Archive for May 2014
Innate talent really does determine a huge portion of how good we are at various tasks. But for the most part we are better off ignoring this fact.
There is a large innate component to intelligence, but kids deciding it is cool to succeed in class effortlessly based off of smarts leads to big wastes of potential later on. The problem is that your innate ability, or talent, is unchangeable by definition. But the amount and type of effort you spend on something is under your control.
I’ve been thinking that if I want to become excellent at ultimate Frisbee, it would have to be as a handler rather than a cutter, because cutters can benefit enormously from the innate talent of height and high sprint speed*. But of course, in addition the innate components, a huge amount of being a good cutter is about deliberate practice. In fact, this dominates to such an extent that some of the very best deep threats have no height advantage at all. My wife can beat people deep all day, despite being 5 inches shorter than me and a bit slower. In the NFL, we have the examples of 5’6’’ wide receivers like Wes Welker becoming stars. When I say I can’t be a great cutter because I lack the height and sprint speed, it is just an excuse for my current mediocrity- one that holds me back from putting in the effort necessary to get better.
I just attended the American Economic Association’s conference on teaching. I have thought that I will never be a truly great teacher because I lack natural charisma and extroversion. But two people who seem to be truly great teachers, Dirk Mateer and Kenneth Elzinga, insisted at the conference that they are naturally introverted nerds too, and that they got to be as good as they are through practice and a constant focus on how they can become better. Elzinga said that his college speech professor told him to provide updates on how close he was to the end of the talk, “in order to give hope to the audience”; and that no one else received the same advice, implying he was the worst in the class. But despite a complete lack of natural speaking talent, he became a great teacher through outworking and out-thinking other professors. My favorite example of something no one else would think of, or put in the effort to do if they did think of it, is that he writes a personal letter to every student who fails his class- in his intro to economics classes of 1000 students. The fact that you lack talent- or have lots of talent- should not be used as an excuse for failing to put in the hard work and hard thinking needed to become the best you can be.
*(you can infer that sprint speed probably has a huge genetic component by the fact that of the 76 people who have ever run the 100m in less than 10 seconds, 72 were of West African descent)
I am writing this while sitting in the DMV. The Department of Motor Vehicles is often used as an example of how government provides services poorly relative to the private sector. This example is used for a good reason- I would never put up with these sort of wait times if I weren’t legally required to “buy” their products, and in the private sector competition means that multi-hour waits are an extreme exception rather than the norm.
But I have yet to see people recognize that the DMV is a great example of how a single-minded obsession with cutting taxes is not the best way to shrink government. Suppose that we cut the DMV budget in half, and cut taxes accordingly. Most people would say we had just successfully shrunk the government. It would be true that the government was taking fewer literal dollars from people, and spending less on its own employees. But government didn’t really shrink- it merely changed the way it is extracting resources from the population. Instead of paying more dollars in taxes, people will spend more time in lines at the DMV- a terrible fate. The value of people’s lost time could easily exceed the tax savings.
The same idea applies to many regulations. When we went from a draft to an all-volunteer army, government spending went up, but the true size and coercive power of the government went down. We could probably avoid the distortions of the minimum wage if conservatives would embrace wage subsidies, but wage subsidies are clear examples of government spending, while the minimum wage is a hidden tax on employers. Dollars taxed and dollars spent is not a perfect measure of the size and scope of government- in fact, sometimes more taxes and spending can shrink the true size of government.
Of course, there can be other ways to shrink government too. Even better than throwing more money at the DMV so they can hire more employees would be to change the incentives of current employees. Imagine that the manager of a DMV ran a real risk of getting fired when the lines got long, and had the chance to get a bonus when wait times decreased. Private sector-style incentives could lead to private sector-style efficiency. Ideally we can do smarter government, rather than increasing spending. But maybe sometimes, smarter government means more spending, and more spending means a smaller government footprint overall.