Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Their dispute is not with the quality of your argument but with the outcome of your argument

Paul Graham posts on Economic Inequality.
I'm interested in this topic because I was one of the founders of a company called Y Combinator that helps people start startups. Almost by definition, if a startup succeeds its founders become rich. Which means by helping startup founders I've been helping to increase economic inequality. If economic inequality is bad and should be decreased, I shouldn't be helping founders. No one should be.

But that doesn't sound right. So have we just shown, by reductio ad absurdum, that it's false that economic inequality is bad and should be decreased? That doesn't sound right either. How can economic inequality not be bad? Surely it's bad that some people are born practically locked into poverty, while at the other extreme fund managers exploit loopholes to cut their income taxes in half.

The solution to this puzzle is to realize that economic inequality is not just one thing. It consists of some things that are very bad, like kids with no chance of reaching their potential, and others that are good, like Larry Page and Sergey Brin starting the company you use to find things online.

If you want to understand economic inequality—and more importantly, if you actually want to fix the bad aspects of it—you have to tease apart the components. And yet the trend in nearly everything written about the subject is to do the opposite: to squash together all the aspects of economic inequality as if it were a single phenomenon.

Sometimes this is done for ideological reasons. Sometimes it's because the writer only has very high-level data and so draws conclusions from that, like the proverbial drunk who looks for his keys under the lamppost, instead of where he dropped them, because the light is better there. Sometimes it's because the writer doesn't understand critical aspects of inequality, like the role of technology in wealth creation. Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, writing about economic inequality combines all three.
As I have noted many times, I believe that the income inequality debate is often ill-informed and to a large degree irrelevant. The underlying issue is productivity. Graham makes a similar, though better articulated and more refined, point.

Graham's post excited some heated responses which often seemed to miss his point. His response was to rewrite his post in very simple prose. I very much doubt that increased clarity resolved his critics concerns because their vitriol was not excited by the clarity and quality of his argument but because it confounded their beliefs.

Nathan Taylor used this kerfuffle as a launchpad for a meditation on writing and clarity.

The pursuit of clarity is age old. From Book VIII, Chapter II, 24, De Institutione Oratoria by Quintilian in 95 AD.
We should not speak so that it is possible for the audience to understand us, but so that it is impossible for them to misunderstand us.
To which Karl Popper argued in Unended Quest
Always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood: there will always be some who misunderstand you.
In the age of the internet, we have to go a step further and acknowledge that you cannot write so clearly that those who wish to misunderstand you cannot misunderstand you in extravagant ways.

In making his argument Taylor invokes the first two of Tyler Cowen's Three Laws:
1. Cowen’s First Law: There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).

2. Cowen’s Second Law: There is a literature on everything.

3. Cowen’s Third Law: All propositions about real interest rates are wrong.
Taylor shortens Cowens Laws to the more general:
There is a literature on everything.

There are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it.
Taylor has a good exploration of the issues and ends up with a slightly different formulation:
1) know and allude to the existing literature,
2) show your mastery by acknowledging the major flaws in your argument.
I like that version.

Taylor's discussion is interesting and worthwhile but I think it fails to acknowledge that to which I alluded to earlier. He is assuming that people are arguing in good faith as fellow seekers of the truth. He thinks that Graham simply failed to be clear.

I think that is generous but misses two issues. The first is that some people simply know less than others. Their arguments are not on a level playing field. This is a common issue with many manifestations. Why do we hang around with people of our own sort? Because we don't have to explain predicates and axioms that we all widely share. We speak in shorthand without having to revisit fundamentals. When you reach across to others without the same knowledge base, experience base, skill base, values base, behaviors base, and motivation base, you are speaking across a great distance. A priori, when speaking to an unknown audience, you don't know just how great a distance it might be.

But the greater the distance, the more you have to invest in covering and justifying statements that are already believed (by you and your ilk) to be true. It is a lot more work with a lot greater risk of misunderstanding. With greater cost comes lower return. Hence, we talk to people that share our own knowledge, experience, skills, values, behaviors and motivations. It is simply easier and more rewarding. Much misunderstanding arises, I believe, from speaking across this epistemological divide, particularly when one or both parties fail to realize that there is indeed such a divide.

The second issue is that there are some/many who simply aren't buying what you are selling. Your argument may be well researched, logically framed, cognizant of context, clear about weak points, counterarguments and trade-offs and might be well articulated. But if it doesn't comport with a listener's belief system, then it will be attacked regardless. Their dispute is not with the quality of your argument but with the outcome of your argument.

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