David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart Podcast

I have enjoyed the You Are Not So Smart blog for a while, and just discovered that its writer, David McRaney, has a podcast! I’ve been bingeing on it during my long commute to JPL from West LA. He studies delusions – cognitive illusions and other ways we deceive ourselves. Highly entertaining, and educational. If you liked Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you’ll enjoy David McRaney.

In each podcast he interviews an author/scholar who studies some aspect of human thought and behavior, such as the Illusion of Knowledge, or Why We Argue (and how to argue better!).

Toward the end of each podcast, he reads a piece of scholarly literature, and eats a cookie. He invites listeners to submit cookie recipes. It’s a super cute feature, though I’m not nuts about hearing someone talk with their mouth full… Sorry, David! I think Jonathan Haidt had something to say about that, didn’t he? But he ascribed the Disgust reaction more heavily to conservatives, to explain their needing to (for example) forbid anyone from engaging in homosexual sex, so they wouldn’t have to know it was happening, or see it happening, or whatever. Reminds me of modesty rules in Islamic and Haredi societies – perhaps not explicitly encoded in their laws, but they act as if it were because, it being so deeply felt, it must be God telling them.

I was particularly interested in David McRaney’s podcast #5, about Selling Out vs. Authenticity. I felt that his guest was somehow protesting a bit much. From my aging hipster (I’m 56) POV, it seems that the issue is not that an activity must have nothing to do with status seeking or capitalism to be authentic, but that it (at least gives the appearance of) not have ONLY to do with those things. It’s like the distinction between being in the business of making something versus being in the business of making money, and the thing you make being secondary. This is why I am skeptical about private equity – a company is in the business, say, of making envelopes. Maybe it’s a family business, or at least privately held, and pays well, maybe with a unionized workforce. Now a private equity firm takes over, and the emphasis is given over 100% to money – not to envelopes, not to workers. From that point of view, if the entire company is given over to paying off the debt incurred by fees for the private equity managers, that’s perfectly okay. Fire the workers, bust the union, even stop making damn envelopes. None of that matters, because of an equation yielding higher dollars at the end.

While the old company was in business, and wanted to make money and a profit, there was a mix of imperatives – quality product, good wages, profit. It’s metaphorically similar to the difference between a rainforest with indigenous peoples hand-planting, or lots of small farms with a mix of crops, or a megafarm with a monoculture of GMO corn. There are elements of capitalism in all of these, but other things as well, except for the megafarm. Nobody wants to plant a monoculture megafarm for the beauty of the thing.

Is the hipster seeking status with his beard and turntable? Or me, with my typewriters and cameras? Sure – I love it when people think they are cool, and hence I’m cool. Is the guy repairing turntables, typewriters, and cameras hoping to make a profit? Sure. But when a big, public corporation adopts the styles, it’s no longer “cool”, because it is now being promulgated by people who don’t love it, who are just doing simple math, and maximizing profit at the expense of absolutely everything else.

To wind this screed up – I think the gold standard of hipsterdom is a pursuit/product that inherently can’t make enough profit to be interesting to public corporations, but can still make a profit for a small producer. Organic food was going to be that, but they figured out how to do industrial organic, which is why Walmart’s organic initiative was not greeted with huzzahs. And that’s why “artisanal” had to take over – so hard to make a profit at it, and has built into its definition that it’s a small operation with a devoted practitioner – their passion infects their product with a certain quality that’s worth paying for. And Monsanto, or Mitt Romney, simply, by their very nature, can not take it over. It’s inoculated against bigness by inherent limitations on its profit.

Anyway, thanks for the podcast, and good luck. We need more voices like yours. If you don’t mind, I’m going to link to you from my website, peterbasch.com. I have a readership of exactly 0. Well, 1, if I count myself. These posts couldn’t be more private if I wrote them with my own faeces on onion skin and buried them in a wetlands.