0 or 2, but not 1

Posted on 16 Feb 2021 by Steve Markham

Fascinating conversation with Janet this morning. The summary is that some things seem to allow 0 or 2, but not 1, when 1 is “The Right Answer”, and comes from my summary of the Princeton-hosted Krugman/Summers “debate” here (h/t MR). In short, after some back and forth, Krugman admits that Summers is right that $1.9T is more than enough, but the fluff might be required politically to get any relief bill passed. That is, even if the right answer is $1T of relief for schools and income replacement, and the stimulus from sending everyone a $2k check won’t be helpful enough to justify the risk (of inflation, and of using up policital capital for subsequent Build Back Better infrastructure funding), the entire bill might fail if it doesn’t include $2k checks for everyone. So your options are $0T or $2T, and the risks of $0T are even worse than the risks of $2T. I’m not an economist and I might be terribly mischaracterizing Krugman’s point, but the generalized point applies to a zillion things.

Lewis gets sucked into video games, and probably spends too much time playing Minecraft. In theory, there is some amount of video gaming that is actually good. When he’s playing with Kyle, or when Janet and I need a 30 minute break from kids, or whatever, Minecraft is probably better than any alternative. Let’s call this ideal amount of Minecraft 1. It’s really hard to tell the difference between 1 and 2, and really easy to tell the difference between 0 and 1, so sometimes I feel like 1 isn’t a realistic target, and our only practical options are 2 or 0. Maybe the downsides of 0 outweigh the risks of 2, maybe they don’t, but that’s the comparison we need to make, not a comparison between 1 and 2.

There is some amount of sexism in LDS church history, and it persists into present day. If Janet suggests to the Ward Council that a YW/YM lesson on “the divine roles of husbands and wives” is not entirely doctrinal, though, she faces some resistance. Janet wants to move things toward 1, where women and men are treated as individuals, not simply as members of a gender group. Some of the resistance is from truly sexist 0s who think any challenge to the perfection of church policy and curriculum is heresy. But some of the resistance is from reasonable people who agree that things need to change, but who also know that a bunch of wolf-in-sheeps’-pants non-believing women are trying to undermine the entire Church under the guise of harmless pro-equality messages. If you give an inch to that sort of person, it will only energize them to ask for a mile. So in order to avoid the unacceptable outcome (2), you stick to the less bad status quo (0), instead of striving for the ideal (1), which is not really an option. On the flipside, many members have a default position that the church is correct on any given practice, so you have to make very thorough, persuasive arguments (2) to even get them to acknowledge that the status quo is 0, not 1. But of course, it’s a fine line between making a thorough argument and nit-picking.

It is trivially easy to lampoon “woke” activists as racist. Exhibit A. In an ideal world, there is no one with the “woke” t-shirt on, but there is also no one with the “racist” t-shirt on. It’s understandable for someone to react to the existence of racists (0) very strongly (2), thinking that it’s much easier to keep wokeness from getting out of hand. Say what you will about cancel culture, but it’s not as bad as lynching, which, let me remind you, happened in this country as late as the 80s. Given that we can’t thread the needle and hit 1, it seems safer to run the risks in the direction of 2, rather than to run risks in the direction of 0, given how we know things played out in the past.

COVID-19 and mask mandates or using mRNA vaccines. Mail-in voting or campaign finance reform. Factory farming. Health insurance. Almost everything about public schools. Welfare. Now that I’ve got a succinct label for 0-or-2-but-not-1 areas, where the ideal is not really on offer, but either extreme is, I see it everywhere.

I like to think I’m a reasonable person. If you make a good argument for 1, I’ll accept that argument. In fact, if you make a flimsy argument for 2, hoping to move things in the right general direction, I’ll find your overall argument less credible, even if I agree with the general direction you want to move things. (I’m currently listening to The Reality Bubble, and while overall I’m enjoying the book, this concept happens often–she makes her overall point flimsier by taking it too far, even though my hunch is that she and I would 99% agree on the first corrective steps society should take.) But I’m not so naive as to think people shouldn’t make arguments for the masses, or that the masses aren’t persuaded more by arguments for 2 than by arguments for 1. It leads to a little self-loathing when I end up taking the side of the 2s all the time, since I disagree with 2. I think I used to end up taking the side of the 0s, and that also led to self-loathing, so whatever.

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