An Epidemic of Bad Ideas

From Glenn Harlan Reynolds in The USA Today, Social media threat: People learned to survive disease, we can handle Twitter:

Likewise, in recent years we’ve gone from an era when ideas spread comparatively slowly, to one in which social media in particular allow them to spread like wildfire. Sometimes that’s good, when they’re good ideas. But most ideas are probably bad; certainly 90% of ideas aren’t in the top 10%. Maybe we don’t know the mental disease vectors that we’re inadvertently unleashing.

Maybe there are some lessons for us here. We don’t know much about the spread of ideas, or what would constitute the equivalent of intellectual indoor plumbing. (Censorship isn’t enough, as it often just promotes the spread of bad ideas that people in power like). Over time we’ll learn more. Maybe we’ll come up with something like the germ theory of disease for ideas.

Where we can do something right away is with the equivalent of nutrition. Traditional training in critical thinking — the sort of thing the humanities used to revolve around, before they became focused on “social justice” — seems like it would be a useful protective. A skepticism regarding groupthink, ad hominem arguments and virtue signaling would likely offer considerable protection against the sort of mass hysteria we seem increasingly vulnerable to. Likewise, a social consensus on important ideas — the kinds of things we used to teach in civics classes — would help.

Better nourished minds are likely more resistant to social-media contagion.


An excellent and creative piece.  A creative writer can find illumination in seemingly unrelated ideas.  Read the whole piece.

Self-Devouring Political Correctness

by Henry Oliner

I confess a certain demented joy in seeing the left eat its own in the avalanche of sexual predatory behavior burying its favorite icons.  When hypocrisy is illuminated, the light can be blinding.

Short of actual rape the behavior can range from threats and intimidation to jokes in bad taste. Are we to judge the behavior of a grown man last week equal to the same man in his youth thirty years ago?

Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher originated on Comedy Central and was a much different show before it went to HBO.  He would have voices from both sides of the political spectrum with much less of the political bias that currently infects the show.

On one episode the quartet was discussing a recent article about an Air Force bomber commander having an affair with a woman on his crew. When discovered the woman was reassigned. Debate started on why she was transferred instead of the predator.  In the same news cycle Republican Henry Hyde had been outed for an affair he had thirty years ago. The question raised was whether Henry Hyde should be held to the same standard for an act three decades old.

Defending Henry Hyde was evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell ( a frequent guest on the show).  His whole ministry, he explained, was based on the notion that a sinner could repent and move on.  If we were to forever hold everyone accountable for every sin, the act of redemption would become futile.

I was struck by the unexpected twist that the liberal on the panel (I forget who it was) was intolerant of the sexual indiscretion and the arch conservative evangelical Jerry Falwell was the forgiving one.

I do not condone sexual harassment, but I also do not condone criminalizing every youthful indiscretion at the apex of a career.

Democrats lost all moral authority on the issue when they demonized the women who accused Bill Clinton. It is one thing to voice support for Bill on his policies and still condemn his personal behavior.  It is quite another to describe his victims as the result of “dragging a $100 bill through a trailer park”.

When Time magazine White House correspondent Nina Burleigh declared   “I’d be happy to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal,” what kind of message did she and her magazine think she was sending to young women? ‘As women, we owe powerful men our gratitude as submission.’

The left is reaping what they sowed. The insanity of political correctness, like all insanity, is hard to contain.

Promoting Stupidity

from Higher Education’s Deeper Sickness by John Ellis at The Wall Street Journal:

The imbalance is not only a question of numbers. Well-balanced opposing views act as a corrective for each other: The weaker arguments of one side are pounced on and picked off by the other. Both remain consequently healthier and more intellectually viable. But intellectual dominance promotes stupidity. As one side becomes numerically stronger, its discipline weakens. The greater the imbalance between the two sides, the more incoherent and irrational the majority will become.

What we are now seeing on the campuses illustrates this general principle perfectly. The nearly complete exclusion of one side has led to complete irrationality on the other. With almost no intellectual opponents remaining, campus radicals have lost the ability to engage with arguments and resort instead to the lazy alternative of name-calling: Opponents are all “fascists,” “racists” or “white supremacists.”

In a state of balance between the two sides, leadership flows naturally to those better able to make the case for their side against the other. That takes knowledge and skill. But when one side has the field to itself, leadership flows instead to those who make the most uncompromising and therefore intellectually least defensible case, one that rouses followers to enthusiasm but can’t stand up to scrutiny. Extremism and demagoguery win out. Physical violence is the endpoint of this intellectual decay—the stage at which academic thought and indeed higher education have ceased to exist.


I contend that this same lack of intellectual diversity and demonization of dissent has infected  many of our media institutions with the same result.  Misleading statements are only judged by their factual components.  Lines between news and opinion have been erased.  Those in the bubble are convinced of their rightness and righteousness because they have excluded or marginalized legitimate and serious questions.

Trend Illusions

by Henry Oliner

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli (highly recommended) is a compilation of biases and psychological barriers to clear and rational thinking. Dobelli warns of “trend gurus who see trends in everything”.  He contends this is “one of the most idiotic ways to see the world.”

This is like our tendency to see shapes in clouds and to see patterns in data and numbers. Given our ability to amass vast quantities of data and our desire for order in the universe, this is a seductive pattern. It is unsettling to believe we are pawns in a casino.

The danger in these delusions is that we believe it enables our power to predict.  This “gambler’s fallacy” of seeing order where there is none causes financiers to make bad investments, pundits to make bad predictions, and politicians to enact bad policy.  This delusion causes less damage in business and investment because the damage is usually limited to the fools (often some very credentialed fools) and the mistake is rectified relatively quickly.

One of the reasons that government solutions should be a last resort is because political decisions are as subject to these errors in thinking as private sector decisions, but there are greater blocks to recognizing and correcting the error in judgment. Politics is part rational but also part tribal.

For some experienced yet biased investors, it was inevitable that Trump’s election would result in a market sell off. It didn’t. It resulted in the one of the sharpest market advances after an election in recent history.

When Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914 few would have predicted it would have led to World War One, the inept Armistice and soon after, World War Two and the Cold War.  If Princip had done the same deed a few months before or a few months after we could not be certain it would have had the same results.

The trend fallacy seems to work in hindsight.  Some movements go to extreme and invite countertrends.  After 50 years of expansive progressivism culminating in the stagnation of the 1970’s,  Ronald Reagan won claiming that government is more of the cause than the solution. A similar exhaustion may have provided some wind to Donald Trump’s sails.  But we should not confuse the power to describe with the power to predict.

While a complicated world may be unpredictable, that does not mean that behaviors are irrelevant. Excessive debt makes a family or a corporation or a government vulnerable to unpredictable events.  We may confuse talent and success for a mere regression to the mean, but predicting the timing of these outcomes or how they will become actualized is a fool’s game.

What appears to be a difference in political ideology may be a mere difference in time frame. Long term outcomes may be ignored for the short-term payoff of a vote or a campaign contribution.  We may lament the failure of policy after the first act of the play, only to see it succeed wildly after the third act, if we choose to stay for the entire play.  Patience is not a popular American virtue.

The first step to honesty is clarity. Good decision making is already difficult to achieve. To cloud it further with unnecessarily complicated systems designed to hide and cross subsidize costs is not likely to lead to better outcomes.

The Real Loser from Tax Reform

From my article in American Thinker, Save the Swamp:

I call the difference between the statutory rate and the actual rate the ‘special interest spread’.  It is the difference between the official stated rate and the actual rate paid after deductions and credits.  True tax reform should seek to reduce this spread to zero. 

But there remains a great benefit to meaningful reform in the form of simplification.  The influence of the Federal government is less because of its growth in size that because of its proxies in the private sector. Nonprofits, state and local agencies, and special interests do the work of the federal government and much of this is done through tax preferences and benefits. These proxies will all be fighting to retain their part of the swamp. 

Taxes should be low and broad based, as simple and as permanent as possible, while minimizing the ‘special interest spread’ and the marginal rate.

Such a reform castrates much of the federal power over the economy, requiring the separation of operating revenue requirements from their desire to engineer and design social outcomes. Any transition to such a system will not be equally shared and there is no need to pretend otherwise.  Many who lose their mortgage deduction will make it up in lower rates, but some will not. This is the problem with reforming complicated systems with an accumulation of special provisions.

The benefit to the economy, however, would be so strong that those who are comfortable in the swamp should not be allowed to derail it.