Questioning “community”

A WaPo piece highlighting a sad trend among Americans: We are less neighborly than we used to be.

In 2016, the share of Americans who say they “never” socialize with their neighbors hit an all-time high of 34 percent, according to the General Social Survey. That number’s been rising steadily since 1974, when just 21 percent said they never hang out with their neighbors.

The trend holds for urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods, though is more pronounced in urban and suburban areas.

We often think of cities as fertile grounds for social interactions between neighbors and acquaintances who spontaneously bump into one another on the street, sharing news, gossip and camaraderie. But the numbers above suggest that a sizable portion of city-dwellers are determined to avoid interacting with the people who live nearby — or, perhaps, that the circumstances of their lives are so hectic as to forestall most neighborly interaction.

That last quote is especially important, I think. I’m not sure this is even a surprise to most people—especially those who’ve actually lived in urban areas. It’s no surprise to me. But so much of our framework for how to think about community—as a practical, political, and even spiritual exercise—is premised on the assumption that things like physical proximity and “collaborative” living builds community. That, for example, pooling funds to pay for your neighborhood kids’ education brings us closer together. That sharing healthcare costs as a “national community” helps build empathy and mutual understanding. That public transit is an “equalizer”—used in equal proportion by both the rich and poor.

I wonder if these things more often have the exact opposite effect. Do they stir up more bitterness than trust? Do they sow division instead of empathy, like when stakeholders cannot agree on what curriculum everyone’s taxes ought to prop up in the public schools?

My new article, plus working slower

I have a new piece at Startup Grind.  In it, I break down the essentials of designing a basic market research survey for a product or service idea.

Quantitative market research (i.e. surveys) is a great way to validate a product or service concept. Further, investors are impressed if you can show them hard data—real opinions from real people (not just your friends) about your concept.

Key here is to get your concept description right. Ideally you can test more than one. Just remember that your respondents aren’t telling you how they feel about your product, but how they feel about the product you described in the survey.

In other news

Here’s a photo of my son from Halloween. Just had to share. Can he get any cuter? He loved Halloween—fun to be outside trick-or-treating, especially now that the weather is nicer.

The cooler weather energizes me. Summer was hot. Florida is beautiful, but getting used to the heat will take some time, I think. As in, a few years. What I have learned is to stay cool in Florida weather, it’s important to relax and slow down.

That sounds cliche, or maybe odd, but it’s true quite literally. Moving fast or stressing out raises your blood pressure and makes you warmer. Combined with 100-degree heat and high humidity, that’s a recipe for an uncomfortable afternoon going to lunches and meetings with clients.

Relax and slow down to stay cool. The same is true in business.

Over the past 18 months, the dictum “Work smarter, not harder” (which, to be more accurate, ought to read “Work smarter, not faster”) has come to mean a lot. I’ve never regretted slowing down, taking an hour off here and there to reflect and strategize. To “work smarter.” It boosts the return on my working hours.

Think about it this way: The faster you work, the more mistakes you’ll make. This doesn’t just mean errors in your code or typos in your slide decks, but also to your overall strategy. Taking on work too quickly—before really thinking about the rate, the time, the investment, the return—is a mistake, and it hurts you big-time. More than anything, really.

You can work 60+ hours a week on fun projects for awesome clients at 10% margin, but at the end of the week, you’re no better off than someone working for 30% margin for 20 hours total. Or just 12 hours at 50% margin.

Yes, working at break-even can be smart, if you have a very specific plan for leveraging this work to get better deals in the near future. But I’ve found many people—fledgling freelancers especially—who work at break-even do not have a specific plan. They work week after week for almost nothing, jumping on every opportunity to earn revenue, then burn out and call it quits after earning unjustifiably low profits.

So to succeed and stay cool in business, slow down and relax. Think strategically. Build slowly. And take it easy to keep good perspective. This advice may be laughably fundamental, but I make this mistake all the time, and I’m well past the fledgling freelancer phase of my business.

Hart on philosophy and progress

I’ve been on a David Bentley Hart kick these past few weeks. Here’s another quote.

This passage concludes a criticism of the state of philosophy (as a discipline). I think it’s equally applicable to general social dialogue (inasmuch as that concept might be said to exist) about contentious, and indeed perennial, problems.

…one should never be too naive regarding the quality of the current philosophical culture, or imagine that the most recent thinking is in any meaningful sense more advanced or more authoritative than that of a century or a millennium or two millennia ago. There are certain perennial problems to which all interesting philosophy returns again and again; but there are no such things as logical discoveries that consign any of the older answers to obsolescence. Certain classical answers to those problems endure and recur, sometimes because they remain far more powerful than the answers (or evasions) produced by later schools of thought. And, conversely, weaker answers often enjoy greater favor than their rivals simply because they are in keeping with the prejudices of the age.

I particularly like his implicit critique of the religion of the present—an unshakeable belief that’s the present is better than the past, and that what the future has in store will be, by definition, “progress.”

That’s simply not the case. It is an assumption that we need to examine.

All of this reminds me of my high school headmaster’s parting message to my class when we graduated. He exhorted us to consider that we don’t leave the past behind when we move forward in time (referring as much to world history as to our parents and schooling). Rather, we follow in the footsteps of those who’ve come before—we trail behind history, and our most important job is not to build and create, but to remember and preserve.

From the perspective of an all-powerful being, who stands outside of time, we are not “progressed.” If anything, we’re recessed—the furthest removed from the foundations of the earth.

Materialism is not a fact of experience

From David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions:

There is after all nothing inherently reasonable in the conviction that all of reality is simply an accidental confluence of physical causes without any transcendent source or end. Materialism is not a fact of experience or a deduction of logic; it is a metaphysical prejudice, nothing more, and one that is arguably more irrational than almost any other … Richard Dawkins does not hesitate, for instance, to claim that “natural selection is the ultimate explanation of our existence”. But this is a silly assertion and merely reveals that Dawkins does not understand the words he is using. The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all. This question Darwin and Wallace never addressed, nor were they so hopelessly confused as to think they had … Even the simplest of things, and even the most basic of principles must first of all be, and nothing within the universe of contingent things (not even the universe itself, even if it were somehow “eternal”) can be intelligibly conceived as the source or explanation of its own being.

A story to make you think

The owner of a barber shop is cutting his client’s hair when he tells him about a young boy who comes in every day to visit.

The owner tells his client how stupid the boy is and says he can prove how stupid he is if he comes into the barber shop with a simple game.

The boy comes in during the haircut and the owner tells his client to pay attention to their game.

The owner shows the boy a $1 bill in his left hand and a $5 bill in his right hand. No tricks or strings attached.

Without being discrete, the owner puts both hands behind his back and doesn’t give any clues that he is switching the bills in his hands.

Just like he does every day, the owner asks the boy to choose a hand and that he can keep the money.

Knowing what is in each hand, the boy chooses the left hand with the $1 bill and leaves the store without an explanation.

“See how stupid he is. I told you!” Said the owner to his client.

Now, the client agrees with the owner and doesn’t seem to understand why the boy didn’t choose the hand with more money.

After finishing up his haircut, the client sees the boy outside eating an ice cream cone.

The client went up to the boy and asked, “why did you choose the hand with $1 when you knew you could have had $5?”

The boy responded, “the day I choose the $5 bill is the day the game stops.”


I am not the author of this story. I found it on Reddit.

What is college? What is health care?

The problem with “free college” is: What is college?

The problem with “healthcare is a right” is: What is healthcare?

I know, I know. The only “sophisticated” answer is that these things just go without saying. Who asks that? We just all know what these things are, right? Its not that hard.

But these questions are so key, so central. They begin and end the debates. If something is a right what is that a right to? What, exactly, should we expect from these rights?

Start with college. If it ought to be free, then what counts? What institutions? What formats? Who decides? And what happens when college just isn’t the best way to get educated or learn a trade? Certainly this will happen one day—just a few generations ago almost no one went to college, and those who did had quite a different experience than students today. Were they exercising this same right back then? When college changed, and when it changes again, will we still have a right to a free version of what existed before, when we thought up the right in the first place?

Now to health care. What is for me health care is not for you health care. I often go to the beach to clear my mind. It’s the healthiest thing I do each week—a true medicine for my body and spirit. Without this, my mental health would suffer. Others, however, find no such cure there. Others turn to other activities, and some to drugs—legal and illegal. For them, this is health care.

Health care. Care of health. Wellness maintenance. Body optimization.

(Already the problem emerges.)

Health care is not some coherent, boxed-up good. It’s not a cut-and-dry service. What counts as health care today—massages, chiropractic, Xanax-before-the-dentist—did not count just a few years ago. Insurance didn’t cover. Many common modern-day treatments, or the causation between treatments and wellness—didn’t even exist.

The questions, then: Did our grandparents have a right to the services we claim today are “health care?” A right they simply could not exercise because the suppliers of that right did not yet exist? And do individuals have any say about what, for them uniquely, constitutes a health care good or service?

No, you say. This is ridiculous, you say. I’m being unnecessarily difficult, you say.

I won’t concede that. My question is eminently fundamental. If I have a right to free college, what is college? If I have a right to health care, with is health care?

Facts don’t speak for themselves

Facts don’t speak for themselves.

Whenever anyone says they are “fact-checking” something, don’t believe it’s some sort of litmus test on the validity of what someone says. It’s just another way of framing assertions about the world, and it’s usually devoid of serious critical thinking about the topics at hand.

For example, when Donald Trump said the inner cities have never been worse, it’s probably possible to show that’s not the case. Maybe the murder rate is lower than it was in 1961. Or the jobless rate is lower than it was in 1958. Or the poverty rate is lower than it was in 1979. Whatever.

Media outlets love to do this—point out little “facts” that show Donald Trump is wrong. “Fact-check.”

But when Trump says the inner cities have never been worse, he doesn’t mean literally worse on every measure. He doesn’t even mean worse on most measures. He means that from his perspective, and (he probably thinks) from the perspectives of many other people, the inner cities have never been worse. It’s all a matter of perspective.

If I say my life has never been worse, who is to tell me I’m wrong? If I feel that way, it’s true. My friends can say, “Look, you’re making more money now than you ever have.” Or “Your new baby is happy and healthy – things have to have been worse.” But those things are just facts. Facts alone carry no weight. Facts must be interpreted. That’s the point of debates.

The inner cities have never been worse. That’s not a statement of fact. It’s a statement of opinion. And everything we say is a statement of opinion. Even facts like “the earth is spherical” are meaningful only insofar as they inform some further claim we’re trying to make (what’s the point of just saying “the earth is spherical”?).

Trump’s opponents try to damage him by pointing out these little facts that he supposedly gets wrong. But the problem for her is that 1) Trump doesn’t care, and 2) neither do his supporters. What Trump and most people care about that the inner cities are horrible and hellish. That’s it. Pundits hold up little flashcards showing him to be wrong, but he’s only wrong insofar as people don’t agree with him. For the media to prove him “wrong” in this regard, they essentially need to convince people that inner cities are not horrible. That’s a tough battle to fight.

Some lessons here for you, as you try to win debates and negotiations in your own life and work:

  • Focus on what your opponents believe and frame facts in that way.
  • Pose your arguments not in terms of this-is-true-about-the-world-and-you-simply-cannot-not-believe-that, but rather in terms of this-is-how-I-and-others-feel. The latter is more powerful than the former.

The Shortcomings of GDP as a Measure of Economic Growth

This article is one of the most popular thing I’ve ever written. I published it five years ago on an economics blog, and it’s been viewed almost 70K times since then. Average time on page is more than six minutes.

It’s nothing fancy. Explains the shortcomings of GDP as a measure of economic growth simply and concisely. There’s of course much more to be said on this topic, but republishing my old piece in its entirety here.


A recent Washington Post article reports that GDP has seen a recent uptick. While such news is most likely indicative of economic progress, this is not always the case. National output is not synonymous with the social economy, and as such, should always be evaluated with a critical eye.

Prior to WWII, there was very little collection of aggregate macroeconomic data. The Keynesian revolution shifted policymakers’ goals, however, and they began to more highly value a measurement of output in order to better “manage” the national economy. Thus, GDP was increasingly seen as a way to measure whether the “target” growth rate was being achieved. But the GDP possesses some serious shortcomings as a measure of economic growth, and should not be relied upon as the sole means of determining the health of an economy. As longtime BEA head warns, figures like GDP “are eminently useful in macroeconomic analysis if they are not regarded as a precision instrument and…may be lethal if they are.”

In short, GDP can be defined as the market value of current, final, domestic production during a specific interval of time. This means that all production is summed in terms of their market prices, only the value of final goods is included (as opposed to including the value of all intermediate sales), and only the output of productive factors located in a particular nation is counted. Already, some of the shortcomings of GDP as a measure of social welfare can be inferred, but I will highlight a few of them below.

Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of GDP as a measure of economic growth is its inclusion of government spending alongside other voluntary market transactions. This detracts from GDP’s usefulness as a measure of economic growth because government expenditures are not necessarily beneficial to social welfare, or at least not as beneficial as their cost would indicate. Indeed, there is no way to measure the value of a government service in terms of other goods because the transaction is coerced: it is not undertaken voluntarily by between contracting individuals in order to satisfy their ends and therefore increase their total welfare. Rather, money is coerced from private individuals who may indeed utilize the services provided, but may not have purchased them if they had the opportunity to opt out. The price for government services is not set by the market, and thus the calculation of their value is marked by a significant measure of arbitrariness.

GDP also fails to discount those economic activities that do not directly raise individual welfare. Military spending is the most obvious example of such an activity. While defense services may be seen as necessary to allow other economic activities to flourish, they are not valued for their own sake. Thus, if a nation’s GDP increases by 15% over the course of two years because of increased military spending, that does not mean that such a nation is consuming and investing more. As Roy Webb puts it: “Citizens of a nation that is able to obtain adequate defense for 1% of GDP can consume and invest more, thus having a higher standard of living, than citizens of a nation with the same GDP who had to spend 10% of GDP for defense.”

Another shortcoming is GDP’s failure to account for productive non-market activities. A mother raising a child, for example, is an extremely important activity. But it is not something that is paid for or provided on the market. Thus, such activity is not accounted for in the GDP. This might seem like an insignificant point, but many non-market activities can increase social welfare, and the aggregate of all productive non-market activities is certainly significant–indeed, GDP does not account for any unpaid work whatsoever, no matter how productive.

Yet another shortcoming is that certain destructive events or activities can increase GDP while decreasing overall welfare, making the GDP an inaccurate gauge of social welfare. A massive hailstorm that creates demand for thousands of new roofs and windows in a particular region, for example, is not an economically beneficial event (if you don’t believe me, read about the Broken Window Fallacy on our common economic fallacies page). But it would have the effect of increasing GDP, as millions would be spent on acquiring these goods and services.

Here is another way to think about that last point. Consider divorce, which causes an immense amount of emotional strife for those involved. A high divorce rate is something almost no one considers beneficial. But divorce is expensive, and creates thousands of jobs for lawyers, judges, and other legal mediators. If the divorce rate were to increase by 10% one year, this would increase GDP. Overall welfare (which is determined by subjective preference and is thus immeasurable), however, would almost certainly decrease significantly.

Here is a real-life illustration of the above shortcoming. While the Soviet Union saw massive increases in GDP between 1970 and 1980 (from $430 billion to over $900 billion), the average life expectancy of a Russian male over the same period actuallydecreasedAlcohol abuse was rampant, infant mortality began to climb, and the crude death rate reversed its previously downward trend. Perhaps the Soviet Union was producing more, but quality of life and overall social welfare definitely took a hit in 1970s Russia. For a visual representation, see my (somewhat crude) chart below:

The above shortcomings are only a few of the many problems with GDP. Needless to say, the figure should never be relied upon as an accurate assessment of economic growth. It certainly has its uses, and by no means would I advocate abandoning the figure altogether. But as with any other index, one must be cautious when using the figure to make judgments about the economic health of any nation. Frank Shostak has an excellent analysis of GDP that I highly recommend to anyone interested in understanding more fully the uses and shortcomings of the GDP figure.

“Life” during Irma

Hurricane Irma has come and gone. Left some significant damage to property here in Jacksonville. Huge flooding downtown. Our condo had a bit of water get into one of the bedrooms (not sure how) and our lawn is littered with roofing shingles, but unscathed otherwise.

Here’s a photo of the statue “Life” in Memorial Park, here in Jacksonville on the St. John’s River. The river flooded the park right up to the foot of this statue. Amazing shot!

And finally, here’s a 9/12 clip from USA Today about Irma clean-up here in Jacksonville.

Thoughts as Irma approaches…

I live in Jacksonville, FL. New here—moved in February from Washington, D.C. Irma will be here on Monday.

Friends and family text almost hourly. They want to know how we’re doing. I appreciate that, and my answer is always going to be YES: We’re going to be ok, because we’re doing what we’re supposed to do and we believe in something bigger than all this.

I do wish, though, that as much concern was shown for the 1,000+ people who died in flooding in Bangladesh this past summer (my friend Gret Glyer told me of this the other day—I had no idea). Irma may kill dozens, even hundreds. But thousands of families have lost loved ones in Bangladesh over the past few months—more than any hurricane will ever do in the U.S.

And those people don’t have air conditioned homes that will turn back on a few days after the storms pass. Or cars that can move their families to safer places. Or nice schools with football teams and cheerleaders and bands that will be back at it in the following weeks.

I don’t want to demean anyone’s concern for me of for the victims of Irma. It’s truly a historic storm. But we also live in amazing times—storms have little power over us. Frankly, my life next week might hardly be affected. My home, my stuff, my family—none of it is going anywhere.

It’s a funny thing. People look forward to Irma. They talk so much about it—how they’re scared, worried, anxious—because they are actually excited. Of course they don’t want their home to be damaged, or anyone to get hurt, but if they’re talking about this, they probably don’t truly believe something terrible is going to happen to them. Those who really do believe that are doing other things in the days before the storm—they have no time to tweet about their anxieties every few hours.

Maybe I just don’t understand what it’s like to be in a hurricane. And I do appreciate the concern for me and my family. But I’m willing to bet that, media hype aside, there’s less reason to worry than what you’ve told yourself.

(On that note, you should really try never to worry about ANYTHING.)

I’ll close with another pitch for DonorSee—want to make a real difference in the lives of people facing terrible disasters? Go here and donate to someone in need. You’ll feel great about doing it, and you’ll make a real difference.