notes

So the President spoke at my sister’s graduation today. It was, of course, pretty cool. I’d heard him speak before and this one was a solid performance. Just enough hopeful optimism and unfiltered realism for those entering the working world. What struck me, though, was an almost throwaway Carl Sagan line he shared. He’d been riffing on the lack of logic in our politics, the rampant anti-intellectualism, etc.: “This calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan. We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.” This struck me not because it was particularly original. I was moved by it because I realized I have a tendency to hold true to that ideal in the seemingly impersonal - in business and work and facts and figures and math and projections and analysis and research. The numbers need to be right because they inform major recommendations on investment decisions that impact many people. This requires a level of dispassionate, clear-eyed, cold, analytical thinking that makes for typically sagacious outcomes: you can fall in love with an idea but must maintain a healthy distance from it to effectively pull the plug on it. In any case, it occurred to me that I don’t ever take up this approach in the distinctly personal. Some might plainly call that self-reflection, introspection, and “being real with yourself.” While the personal necessarily entails greater emotional investment (which can sometimes cloud and inhibit clear-eyed judgment), it should not stop you from applying the same analytical framework to better, more acutely and earnestly understand the other parts of your life, the depths of your relationships, the breadth of your shortcomings, the reasons you might dislike someone or experience jealousy or face frequent indecision, when and why you fall short as a friend or a sibling, what your schedule might say about your values and priorities, the contradictions and biases you routinely act on, etc. The disconnect between the application of the analytical to the personal probably stems from many things: again, the personal is realer and more emotional, but there’s also a certain level of courage required to “run the numbers” on these deeply personal questions and come to a definitive assessment of where you stand. Why hold true to reason and logic when you have less skin in the game? On the contrary, it is the personal that demands and stands to benefit from that thinking more than the impersonal. So a throwaway line in a couple-minute riff on climate change got me thinking about this stuff. Here’s to more often embracing what is true rather than what feels good or running those numbers on more than just business.

Why is it a good idea to approach personal things the same way?

Points:

  • An alienated perspective is appropriate for business because letting feelings get in the way can harm numbers
    • Business approach - cold and calculating
    • Connotation of selfishness surrounding business approach - DJT
    • Apathy toward personal outcomes
    • Capitalist?

Is there an issue with me seeing an analytical approach to business etc. leading toward policies that are apathetic toward the feelings of the people involved? Analysis is a construct, numbers and models are that - models. In business it’s important to keep distant because giving too much regard to others’ feelings likely results in decreased profit for you. There’s a tradeoff - consideration for others given up for successful business.

i.e.

How do we reduce costs?

We’re paying workers $X.XX currently.

Will they take less?

They’ll take anything – they need to work and we’re the only ones hiring their skillset. All other menial labor (clerks, typists, farmhands) has been automated and we’re now the biggest employer in town.

Let’s lower the rate and see what our margins look like

(On the other side)

Lower our tax rate and we can create more jobs.

Trickle down economics depends on the corporation’s compassion to fuel movement between socioeconomic classes. At odds with the business approach above. There’s a paradox here – the promotion of a cold, alien perspective when dealing with business but the promise of a compassionate one when lobbying for tax breaks.

ANYWAY

Even without all this, why would it be good to take that approach when you’re dealing with personal matters? In the END, what do you care about? Being happy? Helping other people be happy? Your end goal is a feeling, how do you expect to reach it without considering yours and others’ feelings? People are inconsistent. The things we create are internally consistent (logic-wise) but we can’t let the consistency of the systems we deal with trick us into thinking that the same approach is appropriate for our feelings.

I remember learning to bargain. I learned from watching my parents at flea markets and craigslist meet ups. The first time I was probably embarrassed for my parents’ behavior - how they could totally ignore the pleas and complaints of the seller saying “this is as low as I can go, I’m taking a loss, life is hard, yadda yadda yadda.” Drive the price low and be willing to walk away. Never show personal investment in what you’re buying. Don’t buy it with your heart. It’s a great way to get shit for cheap.

An alienated perspective helps with this goal, it’s tied to a number. You want to minimize the eventual figure (the amount you spend), an analytical figure. A certain figure in the sense of how it ties in to the big logical frameworks that we’ve constructed – the economy in this case. So you take steps to stay within the logical construct when negotiating. It’s behavior directly related to your end goal. The means matter, they are how you reach your goal. You take logical steps to reach a goal in a logical frame.

This might not accurately describe the problem I feel.

In personal matters the goal rarely fits into a similar logical framework. Our feelings and relationships are certainly not arbitrated by a logical overseer. They plain don’t make sense (in the most literal way (danny what do we mean when we say “it makes sense?” “it fits into other logical constructs i’ve seen and I can understand it in a similar way”)). Should the means match our goals though? This is kind of a narrow way of thinking about it. I don’t know.

But the disconnect stated above remains. How do you expect the people at the top to make moves to improve the lives of those at the bottom when they preach an alien perspective deliberately to not let how others feel impact profits and business decisions. Why would it be in a company’s best interest to create more jobs / higher paying jobs when they can survive without more employees and the people will work for them for $7.25 anyway? Hey, and now we get this big tax break too. And we have >20% of our worth already liquid. Why is it all sitting there? Why isn’t that more jobs? Talk about a security cushion. It’s all about certainty.

5/20

So policy decisions are not like real life decisions. Why not? Well, policy decisions always affect at least one other person. In the news, policy decisions routinely affect more than a couple hundred thousand people, and sometimes many millions or even billions of people (repealed one-child policy in China). When the scale is that big, it makes sense to talk statistics.

Statistics

Statistics quantify the motion of indeterminate systems. Statistics answer questions nobody knows the answer to in a roundabout way. Questions like:

  • Who will get cancer?
  • Who is in poverty?
  • When will I die?

Perhaps more appropriately, statistics give information about the answers to these questions. Answer meta-data.

XX% of men aged 40 and over have cancer

YY% of families in such-and-such neighborhood are in poverty

The average live expectancy of women in <country> is ZZ.

These of course don’t answer the questions, but they provide information about the answers. But what kind of information is it? If I’m a man over 40, it’s hardly appropriate for me to say there’s an XX% chance that I have cancer; I either have cancer or I don’t. Depending on the lifestyle I live, maybe there’s a higher or lower percent chance that I will get cancer.

Thinking about cancer reveals a key problem with trying to apply statistics to an individual. Assuming that I live a completely average life, the statistic (XX%) gives me some useful information about whether or not I have cancer. If XX is a number around 80 or 90, I know that maybe I should be checked out by a doctor often, and I’m braced to some extent to receive bad news.

However, how do I know if I live a completely average life? What if I live a healthier lifestyle? What if I subscribe to some health-extremist dogma and I have the body of a 20-year-old? Then XX% might not really tell me anything. XX% represents an average expectation, and in this case I’d certainly defy it.

But of course, if the overarching study that produced the XX figure might not apply to me, I can do my own study on fellow health-extremists and come up with my own figure. Suppose I do, and I come up with a number much closer to 20 or 30. Surely I can relax and cancel a few of those doctor appointments, right?

The next day, a dogmatic friend of mine comes over and, to her terror, discovers that I’ve been eating vegetables from the local mega-mart rather than the farmer’s market. She tells me that they’re covered with pesticides, and shows me a few articles linking them to increased cancer rates. What do I do now? How do I know how many doctor appointments to make?

This can go on forever, I can examine all the nuanced ways that I’m different from those around me and try to factor them into my “chances of getting cancer.” Cancer is good at revealing this because nobody knows what causes it, so in some sense it’s just as likely that it’s the pesticide that the apple growers use as it is the adhesive they use on those dumb little apple stickers. Or the kind of chair that you sit in at work. Or what lotion you use.

Of course in reality it’s not just as likely. You could do a study to find out exactly how likely it is. The point is there are infinitely many nuances in behavior that factor in to the chances of a single person getting cancer, and in the end we can’t know everything about ourselves or the individuals we study.

So it’s nearly impossible for me to make any personal decisions based on this statistic. It’s a very useful figure for those making policy, decisions that affect everyone simultaneously (precisely the average case).

Individual people - deterministic to the extent that everything in our bodies and lives has some cause. Not that we know what it is, but whether we know it or not, for some reason that cell went rogue and started growing into a tumor.

I’m reminded of the stock market. At the individual level it’s obviously deterministic; each person decides to buy or sell at a particular price for some reason. I decided to shop at the mega-mart because the vegetables are cheaper than at the farmer’s market. On the world scale, however, the stock market is modeled as a random walk. The deterministic events sum to a randomly acting whole. While you can talk about the chances of something happening given some circumstances, in the end you can’t know.

Quantities

Points:

  • More and more metrics available about ourselves
    • convenient nutrition information
    • sleep quality
    • productivity
    • grades
    • no. of steps taken
    • calories burned

But what does it tell you? How are these metrics related to statistics? Maybe it’s where we think their meaning comes from. If X% of people who take a billion steps a day get cancer (vs the X+30% national avg.), that means I should, right? idkidkidkidkidk