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Problem solving is a journey, not a destination.

Problem solving is a journey, not a destination.

Our home is one with many rituals. Breakfast is served at my house at 0700. While Nicole is making the meal, I am making cappuccinos. When the call to breakfast is sounded, Zev (10), who has been up for at least an hour by 0700, must drag himself away from his books to trundle outside and get the newspapers. Yes, you read that right, newspapers. We are old-fashioned. Zoe (7), our only evening person, puts a brave face on each morning and pretends that 0700 is a totally normal time to be awake. Thank you for trying so hard to fit in Zoe. We appreciate it!

Among our morning rituals, which includes a friendly wager on who can best guess the temperature delta between Baghdad and Phoenix (a Zoe invention), is my scoffing at or opining about the foolishness that fills the pages of our papers. This morning, with a mouth full of bagel, I saw this headline Lost your Job? You shouldn’t Have to Lose Your Home. I let out a grunt I suppose, because Zev immediately inquired as to what I had read. I gave him the universal sign for, “hold on, I’m chewing”, and continued reading. Once the blockage was cleared and I had acquired a bit more context from the commentary I read Zev the title.

His response was typical of a child, “What’s wrong with that, Dad? It sounds pretty good to me. I mean, the economy is really bad with COVID and all.”

“Sure”, I say. “But where is the money going to come from?”

I went on to explain that the plan was to add an obligatory unemployment insurance tax to mortgages. While it is being sold as, “Paid for by the lenders”, that was obviously a canard. Those fees will be passed on to borrowers. It would raise borrowing costs and borrowers would have no option because it is supposed to be universal. This means that seniors who don’t work and thus could never benefit from it would pay, people with good careers would pay, people with poor careers would benefit. Why punish people for being old, or for working hard and choosing promising careers? I added an anecdote about a group of actors I used to play poker with who would talk about almost nothing else but ways to maximize their access to unemployment checks. The trigger for this policy benefit kicking in and covering your mortgage is that you began receiving unemployment benefits.

Zev, ever modest, said, “One of the best parts of my personality is that I always try to understand others’ point of view, even when I disagree with them.”

He was unconvinced I guess.

My pontifications continue daily until 0730 when it is time to go for my morning walk. Normally I meet a colleague during the walk, but due to a little COVID related drama, I was walking solo this morning. The route is yet another ritual. I walk past the same houses, at the same time, every weekday. Weekends have different rituals. Try to keep up!

On my walk this morning I was trying to understand the motivation of the people who would, like my son, think this insurance scheme is a good idea. The authors of the commentary literally work for the firm, so their motivation is manifest. The firm is hoping to generate billions in profits. Their avarice is clear and arguably laudable. They are also lobbying in Washington. This venality is less laudable than their greed, but perhaps there is more to lobbying than the unalloyed bribery I see. How could they think this scheme would pay off? Hiring Laffer and Dershowitz (the authors of the commentary) must be expensive. The Washington lobbying firms are not cheap. Why would they think we would purposefully sign up for this obvious transfer that benefits insurance companies and lenders? If it were optional, I would support it of course. But, then it would be a nightmare to underwrite as an insurance product. Only people who expect to get unemployed would sign up and the costs would be prohibitive. It only works as a tax on all loans and the primary beneficiaries are the insurance companies who generate the fees and the bondholders who use it as a way to raise interest rates while simultaneously reducing non-performing loans in their portfolios. A win-win for them. The serially unemployed, particularly those with large incomes but low work output, would benefit a lot. Unemployed people without a mortgage would lose enormous benefits. Larger benefits would accrue to the wealthy with their larger mortgage payments. The losers would be people who made a lifetime of good choices (modest homes, no debt, those with in demand skills) as well as the elderly who do not work. We want to encourage good choices, don’t we? I started playing out the secondary and tertiary effects and then I realized that was not the sales pitch. My son explained it to me and I missed it.

People losing their homes is bad. If this makes it happen less, it must be good. — Zev

Now, I don’t mean to beat up my son. He is 10. Misaligning incentives, underpricing of risk, and misallocating cost effects are not well understood by him. What about everyone else? I started to think they might not be considering it either. Then, I had this flash. People might consider problems as a what, rather than as a collection of causes and effects, a how. You can ameliorate a what by getting rid of it. Once you’ve removed it from the board, it’s gone. Not so with a how. How’s, once learned, can always be repeated. Problem solving, like life, is a journey. Solutions are not a series of destinations. They are a series of little tweaks to behavior that produce slightly better outcomes than the behavior they replaced. Big changes lead to unintended consequences. They should be discouraged. Furthermore, obliging people to buy something sold by a private firm is basically theft. Theft is bad. Don’t steal.

Let me disabuse you of any parallel between this and automobile insurance, in case you were thinking about that. Automobiles create an externality by my driving a 1000 kilogram hunk of steel around in public at 60km/h. I might smash you. I might not be able to cover your costs. Should I lose my home due to lack of payment I bear the vast majority of the burden. The lender is protected by gaining access to the underlying asset, the home. No one gets mauled but me. That is a well aligned incentive structure.

Why then, I asked myself, is it that all these rich (and presumably smart) people I am surrounded by are so susceptible to this sloganeering? Why do these saccharine sweet platitudes resonate when they are so obviously fallacious to me? Maybe I’m an idiot? This certainly cannot be discounted. I have several data points that suggest otherwise, but data is not the plural of anecdote. What other alternatives might be at play here? I wonder if the jobs necessary to live in these million dollar homes might select for a certain type of training that prevents people from the more holistic thinking that leads me to be so doubtful?

Iain McGilchrist wrote about these topics in his book The Master and His Emissary. It is an exploration of the lateralization of the brain and the effects of that which we see manifest in the world around us. Could this susceptibility to sloganeering be but another example? The left hemisphere classifies, categorizes, and defines abstractions of the things it sees around itself. It has a very narrow beam of focus. It does not apply a lot of synthesis to these classifications. That is the job of the right hemisphere. These upscale homes, select for higher incomes, higher incomes select for more university education, university education inculcates the regurgitation of facts and the following of rules. The competitive nature of admission into these fancy institutions of higher learning optimizes almost perfectly for this rule based approach to life (4.0, Social Justice essay, start an African charity, be captain of obscure sports club, etc). The days when the Socratic method reigned on most campuses are gone. Many ideas are off limits today lest you commit a microaggression. The intolerance of heterodox ideas is now a thing of legend in the academy. Are we inadvertently atrophying our synthesis muscles through lack of challenging discussion?

McGilchrist, asked a provocative question.

How was it that the French Revolution, executed in the name of reason, order, justice, fraternity and liberty, was so unreasonable, disorderly, unjust, unfraternal and illiberal? For the same reason that other grandiose projects originating in the rationalising of the left hemisphere have ended up betraying their ideals. In accordance with the left-hemisphere preoccupation with what a thing is, rather than what manner of thing it is (what rather than how), ideas, concepts, acts become neatly reified (the familiar statuesque figures of Reason, Justice, Liberty and so on), and the way in which they are actualised in the messy human context of the lived world gets to be neglected. Ends come to justify means. — McGilchrist

If the ends have come to justify the means among people who are ensconced in or inculcated by the academy that would be quite informative. Zev’s simple formula would be satisfied readily and the model would extend broadly. I would argue that ends are an illusion. As we move through time, as a cork floats on an endless stream, there is no point of stasis. No end, thus no ends. There are only means.

Nothing ever is, everything is becoming — Heraclitus

How we proceed is what matters. Abrogating our principles in a vain attempt to create a moment in time that is perfect will be disaster. That moment will disappear as soon as it arrives. A land devoid of principle will be all that remains.

McGilchrist makes another interesting observation here.

Structures which used to provide the context from which life derived its meaning have been powerfully eroded, and seepage from one context into another produces bizarre, sometimes surreal, juxtapositions which alter the nature of our attention to them, facilitating irony, distance and cynicism at the expense of empathy. In this way the experience of life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries reproduces many of the experiences until now confined to schizophrenics. At the same time people with schizoid or schizotypal traits will be attracted to, and be deemed especially suitable for, employment in the areas of science, technology and administration which have, during the last hundred years, been immensely influential in shaping the world we live in, and are, if anything, even more important today.

Thus a culture with prominent schizoid characteristics attracts to positions of influence individuals who will help it ever further down the same path. And the increasing domination of life by both technology and bureaucracy helps to erode the more integrative modes of attention to people and things which might help us to resist the advances of technology and bureaucracy, much as they erode the social and cultural structures that would have facilitated other ways of being, so that in this way they aid their own replication.

The left hemisphere prefers the impersonal to the personal, and that tendency would in any case be instantiated in the fabric of a technologically driven and bureaucratically administered society. The impersonal would come to replace the personal. There would be a focus on material things at the expense of the living. Social cohesion, and the bonds between person and person, and just as importantly between person and place, the context in which each person belongs, would be neglected, perhaps actively disrupted, as both inconvenient and incomprehensible to the left hemisphere acting on its own. There would be a depersonalisation of the relationships between members of society, and in societys relationship with its members. Exploitation rather than co-operation would be, explicitly or not, the default relationship between human individuals, and between humanity and the rest of the world. Resentment would lead to an emphasis on uniformity and equality, not as just one desirable to be balanced with others, but as the ultimate desirable, transcending all others. As a result individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, resentful of, one another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, and between such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people.


He describes a world that is losing its tether. Rather than the world being observed by man as a collection of complete ideas in their context, the gestalt is replaced with instantiations of classified abstractions. The mind, so trained, re-presents what it observes rather than just being present in the world. The individuality is lost. The classifications are what is left over. Perhaps my revulsion at this insistence to reduce everything to some classification led me to post that sign in my yard that says, Groups Divide Us, We are Individuals.

Another ritual demands my attention. It is time for the evening cocktail.

Your obedient servant,