Saturday, April 30, 2016

The perils of reading the fake government org chart

Out of the many oddities of the democratic process in the west, two points stand out.

First, the average citizen has very little idea about how his government works.

Second, the average citizen has very little idea that he has very little idea about how his government works.

If pushed, I think the second point is the more remarkable one. It is quite an amazing feat of propaganda. The evidence that government doesn't work the way most people assume it does is all around them. But they somehow manage to never notice.

I think it comes back to the distinction between the real and the nominal organisational chart of government.

In the case of China, your average American understands that he has no idea how its government functionally operates. Furthermore, he also assumes, rightly, not to trust the notional description coming from China of how its government works. America has a Congress. China, as it turns out, also has a Congress. The average American, however, is likely to be correctly skeptical about whether this body is actually exercising any substantial decision-making authority. He suspects that finding out how China's government actually works is likely to be a difficult task, and one that will require some considerable research.

But for some reason, these thoughts never seem to occur to him about his own government, even though every single one would be just as appropriate.

In the case of America, he has been inculcated with the official organisational chart since birth. There are three branches - legislative, judicial and executive. They exist in a separation of powers, and all are ultimately answerable to the voters, who elect Congress and the President, and thus can eventually appoint all the Supreme Court nominees.

Granted, this is not an absurd description. All these bodies really do exist. At some point, perhaps, this was how governmental decisions in America were actually made.

On the other hand, our hypothetical reader would need to only click on a news website on almost any given day to find events that seem wholly inconsistent with this being the set of people who in practice make decisions as to how government runs.

To take but one example, it was recently announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

This, of course, raises a number of questions that the average person almost certainly never gets around to asking, but probably should.

Let's start with the basics.

Who, exactly, decided that this would happen?

As a beginning, he has absolutely no idea. Without googling, he couldn't even name the office behind this decision.

Reading through the article, we're told that this was announced by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Hands up, nice and high, if you've ever heard that name before.

More to the point, being announced by Jack Lew is not the same as being decided by Jack Lew. If it were just decided by Jack Lew, then we can somehow finagle all this akwardly into the notional chart. Obama appointed Lew, he could fire him (perhaps - who knows) and get someone else in who would put Jackson back on.

But how do you know who else was involved in this decision? Are you sure it was just Lew? There are 86,000 people working at the Treasury. You're certain it was just the top guy, on his own, who came up with the plan? Let's be honest, that seems pretty damn unlikely. If every decision is made singlehandedly from the top, what on earth are those 86,000 people doing each day?

If you fire Lew, it's possible the plan gets reversed. It's also possible that you've just fired the guy who's the spokesman, or the frontman for the operation. He'll just be replaced by someone else, and the show will merrily go on.

But even the 'treasury employees make the decision' model seems a little too neat. Indeed, the Washington Post article lists a number of groups and people that seem wholly alien to how this process is meant to work, including:
-Kari Winter, a professor who studies slavery at the University of Buffalo
-A viral campaign by a group "Women on $20s"
-Ben Bernanke
-A musical about Alexander Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who apparently was personally contacted by Lew in the leadup to this decision (when it was decided that Hamilton wasn't getting ditched from the $10)
-Liz Maatz, vice president of government relations for the American Association of University Women

One of two things seems true. Either these people are part of the actual decision-making process. Or the Washington Post is just asking random nobodies to give their opinion

Which do you suppose is more likely? Who do you suppose knows more about how government operates, you or the Washington Post?

Because, dear average interlocutor, let us get to the heart of the matter.

You still believe the notional org chart, because this is all you know. This decision must come from the Secretary of Treasury, which comes from the President, which comes from us, the voters. Ergo, we can reverse this by voting for Trump in November, who certainly wouldn't put up with this nonsense.


But didn't they tell you this when you voted for George W. Bush twice? Looking back, what exactly did that get you?

You would do better to start by admitting some basic truths.

You have no idea who made this decision.

You have no idea how, or if, it could be reversed.

You have no idea who is actually governing you.

And if you've gotten that far, why are you so sure that voting will fix it?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Subtle Hallmarks of Narcissism

I once had a friend who was at least at the sub-clinical level of narcissism (by my amateur reckoning of the matter). He was very clever, and got easily annoyed with people who thought were stupider than him, or who were wasting his time.

One of the things that manifested itself very strongly was that he was enormously sure of his own opinions. People who disagreed were nearly always morons, and were strongly mocked. This wasn't just on objective beliefs either - matters of taste, however arbitrary, were treated with similar absolutism. The gap between his taste and objective quality, in his mind, was zero. This would even occur when extreme positions were taken on otherwise similar issues. Because he was brilliant, his opinion on these matters must be right. He was also very funny, gregarious when he wanted to be, and and a keen reader of other people. I still count him as a friend, so don't get the wrong idea here.

So how do you tell that someone is narcissistic, rather than just stubborn and opinionated? There is, after all, substantial overlap. Do you fail to change your mind just because you believe things very strongly, or do you fail to change your mind because your belief in your own brilliance means that you simply can't contemplate the possibility of you being wrong?

One trait I observed was that when he did change his mind, he rarely acknowledged it for very long (if at all), and then proceeded to proselytize the new view with all the fervor previously given to the old. The self-image must be preserved at all costs. What you believe isn't strictly important. What's more important is that you're a clever, insightful person who makes good choices.

But that, to my mind, wasn't the key giveaway about narcissism.

The guy was a perfectionist in his job, and thus slow to actually complete projects. At some point, he didn't get promoted, and so was leaving the industry to work elsewhere.

Based on a hunch, I asked him at some point what things he had changed his mind on during his time in the job. I had suspected that it would be nothing at all, but that turned out not to be true.

He told me instead that when he started he had thought that good work would get rewarded, and the competent would rise to the top of the profession. But over time he saw that the senior ranks were just filled by rent-seeking people who had got themselves into positions of authority and expropriated smart, hard-working junior people.

Sensing that I might be on to something, I asked him to clarify something else. Had he learned or changed his mind on anything in a way that had caused him to update negatively about himself?

He paused, and considered the question for a few seconds, quite obviously for the first time. 'No', was his answer, which was the truthful one. He thought he was good, and didn't need to BS with false humility.

And I realised this was the crux of the issue. What he had learned, in other words, was that he was too good for the job he was in.

A narcissist can learn, and a narcissist can change their mind. But they can never change their mind in a way that causes them to update negatively about themselves.

If he had failed in the job, the problem must be the job.

And this also helped explain something else that I suspect is common to narcissists, and possibly to low empathy types who lean towards sociopathic behavior (I truthfully can't always distinguish these two cases cleanly, which shows that I'm not a psychiatrist, just an interested amateur - my friend I put mostly just in the narcissist category). Sophisticated narcissists who are low on empathy can be very good at reading other people, and using this to manipulate them. But every now and again, they'll also make spectacular own-goals in social situations that leave everyone else scratching their heads.

When I tallied up what caused these in the case of my friend, the one thing that he wasn't able to see clearly was what other people thought of him. He thought that everyone loved him, whereas a lot of people didn't. He could read people in general, and he could read what other people thought of themselves, but because his own image of himself was so dominant, it prevented him seeing what others thought of him.

I hereby volunteer as a job interview question 'what is something that you changed your mind on in a way that caused you to update negatively about yourself'. It's one that people won't have a canned answer for, and will tell you whether they're actually able to see their own weaknesses, or whether they lean towards narcissistic self-adulation.