Saturday, January 13, 2018

"The eye that looks ahead to the safe course is closed forever."

I've been reading Tim Taylor more, lately. I think I finally realized how good he is. From his 1 Jan post, quoting Adam Smith:

We trust the man who seems willing to trust us. We see clearly, we think, the road by which he means to conduct us, and we abandon ourselves with pleasure to his guidance and direction... We are afraid to follow the man who is going we do not know where.

And from his 1 Jan 2015 post, quoting John Courtney Murray:

The immediate situation is simply one of confusion. One does not know what the other is talking about. One may distrust what the other is driving at. For this too is part of the problem—the disposition amid the confusion to disregard the immediate argument, as made, and to suspect its tendency, to wonder what the man who makes it is really driving at.

In sum, we will not follow a man if we don't know where he is going. We fear he wants to take us somewhere we don't want to be.

In his sidebar, John Cochrane links to Writing Tips for Ph.D. Students (PDF) where he says

A good joke or a mystery novel has a long windup to the final punchline. Don’t write papers like that — put the punchline right up front and then slowly explain the joke.

I understand. Cochrane says to start out by telling people where you are going to end up. I think it's great advice. It reminds me of a something from a book my parents gave me back in 1956, Exotic Aquarium Fishes by William T. Innes. I was seven. It was my favorite book for years and years. The book is gone now; I lost it when we moved. I'll paraphrase.

Innes quoted an old preacher explaining why his sermons were so good:

First I tell 'em what I'm gonna tell 'em. Then I tell 'em. Then I tell 'em what I told 'em.

I still remember that advice. I understand perfectly well. But I cannot do it. I can't put the punchline up front.

I like to present a chain: First this, then this, then that. The "this" and "this" should be obvious, and the "that" is where they lead me. But "that" comes at the end, because it is the destination. It's where I'm getting to. It's not where I'm starting from. Can't help it.

Start with things you know, and keep going until you get to something you don't know. Then see if you can figure it out. That's Descartes. To me, that's science.

If I start with the answer, then you'll know where I'm going right from the start. Maybe you'd trust me more and fear me less, as Adam Smith suggests. Maybe.

I don't think it's fear. Maybe distrust: You don't know where I'll take you, and you don't want to end up in a place you don't want to be. You wouldn't want to be stuck having to say something nice about Donald Trump, for instance. And if I don't put the punchline up front, there is always a chance that you might agree with something I say, and only later find out it says something nice about Trump.

Heaven forbid.

Maybe you wouldn't want to agree that the explosion of Federal debt started long before 1980, or that the gap between productivity and pay opened up well before 1974. That could take you out of your comfort zone. But the economy doesn't care about your comfort zone. And me, I'm with the economy.

If the explosion of Federal debt didn't start well before 1980, the numbers would show it. If pay didn't start falling behind productivity until 1974, the numbers would show it. So would I.

You want to go with 1980 for the explosion of debt, and 1974 for the productivity-pay gap, yeah, that's fine. Look up somebody who puts his answer first and then provides all the evidence that fits.

I'm not disagreeable on purpose. I just tell you what the numbers tell me.

Conservatives spend their time understanding how the economy works. Liberals don't.

Conservatives think the economy is a system, and that if you understand the operating principles you can shoot down the liberals. Liberals secretly think the conservatives are right. They think that if you understand the operating principles of the economy you are led inescapably to conservative conclusions.

In order to avoid the conservative conclusions, liberals avoid trying to understand the economy altogether. They go so far as to deny that the economy is a system. They pretend you can pass laws to create whatever outcomes you want. Need higher wages? Raise the minimum wage. More hours of daylight? Pass a law to make the sun set later.

Here's the thing. Yeah, the liberals are wrong. But they are wrong in thinking that if you understand the operating principles of the economy you are led inescapably to conservative conclusions. That's what they have wrong.

Conservatives get to conservative conclusions because they are conservative. If liberals would begin by accepting that the economy is a system complete with operating principles, and follow the logic where it leads, liberals would get to liberal conclusions as surely as conservatives get to conservative ones.

And then, the discussion would at least have a logical base.

Now really: If I told you the ending at the start, would you have read this thing?

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