Category Archives: Unsubstantiated Social Commentary

Reasoning Backwards

Originally published, last week and in a slightly different form, at Libertines Pub.

Back when I still lived in the US, I was pretty put off by American culture and the American lifestyle. I readily criticized groups who I didn’t associate with myself, like suburban Republicans. I railed against their environmentally destructive lifestyle: their giant SUVs,  giant houses far away from everything they need, their conformity, and their dogmatic belief in Christianity. Sometimes I got into conversations with them where I would attempt to convince them that their lifestyle was unsustainable and environmentally destructive. Needless to say, I never made a convert, and though my tactics could have been more tactful, I really don’t think my lack of success had anything to do with my rhetorical techniques. I was criticizing their lifestyle, their way of existing in the world, and perhaps most importantly I was criticizing the economic system that they depended on for survival, well being, and happiness.

Now that I live in Hong Kong, when I hear non-Americans criticizing those fat, self-centered Americans, I feel something stir inside me. Some part of me says, “No! You’re wrong! You’re criticizing my people, and so there must be something wrong with you or what your’e saying!” What changed was context. “Them” became “us.” Increasingly, “us” feels like Americans, or people from Western cultures, or even…gasp…white people. When I was back in the US, the stereotypical American felt like a “them” and so I had no emotional reaction to criticism of that lifestyle. For the most part, I have disassociated my identity from that stereotype (I’m not that kind of American), but I still feel this visceral push to defend the American lifestyle from what my rational mind still tells me is perfectly reasonable criticism. In some cases, criticisms that I have this emotional reaction to have been criticisms I myself made before “they” became “we.”

When we make statements like “I am an American” or “I am a liberal” or “I am a Christian” we connect our identities to a set of beliefs, beliefs about morality, human nature, history, and science: beliefs about how the world works, and how it ought to work. When we connect our identities to these beliefs, we begin to perceive attacks on these beliefs as attacks on ourselves, and often have an emotional response that compels us to defend our beliefs as strongly as we would defend our lives.

This need to preserve our identity has no limits. As anyone who has ever argued with a Christian fundamentalist about the age of the Earth knows, no amount of evidence can convince people that their identity-beliefs are wrong. So far as I can tell, there is nothing so outlandish or ridiculous that people won’t believe it if it’s attached to their identity. It seems that our faculties for reason weren’t really designed to objectively evaluate reality. They were designed to subjectively evaluate reality, through the lens of group and individual identity. It’s the difference between what’s true and what’s useful to the organism. Now to be sure, natural selection deals harshly with certain types of false beliefs (like the belief that cobras aren’t dangerous when there are cobras around, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt you) but those beliefs never spread in a population, so I believe that natural selection generally favors individuals who suspend their objective reasoning faculties when it comes to beliefs that everyone else in their group shares. The negative repercussions of disagreeing with the group far outweigh the negative repercussions of holding beliefs that are counter-factual, in the vast majority of circumstances.

This need to preserve our identity has no limits. As anyone who has ever argued with a Christian fundamentalist about the age of the Earth knows, no amount of evidence can convince people that their identity-beliefs are wrong. So far as I can tell, there is nothing so outlandish or ridiculous that people won’t believe it if it’s attached to their identity. It seems that our faculties for reason weren’t really designed to objectively evaluate reality. They were designed to subjectively evaluate reality, through the lens of group and individual identity. It’s the difference between what’s true and what’s useful to the organism. Now to be sure, natural selection deals harshly with certain types of false beliefs (like the belief that cobras aren’t dangerous when there are cobras around, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt you) but those beliefs never spread in a population, so I believe that natural selection generally favors individuals who suspend their objective reasoning faculties when it comes to beliefs that everyone else in their group shares.

When we reason from group identity to beliefs about empirical reality, we reason backwards.  I believe it is much more rational to choose our beliefs about the way the world works independent of our national identity, political identity, ethnic identity or any other identity.  Reasoning forward is not natural for our species in many circumstances.  Nevertheless we possess the ability to do so.  The first step toward doing so more often is to recognize the way that group identity biases our rational ability, and consciously guard against it.

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Health Care Revisited

, I was pretty enamored with the HK health care system.  Then I got insurance.  Now there’s a for-profit corporate middle-man between me and my doctor who has a financial interest in giving me as little health care as possible.  Feels like home.

I’ve been having pain in my left foot that’s been getting progressively worse.  After jumping through a few hoops designed to make it difficult for me to see a specialist, I finally acquire permission from my insurer to see an orthopedist.  So I go to the orthopedist, and he thinks it’s tendinitis, but wants to take an x-ray to rule out any damage to the bone before he treats it with a steroid injection.  Sounds reasonable.  But before I get to the x-ray, one of the nurses informs me that my health insurance won’t pay for x-rays.  This seems unbelievable to me, so I spend the next hour or so on the phone with the insurance company fighting to talk to someone with a brain.  (Making it really difficult for me to talk to anyone is obviously in their interests.  After all, I might just give up and not get treatment, which is the best possible outcome from their standpoint.)  I finally get someone with a partially functioning brain, who can do slightly more than repeat the same nonsense over and over.  He informs me that they might pay for my x-ray, but that I have to pay out of pocket first and then submit the receipt.   (The hope here is that I’ll find the paperwork so onerous that I’ll just give up and pay for it myself.)  Then, if the insurance company bureaucrat decides that my doctor gave me the x-ray in order to “treat or diagnose an injury or illness,” they’ll pay for it.   Well, of course it’s to treat or diagnose an injury or illness!  Do people get recreational x-rays?  Isn’t my doctor in a better position to make this medical decision than some mindless corporate stooge?  I’ll submit the receipts, and then they’ll try as hard as they can to figure out a way not to reimburse me.

I think the HK health care system is about as good a system as you can have, without cutting the insurance companies out entirely.  Unlike in the US, the x-ray was somewhat affordable even without insurance (about $40 US).  But my recent experience reinforces my belief that the profit motive needs to be removed from the system.  I’d much rather have a democratically elected government between me and my doctor than a heartless corporation.  It’s all about incentives, and the incentives in the employer based health insurance system are all wrong.

The US has “reformed” its health care system.  Even these reforms won’t make it as good, or as fair, as the system in HK (costs still way too high, and still way too many uninsured people).  The incentives haven’t changed.  The difference is that there are a few more regulations in place that won’t allow insurance companies to be quite as evil as they were before the new law was passed.  But they’re actively looking for ways around those regulations.

This is one place where the free-market fundamentalists are simply wrong. The profit motive is a powerful incentive.  But we need to look at what kind of behavior it incentivizes.  The profit-motive can encourage hard work and ingenuity.  It can also encourage environmental destruction, and other methods of socializing costs while privatizing profits.  In the case of health care, the profit motive incentivizes insurance companies to act like assholes.  If they stop acting like assholes, they make less money.  Rather than efficiency, it incentivizes deliberate inefficiency.  No amount of regulation will solve that fundamental problem.

Catholics and Commies

Originally published at Libertines Pub

Authoritarians are all alike. The inheritors of the Earth’s two most significant historical empires, the Roman and the Chinese, don’t seem to realize that the days of “it’s true because I said so” are over. There was a time the Pope and the Emperor of China could literally dictate what was true and false within the substantial segments of the globe they controlled. This is no longer true, but apparently the authoritarians haven’t gotten the message.

Lately, the New York Times seems to be reporting daily on new evidence that during his tenure as a Catholic bishop, the current Pope was informed of several priests sexually abusing children in Germany and the US, and he did nothing to help those children or prevent further abuse. All his actions seem to have been directed at image control, not sexual abuse control. Obviously, this behavior is about as immoral as human behavior gets, yet there has been no official explanation of the evidence from the Vatican, other than to attack those who present it. Apparently, the Pope still thinks he’s infallible. Now, there is a certain segment of the Catholic population who’s self-identity is so tied up in being Catholic that admitting that the Pope is actually an abusive asshole would cause an identity crisis so large that no amount of evidence can convince them of the truth. These people cannot be reasoned with, and as a result they don’t require explanations that are rational. “I said so,” uttered from an authority figure they identify with is enough. But for an increasing number of humans, particularly the increasing number of humans raised to think for themselves in an atmosphere of free and open discussion, “I said so” doesn’t cut it. No matter who says so.

Big Beijing is running into this problem as well, all over the place. From poorly constructed schools in Sichuan that killed hundreds of children to disappearing Falun Gong practitioners and their on-demand organs, to countless other examples of Big Beijing showing no respect for the value of human life, the response is always the same (see attached photo). The recent spat with Google is instructive. When Google decided to stop censoring Chinese search results, a decision that included a statement about the value of free exchange of information and open debate, Big Beijing’s response was that Google was “totally wrong.” Nothing about the value of social harmony vs. freedom of information, just a blanket statement that if you disagree with Big Baby, you’re wrong. Why? Because Big Baby said so, and Big Baby, like the Pope, is infallible. They both have the Mandate of Heaven, apparently. Just like some Catholics, some Chinese have so thoroughly attached their personal identity to their government that these “arguments” are actually “persuasive.” Perhaps in a nation of only children, educated in Chinese state schools, many people are predisposed to this type of nationalistic, authoritarian “thinking.” But if you want to convince adults, you have to make a coherent argument. Which is why Big Beijing’s propaganda system doesn’t seem to work in HK, and why many Americans areleaving the Catholic Church. It should be interesting to see how this plays out between now and 2047 (the year the gweilo evacuate HK).

The High-Speed Rail Controversy: An American Perspective

Originally published at Libertines Pub.  (Note: This post is really intended for a HK audience, not a US audience like most of my posts.  So if you don’t dig this one, don’t worry.  I’m blogging for a HK blog now, and I’ll share those posts here, but that doesn’t mean this blog has changed its focus.)

Since I arrived in Hong Kong a half year ago, the biggest political story has been the proposed high speed rail link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Apparently the young people in HK are really upset about this. I don’t get it.

Recently, the SCMP documented the evolution of this movement from a community issue centered around villagers trying to keep their homes, to a mass political movement that has sparked political activism among many young people in HK. Chu Hoi-dick, one of the leaders of the movement, is quoted as saying, “When I first started, it was a community issue. My goal was to help villagers keep their homes. No one should be sacrificed because of a railway or because of any development.” Really? How is this a rational political position? No one should ever lose their home because of any development? How would any nation or municipality ever create any public infrastructure under this standard? It’s absolutely preposterous, yet somehow the SCMP doesn’t mention the absurdity of Chu’s statement. In a city as densely populated as HK, nothing could ever get built if you couldn’t ever demolish anyone’s home to build a public good.

Now I’m American, and as such I’m all for the rights of individuals. But even Americans know that sometimes people have to lose their homes because that land is needed for something that benefits society. OK, not all Americans know this. Many of the ones who don’t are currently involved in what is called the Tea Party movement. This is a bunch of conservatives who think that it’s immoral to raise taxes on individuals so that the government can provide a public good (in this case, what they object to is poor people receiving health care). Which brings me to my main point. This anti-rail campaign is essentially a conservative movement. The two basic arguments seem to be that individual property rights trump collective goods (the nobody should ever lose their house nonsense quoted above) and that it’s just too expensive (or that the costs outweigh the benefits). It’s ironic that young people in HK seem to have similar political opinions to a bunch of old, rural, uneducated and generally misinformed Americans.

Since the first argument is absurd on it’s face, let’s address the second one: it’s just too expensive. I have no doubt it’s very expensive, but taxes in HK are insanely low (it helps that the defense budget is zero). And I don’t think there’s much danger of a tax hike because of this project, so what are people so upset about? Public services and infrastructure work pretty well in this city, but that’s because people invested in them in the past, and continue to do so.

My president has proposed several high-speed rail networks linking major American cities. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional US political system won’t allow him to accomplish this goal, which would be of great benefit to the US economy. The auto and oil industries will surely succeed in limiting the scope of high-speed rail in the US. And the Tea-partiers will be right there by the corporations’ side, shooting themselves in the foot because they oppose government spending.

I’m no fan of Big Beijing, but I sincerely wish that my government was forward-thinking enough to cover my continent in high speed rail. Whatever the economists say about the cost/benefit, does Hong Kong really want to be the one major Eurasian city that isn’t part of the high speed rail network eventually connecting Shanghai to Paris?

I understand that a lot of the anger expressed in this anti-rail campaign is really frustration about the lack of real democratic influence in the political process. I feel your pain there. The US has had universal suffrage since 1776…ok, maybe 1865…no wait…1920. Ok, we realistically attained universal suffrage in 1964, except for the brief, computer-enhanced hiatus between 2000 and 2006. My point is this: the vote can be bought, influenced, suppressed or miscounted, but political speech is a fundamental human right. Use your right to protest wisely. Remember the boy who cried wolf.

My American Education

One of the joys of being an American expat is that people are constantly educating me about my home country.  Local Hongkongers and European expats love to tell me how fat and ignorant Americans are.  The Euros particularly love to tell me how my country lacks culture.  The one thing all these people have in common is that they have never visited the U.S.  Nevertheless, they insist that their experience with the U.S., which consists of watching American movies and TV, somehow gives them some special insight into American culture that my 30 years of living in the U.S. didn’t provide me with.

I know many Americans are overweight, and I know many Americans are ignorant about the world.  I’m aware of the stereotypes, and I can even see that these stereotypes are in part based on reality.  But the facts on the ground are a little more complicated than that.  Surprisingly, people in HK seem to be unaware of the fact that the U.S. is a large, diverse country.  People in HK think that HK is diverse (with it’s 5% minority population), and therefore simply cannot comprehend the scale of American diversity.

I am often confronted by people who dress like Americans, use American slang, watch American movies and listen to American music, telling me that the U.S. has no culture of it’s own.  Europeans think U.S. culture is a simply a bastardized version of their own.  The fact that foreigners like to mimic my culture does not negate the existence of that culture.  The fact that my culture is relatively young, and is a blended culture, does not mean it is somehow not a real culture.

It’s not my fault that Europeans and Asians lack the nuanced understanding of U.S. culture to appreciate the good American music, movies and television.  The American music that’s popular abroad tends to be lyrically and musically unsophisticated.  This is particularly true of hip hop.  I get why the interesting stuff isn’t exportable.  But when people use the crappy American music that’s popular overseas as an example of how ignorant Americans are, I tend to lose patience with them.

The fact that McDonald’s and MTV are popular in France reflects badly on France, not the U.S.  If we can trick you into consuming our low grade beef and cultural leftovers, and keep the good stuff for ourselves, that’s on you Frenchie, not me.

Sorry for the rant, had to get that out of my system.

USA vs. HK #4: Education

By most objective measures, this should be an easy one for HK.  In 2007, HK ranked among the best in the world on most measures of math and science science performance, ranking among the other developed Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.  The US is toward the middle of the second tier, not as horrible as the media makes it seem, but not competing with East Asia.  (The US is way ahead of China though.)  So Hong Kong seems to be doing a much better job of teaching math and science to it’s children, at least on average.  But what about higher education?

The US still has the best universities in the world.  But on a per capita basis, the US and HK are pretty comparable.  Because of it’s protection of freedom of expression, and it’s high per capita income, HK is one of the leading centers of education in Asia, and the world.  The US has historically had a big advantage in this area, because there was a long period of time when it was one of the few places where academics could work without fear of the government looking over their shoulders.  This is the primary reason China will never have world class universities under the current regime, and why HK and Japan have such a regional advantage in Asia.  Asia is catching up in higher education and Hong Kong is a big part of that advance.  For a look at the world rankings of universities, according to the Times of London, check out this link:

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=408560

Since we all know that K-12 education in the US sucks, and the US doesn’t have a big advantage over HK in higher ed, why am I still writing?  Doesn’t HK win?

I guess it depends on what the purpose of education is.  Basically all the school systems in the world were designed to train workers for the industrial age.  The goal was to teach basic literacy and computation skills, and to make people good at following schedules and obedient to authority.  Nobody explains this better than John Taylor Gatto, and his  basic argument is here.

Americans have never been the obedient type, blind obedience to authority is not an American value.  Years ago, I remember crossing a street with no traffic in Berin, watching the Germans wait for the light to give them formal permission to cross, rather than decide for themselves when it was safe.  The Chinese do not wait for the signal, they just go.  Obedience to authority is a Confucian value though, and it can stifle  creativity.  American schools have been much less successful in training obedience than Asian schools, and this helps explain why innovative companies like Apple and Google are located in the US, not Asia or even Europe.  Confucian values teach students not to question their teachers and professors.  So when a Chinese student has a new idea, and it conflicts with what the prof is saying, I have a feeling that student is less likely than an American student to decide that they might be right and the prof might be wrong.

Because of Americans’ issues with authority, they often have difficulty the hierarchical rigid environment created by most schools.  So even though American schools are failing to teach math and science as well as HK schools, they’re also failing to teach blind obedience.  In the age of the Google search and the smartphone, being able to do calculations quickly and memorize information is not a particularly useful skill; it’s creativity that counts.  Since public school systems all over the world teach how not to be creative, American schools succeed by failing.

The winner, in a shocker, is the USA.  It’s all tied up after 4: USA 2, HK 2.

False Dichotomies

dichotomy is a splitting into exactly two non-overlapping parts.  Those two parts must be mutually exclusive (nothing can be in both) and exhaustive (nothing can be in neither).  A false dichotomy is a seeming dichotomy that fails one or both of those criteria.  Hong Kong is full of ’em.  Here’s a quick list.  It’s far from exhaustive.

East vs. West: HK is mostly a Chinese city, but it has considerable Western, Indian, Malyasian, and Filipino influences.  The culture is Chinese, but the economic and political systems are Western.  What’s interesting is how naturally they seem to go together.

New World vs. Old World: China and everything Chinese is about as Old World as you can get.  But HK is a very new city, much newer than NYC.  The architecture is New World, but the culture is very old.

Big vs. Small: people often talk about how HK is a very small big city.  This is particularly true if you’re an expat.  I randomly run into people I know in this city of 7 million much more often than I did in Boulder (population 100,000 or so).

Left vs. Right: except on the streets, where everyone faithfully keeps to the wrong side, HK lacks a left/right convention, and it’s really annoying.  Sometimes you’re expected to keep left, other times right.  The lack of an established convention in this area makes walking considerably more chaotic and difficult than it needs to be.

Freedom vs. Authority: The political system here has some superficial democratic elements, but at the end of the day the only real power players are Big Beijing and big corporations. Mussolini would approve.  On the other hand, freedoms of speech, assembly and religion are protected.  J.S. Mill would approve.

Wasteful vs. Efficient: The amount of trash this city produces is insane, and I think it’s higher per capita than even the extreme wastefulness of a US city.  And recycling bins are so rare that I often find myself throwing plastic bottles away.  But those bottles, along with much of the reusable garbage, gets recycled anyway.  If something has value, Chinese people are loathe to waste it.  There’s a huge array of small businesses and individual poor people who make sure that much less gets wasted here than in HK.  More on this later.