Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science


Items of interest, comments on podcasts, basically anything we publish other than the podcasts themselves…

Keeping the American Experiment Alive

This is an op ed Mark wrote which was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on July 1, 2022.

This Independence Day comes at a disturbing time, with rights being trampled so that personal privileges can be maintained. Underpay people, denying them a decent life while enriching yourself. Require everyone to risk slaughter by madmen so you can protect yourself against imaginary threats. Take control over women’s’ bodies because they can’t be trusted to do what you think best.

But there is reason for hope. Because while distorting our principles got us into this mess, those ideals also point the way out. If enough people exert themselves to get us back on track.

Our federal government was created a decade after we won our liberty. Those first years were tumultuous, and oddly similar to today. Our first confederation failed, too weak to deal with the British cutting us off from their empire. Leading to massive inflation, followed by massive deflation.

Most states wanted to go their own way. It’s hard to forge a nation out of people who considered “America” an abstract label. Even a century later, Robert E. Lee justified treason by explaining he might be an American but was a Virginian first.

The well-off feared economic calamity was causing voters to push state governments into radicalism. A new national government was needed to keep the states in line. Washington wrote about this fear in letters to the central figures behind the Constitution.

In most states adopting the Constitution required approval by specially elected delegates, at a time when many voters were facing ruin. That drove the authors to market the pitch in the language of individual liberty and freedom. After all, voters were being asked to consider something intended to rein in the very state governments they looked to for help. It is not an accident that the Constitution starts with “We the People” despite being designed to govern the states.

It was a brilliant strategy, and it worked, albeit just barely. Most of the state votes were close (Rhode Island overwhelmingly rejected the Constitution in a plebiscite). I can see the authors wiping their brows and congratulating each other: “Thank goodness, we managed to avoid losing everything!”.

Under the Constitution everyone is equal before the law. It’s a radical idea, as any dictator will tell you. But it’s never been fully implemented, probably because the people who wrote it were leery of what the have-nots – and women and slaves and other “rightfully” suppressed groups — might do with it.

That disconnect has plagued our history. Political stability allowed economic forces to dramatically enhance wealth and income. Yet economic success creates and magnifies disparities favoring the more successful, whether they achieved that success through their own efforts or by birth. The powerful will always be tempted to warp the system to protect their interests, at the expense of those with less clout.

We’ve never found a solution to that problem. We probably never will. We each rightfully value our freedom – and all the benefits freedom delivers — too much to over constrain ourselves. Even when some use their power against the rest of us. Besides, it’s only human to be tempted to want such power, if and when we amass it.

But periodically we remember what the Revolution meant, declare enough is enough, and enact new rules to keep unbridled self-interest from destroying the system.

The last forty years have seen America deliver spectacularly … for some. But overzealous pursuit of self-interest led many of us to ignore the less powerful and rationalize their lack of clout as a sign of incompetence. Now self-interest is leading some to suppress others’ freedoms to force conformance to desired behaviors. Intolerance and bigotry are once again on the rise.

No community can survive such trends. Because communities – and the success they enable individuals to achieve — are more than just people who happen to hang out together. We each must be willing to belong. Which requires tolerance.

Righting the ship won’t be easy. We can start by committing to think critically and objectively about all public matters. Particularly in the selection of leaders. We need to reject those who would encourage division and paranoia to line their and their friends’ pockets or maintain their hold on power.

On this Independence Day I hope we will remember the Revolution is not something that happened once, long ago. It’s an ongoing story, constantly evolving. To fulfill its potential, we must breathe new life into it, every day. Particularly now when the American experiment is once again in peril.

Mark is a former mayor of San Carlos. He and Seth Rosenblatt host a podcast at exploring the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science.

Nehemiah Scudder

One of us (Mark) is a life-long consumer of science fiction. And, growing up in the 1960s, you can’t be into that genre without knowing more than a little about Robert Heinlein, who published from the early 1940s through the late 1980s.

Heinlein delighted in sparking controversy…which is why he has been considered a towering figure, a racist1, the inventor of modern libertarianism2, and the spark that led to flower power3.

But what he is perhaps best known for was a future history that began with his very first stories and continued in various short stories and novels up until his death. In that “history” the United States fell into a religious dictatorship after the 2012 Presidential election.

It made a huge impression on me because I could not imagine how something like that could happen. But as I learned more history and learned more about the things we touch on in our podcasts…I’ve come to believe it could conceivably — and easily — happen.

But I hope it won’t. And part of the reason I speak out against fundamentalism is because I don’t want it to.

Here’s what Heinlein had to say in some endnotes he wrote, lightly edited to shorten it. Keep in mind these were written in the early 1950s. And think about how the world has changed to give us the tools to stop something like it from happening…while at the same time making it more likely that it could. Copyright Robert Heinlein, 1951/52.

As for…the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific and anti-libertarian.

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed, it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not — but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television4, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck5. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening — particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.

I imagined Nehemiah Scudder as a backwoods evangelist who combined some of the features of John Calvin, Savonarola, Judge Rutherford and Huey Long. His influence was not national until after the death of an early convert who had the single virtue of being the widow of an extremely wealthy man6. She left Brother Scudder several millions of dollars7 with which to establish a television station8. Shortly thereafter he teamed up with an ex-Senator from his home state and they were on their way to fame and fortune. Presently they needed stormtrooopers; they revived the Ku Klux Klan in everything but the name. Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election. The next election was never held.

  1. Sixth Column and Farnham’s Freehold 

  2. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, about the revolt of the Lunar penal colonies in 2076. Guess what actual revolution that was patterned after? 

  3. Stranger in a Strange Land 

  4. think what could be done with the internet! 

  5. or Walmart, nowadays 

  6. a little misogyny here, but the point is valid independent of gender 

  7. read billions today 

  8. a media empire nowadays 

Hindsight Bias is Everywhere

I recently ran into a great example of how pervasive hindsight bias is that I wanted to share. It appeared in some comments to an op ed I wrote which was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal, one of our local papers. My article argued the San Carlos City Council, on which I used to serve, should have spent more of its significant financial reserves to help the community through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two different respondents took issue with the need to do so, arguing that, had the United States (and California) not responded inappropriately to the pandemic there would’ve been little or no reason to spend reserves because normal activities would not have been so disrupted. Here’s a summary of the argument:

  • Lockdowns were imposed when the pandemic started
  • Lockdowns are not particularly useful, or useful at all, as proven by objective scientific studies
  • Therefore, our elected leaders were guilty of gross mismanagement

On the face of it this is a plausible argument1. Case closed, right?

Now let’s timestamp the points:

  • March, 2020: Lockdowns imposed when the pandemic started
  • March, 2022: Lockdowns are not particularly useful, or useful at all, as proven by objective scientific studies
  • March, 2020: Therefore our elected leaders were guilty of grossly mismanagement

Now the argument is revealed as being fatally flawed, because it presupposes data was available in March, 2020 that only came into existence in March, 20222

This is a classic example of hindsight bias. Humans are notorious for not being good at keeping track of exactly when they learn something. Do you remember when you learned calculus? I don’t, not precisely. I know it was sometime between 7th grade3 and 9th grade4. But that’s a pretty big gap in time.

Once we know something we tend to act/think as if we’ve always known it. That’s not only generally not a problem, it’s usually an advantage: who wants to waste time validating when we learned something every time we use the knowledge? But it leads us to make fallacious arguments, when those arguments depend, as the one I’ve cited does, on the precise sequence of events.

But wait! There were people asserting back in March, 2020 that the lockdowns were too intense and/or unnecessary. In fact, as I recall, the former “very stable genius” who occupied the White House was one of them :). So the argument as presented is in fact valid, right?

Nope. Because there’s a huge difference between an assertion and a fact-as-determined-by-a-clinical-study. Even if they appear to be, or are, the same.

Humans are really bad at distinguishing between assertions and facts, particularly when the facts appear later in time than when the assertions are made. We automatically link the two, and assume the assertion was correct — and actionable — at the time it was first stated.

But, while later analysis (i.e., the clinical study) showed the assertion to be correct, its truth was not known at the time the assertion was made. To have acted upon the assertion as if it was a fact would have been risky, extremely so in the case of being faced with a highly contagious disease whose lethality was both ill-defined and significant.

It’s important to be aware of all forms of hindsight bias, including the two I’m exploring in-depth here. Because, like any biases, failure to do so can wreck arguments. Which is embarrassing, and potentially dangerous if you’re the decider.

I find a good way to do that is to always consider the provenance of data when I use it in an argument. Who said it? When was it proved/validated? How strong is the proof/validation? Considering all those factors helps me assess how good my argument is, and how likely it is to remain useful over time.

By the way, that last element of provenance I cited — how strong is the proof/validation? — shouldn’t be glossed over, even though I’ve generally found it to be the most difficult factor to assess. The difficulty stems from the fact that every fact is only contingently true. The best that can be said about a fact is that it hasn’t yet been disproven, despite efforts to do so. But it might be shown to be wrong, at any time.

This contingent nature of facts underlies the entire scientific worldview, and I’d argue is probably one of the greatest insights into the Real World our species ever stumbled across. It literally gave us all the technological wonders that have enriched us enormously.

But it’s not hard-wired into our genes. We each have to learn it. And doing so takes lots of time and effort — it’s one of the main reasons we invest so much time, energy and resources as a species educating our young.

But it’s well worth it. Because besides making us healthier and wealthier than our ancestors could’ve dreamed, it helps us avoid being embarrassed.

  1. Leaving aside I’m not sure, from my reading, that the studies they’re referring to showed no benefit. I seem to recall they showed some modest benefits. Then again, they might be referring to different studies than the ones I read about. 

  2. The studies might have been released slightly before March, 2022, because there’s usually a lag between when clinical studies are released and when the popular press picks up on them. On the other hand, any such study would be, and was, newsworthy so I suspect the lag was quite brief. 

  3. When I was introduced to algebra and one of my older brothers teased me by giving me his college introductory calculus textbook, saying “try this on for size” : 

  4. When I was using it to mathematically model electrical circuits. 

Red, White, & True – part deux

The Red, White, & True podcast just published part two if the interview that the host, Chesney Evert, had with the two of us. This second part of our discussion is Episode 8 of her podcast where we talked about how the two us debate issues internally, our conflicts with other local officials, and the need to bring back critical thinking and honest debates to politics, both locally and nationally.

Thanks again to Chesney for the conversation! You can listen to the podcast on the ScotScoop website (the Carlmont student-run journalism website) or on Spotify.

Dramatic Statement of the Obvious

This will come as no surprise to listeners of The Boiling Frog podcast (especially those who listened to Jumping to Conclusions), but this Stanford University study is yet another in a never ending list of research that confirms that we are not protected by owning a gun — quite the opposite. As the first line states, “people who live with a handgun owner are at far greater risk of dying by homicide than those who don’t.” And as you’ll see in the article, the feeble attempt by a gun rights advocate to criticize the study is laughable.

Listen to Jumping to Conclusions to understand why.

Red, White, & True

Mark and I were interviewed last week by Chesney Evert, who is a junior in the journalism program at Carlmont High School in Belmont, California (one of the local high schools in our regional district). She has her own podcast called Red, White, & True, which is focused on navigating the world of polarized, partisan politics. On the podcasts, she interviews guests and discusses issues such as conservatism, progressivism, feminism, wokeness, and many other political issues facing our country.

We had such a long and fun discussion that Chesney decided to break up our interview into two parts – the first part of our discussion is Episode 7 of her podcast where we talked about how we both got into politics, our goals in being public officials, and our views on privilege and how it played a role in our life (in business and otherwise).

Both Mark and I were very impressed with Chesney’s thoughtfulness and passion around these issues, and the discussion probably made us a bit more hopeful that the younger generation is looking at so many of these complicated issues with clear eyes and good critical thinking skills.

We look forward to hearing Part 2 on her podcast, where we will discuss our views on conservatism (and perhaps some people we’ve known while serving in public office) as well as advice for people who are looking to get involved in public service.

You can listen to the podcast on the ScotScoop website (the Carlmont student-run journalism website) or on Spotify. Thanks for all the great work Chesney, and thanks for inviting us on your podcast. We had a lot of fun!