Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Young Idealism Is Not Misguided

Over at Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson writes:
Humans have long lives. We are unusually dependent on our parents when young, and we then slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. Most of the time we are aware of this. For example, we count on our peak earning years by taking out loans as young students, and later saving for retirement. And we prefer leaders at those peak ages.
But when people get idealistic, they tend to forget this.Young idealists often ask me and others what they can do to most help the world. Which is a fine question. But such folks tend to be impatient – they want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. So when they consider joining an idealistic project, they focus more on whether the project will succeed than on what skills and contacts they would acquire.
Yet young folks shouldn’t expect to have their biggest influence when young. Yes young folks have higher variance, and so sometimes get very lucky, but they should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years.
I'm a Young Idealist, I guess. I'm 30. And I definitely agree I'm not in my "peak earning" age of 40 or 50. That's my disclosure. Hanson's, though unwritten in his post, is that he's 53 and conveniently smack in the middle of his hallowed peak years.
So of course my gut instinct here is to dismiss what he says as another "the younger generation is a bunch of entitled hippies!" article. That's not why he's wrong, but he is wrong.

His argument boils down to this: "a human has their peak ability to positively change the world when they are in their middle years, and therefore young people should concentrate on getting educated and networking, so that when they become Middle Aged, they have the skills and connections necessary to enact change."

Here's the problem: when I'm 50 I don't really want the world to be the way it is now. I don't want to bide my time and merely learn and network idly for another decade or two while someone else is responsible for enacting positive change in the world. Hanson's generation isn't exactly hard at work on social progress.

Let's say I was the CEO of a small corporation that developed medical devices. Should I invest 100% of my resources in projects with immediate payout? No, because a sustainable revenue stream requires projects with a variety of timelines. Similarly, I shouldn't only invest my company's resources in a project with a huge payout that will take 15 years. In order to grow, I need revenue now, in five years, in ten years, and so forth.
Back to the human case. It would be simultaneously imprudent for Hanson to suggest that a Young Idealist is impotent to enact social change immediately as well as for me to suggest that they should only concentrate on those immediate social programs. Rather, what Hanson should be suggesting to Young Idealists is that they need a portfolio of social changes that they want to see enacted and want to support that fall along a variety of timelines. Let me give an example.
A Young Idealist might take annual summer trips to El Salvador to build houses. They might do evening tutoring for inner city kids (as a Young Idealist, they don't have a family yet to take up their evenings like a Middle Aged Idealist does). They might invest in a Kickstarter program that wants to provide basic chemistry sets to children in schools in developing nations. They might work for a political campaign for a candidate that shares their basic social values. And they can do all of these things now. But in doing several of them now, they are planting the seeds of future social changes they wish to see bear fruit when they are 50. Fast forward 20 years, and the political candidate they supported is a Supreme Court Justice who strikes down a law that has rankled the No-Longer-Young Idealist for a generation. And because of the networking that individual did as a Young Idealist, they are appointed to a political position which expands their own personal influence, right during Hanson's "peak performance" years. A child who got one of those chemistry sets in Africa is now a PhD student at MIT doing research on solar-powered desalinization. Some inner city graduated high school because of the Young Idealist's tutoring, they are now a Young Idealist, pushing for further social change and tutoring kids as well.

Hanson's advice that we squirrel away the money we'd be spending on the "current needy" so that compound interest allows us to better help the "future needy" (while being incredibly cynical) breaks down quickly when one plans to spend that money now to create social changes that help future needy as well. Hanson elicits skepticism in the idea that social changes enacted now will positively impact the future, without justification. However, I'd counter-argue that his position is just as weak: name someone who is making better-than-inflation on their investments in the last 11 years? How many people's 401k's have completely rebounded to pre-2007 levels (or rarer yet, exceeded them)? Has anyone's savings accounts actually resumed 7-8% growth? My savings account can't even keep up with inflation. How am I supposed to turn that into massively-compounded growth that I can unload in 20 years?
And more importantly, that entire argument is completely illogical. If I am to put off charity for 20 years to compound interest, why not put it off 40 years to compound even more? Why not put it off for 100 years? Why not just keep compounding interest on our investments forever so that we are infinitely capable of enacting social change for the needy infinitely far in the future?

One last comment. Hanson totally misguides when he suggests that Young Idealism is sexually motivated:
One plausible explanation is that a habit of extra youthful altruism evolved as a way to signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates. People tend more to form associations when young, associations that they tend more to rely on when old. And potential associates like to see altruism, because it correlates with generosity and cooperation (as near-far theory predicts).
Then what explains extra altruism in the old? And how does he explain youths that are extremely sexually-motivated but not idealistic? Are they outliers? How many outliers is one allowed before statistical significance reverts to anecdote? Can't a guy drop a coin in the Salvation Army bucket without looking to get laid?

The most simple answer is usually the right one. Young Idealists see how messed up the world is and don't really want to grow old in that world. And because Young Idealists are more likely to make bold, sweeping structural changes to society that would harm the status quo, and therefore the status quo works against them to keep them at the margins of influence. The Young Idealist grows into the Old Self-Interested, and the cycle continues.


1 comment:

Robin Hanson said...

I responded here: