November 10, 2022
How do campaign and election dynamics affect the sorts of people that politicians court and the kinds of platforms they build? How well can we really know non-voters' preferences? What would your life be like if your most treasured belief turned out to be false? What are all the ramifications of voting against your own party? To what extent is "political capital" a real, legit thing? Do politicians actually manage to get anything useful done despite the constant flip-flopping of power? How can we expect non-experts to write robust regulations in fields that are extremely complicated? What percent of politicians exhibit higher-than-average levels of the Dark Triad traits? How does becoming a politician change one's personality? How accurate are Bradley Tusk's political personality types (the rare breed, the typical politician, the ideologue, the "I'm just happy to be here", and the corrupt politician)? How similar are state politics to federal politics?
Elizabeth Edwards-Appell is a former New Hampshire legislator who currently works as a political consultant. As a member of the effective altruism movement, her work focuses on policy change to reduce catastrophic risks. She lives near Manchester with her wife, their cat, and their brand new baby daughter.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Elizabeth Edwards-Appell about running for office, rationalism, and her experience as a state representative.
SPENCER: Elizabeth, welcome.
ELIZABETH: Hi, Spencer, thank you so much for inviting me.
SPENCER: Thanks so much for coming on. Now, I think a lot of people I know tend to avoid dealing with politics. They don't run for political office. They don't try to influence politics. I think they just tend to feel a kind of ick factor around it. And one of the reasons I'm really excited to talk to you today is, I think you have a really interesting perspective on politics, and that you can give us some insight on what it's like on the inside, and also opportunities to make it better that people may not be aware of. So with that, let's get started on just talking about your story. How did you decide to run for political office?
ELIZABETH: Back in the day, I was a pretty intense activist. I was very ideologically driven. I thought that the best way to reduce suffering in the world was to fight the government, because I saw the government as a huge cause of suffering in the world — government writ large. So I joined something called the Free State Project, which was an effort to get 20,000 ‘liberty lovers,' as they call themselves, to move to one state. And running for office was really a foregone conclusion for me. It's something I've always been interested in, since I was a little kid. So the first year that I was eligible to do it, I did, which was 2014.
SPENCER: And so how did that end up coming about? How did you actually start running?
ELIZABETH: I knew that I wanted to run as a Democrat, because I'm pro-choice and I wanted to mostly focus on criminal justice reform issues. I'm also married to a woman. So I scoped out the districts, the wards in my city, that were going to have an open seat in 2014 because it's pretty pointless to run against an incumbent. I started going to local Democratic meetings. That's how I found out that this ward, ward four, had an open seat, and I put myself forward to run. It didn't go as smoothly as I was hoping though, because after filing open to the establishment found out that I was a Free Stater and so they found somebody to run against me. So I did end up having a primary campaign for that open seat.
SPENCER: Got it. So then you ended up having a competitor. What did that look like in terms of building your platform and trying to get people to vote for you?
ELIZABETH: I want to make it clear that running for office in New Hampshire — running for state office in New Hampshire — is a lot easier than I think most people are imagining. New Hampshire has 1.3 million people and 400 state representatives. It was a multi-member district, ward four. We had two representatives, which meant that there were about 6,000 constituents I was seeking to represent. The barrier to entry there is quite low and so you get a lot of really interesting people in the New Hampshire state house. That's sort of the polite way of saying it [laughs]. For me, campaigning looked like raising a very small amount of money — we're talking $500 — and going door-to-door. Now going door-to-door is something that's going to be common to any state-level political campaign because it's pretty valuable to get that face-to-face time with constituents. So it was a lot of door-knocking,
SPENCER: If you're only representing 6,000 people, you can actually talk to quite a few people, right in your group?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, and I focused on Democratic primary voters because that's who I needed to vote for me.
SPENCER: Let's talk about that for a second because it's shocking to me how few people vote for things other than the presidential elections. Who are these people that actually bother to go vote for their state legislator or even for their representatives in Congress?
ELIZABETH: Just the most politically involved people. I think some of them are people who really care and who see voting as their civic duty or they see politics as an important avenue for change. (I'm sorry, now my cat is meowing at me.) But then there are people for whom politics is like a hobby.
SPENCER: So how representative are these people's views of the population at large? If you're putting together a political campaign, do you essentially just ignore all the people that are not the sort of people that vote? And if so, how much does that end up changing your strategy?
ELIZABETH: I think, generally, yes, when you're shaping a campaign, you really only want to target voters — you want to target likely voters — and when the primary is going to be a much bigger issue for you than the general, then you're going to want to target primary voters in your party, which narrows things down considerably...really shrinks the Overton window. So that's, I'd say, the biggest effect that jumps out at me and the answer to your question.
SPENCER: Yeah, so you could see two broad strategies. One is you try to take people that are not going to vote in the primary or are not going to vote for their state representative or whatever, and try to convince them to vote. And the other is that you basically try to appeal to the people that are already planning on voting, all these people that vote. And my guess is that the second tends to be much more effective, because it's so hard to mobilize someone to vote who's just not planning on it. Is that accurate?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that's definitely true.
SPENCER: And so then how strange are these people that do vote? My understanding is that, for Congress, it's something like less than 25% of people maybe? Maybe well less? I think it depends on whether it's a presidential year or not. So if you're thinking about running, are you essentially having to make a really unusual platform that actually wouldn't be that broadly appealing because you're just trying to appeal to this narrow group?
ELIZABETH: No, I wouldn't say that necessarily. The things that primary voters care about are going to be very similar to the things that median voters in a general election care about, like Medicare — the stability of Medicare, for example — or good schools, good retirement, those sort of middle-class white bread issues that center around economic concerns. And then for Republicans, it would be things like taxation. Nobody wants their taxes to be raised (not Democrats or Republicans for the most part) but it's really those sorts of economic issues. They're not wild and crazy things or unusual things. They're just people who care enough to take the day off and make it happen.
SPENCER: Because some people argue this is quite a distortionary pressure, that having to appeal just to the voters when it's a really small segment of the population that bothers to vote on these elections. It sounds like you're saying maybe it's not such a big distortion?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think what I'm saying is that the distortionary effects are going to be pretty hard to see because, by the nature of the group, non-voters are not revealing their preferences. It's easy to assume that, yes, of course, Social Security and good jobs and good schools and low taxes are what everybody cares about. It's hard to know, if these non-voters showed up, would they have very different priorities? One example I can think of where the answer would probably be yes, is populations that aren't allowed to vote, period. For example, people who are in prison, probably their chief issue might be improving prison conditions, but we don't hear from them because they can't vote in most states. So I do think that that is distortionary and I could probably come up with other examples similar to that.
SPENCER: One of the questions I have about the fact that only a small percentage of people vote is that some people say that that ends up leading to these voting blocs where certain politicized groups will be like, “Okay, all of us are going to the polls, and then we're going to have undue influence,” because not that many people are bothering to vote. Do you think that's a common thing that happens?
ELIZABETH: I can give you an example in New Hampshire politics, which is that Free Staters group, which I haven't really considered myself to be a part of for quite some time at this rate. Free Staters are much more politically active than the average person and they do have outsized influence as a group. And you can see that in the results of certain town elections and in certain state-level elections as well.
SPENCER: Especially when you're getting really local. If a group that's — let's say, 10% of the population — was able to mobilize everyone to vote, that seems like it could have a massive impact on who wins elections?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I would say that's right. But intra-group coordination is hard. [laughs]
SPENCER: Right, I guess some groups are just naturally more aligned already. If everyone's already communing once a week, it makes it a lot easier to coordinate. Okay, so going back to your story, I think where we left off on your story is you're going around door-to-door. And what ended up happening after that?
ELIZABETH: I ended up winning my primary and I think that's mostly just because I put in a lot more of an effort than my primary opponent. And I knew I probably wasn't going to have a competitive general election. So for me, that's when it really sank in that I was going to have some decision-making power — a relatively small amount — but some decision-making power over other people's lives, and not just my own life. And I really wanted to get my head on straight and use that power the best that I could. I wanted to make sure that good arguments would convince me, and that bad arguments would fail to convince me and so I finally picked up a book that had been on my back burner for a long time and I read Sequences.
SPENCER: For those who don't know, Sequences are a series of blog posts by Eliezer Yudkowski. You can find them on LessWrong. It's a very large number of blog posts but they cover a lot of really interesting topics from Bayesian thinking and probability theory to cognitive biases and there's even ones on things like quantum mechanics.
ELIZABETH: And it was really the sections on cognitive biases — not just learning about cognitive biases, but deconstructing them in yourself — that had a huge impact on me. I ended up realizing that my dogma — my ideology up until that point — was mostly driven by things like confirmation bias, and that it was pretty unjustified, and on very shaky grounds. And I had to start from scratch and construct a new worldview.
SPENCER: What's an example of something that you believed really strongly at the time, where you were totally convinced? And then what happened or how do you think about that example now, in retrospect?
ELIZABETH: I was a very hardcore libertarian and thought that, ideally, the government wouldn't even exist. One example where I think this affected my thinking, especially in office, was gambling legalization. The libertarian perspective is, of course, there shouldn't be any laws against gambling, period; it's a voluntary behavior. But after I got out of that mindset of pitting the government against the individual, and I started caring a lot more about evidence, and also taking into account that people don't endorse the actions that they take sometimes. And how do we think about that? Is that something the individual actually wants if you ask them later? And they said, “No, I really wish I hadn't done that, and I was only doing that because I was addicted,” then to what extent is that actually an expression of their free will? And is this the best thing for human wellbeing, to respect somebody's minute, second-to-second preferences in the moment as they're coming up, when we're affected by all of these external factors that are out of our control? So it really changed my thinking about things like that where somebody's ‘extrapolated volition,' as the LessWrong crowd would call it, is different from what they might impulsively do in the moment.
SPENCER: I think an interesting sign of tribalism is that it's often unwilling to admit that there are trade-offs being made.
ELIZABETH: Big time.
SPENCER: [laughs] In this case, if you legalize gambling, well, some people are going to become addicted and their lives are going to be ruined by it. But I think that in these kinds of examples, the tribal viewpoint wants to say, there's something wrong with that thinking and no, that's not really going to happen, or wiggle its way out of that.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, it's not wanting to concede a single inch of territory because that's seen as weakness by the other side.
SPENCER: Exactly. Okay, so you've just been elected state representative and now you just had this epistemic shattering of your worldview. I don't know how fast it happened. Was it a quick thing? Or was it kind of a slow burn?
ELIZABETH: It basically took place over the two months between the primary election and the general election. By the time I was sworn in, I was a blank slate. I don't know what's true anymore; I could go in literally any direction from here. It was a really weird time in my life.
SPENCER: Wow. And also you were, I imagine, really interconnected with the social group of libertarians. How did that go over? Were they aware that you were having this change of view? Were you still interacting with them a lot?
ELIZABETH: [laughs] I'm laughing but it's actually been incredibly unpleasant. Some of them were aware; I didn't hide that I was going through all of this. But people don't necessarily pay attention to all of the exciting little developments in their acquaintances' intellectual life. I'd say, my closest friends knew but most people weren't really paying enough attention to realize. A lot of people felt betrayed when I did not vote like a purist libertarian. And I got a lot of hate for that. I was able to keep some of my friends, but the slow separation from Free Staters as a social group has been a major force impacting my life. Really, for the last eight years, it's been ongoing, just one piece at a time falling away.
SPENCER: It sounds really tough, like your social world collapses. And you have to rebuild things. So it's not just an epistemic shattering, but a social one as well. I'm wondering how did people interpret what was going on. Because I imagine, “Well, I read this series of blog posts. Now, I don't know what to believe” may not have been very comprehensible to people.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think a lot of people thought I was selling out, or that I was brainwashed by the Democratic party. I definitely didn't vote like a straightforward Democrat. If you try and graph our votes, you can see two broad clusters of little dots. And then there's the Elizabeth dot that's out by itself. So I wasn't really voting like any other member of the House. But some people thought I was brainwashed, or sold out, or whatever. And most of the members of my party didn't see what was happening, or thought I was still internally, a hardcore Free Stater and so they treated me very skeptically when I was in office.
SPENCER: What are some of the lessons that you took away from reading Sequences and, more broadly, just reflecting on your views, that you think are things that everyone should consider?
ELIZABETH: I think that one of the biggest mental shifts was switching from seeing questions as yes or no answers to seeing my own beliefs as a probability. Rather than saying, “I believe this”, or “I don't believe this”, I assign roughly an 80% chance of this being true, which nobody talks like that, first of all [laughs]. So that was a little bit tricky. But really, the big thing that allowed for me was that you can continually update your probability estimate as you're getting new information in. And so as it seems less and less likely, you can slowly adjust that downward, “Oh, actually, I was wrong, I think it's probably closer to 60% chance of being true.” And so it's a lot easier to update your beliefs when you're thinking of things that way, rather than thinking of them as being true or false.
SPENCER: Going from binary thinking to probabilistic thinking is just such an incredible shift. It's so powerful, that once you do it, “Wow, how could I ever think binary again?” and then you realize what an impoverished way of looking at the world it is, to think of everything as true or false.
ELIZABETH: Absolutely. And another thing that had an enormous impact on me was the entry about leaving a line of retreat, where imagine if your most treasured belief, the one that's closest to your heart that you've built the most of your identity around, imagine if it wasn't true and what would that mean for your life? You don't have to live in that world; just pretend for a second and think about what it would be like. And what that did for me was making alternatives thinkable, like realizing that, yes, I could survive that, I could still be in that world, and I could still have a positive impact in that world. I would just need to change what I was doing. And I remember sitting in my car, alone in the parking lot for quite a while thinking, what if all of this is wrong and I moved to New Hampshire and brought my wife and my parents to move to New Hampshire, all for something that isn't really true, or isn't really meaningful in the way that I'd thought it was. And that was kind of a crucial moment for me.
SPENCER: It makes me think about people that leave a cult. And if they'd been in that cult for 20 years, so much of what they care about is wrapped up in that and if they leave, they have to then say to themselves, “Oh, what have I been doing all these 20 years? Was that just a complete waste?” And obviously, your example was much less extreme. A lot of people are involved in political communities and culture; there's more extreme things. You just think about how difficult psychologically it is to admit that a cult you're in maybe does not have the universal truth that it claims. And so this idea of leaving a line of retreat, where you say, “Okay, well, let's assume for a moment, (I'm not going to get evaluated whether I'm in a cult) but let's assume for a moment, that actually the viewpoint of my group is incorrect. How could I build a good life? Or what can my life be like that would be worthwhile and meaningful?” And then, if you can start to see that picture, that at least opens the door to really considering the truth of it. Whereas if you think, “Well, if this is not true, my life is ruined, everything doesn't matter,” then you can't even let yourself consider it; it's too difficult and too painful for a lot of people to go there with their mind.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that's exactly right. And that really leads into the last big thing that was hugely important for me, which was realizing how harmful it is to self-label because it's very epistemically toxic. Thinking of myself as a libertarian, or an anarchist, or an anarcho-capitalist, was shrinking the possibility space, and shrinking the solutions that I could consider the possibilities that I could consider. So whenever there was a problem, it was, well, what's the libertarian solution to this problem? And, really, that's not the question you want to be asking yourself. You want to be asking yourself, what is the best solution to this problem? And so I'm much more careful now with the labels that I apply to myself, because they're so self-reinforcing.
SPENCER: Absolutely. I think it can trigger this tendency to want to avoid being hypocritical. If you say, “I'm an X,” and everyone knows you as an X, and then you say, “But we should use this other policy that's the opposite of X in this particular case,” you feel like you're doing something wrong. Not only are you going against your group, but maybe people are gonna think it's hypocritical of you because you've espoused this worldview. I totally agree, labels have these really dangerous side effects. In general, I try to avoid identifying with any political group and I think that's actually a pretty good life strategy.
ELIZABETH: That does, however, make politics basically impossible. And so if you want to participate in politics to the degree of running for something, then you've got to pick a label, and you've got to embrace it, or else you'll be kicked out, which is unfortunate.
SPENCER: How does that work exactly? Is it just because, with a two-party system, you basically have to convince one of the two parties that you're a good enough member or they're gonna block you out or work against you?
ELIZABETH: Party conformity exerts selection effects at a lot of different stages. First of all, the type of person who would consider running for office is usually somebody who can imagine themselves being either a Republican or a Democrat in the first place. Can you picture yourself playing this role? That's the first question. And then the primary process where you're proving yourself, you're trying to win a popularity contest with other people who belong to that group. And then once you're in office, the pressure to support your party and the party caucuses are very uplifting if you belong to the party and believe in it wholeheartedly, and very isolating if you have doubts or large differences. And so that makes people, I think, select out.
SPENCER: What does that mean, party caucus?
ELIZABETH: This is how it works in New Hampshire and I think it's pretty similar in most other US political bodies. We have two main groups that we vote in. There's the General Assembly, which is everybody, and then there's committee meetings where you're voting among members of your committee. And in both of those cases, prior to a vote, you caucus with your party. All of the Democrats get together and decide amongst themselves what we're going to do. What this usually looks like is, the party leadership hands you a sheet of paper before the General Assembly that says, seven out of eight Democratic members of committee X voted this way. So that's what our position is going to be. And that's what's happening at the most basic level, but it's also a lot of complaining about the other guy. Think of it as Spirit Day in high school where you go, “Rah, rah, we're so great and the other team is terrible.” There's a lot of that energy going on.
SPENCER: So basically, they do a pre-survey of the people in your party?
ELIZABETH: No, no, all the committee votes happen first. And then in New Hampshire, the General Assembly votes on the committee recommendation. So if the committee as a whole says, “No, this is a bad bill,” even then, it still goes to the General Assembly. And the General Assembly has to agree or disagree with the committee assessment. And the party just takes what the members of the caucus did in committee and says, “Well, we're all going to do this now.”
SPENCER: I see. So people had already essentially cast their votes.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, the members of the committee are seen as the most knowledgeable, and they usually are. They spend all of their committee days talking about these issues. And they're the ones who heard the arguments for and against the bill. So if most of the Democrats on the criminal justice committee voted yes, then the leadership recommendation is, we're all going to also vote yes.
SPENCER: Is this why you see such incredible splitting on party lines of votes? Because after these conversations, when the vote happens for all the rest of the members, almost everyone will just vote what was recommended?
ELIZABETH: By and large. Part of it is just that parties genuinely have different positions on different issues, like school choice. That's an important part of the Republican platform. And keeping as much money as possible for the public school system is part of the Democratic platform. And so that's genuinely how they feel. So that's going to be the first cause of parties voting differently. But yes, absolutely. The fact that they're getting their marching orders, so to speak, from leadership immediately before these votes is another thing that is reinforcing that divide.
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SPENCER: Let's say you vote against your own party, what happens?
ELIZABETH: Depends how often you're doing it, and how important the bill was, and whether you did it flagrantly or respectfully. [laughs] I frequently voted against my party. I think I voted against my party recommendations more than any other member, or the second most of any other member of my party. But I was very nice about it; I wasn't throwing it in their faces or anything. And I was judicious about when I would do so. If it was a really important vote, and I just couldn't go along with it, sometimes I would take a walk and not vote at all, go and get a drink of water or something.
SPENCER: Did you get blowback for voting against the party so much?
ELIZABETH: People didn't really complain to me to my face, basically ever. It was all grumbling behind my back. People were really nice to me, again, to my face. And I think part of it is that I just put a lot of effort into trying to be pleasant and well-liked because I knew that I was going to have all of these issues. And so I wanted people to see the real me and not the caricature that they had in their head of an evil Free Stater.
SPENCER: It's funny you're worried that the Democrats think of you as an evil Free Stater. And the Free Staters accused you of being brainwashed by Democrats. [laughs]
ELIZABETH: It was hard times. [laughs]
SPENCER: I can imagine. What do you think the pressure ends up being for representatives? Let's say, they don't want to vote with the party. Do you think that they often feel pressure to (do so) anyway? Or do you think that's easy to resist?
ELIZABETH: Oh, absolutely. You want your friends to like you. You want your colleagues, your co-workers to like you. And also, you get rewarded. The most basic reward is, you don't get primaried. Nobody wants to be primaried. It's unpleasant.
SPENCER: That's when they run someone against you in the primaries, you're saying.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, and I was not primaried, I think, because I was very careful about toeing the line. So, at the most basic level, my party was not so dissatisfied that they felt the need to replace me, which was nice. [laughs] So I did navigate that successfully, but then there...
SPENCER: Because you knew that the Republicans were not going to be able to mount a strong candidate, essentially that pretty much guaranteed you staying in, right?
ELIZABETH: Yeah. Of course, I didn't know that I wasn't going to be primaried until after the filing deadline had passed for my second term. Right up until that moment, there's still a possibility. And then there are other kinds of rewards like getting the committee assignments you want. I never got any of the committee assignments I wanted. I was purposefully shunted off into the least impactful committee because leadership knew that they couldn't trust me to do what they told me to do.
SPENCER: How is it decided who's on what committee?
ELIZABETH: It's leadership.
SPENCER: I see. So what committee were you on?
ELIZABETH: I was on a committee called State Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs, which sounds much more important than it is.
SPENCER: I see. It just basically didn't have much power to do anything.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, it was basically anything that fell under the State Federal Relations. Part of that was resolutions, and resolutions, of course, are not legally binding.
SPENCER: What was a day in the life like? I think people wonder, what do you actually do as a politician?
ELIZABETH: It depends on what kind of office you hold, obviously. Most state legislatures are part-time. I think a pretty typical season is January through June. And your workload is going to depend on how busy your committee is. Some committees, like Finance committee, meet four days a week, and the fifth day is for general assembly. By and large, an average week is at least one day of your committee meeting, plus any other days that you want to go and attend the hearings in other committees, like if you're sponsoring a bill that's being heard by a different committee, and that goes again for the Senate. If you're paying attention to a bill that's currently being heard in the other chamber, then you need to track those and show up for those. And then one day a week on average, we had General Assembly. And so that would look like parking in your free parking spot — one of the perks of the job. I got $100 a year in a free parking spot. [laughs] And you go and you meet your party for caucusing. And then when that's over, you head over to the main chambers. Or, if you're in the majority party, you're already in the main chambers because you get to caucus there by virtue of being in the majority. And they do the Pledge of Allegiance, they do the national anthem, they do a prayer. And then voting gets started. And you're usually there for roughly a work day, six to nine hours depending on how many bills you need to get through. Occasionally, if you're right up against a deadline, they will lock the doors and prevent you from leaving and you can be there until 3 am, but that's extremely rare.
SPENCER: And what are you hearing? People are speaking and then you're voting?
ELIZABETH: Yep, people give speeches. And sometimes you give a speech. And then you press the green button or the red button.
SPENCER: And on the other days when you're meeting with your committee, what's going on there? Are you just discussing the bills? It's just like a group conversation?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, we have two kinds of committee hearings in New Hampshire: public hearings and executive sessions. Anybody can testify at a public hearing, which is a big transparency and accessibility thing in New Hampshire that's pretty cool. And so if somebody has signed up to speak, you let them talk. You have to hear everybody who's come to testify on a bill. (It) usually starts with the main sponsor, then any co-sponsors, then any lobbyists who have opinions, and then members of the general public. That's what a public hearing consists of. Again, this is going to depend a lot on how many bills your committee gets that year or that week. And then later — and this can be a separate day, or it can be on the same day — you have executive session where nobody who's not on the committee is allowed to talk. And you caucus with your party, and then the whole committee discusses it together, and then you hold a vote up or down.
SPENCER: I think it's awesome for transparency that they let anyone speak. But that does raise the question: Did you have a whole bunch of crazy people giving speeches? [both laugh]
SPENCER: Okay, just checking. What were the committee meetings like with the other state representatives? Were people arguing the benefits and problems with bills?
ELIZABETH: Absolutely. And we had some serious personalities on our committee. It was a really interesting group. Not every bill is partisan. And so that's, I think, when the dynamics are most interesting, is when it's half on one side and half on the other side, but it doesn't correlate very strongly with party membership. Those were always interesting conversations. And you make your case and try to convince the other committee members to agree with you.
SPENCER: Essentially, it's verbal persuasion, right? You're using a mix of rhetoric and evidence to try to get them on your side?
ELIZABETH: Yep. I'd say my most exciting day was a day at a committee hearing when I got the whole committee to take my side on a bill unexpectedly. That was a fun day and very empowering.
SPENCER: How'd you do it?
ELIZABETH: I was very prepared. I had printed out information ahead of time for everybody on the committee and put it in front of their chairs. And I had also printed out a separate article that I shared just with my party during caucus, that was from a news publication that leaned left.
SPENCER: Oh, showing that this is a sort of okay Democrat thing to vote for?
ELIZABETH: Yeah. And in the public hearing, I had asked very pointed questions that made it clear that I was already familiar with the topic. And so, right as the executive session began, the chair of the committee turned to me and was like, “I believe Representative Edwards might have something to say to all of us.” So I gave them my reasons for thinking that the bill was a terrible idea and there was a heated conversation afterwards, but at the end, every single one of them who had been originally planning on voting in favor of the bill, voted against it with me. It was 18 to zero.
SPENCER: Wow, well done.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that was intense.
SPENCER: This is an incredibly naive question as someone who's very much not a conflict theorist. If you have two rationalist agents that have different goals, but they need each other's support to get something done, the clear solution is that they should make compromises with each other, right? Like, “Okay, well, you really care about X, I really care about Y, I'll give you more X, you give me more Y,” or “Let's just find a strategy together that we both agree is better than the status quo. Maybe neither of us is that happy with it, but we both think it's better than what's happening now.” And it's my impression that this doesn't happen nearly as much as it should, according to game theory between the left and the right. Everyone's like, “Oh, yeah, education sucks.” Republicans are like, “We need to solve it this way” and Democrats, “We need to solve it that way.” And instead of finding a compromise everyone agrees is better than the status quo, they just butt heads with each other or flip flop on who's in power and undo each other's changes or whatever. Am I reading the situation right? I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think that's right, I think ‘I'll give you X if you give me Y' is much more common among individual actors than it is between group actors. Because, again, inter-group coordination is hard, especially when there's so little trust in politics. It's just a lot easier to make that kind of deal person to person. I think that a huge reason why this happens a lot less than it did, is that everything is so visible now. We have the 24/7 news cycle, we have C-SPAN broadcasting what's going on in the chambers live, and I think that that makes everybody much more worried about giving the appearance of ceding ground, or looking weak, or giving the other side ammunition. So I think that those things have contributed substantially to the calcification of political roles and compromise-making over the past several decades.
SPENCER: How much do you think it is also just a fact of life that Democrats and Republicans just view each other as bad? And you don't make deals with bad people; you don't compromise or work with bad people.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think that's also a big part of it.
SPENCER: One thing that people often talk about in politics is political capital. And people talk about it as though it's a real thing, almost like you have a certain amount you can spend, and then you've got to be careful how you spend it. Could you break this down for us? To what extent is this really a legitimate concept, and then how does it work in practice?
ELIZABETH: I certainly think it's a legitimate concept. Just for a really straightforward example, if I had spent too much of my political capital, or overspent it, I would have been primaried. And I avoided a negative outcome by paying attention to where the boundaries were and how much I could push the line. In regards to that, I think that if you're seen as consistently outside the Overton window, like you're always asking for things that nobody else wants, then you're just seen as a weirdo and not one of us, and somebody to humor rather than pay attention to. I think there are definitely guardrails. And I think political capital is a useful and real mental construct.
SPENCER: Let's break down what it involves. On the one hand, you don't want to do too many things that make you seem weird, because then maybe you'll not be taken seriously. Another factor might be calling in favors or something like that. You can ask favors occasionally, but not too much. Is that an aspect of it?
ELIZABETH: Yes, that's definitely an aspect of it. And another part of it is just how much other people like you. Some of that is going to be affinity (how similar to them you seem). And people are more tolerant of those they like, more intolerant of people they don't like. And so, doing things that make you popular, making donations to other people's campaigns, showing up for events and smiling and being gracious and fun to be around and all that stuff. Those are also ways of gaining political capital, I would say.
SPENCER: And is there also an aspect of pleasing the party leadership, so you basically have to stay in their good graces?
ELIZABETH: Yes, definitely.
SPENCER: Otherwise you get on a bad subcomittee — [both laugh]
ELIZABETH: Yeah, definitely. I've talked to a few other people who are similar to me, who have also done politics, and it seems like everybody basically converges on the same strategy, which is, you pick the things that you think you can realistically affect. Some of those might be stretch goals, but you could reasonably affect them if you try really hard and everything goes your way — things that are important, things that you care about, ideally things that fit in with how you've portrayed yourself to others and to voters. And you really just focus on those, and you're only willing to spend your political capital on those things. And for everything else, you go along to get along, and you use all of the other issues as opportunities to shore up your relationship with other actors, with members of your party, groups you need to satisfy, party leadership, things like that.
SPENCER: I imagine this creates a lot of false sense of everyone unanimously agreeing. Imagine you have 10 people, and they all each care about mainly one thing, and they're just saying, “Okay, I'm just gonna vote with everyone else on the other stuff to preserve my political capital.” Everyone looks around, (it) looks like everyone agrees.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think this can happen on hobbyhorse issues where one or two members of the party have very strong feelings on something and everybody else is just like, “Okay, sure. Cool.”
SPENCER: They don't wanna be the one to stand up against it.
ELIZABETH: Yeah. And it doesn't seem as important to them or something. So I think maybe in that situation, where it's ultimately a small issue, that it only really matters to a couple people, those are places where it can create a false sense of sameness and of conformity. But, by and large, the ‘identity to believe' track is very strong. You just take on the beliefs of the party, because that's who you're around all of the time. And those are the arguments that you hear, those are the people you trust, and the people you distrust are saying the opposite thing so obviously, they're wrong.
SPENCER: So it's actually true conformity, you don't need to pretend. [both laugh]
ELIZABETH: I think it's, by and large, true conformity, yeah. And you see this a lot. You see this if you track the votes of people who were sort of nonconformist at the beginning, almost all of them trend towards conformity with their party over the course of years.
SPENCER: Another thing I wonder about is whether there's sort of game theory reasoning that happens, where, suppose that you're on a particular committee and you have to vote for something; if you think that eight out of 10 of the other people are going to vote in favor, you voting against doesn't help your cause anyway. You're going to be outvoted. Game theoretically, if there's a cost to going against a group and there's no benefit, because you know you're gonna get outvoted, you might as well vote in favor of what the group says, right?
ELIZABETH: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
SPENCER: So you only want to vote against the group, game theoretically, if you think that the group might be split.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that's true. A lot of times people have a really deep-seated feeling about something where it just feels wrong to express an opinion that isn't their own.
SPENCER: Right. So it's kind of a protest vote.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, yeah.
SPENCER: Right. But just on a pragmatic level, these voting systems do kind of incentivize you — given that there can be a political capital cost going against the group — it kind of incentivizes you to vote with the group, except when you think the group is going to be quite split, and you might actually have a chance of tilting the balance over to the other side.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that's 100% true. And in a body as large as the New Hampshire legislature, your vote is going to make a difference almost never, maybe once a year, out of 900 things you're voting on. The real ways that you influence the outcome is by sponsoring bills, co-sponsoring bills, showing up in committee, and convincing the committee to do something about bills that you feel strongly about, and also giving speeches to the full body prior to a vote because those can sometimes sway people.
SPENCER: That number, you said you might vote on 900 things. It's a little bit shocking to me. What is there to vote on? Why are there so many things to vote on? [both laugh]
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I'm not, if anything, underestimating the yearly load.
SPENCER: I think there's a lot of room for making things better in society, but at some level, everything's already regulated. So what are all these votes about?
ELIZABETH: Well, certainly in New Hampshire, everything is not already regulated, let me tell you. We don't even have seatbelt laws in New Hampshire; it's an unusual state. I think thinking ‘what is there left to do' is the wrong way to get the correct intuition about the number of bills. The right way to think about it is, there are 400 representatives and 24 senators, and they all have opinions. And so of course, you're gonna get roughly 1000 bills, right?
SPENCER: So there's just people trying to influence things that they have an opinion about, essentially.
SPENCER: So one view on politics is to say, mostly — even though people disagree with each other, there's tribalism — mostly people want things to get better. And so, on average, we should expect as regulations passed, maybe sometimes they'll be taking a step backwards. But on average, they should be making things better. People do want society to improve. On the other hand, the cynical view is, “Well, actually, we're just kind of randomly sloshing things around. We had some regulations here, we had some there; it doesn't actually make things better, on average.” And I know what you would say to that when you were a hardcore libertarian, but I'm curious where you sit on that now that you have maybe multiple perspectives that you're taking on things?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think the insights from public choice theory are still really valuable. A lot of laws concentrate gains and socialize harms. For regulations that fall into that trap, those are all going to slowly degrade quality of life, for literally everybody. And the people who benefit the most from them are going to have the most incentive to make them happen or keep them in place. So not to be too dour about things.
SPENCER: Just to unpack that for a moment, is the basic idea that if you have, let's say, 100 people who would benefit from regulation, they might push a law for it, because it really, really matters to those 100 people. And if that regulation costs everyone else three cents, there's nobody going to be fighting hard against it because no individual person is worth fighting against three cents. And so essentially you get more and more of these regulations that help a small number a lot, arm everyone a tiny bit, and nobody kind of opposes them but there are people who support them. Is that right?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that's 100% true.
SPENCER: The way you describe it, it sounds like you think this is just incredibly common. Is that accurate?
SPENCER: Yikes. And what about the other stuff? This stuff that's not happening, where people are just really trying to improve society?
ELIZABETH: I think that those kinds of regulations can absolutely feel like somebody trying to improve society. I think that a lot of occupational licensing laws fall into that category, where people who do a certain profession benefit from keeping other people from being able to join easily and keeping the bar to enter the labor market high. And the arguments that they make are sometimes true, and sometimes outweigh the costs. I think it can be too hard to evaluate whether your surgeon is skilled enough, and that there should be occupational licensing laws around who's allowed to perform surgery. But then there's things like hairdressers where the average person can tell.
SPENCER: Well, theoretically, they could cut your throat with their scissors. It's a pretty dangerous profession. [both laugh]
ELIZABETH: Yeah, yeah. But I think that a lot of those laws where there's concentrated benefits and socialized costs, it's not always clear whether you're dealing with a situation like that, that is nonetheless worth it because there's also these socialized benefits to it. And so people who advocate for these things aren't doing it because they're paid off or whatever — by the surgeons or by the hairdressers — they're doing it because they believe in public safety.
SPENCER: Right. So what it feels like on the inside is, I'm helping society, even if in practice, what you're doing is benefiting a smaller number at the cost of a larger number.
SPENCER: And I think that's important, right?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, 100%. And it can be hard to know whether something is ultimately benefiting society. You've talked about the issues with the scientific studies on your show and the replication crisis. Sometimes you need to try a policy out, that seems like a good idea on its surface, and then study the effects really carefully to know if it actually did what it was supposed to do, and you have to be willing to pull back. But then by that point, you have a constituency who wants to keep it in place. So it can be pretty hard.
SPENCER: One thing that's always struck me about regulation is just how ridiculously hard it is to do well. I feel like the level of difficulty is way underestimated. If someone said to me, “Hey, Spencer, go design financial regulations that will prevent the next financial collapse. And by the way, every financial firm is going to have expensive lawyers trying to get around everything that you put in place, so that it minimizes the effect it has on them. And also, there's gonna be all these really clever financial engineers trying to cook up new ways to take on all kinds of risks that nobody's even thought of yet.” Holy crap, that's a hard problem! And yet we expect a group of people who are non- experts in finance to be able to write, on a piece of paper, a set of rules that prevent it? That just seems a priori quite implausible to me. What's your thought on that?
ELIZABETH: I think that's definitely right. And that's why I think it's important for policymakers to listen to experts, but that is also very rocky ground because, first of all, experts can disagree with each other. But then also, just because you're an expert in something doesn't mean that you're well-calibrated or particularly truth-seeking or anything like that. So yeah, it's hard.
SPENCER: You see this in legal cases where, a lot of times, if we have a high-profile legal case, they'll bring experts, but they're able to find an expert on either side saying essentially contradictory things to each other. [laughs] Not to say that there's no such thing as scientific consensus. Obviously, there is, and that's something we should take seriously. It's just that, surprisingly often, you have to go back to this question of “Okay, but what the expert said? What exact questions do we trust them on?” Because there's this delicate thing where maybe within their area of expertise, they're trustworthy, but it can be hard to tell, “Oh, actually, we're just outside their area of expertise now, and now they're just speculating.”
ELIZABETH: Yep, that's right.
SPENCER: Okay, so what about good regulation — when a regulation improves society — how does that come about?
ELIZABETH: I think that some of the most robust regulations — the ones that have stood the test of time — are ones that don't try to prevent harms from occurring, but try to prevent widespread bad things, like regulations that target environmental problems and pollutants and things like that. I think the EPA overall has been very successful. Our water and our air in the US is so much cleaner than it was 50 years ago and I think that's largely due to regulation.
SPENCER: My understanding is there's actually quite a bit of evidence that air quality has a huge impact on human health. So that might have been really beneficial.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think that's right.
SPENCER: It seems like there's certain basic things...like a clear whim. For example, a company shouldn't be able to sell you something that's not what they claimed. If they're selling you a pill, it better be what they say is in the pill, right? But then when you get to the really detailed stuff, I think that's where I become more skeptical. Where, you need 100 pages to even explain what you're allowed to do and what you're not allowed to do. But isn't a really smart set of lawyers gonna be able to find weird loopholes in that? They're much, much harder to control when you have to get to that level of granularity.
SPENCER: All right, let's talk about politicians. I think people tend to hate politicians? Is that fair? [both laugh]
ELIZABETH: Yes. It is not a word with positive connotations.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think that's fair. What's your view of politicians now that you've interacted with them?
ELIZABETH: To be clear, I was mostly interacting with other people who were elected in the small state of New Hampshire, people who are more average than I think your mental picture might conjure up when you think of politicians. Now, I have interacted with Congress people and senators and governors, unfortunately. [laughs] I think that, for the most part, politicians are just people. And them just being human beings is sufficient to explain why they're bad at their jobs sometimes, because humans are not truth-seeking machines. All of our brain architecture is for survival and reproduction in the ancestral environment, not decision-making for millions of people. So politicians are scope-insensitive; they're all of the things that everybody else is. I think that thinking of politicians as a different breed, is just quite right. I think that one way in which they sort of systematically differ from the public is they tend to build very thick skin over time; they're less sensitive to what people think of them. And I do think that there is some selection, there's non-zero selection for sociopathic traits. I would say that the higher you go, the more likely you are to get this. And that, maybe in federal office, roughly 10% of people in office might be high enough on dark triad characteristics to be characterized as a sociopath. But it's nowhere close to generalizations like, “Oh, all politicians are evil,” which is definitely something I've heard quite a lot from libertarians.
SPENCER: Just for those who aren't familiar, the dark triad is a cluster of three correlated traits. If I recall correctly, I think it's manipulativeness, callousness and narcissism? Is that right?
ELIZABETH: The dark triad is narcissism, machiavellianism (which you might also call manipulativeness) and psychopathy.
SPENCER: I think you're saying that maybe it's significantly more common than the general population. But still, a minority of politicians are dark triad-y, even at the higher levels?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think that's right. And politicians aren't the only group that attracts, or it's not the only career that has this higher population. It's also CEOs (and speaking of surgeons), surgeons, and police officers are all professions that also have higher-than-average numbers of people with those traits.
SPENCER: I'll just point out, it's also a spectrum. So that suggests that even if someone's not full-blown — there might just be a correlation there of tending to be above average. But I am a little surprised that the number's only 10% for the highest offices. I get for state representatives and stuff like that — I wouldn't expect much effect. But when you get to senators and presidents, I actually would expect a lot more narcissism, in particular. Not so much sociopathy, not so much lack of compassion or empathy, but more narcissism. So I'm curious, would you make an exception for the highest offices and narcissism in particular? Or do you still hold to the 10%?
ELIZABETH: Sure, for narcissism, but for the whole package, one thing that's selecting against it is that you need allies to get to high office, and you need people to like you, and a lot of people who are high on dark triad traits, they can put people off and they can make enemies without intending to or without realizing the full consequences of doing so. So I think that it's not as useful a cluster of traits to have as you might think it would be, to reach high office because politics, at its base, requires a lot of cooperation.
SPENCER: I guess I suspected that narcissism tends to be common in high office for two reasons. One is selection effect. Who wants to be in the center of attention? I'm not talking about a local representative where most people don't know who you are. And so I'm talking about, you're a senator, you're being talked about, you're being written about in the paper, and so on. That, I think, is just going to select for narcissism, as to who's gonna find that appealing. And second, when you're in a position of power like that, people tend to suck up and I think that tends to make people more narcissistic. I think you'll see this with celebrities. Once they become a celebrity, it tends to shift their personality. When everyone's telling you you're amazing all the time and nobody's disagreeing with you openly — at least only behind your back — that changes who you are. So I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that.
ELIZABETH: Yeah. I think if we're only talking about narcissism, then yeah, that's right. It's sort of the full cluster that I think is not extremely common.
SPENCER: So not necessarily callous or manipulative or whatever. There's this book called “The Fixer” by Bradley Tusk, which is about a guy who works in politics in a bunch of different ways. He helped mayors and other different politicians. And then he started working with startups to try to help them get through regulation that might affect their businesses. (I've never heard anyone mention this but I thought it was super interesting.) He actually has a personality typing system for politicians that he developed based on his experience working with politicians. And he puts them into five categories. And they're not pleasant categories. But I'll just run through them really quickly and see your reaction. If I remember correctly, his five categories are: the corrupt politician; this would be someone who takes bribes and is basically just about enriching themselves. Thankfully, I don't think we see this too often in America; occasionally we do, but I think certainly in some countries, it's sort of standard that politicians are all funneling money into their pockets. Then we have the narcissist, which he says is the most common type of politician; you can model them as, the thing that they most want is praise and attention at all times, and staying in their position of power. So that's how they're making most of their decisions. Then he's got what he calls the happy-to-be-here, which is basically politicians that just want to be in the office, they don't actually want to do anything. So once they're there, they're like, “Okay, I'm good.” And they just basically have no goals of any kind. His fourth type is the ideologue, which would be someone who is a true believer in some system, which is what you were originally when you got into politics. Is it fair to say? You have a theory you believed about the world, and you really want to execute on it. He said, for example, I believe that Bernie Sanders is an example of that. And then the last type is what we call the pragmatist, which is someone who's like, “Okay, there's certain specific things I want to achieve before I leave office. I'm going to work to achieve those things, and make a lot of compromises and sacrifices to get there and make deals with people, and I'm gonna try to get these three things done” or whatever. Anyway, that's kind of how he thinks about it. Is that overly cynical, do you think?
ELIZABETH: That doesn't sound too terribly far off to me.
SPENCER: Okay. That's interesting.
ELIZABETH: Another thing that I think people should know about politicians is that they can be just as incompetent as anybody else at doing their job. It doesn't have to be down to malevolence or bad incentives. It can just be sheer, goofy, absent-mindedness that can drive some policy decisions, which is sort of depressing, I would say.
SPENCER: Like someone forgets to file something, or what are we talking about here?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, yeah. One story that I think is pretty illustrative is, I was hanging out in the criminal justice and public safety committee room because there were a lot of bills there that I cared about. During the Executive Session, like I said earlier, only committee members are allowed to talk so I was not allowed to talk, I was only there to observe. They brought up a bill that they were going to vote on. The chairman shuffled through the sack and pulled it out and said, “Okay, HB 285, oh which one was this again?” And somebody else on the committee summarized the bill in such a way that made it sound like it did the exact opposite of what the bill would do, like the perfect inverse of what the bill would do.
SPENCER: And this was just a mistake? They didn't mean to do this?
ELIZABETH: I don't think they meant to do it at all. I think they either misspoke, or misremembered — probably misremembered — because they didn't care enough to get the details right. And I am sitting there, waiting for somebody to correct him because this is literally the opposite. Nobody corrected him. And the chairman goes, “Oh, yeah, yeah, that one,” and said, “Does anybody have any comments?” Nobody had comments. He said, “Okay, let's vote.” And they voted on the bill, thinking that it did the opposite.
SPENCER: Oh my God, were you just bursting at the seams?
ELIZABETH: I didn't like the bill and I wanted it to fail. And they voted it down. And so...
SPENCER: [laughs] So you're just like, “Okay, they're incompetent.” Wow, that's intense.
ELIZABETH: I was ‘shookt,' as they say. [laughs]
SPENCER: Well, that's true in every field, right? There's incompetence that occurs. There's mistakes, silly mistakes, I think you just expect better when it's on behalf of everyone else. But yeah, one of the lessons of my life so far is that, whenever I investigate an area of human endeavor, I discover I'm shocked at how things actually operate. It's usually much more duct-taped together than you'd wish.
ELIZABETH: I think anybody who's listening to this podcast, who has wondered to themselves, “Could I do better than my elected representatives?” The answer is yes, you absolutely could. It's not that hard to be better than replacement. Even just scope sensitivity, on its own, would be a massive improvement.
SPENCER: You wanna explain that for a moment?
ELIZABETH: It's basically the idea that we're not computers beyond the number four or something. It's hard to hold a number in your head and imagine what it means really concretely. Ideally, something that affects 1000 people should matter exactly 10 times more than something that only affects 100 people. But our brains don't work like that...mostly just sounds like big numbers. And somebody who is aware that our brains do that, and intentionally treats things that affect vast numbers of people as higher priorities than things that only affect smaller sums of people — I'm thinking specifically of pandemic response and pandemic preparedness issues right now — but this touches on a lot of issues of policy. Somebody who really treats those as, as important as they are, and prioritizes accordingly, would be a huge improvement on a lot of congress people. Let me just say that.
SPENCER: So would you encourage people listening today, who are interested in politics, to actually consider running for office?
ELIZABETH: I would. I think a lot of the things that made it unusually difficult for me simply don't apply to most people. Most people aren't part of a notorious activist group right now and they're not going to have that baggage weighing them down, just as an example. I think that we need better representation. And I am personally happy to take calls with people who are thinking, “Maybe I should run for office,” and helping them figure out if it would be a good personal fit or not. And I am going to say this goes double for any women who are listening, because women tend to disbelieve in themselves when it comes to this endeavor.
SPENCER: If it's good with you, we'll put your contact info in the show notes. So anyone who's even just thinking, “Hey, maybe I should run for politics one day,” can get in touch with you. Does that sound good?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, absolutely.
SPENCER: That's awesome. And one thing that has come up throughout this conversation is, you were a state representative, which is kind of a smaller version of politics. But my understanding is that you understand the federal level as well. Do you want to just comment on that, how generally applicable some of things we've talked about today are?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I would say I understand state politics better than I do federal politics. But some of the work that I've done since leaving the New Hampshire State House has touched on federal issues and federal elected officials. And I also know people who work in federal politics and have a pretty broad network. Overall, I'd say, most of the things that I've said that are not New Hampshire-specific apply to US politics, and to a degree, even to politics in other countries.
SPENCER: Elizabeth, this was so interesting. Thank you so much for giving us the inside scoop. I think it's so hard to really hear what these things are like because people in politics don't want to talk about it.
ELIZABETH: I appreciate you having me on, Spencer.
JOSH: A listener asks, what's your opinion about tools like affirmative action — as opposed to something that's more merit-based — to counterbalance inherent biases or power imbalances?
SPENCER: I think one can make the argument that there can be really bad second-order effects, when there's clustering of bad outcomes. If you have a neighborhood where there's very little opportunity, that seems much worse, in a lot of ways, than if lack of opportunity is peppered around a much greater area. Because there's these negative second-order effects of like, oh, you're in an area where there's no opportunity anywhere around and everyone's in a bad situation. And I think, just to use that as an example where, to give someone a bonus because they come from one of those neighborhoods — in terms of getting a good education, let's say — that can have really positive second-order effects that you wouldn't get if you took someone who was from a different neighborhood and let them in. I think that kind of argument can be used to help justify things like affirmative action. So I think there may be some real benefit to thinking in that way. That being said, I think obviously, we have to be careful about making sure that we don't give opportunities to people that don't need them. If you want to do affirmative action, I think you just make sure to do it to people that need it the most, not giving it to people who happen to meet the criteria technically, but are actually least needing of it. You just want it to go to the people where you're really gonna get those really positive second-order effects for society and where that person is going to be really strongly benefited.
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