vulnerable to the allegation that it was bad art — there are 52 million Google results for “ayn rand bad art.”

But most of the common criticisms — of black-and-white thinking, didacticism, utopian optimism, overly heroic characters, and so on — are based on implicit presumptions about the nature of life and the role of art which she explained (or, at least, began to explain) why she did not share.  She brought the dissent into the light, into explicit discourse.

If you take something about yourself that’s “cringeworthy” and, instead of cringing yourself, try to look at why it’s cringeworthy, what that’s made of, and dialogue honestly with the perspective that disagrees with you — then there is, in a sense, nothing to fear.

There’s an “elucidating” move that I’m trying to point out here, where instead of defending against an allegation, you say “let’s back up a second” and bring the entire situation into view.  It’s what double crux is about — “hey, let’s find out what even is the disagreement between us.”  Double crux is hard enough with arguments, and here I’m trying to advocate something like double-cruxing aesthetic preferences, which sounds absurdly ambitious.  But: imagine if we could talk about why things seem beautiful and appealing, or ugly and unappealing.  Where do these preferences come from, in a causal sense? Do we still endorse them when we know their origins?  What happens when we bring tacit things into consciousness, when we talk carefully about what aesthetics evoke in us, and how that might be the same or different from person to person?

Unless you can think about how cultural messaging works, you’re going to be a mere consumer of culture, drifting in whatever direction the current takes you.

The Arts and Imitation

Let’s go back for a moment to subcultural sublimation.

Artistic trends have a life cycle, of creation, expansion, and destruction, or more specifically, the artist, the marketer, and the critic.  First, the artist creates a new thing. Then, a succession of tastemakers and creatives imitate that thing and scale it up, from a subcultural scene to mass-market production.  Finally, the critic notices that it’s become commoditized (in the literal economic sense: if it’s exactly the same everywhere and anyone can copy it, its price goes to zero) and deflates the hype.

This isn’t specific to the arts, of course.  Companies are created, expand, and eventually succumb to competition.  Empires are founded, expand, and succumb to invaders. It’s a human-organization pattern.

But expansion in particular is enabled by mechanical reproduction processes dating to the Industrial Revolution.  We can systematize “scaling up” much easier and faster than pre-industrial peoples could.

Commerce is ancient — in different times and places, trade has been more free or less so, and it became somewhat more free in the West with the introduction of classical liberalism and economic theory at the end of the 18th century, but trade itself is as old as the first anatomically modern humans, living 300,000 years ago.

Invention is ancient — the Greeks had it, including more advanced science than modern stereotypes would assume. Archimedes probably knew calculus.

What’s modern is scaling-up, the ability to make many copies of things, from physical objects to social systems.  That’s what allows for mass culture.  That’s what allows startups to grow exponentially.  For the past two hundred years or so, we’ve been living in an era where the expander of the reach of a creation is more powerful than ever.

Expanders sometimes like to present themselves as creators, but they’re not.  The creator makes the first prototype, the original. No scale at all. “Zero to one.”  In fact, creators often resent expanders for taking credit for their work or diluting it for the mass audience.  This is why seapunk artists were frustrated at being imitated in music videos:

also, why aren’t y’all frustrated AT ALL at the rihanna thing? that performance marked the commodification of an aesthetic movement…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

…which means all taste-makers have to start all over. it’s a lot of work. clearly ur not doing shit but consuming if ur not peeved by this— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

“wow amazing rihanna performance i love seeing my tumblr on SNL” why? that Aesthetic served as an exclusive binder for URL counterculture…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

…tomorrow, when it enters Phase Three and Forever 21 puts a price tag on it, it will no longer be exclusive. its purpose is gone.— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

My own addition to the pile of theories on “why don’t creative professionals like capitalism?” is that creators feel defrauded by expanders, and the core of modern capitalism is superpowered expanders.  Expanders capture most of the economic value and social credit from scaling up things originated by creators.  Expanders are sociopaths, in the “geeks, mops, and sociopaths” trichotomy.

And we don’t really have good tools for fairly compensating people for intellectual originality.  Intellectual property law is a kludge, with a lot of problems.  Creators don’t really know how to extract “fair market value” for ideas, possibly because they’re intrinsically motivated to create them and the kind of “payment” they want is more like appreciation or kindred-spirit-ness than money.  Standard startup ideology says that ideas are of low value: “If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you’ll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost.  That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA.” That may be true, but you could also interpret it as markets not knowing how to price ideas, in the same way that markets can’t price natural resources until you figure out a way to define property rights over them.

So, whenever you encounter a piece of media — words or images or music or anything representational — no matter how many levels of imitation or expansion it’s been through, you’re still hearing some distant signal from its originator.  And its originator probably feels ripped off and undervalued.  When you go looking for good art, you’re looking for art that’s closer to its creative source, and that means you’ll hear in it the voice of the frustrated creator.

In a sense it’s inherently paradoxical to enjoy something like GT’s Kombucha — it’s a product produced by a process (scaling-up) which the hippies who inspired its aesthetic would have vehemently opposed.  To like it knowledgeably is to partly dislike it.

I think there may be some kind of necessary project in the vicinity of “making amends between creators and expanders” that would be required for creative work not to have the dynamic where scaling up is seen as selling out.  I think scaling-up is probably net good — it allows more people to have nicer things.  But there may well be legitimate grievances with it that deserve to be addressed.  That’s another one of those cases where dialogue and making the implicit explicit would be really helpful.