Episode 24: Thaddeus Russell on Renegades, Puritanism, and Pleasure

Historian and author of “A Renegade History of the United States” Thaddeus Russell joins me to discuss his work and the notion that the “renegades” might be the ones to thank for our freedom, not the puritanical political busybodies.

Russell’s work is anything but typical history.  It exposes the great moral reformers and champions of left and right as primarily power brokers who sought to control common impulses, and the renegades who resisted them – from slaves to prostitutes to poor immigrants – as the source of most of our social and political freedoms.

We discuss his life, his work, the main themes, how it’s been received, and what he’s working on next.  Thaddeus is certain to challenge some of your cherished notions!

This an all episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

Against Life Plans

Life plans seem pretty daunting to me.  I know people who feel stressed and depressed because they don’t have a clear one.  There are incredibly rare people who know beyond the shadow of a doubt what they want to do in great detail.  If you are one of them, don’t let anything stop you.  For the rest of us, I suggest we drop the notion of a life plan altogether.

I often talk about why trying to find what you love is not the best idea.  How can you know with so many options?  It might not even exist yet.  Instead, I recommend making a list of what you know you don’t like.  Don’t do those things, and everything else is fair game and moving you closer to the things you love.

But it’s not just about narrowing down and finding the things you most enjoy.  It’s about enjoying the process.  Try a bunch of stuff.  But don’t waste time once you know for sure something makes you unhappy.  Not only do you want to drop it because it’s not likely to be your long term sweet spot, but also because it’s not fulfilling right now.

Every day do your best to avoid things that truly make you unhappy and crush your spirit.  Every day show up, create, work and do things that are fulfilling, even if (especially if) they are really hard work.  You don’t have to plan your life, but you should live it.  Fully alive.  Fully awake.

If you’re not in a spot where you’re enjoying life right now, why not?  Can you change it?  Not two or ten year from now, but today.  Every day get a little bit closer to only doing things you really enjoy.  You’ll end up with a life better than what you would plan if you could.

Be Patient, Keep Producing

I was listening to entrepreneur and social media maven Gary Vaynerchuk say that the most important thing for building an audience is patience when it occurred to me…

I’ve been writing pretty consistently for about eight years, and really consistently for three. I didn’t set out to build an audience and I write because I’m happy when I do, but I still get kicks out of seeing stuff I write get traction.

In July I had one post get 50k views and another get 70k. For the previous near-decade I don’t think I ever hit five figures with any post. This month’s views eclipse the view total for the first three years I wrote combined.

The point is this: if you show up every day and keep producing, there is no guarantee you’ll get quick traction. Keep doing it anyway. Do it for you. Then, possibly when least expected and for pieces you didn’t even imagine were great, something might click.

How Change Happens – Higher Ed. Edition

The current higher education model is flawed.  If we’re serious about changing it, first we need to get serious about understanding how social change happens.  Intentions and action are not enough to bring about desired ends.  We need an understanding of the causal relationships involved in order to effectively bring about change.

The great truth that flies in the face of civics textbooks and popular myth is that politics is not the source of social change.  It’s more like the last in a line of indicators of cultural shifts that have already occurred.  Politicians and the policies they create only change after the new approach is sufficiently beneficial to the right interests, and sufficiently tolerable to the public at large to help, or at least not harm, political careers.  Of course some politicians guess wrong and suffer accordingly, but by and large the political marketplace tends toward preservation of the status quo until a new direction is imperative for survival.

An entire, and entirely fascinating, branch of political economy called Public Choice Theory examines the incentives at work in the political marketplace in depth, and I highly encourage anyone attracted to political action to gain a working knowledge of this field.  It reveals, in short, that incentives baked into the democratic system create and perpetuate policies that are bad for the public at large, and good for particular concentrated interests.  What Public Choice has a difficult time accounting for is the role of changing beliefs.  There are countless policies that, based purely on the incentives of various interests, ought to be in place but are not, or vice versa.  Some things are simply out of bounds, no matter how much a particular group might benefit and be willing to lobby, because the general public finds them unacceptable.

Contrary to the seemingly ironclad rule of interest driven politics, public beliefs can and do change, and dramatically sometimes, putting parameters around the area within which political actors can ply their trade.  Slavery is a striking example.  At one point, it would’ve been hard to get elected, at least in some areas, if you publicly supported abolition.  Not too many decades later, it’s unthinkable to get elected anywhere if you’ve ever even joked about supporting slavery.  There is certainly a complex relationship between changing economic incentives and public beliefs, but it is undeniable that the about-face on the ethics of slavery was more than a mere shift in power among competing interests.  What most of the public found tolerable they now find reprehensible.

Our institutions are formed by incentives, and incentives are constrained by beliefs.  That makes the beliefs of the public the ultimate key to change.  Smaller changes might occur within the window of things already publicly acceptable, but major change requires a shift in that window.  How to change those beliefs?  There are two primary drivers, both of which feed each other; ideas and experiences.

Ideas are the raw data that form beliefs.  If you accept the idea that minimum wage laws make lower skilled individuals less employable, and you accept the idea that a society with fewer unemployed persons is desirable, then you will have the belief that minimum wage laws are bad.  If, on the other hand, you’ve never really thought about the economics behind minimum wage at all, but your low skilled neighbor lost his job when minimum wage increased, that experience might also cause you to believe minimum wage laws are bad.

I spent a good part of my life focusing entirely on disseminating ideas as a way of changing belief.  It was fulfilling and, I think, valuable work.  But it wasn’t until relatively recently that I began to understand the immense value of experience as a vital second prong when it comes to changing beliefs and the world.

Consider the difficulty of convincing your mother that the New York City taxi cartel is inefficient or immoral.  It requires a great deal of economic theory or philosophizing about rights and coercion.  Your mom might have other things she enjoys more than reading books on these subjects.  Even if you convince her, her newfound belief will probably barely register among things she cares about.  Sure, taxis aren’t the greatest.  So what?  She’s never had that bad an experience.  Even if a policy change to end the cartel were possible, your mom mighn’t pay any attention, or she may be concerned about what the new world without cartels would look like in practice.

Now consider recommending your mom use Uber on her next trip in to Manhattan.  She uses it, likes it, and becomes a regular customer.  She may be completely ignorant of the current cab cartel and the problems with it, but she’s now a believer in an alternative system.  If Uber comes under attack from vested interests, she’ll defend it.  If the chance to end the cartel comes up, she won’t fear because she already knows what the world looks like without it.  She can’t easily be convinced out of her experience.

It is for this reason that dictatorial countries not only ban literature that propagates new ideas, but also goods and services that compete with government monopolies and let people experience something better.  The Soviet Union feared blue jeans, jazz, and Marlboro cigarettes as much as free market textbooks.

If we want to break out of the educational rut it requires new ideas and new experiences.  We mustn’t only talk about new approaches, we must build alternatives.  The best part is, you don’t have to wait on anyone.  You can take your own path right now, and by so doing not only improve your life, but serve as an example to others of what’s possible outside the status quo.  Educational entrepreneurs, not just intellectuals, will change the hidebound approach to education.  It’s already happening.

While policymakers, pundits, professors, and provosts squabble about the future of higher education and jockey to secure their position, entrepreneurs are busy creating and delivering alternatives across the globe.  The educational consumer is enjoying new experiences and getting new ideas about education in the process.  The old guard can argue any which way they like, but at the end of the day they’ll have to prove more valuable to the learner than the myriad new options.  All the protections and advantages in the world can’t stop competition now.  Technology has helped break it wide open.

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Excerpted from The Future of School.

Ask Isaac: The Most Awkward Moment

On this episode of Ask Isaac, I got a listener question that was a little odd…”What was your most awkward moment?”  I’m pretty sure the person who asked it on Facebook had heard through the grapevine about one particular story.  I decided to come clean.

This and all “Ask” episodes, as well as all full episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

How Information Destroys Dictators (Are Demagogues Next?)

I recently saw a presentation by economist Antony Davies on the basics of Public Choice Theory and the predictable problems with democratic systems.  Ant laid out the median voter theorem, then observed that national elections continue to get tighter and tighter as candidates become more and more similar in an effort to win the median voter.

This process is accelerated by the information age.  Candidates don’t have to determine a platform and then go try to sell it, hoping a large chunk of people already agree.  They don’t even have to study opinion research and craft a platform most likely to win.  They can A/B test in real time.  Campaigns can go to Twitter and try out some slogans or positions, they can react immediately and pivot their posture.  The old saw that politicians put their finger in the wind is true as ever, but fingers are no longer necessary when you have a digital weather vane plus anemometer streaming real-time measurements to your smartphone.

In other words, power hungry politicians are more accountable to the shifting moods of the public than ever.  Don’t get too excited.  This is far worse than a free and open market society in terms of decision-making and individual and public good.  People behave differently when voting or tweeting than they do when their own skin is in the game, and a system that caters to the costless whims of the majority is far scarier than a truly free society.

Still, it might be better than a pure dictatorship.  I suspect the days of a charismatic, strong leader who wins over throngs of people with good speeches are numbered.  Absent a better means of communication, societies rally around symbols because they can convey quickly a complex set of feelings and ideas.  They can also be more easily exploited.  Simplistic urges like nationalism, shared hatred of perceived enemies, moral crusades, and other dumbed down tales of us vs. them are the stuff of dreams for power-hungry tyrants.  Whip them up into a sense of unity around a common (often violent, envy-based) cause, and you can own the country.  This is harder than it’s ever been.

More and more citizens around the world can jump online and see pictures of their supposed enemies.  They can see the other side.  Humans seem to have limited compassion, and proximity is one of the rationing mechanisms.  The information age brings the world closer, and therefore makes compassion able to span the globe.  A fine speech about barbarians at the gate can create a wave of support for a hawkish autocrat, but when you can see those ‘barbarians’ with your own eyes, read their stories, and talk with them, it’s harder to get behind.

The ease with which information flows – what economists would call a reduction in transaction costs – is dramatically reshaping the way we do business, culture, life, and politics.  At first we’ll see political figures that appear more like focus-group generated spokespersons, as they get better at following the trends.  The switch from forceful dictator to savvy demagogue is perhaps a small improvement.  But I don’t think it will stop there.

This reduction in transaction costs also means all the things previously thought to be collective action problems solvable only through the clumsy and corrupt mechanisms of voting and politics can be tackled through voluntary markets.  Imagine your neighborhood HOA, instead of voting on higher fees for a new park, letting residents access a Kickstarter-like app where they can pledge an amount they’re willing to pay and the project only goes forward when it hits its goal?  The political figureheads and representatives can be eliminated just as Bitcoin eliminates financial gatekeepers.

The easier it is for individuals to connect and share ideas and goods with each other, the less powerful political gatekeepers trying to take their cut and regulate our relationships become.  Ultimately, information will beat oppression.

Your Student Debt is Unfair

You hear a lot of complaints about student debt, and how maddening it is to be $40,000 in the hole at age 23 and still not have a job that requires a degree.  The case for the unfairness of student loan debt is that these kids didn’t know better.  It’s kind of a pathetic excuse, but it’s often true.

12 years in an education system where you are constantly pummeled with the promises of higher education and the perils of any deviation will make you overvalue a degree.  You’ll never be warned about the cost, or how debt can limit your options.  You’ll only be told about the magic $1 million in lifetime earnings that is supposed to find you as soon as you find your major and graduate.  It’s a system. Obey it, and the statistics will magically bring you what they bring the average of the past aggregate, as long as your behavior correlates with theirs.

Starry eyed teens get grants, aid, scholarships, loans, and complete a bunch of paperwork with their parents to just get in to the best possible college they can based on rankings they’ve never really studied.  They get endless praise upon graduation and more upon heading off to college.  Finally, they’ve made it!  The rest of life will simply unfold successfully as if on autopilot.  What’s the worst that could happen now?  You’re getting a degree, so you’re set!  You’re on the right side of the data!

Young people get good enough grades, do some extracurriculars, and get the degree.  Once more they are celebrated.  Then, for perhaps the first time in 20 years, they leave the confines of a controlled environment shielded from the world of value creation and exchange.  No one is overly impressed with their ability to fit into the system.  People want to know what they bring to the table.  Can they crunch meaningful numbers without being assigned?  Can they sell?  Can they code?  Can they digest the complexities of markets and customers and make judgments on the fly about how to preempt problems?  Not really.  Those things take experience and context wholly lacking in most educational institutions.

So they struggle.  They don’t like what they do, or they can’t find work much better than what they could have gotten right out of high school.  It’s OK though, they have time to learn from the real world right?  Except they’ve got college debt to pay in addition to living expenses.  That awesome company they were going to volunteer for in order to gain skills?  Not so easy with the need to earn enough to make loan payments.

Grads are in a bind and they feel kind of ripped off.  They feel betrayed.  They feel lied to.  Where is that high school guidance counselor who pushed them to college?  Will she pay the bills?  Where are the parents who were so proud?  Will they want their kid to move back home?  It can be pretty rough.

So yes, it’s unfair.  But the worst possible way to respond and improve things is to say it’s unfair over and over.  Say it once, get it our of your system, move on.  The fairness doesn’t matter.  Sometimes you’ll act on bad information.  Sometimes you’ll have regrets.  Sometimes other people’s plans for you aren’t best and you’ll suffer for following them.  So what?  Talking about how sad or unfair it is does nothing for you but reduce the chances that you’ll actually make things better.

Yeah, you were led to believe this degree would pay for itself immediately and without difficulty.  Yeah, because you were handicapped by the system you were incapable of realizing for yourself what the decision to go into debt might mean and how it could play out.  That’s the past.  What will you do today?

The good news is, it’s not that big of a deal unless you let it be.  Laugh at it, roll up your sleeves, and reboot your expectations about the world while building every day.  Devise a payoff plan and a life improvement plan.  Lots of people have done it, so can you.  The past is past, you are where you are, and no amount of bitterness, protest, or hoping for some political savior to bail you out will do you good.  In fact, it might destroy you.

Oh, and if you have kids of your own someday, let them experience enough of the world outside the walls of schools so that they know better than to blindly follow the advice of authorities seeking to do them good.