Good Ideas Can Overcome Bad Incentives


An article I had published for the Freeman Online:

Ideas vs. Interests

Imagine a billboard that says, “Kicking chickens creates prosperity.”

The billboard is part of a campaign sponsored by the Partnership for a Chicken-Free America.  This group is made up of people who have an extreme dislike for chickens, and they are willing to put vast resources into reducing the well-being of chickens.  In fact, they advocate legislation to establish national Kick-A-Chick Day.

Most voters and members of the general public do not share this distaste for chickens as a species.  Then again, most people are relatively indifferent when it comes to chicken happiness. With a few exceptions, it is not in an individual’s interest to spend resources on a counter-campaign or to hire lobbyists to oppose the Kick-A-Chick bill; the costs of doing so simply outweigh the benefits.

This is a classic case of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.  The anti-chicken people derive tremendous happiness from harm to chickens, making their campaign a worthwhile expenditure.  Yet the general public gains little from preventing chicken kicking and the cost of opposing it is very high.

On the other hand, the public loves prosperity.  If they believed that punting hens created wealth, there is little reason to suspect they would not support the policy.  A public-awareness campaign would be just the ticket.

Armed with Public Choice theory we can see the sad but likely result.  The chicken-free association will exert its influence and get its bill.  The public will either support what they believe to be a prosperity-creating policy or ignore it altogether because the cost of fighting is too high.  The interests align in such a way that we can expect the anti-bird forces to prevail.

Of course this story is absurd and such a law would never be introduced, let alone pass.  What makes it so obviously impossible?

Ideas.

People know there is no causal connection between kicking a chicken and enjoying a higher standard of living.  That knowledge makes the campaign laughable.  Regardless of how the interests are aligned, if people are educated enough to know that chicken kicking does not equal prosperity such absurd policy will not be proposed, much less enacted.

Bus Conversion

Yesterday I saw a sign on the side of a bus which I found no less absurd.  It read, “Converting buses creates jobs.  What are we waiting for?”  The ad was sponsored by a “clean air” association, which no doubt comprises members of the natural gas industry and people for whom a reduction in fossil fuel use would bring some great pleasure.

Just like our chicken story, the incentives are aligned so that the benefits of bus-conversion mandates to the members of this small group exceed the cost of their advocacy efforts, while the benefits to individual citizens of stopping the mandates do not exceed the cost of opposition.  As far as incentives go, the situation seems pretty dire.

Unlike our chicken story, most people do not know there is no magical or “free” job-creation when government mandates bus conversions.  The resources used to convert the buses must be taken from somewhere, and it is as likely as not they there are many other jobs destroyed or never created in the first place when the resources are redirected.  Furthermore, most people do not know that there is no causal connection between more jobs and more prosperity or a higher standard of living.  In fact, if a government mandate creates jobs, it is likely it does so precisely because it is destroying wealth by moving it from more-productive to less-productive (and more labor intensive) uses.

This is actually good news.

It means things are less hopeless than pure Public Choice theory might suggest.  Bad incentives can be overcome by good ideas.  In our chicken story it was clear that interests alone were insufficient to enact policy.  Knowledge of the policy’s incoherence trumped the incentive structure.  With a grasp of basic economics people may find the sign on the bus just as laughable as the idea of Kick-A-Chick Day.

Special interests can do much to destroy liberty given the incentive structure in our political system.  Indeed, with an ignorant populace there is little they cannot do.  But even the most powerful interests ultimately answer to the ideas held by a majority of citizens.  Policy follows the path blazed by belief.

Mises stated this plainly in Human Action: “What determines the course of a nation’s economic policies is always the economic ideas held by public opinion. No government whether democratic or dictatorial can free itself from the sway of the generally accepted ideology.”

That is why FEE has tirelessly educated individuals on economic principles for these many years.  That is why we must continue our educational efforts, no matter how frustrating it may sometimes be.

When we succeed, interest groups and their ploys will be shown to be just as ridiculous as the Partnership for a Chicken-Free America.

True European Values


Here's a letter I had published in the Washington Post:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy claims that banning burqas would uphold traditional European values. Unless he is referring to the values of a few infamous European dictators, he could not be more mistaken.

The bedrock of European cultural and political traditions is liberalism. A true liberal understands that the use of force, by which all government edicts are ultimately backed, is neither an effective nor moral means of promoting values. Banning an expression of religious conviction in the name of protecting a liberal culture is the stuff of satire.

Force is the tool of those who lack the competence or courage to peacefully persuade.

Isaac M. Morehouse, Falls Church

Senseless Census Ads


I have a short article in the Freeman Online today about the stupid U.S. Census ads claiming they need data to make decisions about how many buses or hospital beds a community needs.  The two main points are:

1) In a market, you don't need a census to tell you how many goods to provide.

2) Without a market, you won't know how many goods to provide even with a census.  From the article,

"Has the grocer ever run ads claiming that without your household survey, he won’t know how much food to stock?"

And,

"They cannot know how many hospital beds or buses to provide without population data.  The dirty little secret is that they cannot know how many hospital beds or buses to provide with population data either."

Read the rest here.

Should We Let Things Get So Bad They Finally Get Better?


A snippet I wrote for the March 2010 issue of Liberty Magazine in the Reflections section under the title "Story Time":

I’ve heard people say that the only way to achieve a truly free society is to let things get so bad that they finally get better. If we hit rock bottom and live in a fully socialist world people will see how bad it is and realize how much better a free economy would be. They will not have to struggle to understand the unseen because they will be living in the world that free-market advocates warned against. People will embrace liberty only after learning the hard way.

I wish to dispel that idea. This strategy would be disastrous, for two reasons.

First, there is no guarantee we will hit rock bottom. The city of Detroit has been in an economic freefall for 50 years. I’ve heard many times that the city can fall no farther and its bloated government will have to loosen its grip. As far as I can tell, the city is still in freefall.

There are countries that have been mired in socialist mediocrity or worse for decades and show few signs of a free-market revolution. Apparently they haven’t hit bottom either.

Second, if things actually did bottom out, there is no guarantee that people would understand why. After the stock and housing markets tanked in 2008, was there a general awareness of the failures of central banking and interventionism? Was the response a swift move toward a freer market? Government created the crisis, yet there was little agreement among Americans about whom to blame and what to do next.

Few see a cause-effect relationship between government activity and the Great Depression. When they do see such a relationship, it’s often that of reverse causality; they believe intervention cured rather than caused the depression.

Waiting to hit rock bottom is not the key to a classical-liberal resurgence. What is?

Narrative.

Whether you think the future is bright or dim, no favorable long-term change will occur unless we tell the right story.

Most narratives place the blame for crises on free markets. The story during the Great Depression was that capitalism had failed. With a few notable exceptions, it was only many years after the histories had been written that alternative explanations entered the discussion. How many bad policies were (and still are) enacted because of false narratives of the Depression?

Shaping narrative is more important than winning policy battles. A good policy in which the public has no faith will be charged with crimes it did not commit. A bad policy which the public loves will be credited with successes it did not achieve. Policy follows paths blazed by belief.

I do not believe we are headed for rock bottom. Market liberals have been in the limelight with the right story about the financial crisis. They may not have the loudest voices, but they have discredited simplistic antimarket explanations and forced further discussion.

But even if we are on a death spiral toward socialism, the only way back is clear and continuous communication of the causal connection between intervention and economic stagnation. Only if people hear the correct narrative on the way down will they know why they hit bottom and how to climb out.

In my weaker moments I think I’d love to see socialists live in the world their policies would create. But as long as I have to share that world, I don’t want to let it happen. Neither should you. Tell the right story.

Strategies for Advancing Liberty


I just read an excellent article by Murray Rothbard (circa 1989) called, "Four Strategies for Libertarian Change".  Strategies for social change have long fascinated me. (I ran a student colloquium on the topic when I was with the Mackinac Center's Students for a Free Economy)

In the article Rothbard describes four approaches with four historical examples and discusses the pros and cons of each.  The piece is entertaining and well worth a read on its own, but coupled with the response by my current colleague Steve Davies (starting on page 13 of the linked article) it is especially savory.  Davies largely finds Rothbard on point but happily advances the discussion further.  He corrects a few of Rothbard's historical characterizations (Rothbard's histories are always engaging, but often portray events and figures as more libertarian than they probably were), and adds a dose of Public Choice realism. Most interesting to me, however, is the addition of other potential strategies.

Davies mentions the seldom attempted but often fantasized strategy of letting things get so bad they eventually get better (which I briefly address in this Liberty Magazine Reflection, "Story Time"), and wisely warns against it.  He mentions the possibility of violent revolution and rightly dismisses it out of hand.  He mentions the libertopian approach of a mass defection from current societal arrangements but, Seasteaders not withstanding, considers this highly impractical if not fundamentally flawed.

The final strategy that Prof. Davies mentions is to me the most promising and intriguing, and probably has the best track-record historically, though it often goes unnoticed.  That is the idea that existing coercive institutions can be toppled not primarily by direct attack, but by subterfuge.  Rather than convincing people they should give up the status quo, which means convincing them to drop the perceived security of the known and embrace an unknowable future, or overturning it by force or via an elite cadre, instead create the alternative.  Convince the world that non-coercive institutions and solutions to social problems are preferable by showing them.  If this is done well the act of formally removing state institutions becomes almost a foregone conclusion or a mere formality.

Though Hayek espoused a more ideas-based view of social change in The Intellectuals and Socialism, the Davies approach is quite Hayekian in that it is more of a spontaneous than a planned order.  That makes is somewhat unsatisfying to us as libertarian "elite" intellectuals.  It's messy, slow, unpredictable, and nearly always lacks that single climactic moment when freedom defeats statism.

Illustrative of how unsatisfying it can be, consider that we may be witnessing an example of this approach unfolding before our eyes in mail delivery.  Public Choice realities being what they are, the likelihood of toppling the state postal monopoly with any amount of education, policy paper publication, or direct civil disobedience is very slim.  (Ask Lysander Spooner.)  These efforts are not futile and, as Davies points out, work to compliment and aid the undermining process, but ultimately they cannot win the day alone.

We've seen the Post Office's monopoly weaken with the advent of UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.  We've seen it's importance wane with new technologies like email.  Sure, policy battles have played a part in this process, but the real impetus was self-interest on the part of parcel delivery entrepreneurs.

It is likely that the Post Office will die a slow death - or maybe never even completely disappear on paper - but one day we will be so used to other methods of delivering goods and information that we will forget it ever existed.  I would not be surprised to see the public education system undermined in the same way.

The beauty of this method is that it does not require the agents of change to themselves be libertarian, only self-interested entrepreneurs.  Libertarian ideas still play a key role, as do policy and legal efforts, activism and education, but the real change comes when the alternatives to state programs are implemented rather than just talked about as possibilities.

Now a little twist.  This approach can be very powerful on an individual level when combined with Rothbard's first strategy, a sort of Taoist retreatism.  In order to make society a happier and freer place, it helps to make oneself happier and freer first.  (This is the nut of an argument I made against worrying about elections and reading the news.)  We ought to focus less on what makes us unhappy and thwarts our freedom, and more on how to be as free as possible as individuals.  Just like UPS undermines the Post Office, we can undermine our own oppressive mindsets and internal institutions by building up freer alternatives underneath them.

I do not mean to be cute or self-helpish.  I genuinely believe that a social movement led by unhappy or internally unfree people is doomed to failure.  Occasionally retreating from the things we wish to change in the world and realizing that true freedom is not contingent on other people not only improves our own quality of life, but makes us much more attractive to the freedom philosophy's would-be converts.

First free yourself.  Then work towards societal freedom by creating competing solutions to those offered by the state.  Simple, right?

Interview on Capitalism, Freedom and the Future


An interview where I am asked some nice open-ended softballs on liberty, regulations, and the future.  The blog where the interview is posted is apparently supporting a particular politician, but I do not personally support or endorse any politicians, and the fact that the interview is posted to this blog should not be interpreted as support.

Oh, and I am referred to in the post as an "economist" and "Dr. Morehouse", neither of which I am.  Full text of the interview below.

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Josiah Schmidt: Thank you for agreeing to talk with us, Dr. Morehouse!  Tell us how you came to hold such a liberty-oriented philosophy.

Isaac Morehouse: I grew up in a typical Midwestern conservative home and I was taught responsibility, hard work and initiative.  In high-school, my brother told me about this book he was reading called “Capitalism and Freedom” by Milton Friedman.  I liked the ideas in the book, since I was sort of predisposed towards free-markets.  As I began to read more I eventually (after a long road and lots of rabbit trails) realized that, at bottom, government is force, and everything it does is backed by force.  It made me realize that so many things I wanted done in the world–good things–should not be done by force, but peacefully and voluntarily.  Not only did it sit right with me from a moral standpoint, but I learned through studying economics that voluntary actions have better results than centrally planned attempts by government to make the world a better place.

Josiah Schmidt: How would you define capitalism, in short?

Isaac Morehouse: Technically, capitalism is simply an economic system where individuals own the “means of production”, rather than government.  In popular usage however, capitalism has come to mean a lot of different things, some of which I support (property rights, free-markets, etc.), some of with I do not (bailouts, subsidies, regulations against competition, etc.).  I’m careful how I use that word, since people give it different meanings.  To me, it means simply free-markets.

Josiah Schmidt: Why, fundamentally, does capitalism work?

Isaac Morehouse: Capitalism works because without private property and the right to reap the gains and losses of our own efforts there is little incentive to produce or to innovate.  Property and free-trade also allow prices to form, which provide some of the most valuable information on the planet such as where demand and scarcity are and where surpluses are.  Prices, which form spontaneously as a result of free-exchange, allow for the most impressive coordination in the history of man; billions of people and resources constantly adjust their individual behavior in a way that benefits society, not because they are trying to or would even know how if they were, but because they are responding to signals sent through the price system.  No “rational” system of central planning can even come close to replicating that.

Josiah Schmidt: Is it meaningful to advocate a “mixed economy” of capitalism and socialism?

Isaac Morehouse: No.  Any coercion in the peaceful, voluntary and spontaneously coordinating market reduces it’s efficiency, not to mention it’s a violation of individual rights.  An only partly “planned” economy may be degrees better than a fully socialist one, but a free economy is magnitudes better than both. [For more on "mixed" economies see this article.]

Josiah Schmidt: How does capitalism, as opposed to socialism, accept human nature as it is, accounting for the flaws and fallibility of man?

Isaac Morehouse: It avoids what F.A. Hayek called the “Fatal Conceit” by recognizing that no one has enough knowledge to know where to put all the resources in the world all the time.  It recognizes the dignity of each individual by allowing anyone to justly obtain and use property, but it recognizes the limits of each individual by not allowing any one person to control all others by force.  If people are corrupt, the last thing we want to do is give a small number of them monopoly control over the rest, which is what government is.

Josiah Schmidt: Do government “consumer protection” measures actually protect consumers?

Isaac Morehouse: What is called “consumer protection” is almost always a special privilege or protection for some politically favored business or industry over their competitors.  Since government hands out favors and makes regulations, instead of competing in the marketing place by trying to better serve customers, many businesses go to government and lobby for regulations that they can afford, but that will cripple their smaller competitors.  The result is higher priced products, fewer choices, less competition, corruption in government agencies, and often times less attention to safety by consumers and producers who believe the government will do the work for them.

Josiah Schmidt: What is one of the most egregious examples of “consumer protection” measures that actually harmed consumers, in your view?

Isaac Morehouse: Oh boy, there are so many.  It’s hard to say which is the most egregious, but certainly some very silly examples that really bug me are things like requiring decorators, hair stylists, yoga instructors or lemonade selling kids to get state licenses and pay fees just to offer their goods and services.  These examples all exists in at least some states, and in every instance the laws were passed at the behest of some industry lobby that didn’t like lower priced competition.  It’s very sad for the people who just want a chance making a living by offering their skills to consumers.  They aren’t forcing anyone to buy, yet government is forcing them not to sell.

Josiah Schmidt: What advice would you give to libertarians reading this interview?

Isaac Morehouse: Take heart.  It’s too easy to see all the violations of liberty around us and feel things are always getting worse.  If you keep the big picture in mind and study some world history you will see that, in so many ways, freedom has advanced tremendously and there is no reason it cannot continue to do so.  Don’t follow the news too closely or you’ll be angry all the time, and angry people are rarely good advocates of the ideas they believe in.  Be optimistic and never stop learning about and fighting for freedom.  It’s worth it.

Josiah Schmidt: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Isaac Morehouse: Sometimes it helps to remember that really, liberty is all around us.  We often feel that it would require such a radical change in our everyday existence if government were not so invasive.  While I do not want to downplay the destructive effects of government meddling, it is instructive to stop and think about what really makes the world tick.  Why don’t people run through the shopping mall naked?  I’ll give you a hint: it is not because they are afraid of indecent exposure laws.  That may play some very small part, but it is primarily because they would be embarrassed.  They are afraid of the social consequences.  This is just one example of how society remains orderly without the use of force; without government mandates and rules and regulations.  In fact, nearly all of the order, cooperation and coordination we see around us is not the result of government edicts, but of the forces of spontaneous order that emerge in a voluntary society.  In many ways, government is less important than even libertarians think.  The message we need to send to our big-government friends is not that government is so bad (even though it often is), but that society voluntarily produces so much good that we don’t need to use the blunt instrument of government.

Josiah Schmidt: Very insightful thoughts.  Thanks again for taking the time out of your schedule to answer some of our questions.

Worldviews Matter


This is an article I wrote during the last presidential election for the Western Standard Shotgun Blog.  The election-specific parts are really not the crux of the post, so I think it's still relevant.

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A colleague sent me this article by Michael Knox Beran for the City Journal, titled, “Obama, Shaman”. The article is fantastic, not because it is a critique of one candidate from one party, but because the insights are far broader and can be applied to nearly any political or cultural folk-heroes of today. Beran draws upon strains of thought throughout ancient and classical literature and philosophy to highlight two very different worldviews.

America has a strong tradition of the worldview that sees man as fallible and existence as including pain and discomfort. Indeed, this worldview sees any life without some form of pain being a life without cause and effect, without choice; a robotic reality that would really be no existence at all.

The other worldview, the author points out, has surfaced in various forms throughout history and is the impetus for movements that nearly always result in a great deal of concentrated power. Since man need not be fallible, giving “the right person” unlimited power to do what is good for all is not viewed as dangerous, but rather necessary. From Machiavelli to Saul Alinsky, strategists have created a playbook for an ascent to power by those believing pain can forever be alleviated if only they are given the absolute power to enact their reforms. But the strategists only lay the plan; the philosophy that engendered the belief that such a plan could (or should) actually work came first. In the article, Beran describes many of those who have championed a paradigm which makes this belief possible.

As I’ve written before, paradigms are powerful, and hard to change. The lens through which one views the world, especially the human world, will determine the conclusions drawn from any set of data. Data, sensory perceptions, are completely devoid of actionable meaning without a theoretical framework through which to interpret them. For this reason, establishing and continually re-evaluating one’s framework becomes the constant task of the honest intellectual.

All good political philosophy and economics is essentially an effort to synthesis data and extract some kind of meaning from it – to create from observations a viable paradigm of human action. Knowing human nature is the most important and foundational element of ethics, political philosophy and economics. As the old adage goes, “knowing thyself” is the best place to start. I submit that the best way to know thyself is to find out what your worldview is (you have one, whether you know it or not).

What kind of lens do you look at the world through? What are the assumptions you take with you into every situation? Know your worldview, analyze it for logical consistency, test it against observation, discard or reform it if need be; this is the most difficult, rewarding and necessary task of human understanding.

Some snippets from the Beran article below should whet your appetite to read the entire piece:

“In his unfinished treatise Economy and Society, Max Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality in an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Weber was able to do little more, before he died in 1920, than give a pseudoscientific élan to an idea that had been kicking around for centuries. Most of what he said about charismatic authority was stated more cogently in Book III of Aristotle’s Politics, which described the great-souled man who “may truly be deemed a God among men” and who, by virtue of his greatness, is exempt from ordinary laws.

What both Aristotle and Weber made too little of is the mentality of the charismatic leader’s followers, the disciples who discover in him, or delusively endow him with, superhuman qualities. “Charisma” was originally a religious term signifying a gift of God: it often denotes (according to the seventeenth-century scholar-physician John Bulwer) a “miraculous gift of healing.” James G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, demonstrated that the connection between charismatic leadership and the melioration of suffering was historically a close one: many primitive peoples believed that the magical virtues of a priest-king could guarantee the soil’s fertility and that such a leader could therefore alleviate one of the most elementary forms of suffering, hunger. The identification of leadership with the mitigation of pain persists in folklore and myth. In the Arthurian legends, Percival possesses an extraordinary magic that enables him to heal the fisher king and redeem the waste land; in England, the touch of the monarch’s hand was believed to cure scrofula.

It is a sign of growing maturity in a people when, laying aside these beliefs, it acknowledges that suffering is an element of life that sympathetic magic cannot eradicate, and recognizes a residue of pain in existence that even the application of technical knowledge cannot assuage. Advances in knowledge may end particular kinds of suffering, but these give way to new forms of hurt—milder, perhaps (one would rather be depressed than famished), yet not without their sting. We do not draw closer to a painless world.”

And…

“The danger of Obama’s charismatic healer-redeemer fable lies in the hubris it encourages, the belief that gifted politicians can engender a selfless communitarian solidarity. Such a renovation of our national life would require not only a change in constitutional structure—the current system having been geared to conflict by the Founders, who believed that the clash of private interests helps preserve liberty—but also a change in human nature. Obama’s conviction that it is possible to create a beautiful politics, one in which Americans will selflessly pursue a shared vision of the common good, recalls the belief that Dostoyevsky attributed to the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionists: that, come the revolution, “all men will become righteous in one instant.” The perfection would begin.”

America’s Great Depression


Murray Rothbard's seminal but often overlooked work, America's Great Depression, is especially enlightening since the 2007 financial crisis.  If you want to read the entire 400 page book (which I highly recommend), here it is.  If you're short on time, here's a 12 page summary of the main arguments in the book with some additional context.  Enjoy.

Isaac Morehouse


Isaac Morehouse is the CEO of Crash, the career launch platform, and the founder of Praxis, a startup apprenticeship program. Isaac is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of freedom. He’s written some books, done some podcasting, and is always experimenting with self-directed living and learning.

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Episode 63.5: Fridays with TK – “How I Was Almost Luke Perry”


What does it mean to sell out, water down, or compromise who you are?

What are the unseen costs of doing so, and the unseen benefits of resisting?

Today we discuss this in depth, including stories about how TK could have been as cool as Beverly Hills 90210's Luke Perry if he hadn't given in to peer pressure and how I nearly ended up a drug dealer.

Here's Paul Graham's essay referenced in today's show.

Also mentioned were the books The Education of Millionairesand, The Last Safe Investment.

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

Two Approaches to Learning


Graphic designer Julia Patterson, who also designed my podcast logo, put together this image representing some of the ideas I've blogged about in the last few days, and the work that we do at Praxis every day.

If you need a quick logo or graphic, hit up Julia at hello@portablepattersons.com!

 

PraxisGraphic2-01

How to Play Basketball Well


The same way you do everything else well.  Practice, then reflect, then practice some more.

The common, conveyor-belt education system has a pretty bizarre approach to learning.  It doesn't mirror any learning pattern that high performers in any field use.  It looks something like this:

Theory-->Theory-->Theory-->Theory-->Theory-->Practice (end)

In other words, you sit in classrooms studying things and memorizing knowledge from "experts" for nearly two decades.  Then you're supposed to take all that theory and successfully practice it in the real world and live happily ever after.  Education is done, now you just go live well.  You're supposed to succeed in the marketplace and life after only ever thinking about it.  Unless the theory is the practice - unless you're learning to be an academic - this is a very bad way to learn.

I've written before about how absurd it would be if we taught bike riding the way we teach careers.  But I've been thinking a lot lately about an even better comparison, and one I know more about than biking.  Basketball.

How do you learn to play basketball?

First, you practice.  Maybe on a mini hoop, maybe on a full-sized hoop.  But you just start shooting and dribbling.  After you have the basic motions and movements and muscle memory down, you start playing with other people in actual games.  You play a lot of pick-up basketball.  Maybe you play in an organized team setting.  The coach might have you focus on specific aspects of the game or skills as you drill and condition.  You'll scrimmage, run plays, and plot your approach to offense and defense.  You play, then a new concept is introduced, and you immediately play some more and try it out.  Then you stop to reflect and get feedback, tweak your approach, and play again.

At the highest level, this pattern is even more pronounced.  Good players practice a lot.  There is no world in which merely theorizing about basketball teaches you to succeed on the court.  Practice is always the first step and vastly more important if you have to choose one.  But when you go from good to great players, something else happens.  Theory comes into play.  The learning pattern for playing most successfully looks something like this:

Practice-->Practice-->Theory-->Practice-->Practice-->Theory...(ad infinitum)

Great players spend more hours in the gym than anyone.  But after they play they also reflect on their performance.  They review film from previous games.  They study what the offense did.  They observe what happened and theorize about why they were stopped in the paint by this or that defense.  They plan for the next game.  They review film of the next opponent and plot an approach to match.  They constantly reflect on the feedback they get from the real world of practice and play.  They seek out other achievers who have struggled with mental toughness, or strength building, or recovery from injury.  They employ motivational tactics and specialized training.

Notice the pattern because it's very important.  Hours of film study and offensive scheming are of no value to the novice.  If you've never hoisted a ball in the air, learning the perfect placement of your index finger or the optimal use of trash-talk to gain a mental edge isn't going to help you.  Theory is hugely important.  But it becomes important only when it has past practice upon which to reflect and future practice for which to prepare.

Notice also that, unlike the conveyor-belt education system, the basketball model is never done.  There is no end point.  It's an ongoing process.  There is no graduation.  Michael Jordan, at the peak of his game and dominating the greatest ballers on the planet, famously came back from every offseason with something new.  He practiced.  He reflected and theorized.  He tested it with more practice.

In this model the role of teacher fades almost entirely.  Specialists with knowledge of the history of the game or the mechanics of the human elbow can be employed in specific situations when needed, but they are in no way the key ingredient to learning the game nor are they valuably employed until a whole lot of playing has occurred.  Instead, coaches and trainers emerge.  People who don't tell you which facts about basketball are correct and must be memorized, but people who challenge you to get off your butt when you don't feel like practicing.  People who help you in the process of reflecting on your unique game and keep you accountable to your unique practice process.  They are observers who watch you in the actual act of playing the game and provide real-time feedback from their vantage point.  They aren't your authority - you can't find a new coach anytime - but there for motivation and insight.  Some of the greatest players are famous for ignoring their coaches as often as listening to them even though they deeply respect them, which strikes me as a pretty normal and healthy way to see the relationship.

Another important thing about learning basketball is the value of mimicry.  How did the hook shot join the common arsenal of post players?  Because someone did it well and everyone who played against them realized how effective it could be and began to copy it.  How do you learn to crossover or headfake?  By being crossedover or headfaked at the playground and determining to do the same.

Learning happens more from being around people and environments than it does from consciously thinking about them.  You have to be immersed in the actual play of the game.

My friend and colleague at Praxis - TK Coleman, our Education Director - loves the game of basketball probably even more than I do.  We don't view this analogy as just a cute comparison.  I think success in any career is far more like success in basketball than it is like success in a classroom.  The principles of learning the game are the principles of learning to perform in just about every other arena.  This is why we are so focused on apprenticing at startups and small businesses - practice - and reflecting on the experience and how new skills and mindsets can make it better - theory - and trying them out - practice - and discussing...etc.  This is why our advisers have coaching sessions with participants, rather than giving them lectures.  Philosophy is hugely important to success in any field.  But only if you're already in the field trying things out.

Kids aren't practicing for life or career by sitting in the classroom taking tests.  They're theorizing about it.  They're not observing those who are successful (except, best case, at teaching) and mimicking them.  They're reading what other people said about the successful.  They're being introduced to a few fragments of the history of the game or uniform design or what one conditioning coach thinks about one approach to calf muscles.  They're not being transformed into great players, they're simply checking the memorization of lifeless, contextless knowledge off a list of assignments.

You can't expect to win by studying.  You've got to play the game.

School is a 16-Year Internship for Professors


Want to learn something?  Be around it.

The habits, ideas, processes, and perhaps most importantly, incentives of the environment you want to be a part of will teach you vastly more than consciously studied facts.

Julian Jaynes, in his seminal book on consciousness, cites a study where students were told to compliment any girl wearing read.  Within a week, red outfits were everywhere in the school.  The girls weren't consciously responding to factual knowledge but internalizing the compliments and altering their behavior subconsciously.  Jaynes argues that learning signals, skills, and even reasoning are not, in fact, conscious processes.  In fact, after taking in the basic structure, being conscious of learning gets in the way and slows the process.

This means the subconscious queues and incentives of the environment are a more powerful force in determing what you learn than whatever conscious topic is presented.  What you pickup on and get rewarded for and see others doing to succeed or fail shapes how your brain transforms and adapts to succeed.

This has some pretty interesting implications for schooling, from kindergarten through college.

The school setting, whatever subject is being taught consciously, is a single-file line-standing, speak-when-given-permission, the "expert" knows all right answers, zero-sum, obedience training program.  The clear "winners" in the school setting are the authority figures and those who best please them.  The academics and kids who do things that academics like.

In other words, school is a 16-year internship for being a professor.

You're immersed in the daily habits, worldviews, problems solving methods, attitudes, and incentives of professors.  What you learn from shadowing academics isn't whatever topic they might be teaching as much as how to be like them.

This is, of course, the ideal program if you want to be an academic.  I have many wonderful professor friends and I've met some young people who want to be professors.  The system was built for them, and it's a good fit.  They should stick with it happily.

The problem is that most people have no idea that they are in an extended academic internship.  Most don't want to be professors or they simply have no idea whether they do or not because they've never been around anything else.

You can't discover what you might enjoy or be good at from academic books and practictioners telling you about it.  You need to experiment and experience it.  You need to be around people doing those things.  You need to apprentice with people other than just academics to learn what people other than academics do and how to succeed in that world.

Get out of the classroom and try real world stuff to find what you enjoy and are good at and immerse yourself in the subconscious learning of how to succeed in whatever environments you explore.  A few courses or books or a major can't give you that knowledge while your subconscious is fully occupied with learning how to be a professor.

You might not be learning much from the conscious process of schooling (hence forgetting everything after the test), but you're definitely learning something in school.  The question is, do you want to learn that something?  Will it help you, or set you back in a dynamic marketplace that cares only for value creation, not academic process?

Yes, this realization is precisely why Praxis was created - to give you a real-world apprenticeship with top entrepreneurs in a variety of industries and dynamic businesses.  Check it out.

Episode 63: The School Sucks Project, with Brett Veinotte


I've been a big fan of the School Sucks Podcast for a few years now, so it was awesome to have Brett on the show to discuss his work and what motivated him to launch it.

We discuss his personal history, the history of schooling, why conspiracy theories are valuable learning tools, and much more.

Check out all things School Sucks here!

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

Isaac Morehouse


Isaac Morehouse is the founder and CEO of Praxis, a startup apprenticeship program making degrees irrelevant for careers. Isaac is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of freedom. He’s written some books, done some podcasting, and is always experimenting with self-directed living and learning.

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