Against Appeals to Credentials

On the Media, a podcast that I really enjoy, recently released an episode where Ryan Broderick, one of the guests being interviewed, criticized the discourse surrounding the coronavirus. His complaint was that too many non-epidemiologists were publishing videos and articles about the coronavirus. In the episode, he specifically calls out venture capitalists, economists, “finance bros” and pundits in general, and his core disagreement is not with what they’re saying but rather that they lack the relevant credentials to say it.

For example, Broderick cites a massively-viral Medium article, published before we were panicking in the U.S., that talks about all the precautions we should be taking in the face of the coronavirus. His main issue was not that the article was wrong; he states in the interview that everything in the post was correct, yet he still has an issue with the fact that it was published by someone without a background in science. Broderick claims that this viral, perfectly-factual Medium post allowed others to publish Medium posts that were factually incorrect and gave those same people an opportunity to be featured on Fox, where they would spread misinformation on a large scale. I could not think of a more incorrect conclusion to draw from this. The original Medium post warning of the coronavirus was a great service to the U.S. Since the post went massively viral, a lot of people probably changed their actions as a result of reading it, allowing lives to be saved and the virus to be more contained. Furthermore, what Broderick should be objecting to is the fact that others published Medium posts filled with misinformation instead of objecting to the fact that they were not epidemiologists. In fact, we should be encouraging all kinds of influencers to warn their followers of the dangers of coronavirus because they’ll probably be able to reach many people that otherwise would have just ignored what the epidemiologists are saying. We should only criticize people if they spread misinformation, not if they simply have the audacity to opine on the coronavirus without the relevant credentials.

On a separate note, I don’t know which economists, venture capitalists, and bloggers Broderick reads, but the ones that I follow, like Tyler Cowen, Slate Star Codex, and others have been some of the most helpful in my understanding of the coronavirus. Ultimately, I’m not really sure why Broderick insists on people having the proper credentials before they speak about the coronavirus. His job, as a journalist, literally requires him to write or speak about subjects in which he’s not the expert in. He’s able to do this by talking to experts and collecting their opinions, but I don’t know why he would think that others can’t do the same. After all, aren’t venture capitalists and economists some of the best judges of risk? Who better than them would understand the power of exponential growth, of black swans, of seemingly small things having an outsized impact? I’m so indignant about what Broderick said on On the Media because I hate appeals to credentials in general. To me it is about as good of an arguing tactic as ad hominems. If Broderick is trying to say that we should listen to epidemiologists more, then yes, I agree with him, but if that’s the case, then I think he’s going about it wrong.

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Coronavirus, Pandemics, and Existential Risk

This was a crazy week in the U.S. as Americans started to panic over many of the concerns other countries started having a few weeks earlier. The stock market tumbled some more, people hoarded essentials from grocery stores, companies issued broad work from home policies, and massive events such as the NBA season, March Madness, SXSW have either been canceled or postponed. I have been freaking out along with everyone else, but I have also been reflecting on pandemics and existential risk, and two main thoughts remain on my mind:

  1. We should have been better prepared for a coronavirus-level event as scientists, Bill Gates, mass media, and others have been warning about this for over a decade.
  2. We should properly calibrate how we think about the main existential risks to humanity and how resources are allocated to those risks (climate change, nuclear war, biological war, AI).

The coronavirus should not have been a surprise to the world. At least since the breakout of SARS, Ebola, and other recent epidemics, epidemiologists have been warning of the possibility of a spillover (a disease traveling from one species to another) causing a major pandemic. It was always one of the existential risks that Bill Gates and others have listed over the years. Contagion, a movie that depicts the effects of a far deadlier pandemic, was released in 2011 by a well-known director and had moderate box office success. As a country, America has not put enough resources into pandemic prevention in the short-, medium-, and long-term. The short- and medium-term failures can be attributed mostly to the Trump presidency, but we, the inhabitants of the U.S., have also failed to raise enough alarm about it.

The short-term failures of the government are all related to inadequate preparation for the coronavirus domestically, even once knowledge of the coronavirus surfaced. As soon as large numbers of cases were being reported in China, officials should have started turning the governmental gears to prepare. Once it started spreading to other countries, the presidency and Congress definitely should have acted to ensure that if it spread to the U.S., there would be a plan to contain the disease. Our testing is still far behind other comparable countries and earlier this week, we had tested even fewer people than Vietnam. The CDC and FDA, in a misguided attempt to centralize control of the response, prevented private labs from offering their own tests for too long. The government has also failed to give citizens the support to isolate themselves. Those of us in office jobs can just work from home with minimal disruption, but many workers have little or no sick leave, are in jobs that require their physical presence, or both. Many of those workers are likely to be out and about as most of them live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to do otherwise. Then, there are the uninsured people who cannot afford to get tested. There is probably overlap between those two groups so what ends up happening is that the poorest people cannot get tested and are more likely to both catch and spread the disease as they are forced to be out in public. The House finally just approved an aid package, but it is still waiting for Senate approval. This should have all be in the works weeks ago when we knew that coronavirus was spreading rapidly across other countries.

The medium-term failure of the U.S. government, which tie into the long-term failures, is the de-prioritization of pandemic preparation. The Trump presidency proposed major cuts to the CDC and the NIH in each of the four proposed budgets it submitted, and though Congress ended up appropriating more money to those agencies each year, Trump’s actions clearly signal the priorities in his administration. Which brings us to the long-term failures around pandemic prevention in America: the lack of concern among all citizens around the issue. As I mentioned previously, scientists, well-known public figures, and the mass media have been warning about the existential risk of a pandemic for a long time, but we, the people, have failed to properly heed those warnings. Compare the public attention paid to pandemics versus climate change or even artificial intelligence and we can see just how lacking the attention has been. Many smart, young people dedicate their careers to tackling the other two issues but it seems like far less talent is flowing into pandemic control than should be given the severity of the problem. A recalibration of our various existential risks is in order and coronavirus might be the spur we need. I have no idea what the ideal balance is for the attention we pay to each existential risk and I am definitely not saying that climate change and AI are not important. In fact, though I think we should be paying much more attention to the threat of a pandemic and should devote more resources to combating that threat, I do not want us to over-adjust because of the panic caused by the coronavirus and ignore the other threats. If anything, the risk that we should probably pay more attention to after we get through this is the threat of nuclear war as that seems to be the one that will be ignored by most people.

Still, I hope that coronavirus leads to society paying more serious attention to the risk of pandemics. In some ways we have been quite lucky. Though the coronavirus seems to be more fatal than the seasonal flu, it is not extremely deadly and does not seem to have much effect on children and healthy adults. It has allowed us to see the cracks in our system, specifically the supply chain risks, the inadequacy of our current testing capabilities, and the containment flaws in the U.S. With the American public sufficiently scared, we are now in a better position to contain the next pandemic. The coronavirus could have been so much worse. Imagine a virus that, like the coronavirus, has a long incubation period (or even longer), but is much more contagious and deadly, yet takes a long time to kill so that people have plenty of time to spread the disease. Though the coronavirus is spreading across the globe relatively quickly, it is not as contagious as some of the most contagious diseases out there; measles for example is much more contagious. As a frame of reference, the R0 (the number of people, on average, that each person infects) of coronavirus is estimated to be around 1.5 – 3, whereas the R0 for measles is around 15. Imagine if we had been hit with the worst-case scenario pandemic before the coronavirus. There is already panic among the people as everybody hoards supplies and food, leaving stores bereft of necessities. But at least there isn’t chaos in the streets. People are not looting stores or destroying public property. A sufficiently bad pandemic could lead to all of that. If our hypothetical virus was spreading even more rapidly, causing far more deaths (including child deaths), the panic sowed would be enormous. Now that we are facing coronavirus as a society, we should realize that it is far from the worst-case scenario and will hopefully be better prepared in the future as a result.

So, what should those preparations be? I do not work in epidemiology nor am I even a scientist, so I cannot prescribe specifics, but I do have general suggestions. First and foremost, xenophobia is not the answer. Sure, companies should seek to diversify their supply chains so that they are not so dependent on a country halfway around the world, but the debate about whether to globalize is already long past. Globalization is here to stay and regardless, we need to come together as a planet to deal with the other existential risks we face. Geopolitical isolation is not the answer. Instead, we should be investing more money into pandemic detection and testing capabilities once one is detected. We should definitely not prevent private labs from providing testing especially when governmental tests are inadequate. Our best and brightest should be encouraged to pursue careers in epidemiology. Our government should have policies in place to provide citizens with financial relief whether it be in the form of healthcare support or paid leave support so that the poorest in our country can get tested and isolate themselves. Even though we are still in the early innings of fighting the coronavirus in the U.S., I am optimistic that we will overcome it with relatively minimal damage to our society and that we will be in a better position to deal with an even worse pandemic in the future.

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The Romantic Realism of Linklater’s Before Movies

Richard Linklater’s three Before movies depict the evolution of a relationship over time by showing us just three days of Jesse and Celine’s life, each day nine years apart from the others. Through the long, winding conversations the two have, we are easily able to fill in the years in between. Though they’re smarter, better looking, and more charming than we are, and though their conversations are probably more clever and philosophical than our own, we can still see ourselves and our relationships in them – they feel so real. Trying to articulate exactly what I love so much about these movies is hard as my fondness for them ultimately comes down to a feeling more than anything else, but I’m going to try anyways, so let’s start with Before Sunrise.

The movie is an almost ethereal love story between Jesse and Celine in their early twenties, when they are still brimming with optimism and hope about the future. The two meet on the train and hit it off so that when the time comes for Jesse to get off, he asks Celine to get off the train with him to continue their conversation. As they walk around Vienna, they wax philosophical about love, life, and religion reminding us of the 2 am dorm-room conversations we had in college. They are still young and innocent enough to not get bogged down in the daily problems that working adults deal with, allowing their conversations to wind from one abstract concept to another. The scenes in the movie are wonderfully shot – the scene in the music booth was fantastic, the fake-calling was hilarious, the homeless guy was incredibly endearing, and Jesse convincing the bartender to give him a bottle of wine was the thing that only young people in love would try. But what resonated with me the most was their utter infatuation with one another; it reminded me of a special time in my life, of the unique rollercoaster of emotions that you only get with your first love. Though it’s a boy-meets-girl love story at heart, what makes this movie special to me is that there is no traditional conflict; there’s no other romantic interest or terrible event that can tear the relationship apart. It’s simply about two people falling in love with each other, walking around Vienna in long takes, having wonderful conversation; Jesse and Celine’s chemistry is so great that we do not need anything else. The movie has a great ambiguous ending, leaving us to wonder whether the two meet up again in six months. And though Linklater could’ve left it there, nine years later, he gives us Before Sunset.

Before Sunset is my favorite of the three. After nine years, Jesse and Celine are finally brought back together in Paris by Jesse’s book about their magical night together. We quickly learn that the two did not meet up in six months; Jesse flew to Vienna but left heartbroken as Celine, unbeknownst to Jesse, had to attend her grandmother’s funeral instead. The two are now seasoned adults who have grown jaded by their years in the workforce and, as we later learn, their inability to find another person who they connect with as deep as they did with each other. Though their conversations remain philosophical, they are no longer the college-dorm musings of the first movie, but instead remain grounded in the reality of their own experiences. Both characters lie throughout the movie and try and pretend that everything is okay in their lives as they try and get a feel for the other person, but slowly, as the movie progresses and they dig deeper into each other’s lives, we learn the truth. Their lies are layered like onions; with the removal of one lie, comes another lie, until ultimately the character breaks down with the truth. Jesse for example, starts by lying about whether he showed up in Vienna eight and a half years ago, then neglects to mention that he is married with children, and finally does not confess that he is in a deeply unhappy marriage until he breaks down. Celine goes through a similar process where she first presents herself as a careerist, then as an independent person who is okay with a rarely-present boyfriend, before finally revealing the truth. Both still haven’t gotten over their night in Vienna nine years ago and all their relationships since have failed to live up to the ideal of that night. Their lies, through commission and omission, kept their conversation cordial, but as they walk around Paris and talk, they both realize that the chemistry they felt nine years ago is still there. They had become so jaded that they were used to shrouding themselves with lies but now, the walls slowly start to come down and the emotions come flooding out. Those emotions feel so true to the human experience, feelings of everyone else living such wonderful lives while their own is falling apart, of aimlessness, of regrets over what could’ve been and what is. The movie is a concise 80 minutes and though it’s over in the blink of an eye, we feel like we know Jesse and Celine deeply; the movie feels as if we’re catching up with close friends that we haven’t seen in a while. The two scenes where Jesse and Celine break down are master-classes in acting and the movie ends perfectly, with two characters knowing exactly where they belong and experiencing pure bliss. Once again, Linklater could’ve left it there, but instead he plays with our expectations of love by giving us Before Midnight.

Before Midnight is an entirely different kind of love story than the previous two movies. Celine and Jesse are no longer meeting for the first time, or reuniting after daydreaming about each other for years, but have instead been living together for nine years. Their love no longer revolves around infatuation but is instead a deeper, more mundane love, the type of love that all love eventually becomes, which is not to say that it’s a worse kind of love, just different (I’d argue that it’s actually a better kind of love). We spend the first half of the movie seeing them interact with other characters such as their children or their friends in Greece, but when we finally get them alone together, we can quickly see that their conversations are still witty and enthralling. Throughout the first half of the movie though, we can feel an argument simmering in the background and it’s not until they get into their hotel room that tensions erupt. The fight hits close to home because it feels so much like ones that I have. It starts over a rather insignificant thing, but quickly escalates into something else entirely with both sides trying to score points while using unfair, though true, attacks. The argument seems to fade multiple times, but comes back stronger each time until the climax when Celine tells Jesse that she doesn’t love him anymore and leaves the hotel room for the third time. I’ve never had a fight escalate that far (and hope that I never do), but it’s so effective in the movie. We don’t believe Celine because we’ve seen the first half of the movie and the other two movies, but still, it disabuses us of the notion of a perfect love. Movies usually end at happily ever after, but here, we see what’s really after. The trilogy comes full circle, as Jesse and Celine fight like the older couple on the train in the first movie. There’s no such thing as true love, or at least not the true love that movies typically sell us. But what’s left is an enduring love, a love that can withstand withering arguments, one where the other person truly understands the other, a genuine life-long partnership. And so, the movie once again ends beautifully ambiguous, with us left to imbue the ending with our own thoughts and imagine the future in store for the two.

Hopefully at the next nine year mark, Linklater blesses us with yet another sequel. The series feels complete, but it felt complete the previous two times as well. Narratively, it probably makes the most sense for Celine and Jesse to be divorced in the next movie, but, since I’m a romantic at heart, I hope that’s not the case. Regardless, I trust Linklater to do the characters justice and it would definitely be cool to revisit the characters every nine years, like a fictional 7 Up series.

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The Wire, Goodhart’s Law, and the Baltimore Homicide Unit

The Wire is often cited as the greatest TV show of all time, and for good reason. We’re drawn in by the charisma of characters such as Omar, Avon, Stringer, and McNulty, but its ultimate greatness lies in its realistic portrayal of the various forces surrounding Baltimore’s drug scene. By the end of the series, we have a pretty firm grasp on the entire drug ecosystem of Baltimore and how the police, city hall, the drug dealers and users, the media, and the education system all play their part in fueling that ecosystem, making it incredibly hard to solve. In this essay, though, we’re going to focus on how Goodhart’s law explains some of the specific perverse incentives in just one of those pieces, the Baltimore Police Department, by looking at the homicide unit in particular. Marilyn Strathern’s quote does a good job summing up Goodhart’s law and is as follows: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” So, let’s go into how that ties to the police department.

Baltimore, like all other cities, needs to measure how well their police department is doing and does so by looking at crime. Yet “crime” as a concept isn’t quantified so in order to measure “crime” we quantify it by counting the number of murders, burglaries and other incidents that we deem bad. And so, we measure police departments by their impact on those numbers; we look at their murder clearance rate and the raw number of murders and other crimes on their watch.

Enter Jay Landsman, the sergeant of the homicide unit, and the quintessential company man. He understands what his unit and his bosses get measured on and does everything in his power to cover his ass and make them look great. How do we measure homicide? Easy, by counting the number of murders. So how do we measure the homicide unit? Also easy, by counting the number of murders they solve, a.k.a. their clearance rate. Though Jay is lazy, a total goof, and certainly comedic relief, he clearly understands that his unit is solely measured on its clearance rate, so he does everything in his power to ensure that the clearance rate looks as good as possible. This is why he’s the quintessential company man. Other characters, like Jimmy McNulty, also understand that the homicide unit is measured by its clearance rate, but he’s more concerned about solving actual crime than departmental optics, which is why he butts heads with so many bosses. So, you might ask, what’s so bad about focusing on the clearance rate? It seems like a pretty good measure of how well the homicide unit is doing to me. And certainly at first glance, you’d be right. After all, it makes intuitive sense to measure the homicide unit by how many homicides it solves, but as The Wire shows, the world is much more complicated and focusing solely on the clearance rate has other disastrous effects.

When McNulty and Lester Freamon finally discover that Marlo Stanfield’s gang has been hiding their murders in vacant houses and want to use departmental manpower to search other vacant houses for bodies, Jay immediately uses his authority to overrule them. The murders are in those vacants regardless of whether the police uncover them, but Jay understands that they won’t count as “murders” unless they’re uncovered by the police; if they just pretend that the murders aren’t there and never uncover them, then as far as the police department is concerned, the murders really aren’t there and the clearance rate remains unaffected. Though 22 murders are eventually uncovered when Freamon finally goes over Landsman’s head and straight to Daniels, we can imagine scenarios in which these murders never get uncovered. Freamon benefited from having someone like Daniels in charge, having Carcetti in the mayor’s office, and uncovering the murders when the statistics could still be attributed to the Royce administration. Without the confluence of all these rare events, the murders probably get buried and the investigation on Marlo never gets opened. Instead of uncovering and trying to solve the Marlo murders, the Baltimore Police Department was incentivized to try and bury the murders to juice their stats, an action that directly contradicts their ostensible raison d’être.

Another example of clearance rate maneuvering is shown in the beginning of season 2 when the thirteen girls show up dead in the harbor. First, the homicide unit tries to get the deaths written off as non-homicide related deaths so that they wouldn’t have to solve the case. When that fails, Rawls pawns the case off to Baltimore County by citing where the bodies were found and when McNulty foils him there, Rawls tries to meet with other jurisdiction heads to get the murders out of his jurisdiction. In an ideal world, unit leaders would devote all their time and resources to the cases they’re given, but because we have to measure their units, what ends up happening is that backroom politics becomes a large part of their job. After all, why spend all that effort trying to solve a futile case that if unsolved will affect your performance negatively when you can just hand those murders off to someone else?

I don’t mean to suggest that police are lazy, bad people who spend all their time on office politics and covering up crime so that they can go back to eating donuts. It’s just the unintended consequences that gets summed up by Goodhart’s law. When the clearance rate becomes the target instead of a measure, it’s no longer a good measure because the homicide unit starts to alter the clearance rate through methods other than solving murders. And that’s the hardest part of solving the issue. We have to measure the performance of police departments in some way so that we can identify whether it’s doing a good job. If we didn’t measure them in any way, we’d live in an even worse world. We can easily see that McNulty is one of the best detectives even if that’s not reflected in the clearance rate just like we can see that the system is quite messed up and that the incentives are often perverse. Yet, can we imagine a better system? The Wire certainly doesn’t offer any prescriptions. Unfortunately, there’s just no better way to measure the homicide unit than by looking at clearance rates. In an ideal world, we would measure the difficulty of cases, and then assign a difficulty-weighted clearance rate, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Assigning a rating for the difficulty of cases would just lead to an even worse system in which police game the weighting system. Ultimately, clearance rates are the worst measure of homicide units except all other measures that we have, and so we’re stuck with it for better or worse.

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The Farewell: Moral Framing in Title Selection

Many great articles have been written about Lulu Wang’s The Farewell but none have gone deeper than a passing sentence into the translation of the film’s title. A lot of foreign films do not directly translate the title when moving from one market to another, and The Farewell’s is no exception as the direct translation of its Chinese title is “don’t tell her”. The two main reasons this is done is to choose a title that will better attract the new market or to avoid having the same title as a movie already released in that market. Movie titles, and titles in general, are the first thing that draws in an audience so plenty of thought goes towards the decision, which is why calling the movie The Farewell in English and Don’t Tell Her in Chinese is so interesting. It’s a choice that highlights the broad theme that runs through the entire movie: the differing moral systems between the two world worlds Billi’s family inhabits.

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The name The Farewell focuses the movie’s English-speaking audience on the individual, and each individual’s personal farewell to the family’s beloved matriarch; the primary farewell emphasized is Billi’s, though we also get to see how various other family members deal with Nai Nai’s impending death. What gets highlighted then is not Nai Nai herself, but everybody’s personal relationship to her, because Nai Nai is the only one who does not know that she has terminal lung cancer. And what resonates most with Western audiences is Billi’s relationship with Nai Nai. Western viewers understand Billi’s deep desire and need to say goodbye to somebody she loves, and her bewilderment and frustration at not being able to do so. They empathize with Billi’s urge to reveal the truth of Nai Nai’s diagnosis and chafe alongside Billi at the oppressive restrictions of collectivistic Eastern society. All this is perfectly encapsulated in the film’s title.

Now consider the Chinese title, Don’t Tell Her. Here, Nai Nai features prominently, and the focus of the Chinese-speaking audience is drawn towards the collective. Instead of grappling with Billi saying goodbye to Nai Nai, they think about how the entire family is working together to try to conceal Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her. They ponder the burdens that have to be shared in a collectivist society and hope for a resolution that doesn’t tear the family apart. The change in title reflects the change in mindset and evokes a different framing.

Billi’s uncle, Haibin, has a beautiful speech that sums up the broad differences between the moral systems that govern the West and those that govern the East. It’s a theme that comes up over and over in the dialogue of the various characters, but in my mind, it all starts with the film’s title. Which makes me think, what am I missing when I watch other foreign films, and does it all start in the title?

The Case for Removing Charitable Deductions

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The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths — My Thoughts

This short story is Borges’s shortest and I highly recommend reading it; it’ll only take a minute or two. For those too lazy, the summary is that one king has his people construct a labyrinth, one so sophisticated that not even the smartest person can escape from it. Upon its completion, he traps another king in it. The trapped king eventually escapes after praying to God, gathers his army, and conquers the land of the first king, capturing the king in the process to bring him to said labyrinth. The labyrinth has no walls, no doors, and no stairs. It is simply a vast desert. Though there is nothing impeding him, the first king is unable to escape this “labyrinth” and dies of thirst and hunger.

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The deep complexity of something that appears so simple is my ultimate takeaway from the story. Examples related to the theme abound in the world around us. A single rose or a sunset by the water are both so ordinary yet so breathtakingly beautiful. Some of our greatest moments of joy come from the simplest things, such as the small favor a friend did for you when you were going through a difficult period, or that time you and your closest friends got together for a meal and drinks and just talked for hours. And for most people, the most difficult job is managing and influencing other people instead of complex analytical work. Telling people what to do seems simple enough but actually doing so in a way that gets them motivated to do the job and to do it meticulously can be incredibly difficult. It’s why there are so many business books written about how to lead or influence people, and it’s why those who can do so are very well compensated. The story of the two kings itself is yet another example of the theme. It’s so incredibly short and easy to read yet we we can find deeper meaning in it the more we think about it.