How The Dollar Limited Government

The Gist: Why the Founders thought of money itself as a vital check and balance against the abuse of power.

A partial review of Pieces of Eight, Constitutional Money, and Money, Free and Unfree.

In 2020, the U.S. government printed and digitally conjured $3.38 trillion, a number almost impossible to fathom. That single year’s total is more than double what the government printed in the Federal Reserve’s first 95 years of existence (1913-2008), when we had to pay for two world wars (among other things). That dollar amount was more than 150% of  the combined total net worth of half of Americans – over 160 million people who typically have to actually work for extra cash. And it increased the total amount of dollars in circulation by over 20%.

Cross

Figure 1. If you somehow spent $4 million every single day since Jesus Christ was born, you still would not have spent $3.38 trillion. The average American spends less than $4 million in her entire lifetime.

 

But of course you didn’t become 20% richer – your money actually has been losing value through inflation. Instead, the government bought its own debt, the burden of which was lightening by the day through that same inflation, as well as the debt of mismanaged local governments and the junk debt of mismanaged companies.

In contrast, in the first seventy years of our republic, the total amount of dollars that the U.S. government printed was… Zero. The common understanding was that the Constitution forbade the federal government from doing so. How is that possible and why was that the case?

Rose

Figure 2. They had not yet discovered the Sims cheat “rosebud”.

 

The key is that money used to be precious metal. The Founders were not unaware of paper money – they just thought it was a super-controversial threat to the commercial republic they were laying the foundation for. And, notably, the paper money they feared was not the kind of mere paper or bits we use today but was instead more or less a receipt for gold and silver that was supposed to be eventually demandable in return. The Founders understood, based on both recent experience and historical study, that the trust involved in paper currency could be abused by the government.

George Washington

Figure 3. As the old joke goes: They say George Washington was able to throw a dollar clear across the Potomac. I am not surprised. The dollar went a lot further then. 

 

The British common law that the Founders grew up with tended to treat “money” as gold and silver itself but there was often a shortage of the actual metals in the colonies which, combined with political agitation, attracted some colonial legislatures to overprint beyond their capacity to redeem. At one point, Parliament responded by forbidding colonial governors from consenting to the printing of paper money on the penalty of immediate dismissal, a permanent ban from public office, and a personal fine of 1,000 pounds (the rough equivalent of $200,000 today).

During the American Revolution, as authorized by the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress resorted to the printing press to try to pay for the war. We won, but the economic results were ugly. Prices doubled in 1776 and doubled again in both 1777 and 1778. By 1781, prices were up 80-fold relative to the continental.” In other words, the amount of butter (or any other good) you could have for one continental in 1776 required 8,000 continentals in 1781. Combined with the war’s other negative externalities, we suffered a “sharp decline in real per capita income, nearly as severe as the reduction during the Great Depression of the early 1930s.” And yet although it asked states to do so, the Continental Congress declined to make its currency “legal tender,” which would have required the paper be accepted by all parties to satisfy debts. The Founders weren’t sure that they had the legal power to do so and they feared forcing a rapidly depreciating currency on the commercial sphere would undermine support for the Revolution.

The Articles of Confederation soon proved unworkable, perhaps most vividly in the federal government’s impotence in helping put down Shays’ Rebellion. While this is most often cited as an example of the need for a federal government of sufficient power to suppress domestic insurrection, the demands of Shays’ Rebellion are also relevant: they were a violent precursor of Bernie bros, shutting down courts of law and taking merchants hostage, and their principal objective was that the government print more money so they could easily satisfy their debts. The Founders, though radical in their love for commercial freedom, wanted an ordered liberty that did not sacrifice the value of a contract to the mob.

Pitchfork

Figure 4. The mob was making an offer the Founders could refuse.

 

So by the time that the Founders arrived at the Constitutional convention, they were, according to one participant, “smitten with the paper money dread.” After 8,000%+ inflation and a failed insurrection, one report of the Continental Congress had declared paper money a “fallacious medium.” And the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, insisted paper money was an “epidemic malady.” A debate occurred and the states voted 9-2 to deny the federal government the power to print paper money.

That vote might be enough to convince some that we’ve become unmoored from the Founders’ vision but we’ve sailed so far away that judges have wrung a meaning out of the text consistent with our practices (rather than their job to comply our practices with the text). I’ve included a deeper textual analysis at the end of this email for those who want to dive in – but for now, consider how the Founders were trying to enshrine ordered liberty: How would it make sense to give government unlimited power to debase currency but forbid it from seizing property without just compensation? Today, the federal government can’t legally seize a blade of grass on your property without paying you its fair market value – but it can induce catastrophic hyperinflation without risk of violating the courts’ view of the Constitution.

Justice Antonin Scalia routinely observed that what really protects Americans’ liberty is not the promise of a bill of rights – plenty of dictatorships wax poetic about those – but the very architecture of checks and balances within the government. The question of money was a much more important part of the Founders’ vision for those checks and balances than we commonly realize. Certain money can place real limits on government’s ability to expand. Many have wondered why the Founders didn’t have a balanced budget provision – this is an important explanation.

Certainly some Founders wanted to legally constrain borrowing but the very nature of contemporary lending was enough constraint for most. If the government is forced to go to the marketplace and ask for physical gold and silver, there is only so much precious metal available. Private actors are going to demand sufficient interest rates in return to make the proposition attractive versus other possible investments. In contrast, “since [2010], Fed purchases of Treasury debt have funded as much as 60% to 80% of the entire government borrowing requirement,” such that we have a wild accounting scheme wherein the government owes money to itself at very generous interest rates, leaving the market helpless to discipline. As a result, politicians can propose new multi-trillion dollar spending schemes without being laughed out of the room. If you want to reverse engineer how government got so big, there are really two answers: The first is the general abdication of the government to follow the original meaning of the Constitution. And the second – and it turns out very related – is that the government rearranged its own financing.

Eventually, such mismanagement leads to inflation, a hidden tax and an especially clever one because you might think you have more when you in fact have less. Democracies especially have an incentive to flood the market with money before an election (which is always), but that behavior eventually catches up to the economy, which is trying to rely on money as an honest measuring stick of profit and loss. If inflation gets too bad, responsible savers who want to hold on to value instead are incentivized to spend as much as they can before their money loses all of its worth – and that creates a whole host of other problems.

All of which is to say that the government has different incentives for money than you and I do. The Founders understood this and tried to preemptively reign in government’s abuse: sound money protects private property while limiting government’s ability to borrow, spend, and grow.  

Very importantly, just because the government did not print money does not mean that no paper money existed. Private banks could and did provide the convenience of paper money backed up by the gold in their vaults – and commercial actors were free to evaluate the strength of such paper on the reputation of the issuing bankers. This turns out to be rather good economics. As Friedrich Hayek observed, government’s exclusive control over currency “has the defects of all monopolies: one must use their product even if it is unsatisfactory, and, above all, it prevents the discovery of better methods of satisfying a need for which a monopolist has no incentive.” Free banking, the term for the system Hayek preferred, allows money to be chosen by consumers – you and me – not imposed by the nation’s largest debtor. Politicians can afford to be irresponsible with a monopoly state currency everyone is required to accept. Bankers have to be responsible with any currency they issue or else no one would use it and they would go out of business. Hayek concluded, “Blessed indeed will be the day when it will no longer be from the benevolence of the government that we expect good money but from the regard of the banks for their own interest.”

Unfortunately, while free banking thrived in places like Canada and Scotland, in the United States it wasn’t so free. States wound up over-regulating these currency providers – requiring licensure from legislatures that encouraged cronyism, limiting banks to one single location which hurt diversification, and mandating banks hold uncreditworthy state debt as collateral. While such over-regulation was well within the states’ power, there was a separate question of whether the states could properly charter banks to print money when the state governments were not permitted to do so themselves. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld most such practices, even when it probably shouldn’t have (in one case, the state owned 100% of the relevant bank). The republic then as now had plenty of disagreement: the losers at the constitutional convention had wanted a government paper money, another minority wanted an economic system built exclusively on precious metals, most seemed to want the federal government to provide the core precious metal currency but were willing to see it as the base for private enterprise.

Champagne

Figure 5. Imagine having to wine and dine state legislators to secure the right to start (and keep) your bank but they only give you the opportunity to open one location in a small town – and you have to keep all of your reserves in their junk Illinois government bonds rather than precious metals or viable securities. That was the sorry state of much American banking and led to routine waves of failure.

 

However you may have noticed in your day to day life that modern commerce operates rather differently than as described here. You denominate your wealth in paper and digital dollars provided and mandated by a government that gets ever larger. How we got from the Founding to now and how to reconcile the two will be explored in my next email.

…But for the legal nerds who really want to understand the full textual argument, see below for analysis mostly derived from the work of Edwin Viera, a Harvard JD/PhD who has written thousands of pages on the legal evolution of money in the United States.

The only way that the Constitution authorizes the government to bring money into existence is to “coin.” I’ll admit that when I first read this in law school, I thought, based on present practice, that “coin” might extend to the printing press in the same way that the First Amendment protects free speech on the internet and not just on parchment. Naturally, no class ever actually discussed the provision. As it turns out, the Founders meant “coin” quite literally (literally in the literal sense of the word.) And it was understood as such – remember, the U.S. government only coined money for its first 70 years.

And the coinage power might have been rather limited. In England, the power to coin money did not mean the power to control the money supply by deciding how much money to convert to coin. Anyone could show up at the mint with metal, and the mint would be obligated to convert it. The Founders seemed to have in mind the same idea.

Viera notes that the power to coin is right next to that mighty power to fix the standards of weights and measures – he suggests that Congress was encouraged to establish that a foot represented a certain length, a year a certain time, and a dollar a certain amount of silver. Insofar as people well-understood feet and years, it turns out they understood “dollars,” too – it was a trusted standard silver coin from Spain that circulated freely in the colonies. That it had a fixed meaning is suggested in the fact that the Constitution elsewhere describes specific dollar amounts, including around the extremely controversial slavery compromise (taxing imported slaves “not exceeding ten dollars”) as well as within the Bill of Rights (which protects the right of a trial by jury – but only in cases “where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars”). If the government had infinite ability to redefine the value of dollars, then these sections of the Constitution would lack precise meaning and be rather pointless to write down. Viera advises:

Congress may, with constitutional propriety, appoint astronomers, physicists, and other qualified experts to determine with scientific precision what the ‘Year’ actually is. It has no authority, however, to decide for itself what the ‘Year’ ought to be. Analogously, Congress may, with constitutional propriety, appoint economists, monetary historians, and other experts to determine with cliometric accuracy what the ‘dollar’ actually was in the late 1700’s. In fact, this is what Congress did do, under both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Congress has no authority, however, to decide for itself what the ‘dollar’ ought to be.” [underlining in the original]

Congress

Figure 6. Shhhhhh! Once Congress discovers that their power over measurement is the same as their power over money, they will redefine a “year” to mean ten million revolutions around the Sun and never have to run for re-election.

 

Still, the Constitution does give Congress power to “Regulate the value [of the money it coins], and of foreign coin.” My brackets replace “thereof” and the antecedent is extremely important: Congress has the power of regulation only over coins, not over securities. Further, “regulate” does not now nor did it then mean to “bring into existence” but instead to deal with something that already exists. In other words, a reading of the original public meaning of this clause does not permit the government unlimited power to create new currency and determine its value.

So what does “regulate” mean textually? Viera argues that historical context reveals this power to be more specific than Congress’ power to “regulate Commerce.” Viera’s best approximation to give us a sense of the original meaning is “specify.” The early U.S. government published a table of rates so that merchants could understand the metal content of various coins then in circulation and how the government would treat them as tax payments. Viera argues that “the power to ‘regulate the Value of Money’ is distinct from the power to debase its value. For example, to ‘regulate the Value of a silver coin means to compare the weight of pure silver that it contains to the weight of pure silver in the monetary standard, and to declare the coin’s value in terms of that standard.”

19th century Supreme Court Justice and legendary constitutional commentator Joseph Story suggests that “The object of the power is to produce uniformity of value throughout the Union, and thus to preclude us from the embarrassments of a perpetually fluctuating and variable currency.” And indeed Viera argues that in the first seventy years of the republic, “regulation” consisted exclusively of the government trying in good faith to publicize the actual fair market value of the precious metal in circulating coinage – though that did not mean it succeeded. The market constantly outpaced the government’s ability to define it and the biggest impact this clause would have was in whether the U.S. effectively operated on a gold or silver standard (until it abandoned precious metal standards altogether).

The Founders did make one rather large assumption. The Constitution gives Congress the power to coin money, rather than the executive, because as the Virginia judge and legal commentator St. George Tucker noted in 1803,

“The history of England affords numberless instances, where this prerogative [over money] has been exercised to the great oppression of the subject. The power of debasing the value of the coin, at pleasure, has in fact been frequently used as an expedient for raising a revenue, and is accordingly reckoned as one of the indirect modes of taxation. According to the principles of our constitution, therefore, such a tax can not be imposed but by the representatives of the people.”

Story says something very similar:

“In England, this prerogative belongs to the crown; and, in former ages, it was greatly abused; for base coin was often coined and circulated by its authority, at a value far above its intrinsic worth; and thus taxes of a burthensome nature were laid indirectly upon the people. There is great propriety, therefore, in confiding it to the legislature, not only as the more immediate representatives of the public interests, but as the more safe depositaries of the power.”

These analyses are notable both because they get at the Founders’ fears over the government abuse of money – but also because they suggest that part of their “solution” was faulty: just transferring the power from one branch to another. But, again, this has to be read within the greater context of the Constitution and in particular the fact that Congress could only coin, not print. Gold and silver coins inherently cannot experience hyperinflation. And if the federal government had circulated coins as the King had, with a stated value above their real value, there would have been public outcry and market resistance. Further, Viera argues that “under English common law, the King exercised all power to coin and regulate the value of money. By the late 1700’s, Parliament had defined this royal prerogative as not including the authority to debase the coinage.” The U.S. Constitution “removed from legislative control the monetary standard itself,” by explicitly making it a known silver dollar.

Separately, the Constitution explicitly forbids states from exercising certain monetary powers: they can’t “coin money, emit Bills of Credit, make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts.” To emit bills of credit was the contemporary term of art for printing money. The fact that coining money and emitting bills of credit are listed separately strongly reinforces the idea that they are different powers – otherwise, the text is redundant – and therefore makes further questionable any attempt to smuggle printing money into the federal government’s coinage power. John Marshall subsequently noted in a court case that the Constitution specified “that the real dollar may represent property, and not the shadow of it.” Viera argues that the legal tender provision gave states the opportunity to make metal legal tender if the government failed to coin but prevented them from altering key creditor relationships.

Nathaniel Gortham was one of the dissenters at the Constitutional Convention who lost the vote on giving the federal government the power to print – but he was nevertheless satisfied with the ambiguity of not explicitly preventing it from doing so. Viera responds with fairly conventional originalist analysis:

“One of the fundamental principles of our society is that the very existence of the Constitution necessarily implies the definite and limited nature of the power of the government of the United States. Indeed, by legal hypothesis, the Constitution contains no ‘independent and unmentioned power[s]’; for the contrary assumption would fatally ‘conflict with the doctrine that this is a government of enumerated powers.’ There are no undefined and general powers that some ‘theoretical government’ might possess.…This exact, literal coincidence of prohibition and empowerment, in conjunction with the Tenth Amendment, proves conclusively that Congress received only what the States lost.”

In other words, unless the federal government is explicitly given a power, it doesn’t have it. And, while we’re on the subject, there is no explicit federal government power to make any currency “legal tender.” Only the states can make only gold and silver a currency that people must accept to satisfy debts.

Bitcoin

Figure 7. Sorry, Bitcoin

 

Another contemporary dissenter, Luther Martin, explicitly brought up the prospect of a war in the constitutional debate: shouldn’t the federal government be allowed to print, as it had during the Revolution, to be able to defend the country? Whatever the merits of the argument, he lost 9-2. Benjamin Rush was not present at the convention but provides an answer in a letter to James Madison: “where wars are just & necessary–Supplies may always be obtained by annual taxes from a free people.”

The final provision we’ll mention here is that the Constitution gives the government the power to “borrow money on the credit of the United States.” In that this power was listed separately from the power to print money in the Articles of Confederation and in that the Constitution permits states to borrow money but not to print money, this again suggests that the borrowing power is different from printing. Indeed, there’s a straightforward argument that the original public meaning of this clause meant that the “money” that had to be borrowed is gold and silver. If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations! Hopefully you’re convinced of the Founders’ intent. We’ll explore how we deviated and what it means for today in my next email.

Pieces of eight

Figure 8. Click here to acquire the unabridged version of Pieces of Eight: the Monetary Powers and Disabilities of the United States Constitution (9/10), a learned and deep textual analysis that I’ve attempted to summarize as best as possible. You can also check out the related original document collection at the University of Chicago for the coinage power and the borrowing power.

Constitutional money

Figure 9. Click here to acquire Constitutional Money by Richard Timberlake (8/10), in which an economist reviews the U.S. case law around money and offers both economic commentary and a layman’s legal analysis of original public meaning uncluttered by the typical law school penumbras and gobbledygook. Timberlake insists: “The money clauses in the U.S. Constitution are brief, simple, and explicit; the humblest mind can understand them without elaborate interpretation.”

Money free and unfree

Figure 10. Click here to acquire Money Free and Unfree by George Selgin (9/10), a collection of essays by one of the leading free banking economists in the United States, opening with a thought experiment about what kind of monetary system a dictator would create to increase his power but also including a history of 19th century U.S. money and an evaluation of how the Federal Reserve has performed according to its own preferred standards in its first 100 years. Also check out his book explaining the theory and practice of free banking.

 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: Know anyone who is interested constitutional originalism? How about anyone desiring limited government? Or anyone who has ever used money?

For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of Literally Making Money.

I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

    Two Weddings, One Marriage

    The Gist: As you plan your wedding, elevate the higher purpose and your particular priorities. Relax about everything else.

    A recounting of my own experience and a review of A Practical Wedding and Man Nup.

    We probably should celebrate 10 year anniversaries rather than weddings – they’re rarer. 

    But until that sensible change, I can report on my own unusual experience of two very different weddings in my single marriage to one woman – the first, thanks to covid restrictions, was a sublime, deeply intimate interaction with just my wife, our pairs of parents, and our pastor and his wife. I read about monetary policy as Ashley got ready, we went to the church and underwent a divine arrangement, then all had dinner at our favorite restaurant. I had been looking forward to a big wedding and found myself thoroughly enjoying a small one.

    Wedding church exit

    Figure 1. I will no doubt remind any future daughter that her mother got married in a dress acquired for under $100. 

     

    A year later (alas, not 10!), we invited lots of friends and family to a considerably larger celebration that was a whirlwind of reconnections and fun, beginning with an outdoor welcome reception at a Nashville hotel the evening before. The day of I got to joke around and play a favorite game with my groomsmen while Ashley brunched and got ready with her bridesmaids, our pastor came back for a sermon of celebration, and then we spent the rest of the evening catching up with as many people as we could. I had thoroughly enjoyed a small wedding and found myself loving a big one. 

    Along the way, I read two helpful books – the first, delightfully titled Man Nup by Rick Webb, contains the sound advice that “wedding planning is not rocket science. It’s event planning.” The second, practically titled A Practical Wedding by Meg Keene, contains the best advice of all: Figure out the small number of things you really want to go right and relax about pretty much everything else. 

    For us, the three things we wanted to go right were the dress, the photography, and the spoken word. While leggings and a comfy sweatshirt are a great daily go-to, Ashley, a former pageant finalist, felt rather strongly about getting the right look. Photography would serve as our enduring memory aid to the joy of these days and also as decor in our shared future home. And I, a former congressional primary finalist, felt rather strongly about the power of good speeches.

    Wedding dress

    Figure 2. Here you can easily see that 2/3 priorities went well!

     

    For everything else, we created a spreadsheet with every possible line item and then ranked them in order of importance, with next immediate actions identified, both ideal and latest dates to complete them by, any links, whether it was delegable or had to be done by the bride or groom, and, finally, a specific argument for why each thing needed to be kept. It’s helpful to throw everything you might possibly want onto a list and then evaluate whether you really do in fact want it. The ultimate question: What is going to bring us joy and laughter on the day of our wedding?

    Keene well illustrates that a great many wedding “traditions” we think of are actually just a few decades old and often the result of the wedding industry trying to grab every possible dollar. We skipped such necessities as party favors, unity candles, even wedding cake. Indeed, “For hundreds of years, weddings in the United States took place in people’s homes. During World War II, a huge number of weddings took place at the courthouse with the bride in her best clothes, always with flowers.” We did embrace certain things we liked – but with full knowledge of their recent vintage: “the bridal bouquet (emerged around the turn of the twentieth century; before that women held prayer books or handkerchiefs), the once-worn formal white dress (became popular in the early to mid-twentieth century thanks to a serious marketing effort), the catered reception (came into vogue in the 1950s).” Perhaps the most famous creation of a tradition was the mass marketing campaign in the early twentieth century by the diamond monopoly De Beers to convince the world that serious engagements require their product – and you should keep said diamonds forever so that you never discover that their value on the secondary market is rather less than precious.

    Wedding proposal

    Figure 3. In some cases, though, the value in the secondary market is not visible in pure price. For our engagement in the Smokies, I got a hold of Ashley’s grandmother’s wedding ring – a symbol of a great love that preceded ours! As for myself, I succumbed to the cool marketing of a wedding ring made out of meteorite.

     

    Quite related to the general list of things you might consider or reject is your budget. As with any major decision or expense, you should attempt to look at the base rate of how these things typically go. Specifically, you should look at the regional averages for how much money (and what percentage of an average total wedding budget) is spent on each line item to get a sense of reality-testing what your expectations are. At the same time, Webb warns that “The wedding industry is designed from the ground up to make you feel insecure about your decisions, and to invoke fear in order to get you to throw more money at a particular aspect of the production… Most vendors have a whole sales approach, and it invariably revolves around preying on the bride’s insecurities, hopes, dreams and childhood fantasies.”

    The best way to steel yourself against such salesmanship is the most important line in your budget: Savings. The money you do NOT spend on your wedding can instead be used for future vacations, or a down payment on a house, or invested in the S&P 500 for a compounded return. Resources are finite! By all means, splurge on the three things that are most important to you (fun fact: speeches are cheap.) But also feel liberated to NOT spend the average cost or percentage on things you don’t really care about. As ever, remember price is what you pay and value is what you get. For my best friend, this analysis translated into an elopement – and he and his wife are still filled with joy thinking back on it. For another friend who wanted a bigger party, he got married at the courthouse and invited all of his friends to a bar. 

    Of course, not everyone can enjoy the benefits of an old line Baptist wedding where savings can be achieved in alcohol and dancing. No, for a great many Americans alcohol is an addictive substance that they’ve become accustomed to acquiring on demand and are less than enthused about a cash bar (never mind my idea to try to turn a profit on the wedding). And anthropologists have concluded that rhythmic noises have long had a role in human culture and appear to boost collective mood (though the nice thing about hosting something in Music City is that even the third string options are great – though a DJ could save even more). 

    Amazingly enough, there have been significant technological advancements in communications that allow for you to invite people to your wedding – for free – through the interwebs. A variety of rentals are generally expected because guests may not be excited about standing at length, in rain, struggling to hear shouting speakers – but you do not require handcrafted antiques. Hair, facial, and nails might require budget items because the dead and dying parts of the body require maintenance, at least for the female of the species. And although my wife is renowned for her ability to get dolled up in the car (even, alarmingly, while driving), a dedicated professional is necessary to achieve that “bride of Frankenstein” look.

    Wedding flowers

    Figure 4. Dead and dying plants are also apparently romantic, fragrant, and beautiful.

     

    I joke about these things to try to get you to take everything less seriously – and to encourage you to get creative in freeing up cash for what you really want to do (either your priorities within the wedding itself or generally in life.) As Keene advises, “when you leave a great party, you’re normally raving about how fantastic the people were, not about how the favors perfectly matched the tablecloths.” And, “when you look back at your wedding… you won’t care too much about how the details looked; you’ll care about how you felt.” We never especially liked the idea of a formal (and finite) rehearsal dinner, so we just threw an open, casual welcome party. Until offered a ride the day of, I was just planning to UberX to my wedding. And we simultaneously embraced our own personalities as well as saved a bunch by insisting on serving a favorite food since our very first date: pizza.  

    All that being said, before you immediately seize a bargain (or otherwise hire on reputation), you should actually meet and get along easily with your vendors as well as review their work-product – taste-test the pizza (we even got to make our very own flavor of ice cream!), listen to the band (live if possible), sit in the chairs. As we examined venues, there was one promising historical home that looked good online – but when we arrived, we discovered it was next to a highway and railroad tracks. “ARE THE TRAINS ALWAYS RUNNING?” I asked our hostess. “OH, YOU GET USED TO THEM!” she confidently replied. We wound up getting married at Andrew Jackson’s home, the Hermitage – which had indeed topped our separate scoring of various venues but what really clinched it for my wife was my observation that the top alternatives were just private property that could be the site of a McDonald’s in 15 years. 

    Naturally, a lot of these questions revolve around one number: how many people you invite to your wedding. In our last correspondence, I mentioned the amusing but puzzling statistic that if you have a BIG wedding with lots of people, you are less likely to get divorced — but if you have an expensive wedding, you are MORE likely to get divorced. But I figured out how it works when attending the wedding reception of a Mormon friend: they had gotten married for free at the temple and then hosted a really big party at the groom’s parents’ home, most everyone standing closely together grabbing finger foods (but, obviously, no alcohol) all for a fraction of the average wedding cost – and, you know what? It was a blast!

    Webb suggests that you should start out with the assumption that you shouldn’t invite anyone you haven’t seen or talked to in a year (all the more true if you’re picking a bridal party – my best man has known me the longest of anyone: my dad.) To the degree that family is demanding people be invited, compel them to rank-order their list so that you can have a conversation with full knowledge about where their priorities are. Apparently, the base rate of rejection is something like 10%+ for locals and 30% for out-of-towners – though if you are getting married in a cool city, expect more people to make the trip. There are also the non-responders. Tracking down my college roommate on the day after the RSVP deadline, he told me “Move me from a maybe to a probably.” 

    But my biggest recommendation – to my wife, now to you – is to try to figure out how to absolutely minimize the stress and work that goes into guest sorting (and, indeed, the whole wedding planning). What that practically meant for us: no seating chart. I did not want my wife agonizing over where to place who.

    Wedding walk out

    Figure 5. We had an additional wrinkle as well: the seating capacity of our church, originally built by Jackson for his family to worship, was smaller than our guest list. I suggested the obviously most efficient way to deal with this was to auction off seats. When this was sadly rejected, we thankfully agreed that we would allow the first people to RSVP to come.

     

    Perhaps Keene’s best line in her book is that a bridesmaid’s job is to keep crazy at least 10 feet away from the bride. That’s certainly helpful during the wedding itself. But in the entirety of the planning process, pursue calm – get enough sleep, eat healthy, and spend quality time together as a couple (for us, that was reading, walking, praying, laughing, and socializing with close friends). I also arranged for Ashley to get regular massages throughout. 

    If your family won’t allow you to auction off seats or charge for food and drink, your only other profit opportunity is the gift registry (which, according to one analysis, is basically the only visited page on your wedding website). I have one close friend who invited everyone he ever met to his wedding – and then made getting to it as inconvenient as possible (our route to get there quite literally involved planes, trains, and automobiles). Result? Maximum gifts, minimum cost. 

    In reality, we tried to tell our guests that, in lieu of a gift, we would greatly cherish a handwritten note of encouragement and personal reflection. Nevertheless, many people did indeed get us gifts – surprisingly, even some that were not invited. We listed practical luxuries like skillets, pizza scissors, and shotguns; we offered the popular opportunity to finance particular aspects of our honeymoon; and we availed guests of the options to finance our book budget or investment fund.

    And yet, as Dwight Eisenhower reflected, while planning is indispensable, plans are useless. You’ve got to be prepared for contingencies – perhaps something as basic as being able to use the programs as a fan during a heatwave but also something as drastic as having to rethink the whole idea during a pandemic. As we approached our first wedding date, we were continuously uncertain as to whether we’d be able to have it all amidst covid. As we got nearer and it looked like Nashville wouldn’t allow a party of our size, we had to think: should we scramble for a last minute venue in freer, more rural Tennessee? Should we convert the whole wedding to a Star Wars theme so that people could plausibly wear breathing apparatuses? Should we postpone everything and how would we know when would be permissible? As noted, we wound up getting married in an intimate ceremony and then celebrating in a bigger way on our one year anniversary. But even then things popped up – one groomsman got covid the week of! As Keene advises: “One of the gifts of your wedding day is the fact that you can choose, over and over again, in each moment, how you react to the things that go wrong. You can choose to allow the bigness of your commitment to take a front seat to the disappointments. ‘Perfect weddings don’t exist’” Adapt and overcome!

    wedding groomsmen

    Figure 6. One guest got dressed up to go to our wedding and realized in his final step that he had forgotten his tie. Calling an Uber to the venue, he asked to stop at any plausible store that might sell one. One, two, three, four stops later he finally manages to secure a tie and get it on in the car – but throughout he’s thinking “Am I going to be the only schmuck without a tie?” But then he arrives and immediately runs into one of my groomsmen and, spotting his collar, asks “No tie?” “Oh no,” my groomsman replies. “Grant and Ashley decided no ties.” So he made the long walk to the church thinking “Am I going to be the only schmuck with a tie?” (He was not.)

     

    As we approached our second wedding date, we had been keeping loose track of how our finalized and cut-down spreadsheet was being marked off but a month away, we really devoted all of our attention to making sure that everything indeed was ready and, in particular, distributing specific and detailed day-of plans to everyone involved (though we couldn’t be perfect: one local guest miswrote the date and arrived at the church one week early to witness a different wedding altogether.)

    I should mention one other bit of planning – it’s apparently unconventional and it really isn’t done by you. I can’t tell you the number of weddings I’ve been to in which I run into the best man on the very day of, already a little tipsy, somewhat bragging, somewhat worried that he has a speech to give that night and he hasn’t begun preparing. That tends not to be a recipe for success, leading to the all too typical speech in which tears flow, obscure events are referenced, inappropriate remarks are made, and an opportunity is wasted to commemorate a moment for dear friends before a crowd. 

    Instead, we set aside time for – and made a centerpiece of our wedding – thoughtful, heartfelt speeches from our closest friends who have the ability. We carefully selected speakers, alerted them well in advance that this was important to us (and may even have provided pointers), and asked, as a gift, for a transcript of their notes after they had spoken. The results were deeply moving for Ashley and me. And, of course, the speeches followed a wonderful sermon by our pastor (a dear friend) as well as specifically selected readings from the Bible of personal inspiration. To keep things running smoothly (and amusingly), I also asked my longtime collaborator in humorous speechmaking to be master of ceremonies –  a position he filled masterfully in setting up the crowd and cracking jokes. And I took the opportunity personally to conclude the speeches with one of my own, reflecting on our marriage and the wonderful opportunity to know the people present. In the end, I was delighted to be told again and again by guests that they were the best set of speeches they had heard at any wedding!

    Wedding dance

    Figure 7. After speeches, we shuffled along for a first dance, followed by father and daughter and mom and son. The latter efforts were complicated by the particular musical tastes of our parents. For my father-in-law, we struggled to find a slow dance in the ACDC catalog. My mom’s only musical interest that originates after 1800 is the Bee Gees – and you’ll find that the lyrics of most everything they have sung don’t exactly lend themselves to the occasion.

     

    It was a (second) magical day – from photography around the estate, to ceremony in the old church, to drinks in the gardens, to dinner and speeches and dancing under a big tent. And, to end it all, we borrowed an idea from another friend to have an exit line in which we could say goodbye to every person who attended and be the last to leave ourselves!

    Wedding honeymoon

    Figure 8. Ashley had originally wanted to go to Italy for our honeymoon – but, alas, covid again intervened. So we instead went to the Italy of the United States: Wyoming!

     

    There were other things on the margins that nevertheless can take up a great deal of time – plotting moving in together (strongly correlated with increased snuggling), Ashley changing her surname. But the best thing that we did after our honeymoon was sit down and record all of our memories for posterity. We had wanted a few things to go right. Turns out everything went right.

    Man Nup

    Figure 9. Click here to acquire Man Nup by Rick Webb – a strong 7. Good overview for how things should go, nothing crazy, generally good advice from the groom’s perspective (at least one actively involved.)

    Pratical Wedding

    Figure 10. Click here to acquire A Practical Wedding by Meg Keene. Approaching a 7. There’s some very good advice in here (which I’ve pulled out for this newsletter) but there are some jarring voice changes. Especially good in revealing that many “traditions” are really upsells and that you should focus on the most important things. Not as relevant for us but certainly for other couples: “A wedding is not a surprise party for the groom.” We agree: “Planning a major event with your partner is going to help you develop skills for working together that you’ll use for years.”

     

    Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone planning on getting married? How about someone who just loves weddings? Or anybody who has ever been or might be married?

    For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Five Love Languages.

    I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

    Wedding shoes

    Figure 11. You’ve reached the bottom!

      Derisking Marriage

      The Gist: Due diligence before “I do”

      A review of multiple books and sources, including Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married by Gary Chapman.

       

      Congratulations! You’ve found the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. As we discussed in our last correspondence about getting serious if you’re single, this is a big deal and very worthy of celebration.

       

      But the thing about love, especially in the early years, is that the nights are brighter, the grass is bluer, and the sky is greener. In that love is blind, love distorts. You look past every defect and think you can overcome every obstacle because love conquers all. But before you get married – a contract that should last a lifetime – you should take a hard look at those defects and obstacles because they’ll become real soon enough. 

      Naturally, if you are en route to getting married, you think your person is pretty swell – but bear in mind that practically no one who gets married is planning on getting divorced. Divorcees at one point thought their spouses were pretty swell, too.

      Prospector

      Figure 1. Exceptions include gold-diggers and green-card-chasers. 

       

      Put another way, imagine the due diligence you’d want to do before buying a home you’d live the rest of your life in. Gosh, the property seems dreamy – but will you still love the style when it’s a few decades old? Can the layout and location accommodate your needs as a professional, a parent, a retiree? Are you certain that the internal structure is sound? Again, remember that who you marry is just about the most important decision in your life – and that as annoying and expensive as a home remodel can be, it’s infinitely easier than trying to do anything similar with your spouse.

      Six million dollar man

      Figure 2. Note that, with inflation, the Six Million Dollar Man would actually be more like the Thirty Eight Million Dollar Man. Even then, his bionic improvements were all physical and he looked like Lee Majors even before his accident. Of course, if you’re just looking for a more attentive husband, maybe you can pay an electrician a few bucks to administer some shock therapy.

       

      As Ashley and I dated, we always talked about the prospect of marriage – but as we approached the time when it might be a near-reality (a proposal should not be a surprise), we spent every Saturday morning for months talking things through: 

       

      Will we be good friends for a lifetime? 

      Will we assume the best about each other and work on problems and opportunities together? 

      Will we be good parents whose qualities we want our kids to inherit? 

      Are we willing to sacrifice for each other?

       

      All of which are admirable qualities. But we also talked in detail about how we argue, how we’d divide family responsibilities, how we felt about money and ambition and religion and autonomy and any number of ideas. We hypothesized how we would react if various problems arose and we talked about how we might deal with the opportunities and challenges that life might bring us, including what kind of values we might want to raise our kids to live up to, assuming we could be blessed with them.

      Handicap

      Figure 3. In one instance, Ashley’s heart poured out about raising kids to be independent and work hard and love God and their country and be exceptional in whatever they chose to be. After hearing that, I simply added, “And to take care of their parents.”

       

      We also took a hard look at our odds. Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics, suggests that before you take on any venture you should find the base rate of success for people who do something similar to ensure that you have the appropriate expectation – and then try to reason as to why you might be different from the average. From there, you can accept or reject the gamble. 

       

      At first, it seems daunting: about half of marriages end in divorce. And divorce is bad, as bad as cigarettes for your health. If you end up having kids, they’ll suffer too – in their academics, mental health, and eventually in their own relationships. And, as one satirical twitter account has observed, marriage means you’re betting 50% of your future net worth. Which seems like maybe a good deal for the other party, except that the lower income earner tends to fare worse after a divorce.

      But take a closer look at the data and how it applies to you. 78% of women with a college degree remain with their first husband for over 20 years (the length of the study). Generally, only 41% of first marriages end in divorce (compared to 60% of second marriages and 73% of third marriages) – in other words, though half of marriages do end in divorce, most people who get married stay married. If you’re wealthier, if you’re conservative, if you’re a practicing Christian, if you’re Asian, if you have a high IQ,  if you marry after age 25, divorce is less likely. And if you can’t be all those, try to find someone to marry who is.

      Crazy rich asains

      Figure 4. The best marriage manual on the market turns out to be Crazy Rich Asians.   

       

      There are lots of other stats out there: those who live separately before marriage are less likely to get divorced; meeting in a bar is more likely to lead to divorce; those who delayed sex until adulthood and those with fewer lifetime sexual partners are less likely to get divorced. Certain professions are more likely to get divorced – dancers, bartenders, massage therapists, Navy SEALs; others, less likely – farmers, clergy, certain kinds of doctor. The bigger the age gap between you and your spouse, the worse. If your parents are happily married, you’ve fortunately got a better shot of being happily married yourself. If your parents are divorced, you’ve unfortunately got a better shot of being divorced yourself. 

      Amusingly, the more people you invite to your wedding, the less likely you are to get divorced — but the more you spend on your wedding, the more likely you are to get divorced.  Also: Men who have good relations with their in-laws are less likely to divorce while women who have good relations with their in-laws are more likely to get divorced. 

      Some of these things you can change – and though rather famously correlation is not causation, I’ve always figured why not lean into the correlations you like? If you’re starting early, turns out the conservative lifestyle has nice life outcomes: delay having sex until adulthood and then be choosy, look hard in college for a spouse, date for a couple of years but don’t live together, and get married after you turn 25. Even if you’re already married, you can derisk when you quit drinking, avoid divorced friends and coworkers, stop using social media, make more money and spend less of it, become a farmer (apparently an unusually successful one), watch romantic movies, have sex about once a week (with your spouse, I should note), go to church weekly but move away from concentrations of Evangelical protestants, and if and only if you’re a woman, pick fights with your in-laws. 

      I am only joking a little. These kinds of statistics are fun and sometimes strange but they can be genuinely helpful in making the right decisions and finding the right spouse. And, perhaps most importantly, if you look at these statistics and discover that the correlations are going the wrong direction – that, for example, you’re thinking of marrying a divorced dancer you met in a bar – you should abandon your efforts or move forward with particular vigilance knowing that Vegas would bet against

      I am about to share the questions that Ashley and I asked each other before we got engaged but although I think marriage is awesome and that you should get serious about searching for a spouse, it’s okay not to get married to the particular person you’re with right now. If you go through due diligence before you get married and you discover that the odds are stacked against you or the answers to basic questions start to unnerve you, it’s better to start your search anew than invite all your friends and family to a big party and then subsequently divorce. Indeed, if you have any doubts at all, discuss them, if not with your significant other, with someone else you trust. At the same time, acknowledge the real and flawed human being you are spending time with, fairly compare them to others you’ve dated, and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

      Even before Ashley and I went over the questions below together, I tried to figure out the answer by myself by running through a series of questions inspired by Kahneman to push past cognitive biases. I asked fundamentally what the first principles of being married were about and how well they applied. I quickly concluded that my relationship with Ashley was my best ever – so getting married was a good example of pouring gasoline on fire (and leaning into the math of romance). I worried about being so in love with Ashley that my perspective was skewed. But, borrowing an analogy from my work in the apartment building business, I determined that Ashley’s replacement cost was sky-high!

      Anyway, take a look at the questions below and adjust them for your own use – in particular, you should expand any section in which there is more concern and/or in which the odds are not in your favor. 

       

      1. Do we agree that this is perhaps the most important decision in our life and that we want to seriously and truthfully explore whether we are right for each other?
      2. First Principles
        1. Will we be good friends for a lifetime? 
        2. Will we assume the best about each other and work on problems and opportunities together? Will we be partners in success? 
          1. Recommended reading: Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
        3. Will we be good parents whose qualities we want our kids to inherit?
        4. Are we willing to sacrifice for each other?
          1. Recommended reading: The Meaning of Marriage. A quote: If two spouses each say, “I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,” you have the prospect of a truly great marriage
      3. Why we’re here: be as expansive and as mushy as you’d like – get all the feels down on paper and you can look back in the years to come and remember the spark that started it all. And, of course, you can look here to weigh any doubts against.
        1. Why Grant loves Ashley
        2. Why Ashley loves Grant
      4. Zooming out and looking at the base rates of success for marriages, what do our specific chances look like? Where are we swimming with and against the odds? How are we different from the averages described? What is within our control? How can we strengthen our positives and derisk our negatives?
        1. Probably the best resource is this compendium of divorce facts and figures: https://www.wf-lawyers.com/divorce-statistics-and-facts/ 
        2. But there is plenty out there and you might want to especially investigate anything that particularly affects you. Answering this question takes the most outside work – but it’s really rather important as a reality check. And once you’ve got your answers, adjust the scope of the remaining questions accordingly. 
      5. Marriage models:
        1. What is the role of a wife and a husband?
        2. How did your family divide responsibilities growing up? What roles did they play?
        3. How did your family argue? Did your family throw plates, calmly discuss issues or silently shut down when disagreements arose?
        4. Name and discuss two unrelated couples that you admire and would hope to emulate.
      6. Agreement and conflict:
        1. What do you want to do with your life? What are your biggest dreams and how does our relationship fit into them?
        2. How will we make decisions together?
        3. How can we best tell each other when we’re upset and resolve it in a way that respects each other?
        4. Will we turn toward each other when arguing? Are our conflict management styles compatible? Why do you think we avoid or confront?
      7. Religion:
        1. Have we reached a clear understanding of each other’s spiritual beliefs and needs?
        2. How are we going to live this out in our life?
        3. What does our religion expect of our marriage? How does our religion inform how we should conduct our relationship?
        4. How can we best pray for each other?
        5. What does our ideal community of faith look like?
      8. Children: 
        1. Are we going to have kids? If so, when? How many? How far apart?
        2. Parenting models: what is the role of a mother and a father?
        3. What beliefs do you have about yourself that resulted from your childhood? If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be and why?
        4. How will we divide child rearing responsibilities?
        5. What values do you want to teach our kids?
        6. How would we teach religion to our kids?
        7. Should we always tell our kids the truth? (About Santa, for example)
        8. How would we want to discipline our kids?
        9. How would we go about educating our kids?
        10. How will we teach our kids about money? How will we financially support our kids?
        11. What would we do if we could not have kids? If our child has severe disabilities? If our kid does drugs? Rejects our religious principles? What else might be a challenge? 
        12. How are we going to get to know best practices for raising kids?
        13. Will we take care of ourselves as much as we take care of our kids? How will we prioritize our own relationship as spouses amidst parenting? 
      9. Money:
        1. What is the best way of going over our finances so that we can be completely transparent with each other? (Current net worth, fixed monthly overhead, debt, savings, investments, etc.)
        2. What is the purpose of money? What do we want to do with it?
        3. What does our spending preference look like? What’s the most we’d be willing to spend on a car, couch, shoes? How much are we prepared to save? Should we strictly impose budget rules about how much of our monthly income we will spend? (And on what?)
        4. How will we manage our money? Who will manage our money? What’s our risk tolerance? How do we feel about debt?
        5. Should we have separate bank accounts?
        6. Will we both work? How should we contemplate major career decisions? What does work/life balance look like?
      10. Lifestyle: Do we share the same vision of life together? 
        1. What are the perfect and the typical weekday evenings?
        2. What are the perfect and the typical weekends?
        3. How should we spend time off? How often should we travel for a vacation, visit family?
        4. What do we enjoy doing together and separately? How much autonomy should we have on a week to week, month to month basis where we spend time apart? Can you deal with my doing things without you? 
        5. Where precisely are we going to live? What does our ideal home look like?
        6. How will we maintain our home and divide responsibilities for chores? 
        7. How would you like to change and how does our relationship fit in?
        8. How will we decide what to eat?
        9. Will our home have a television? A pet? Alcohol?
      11.  Family and friends:
        1. Will we consistently choose each other over our parents? Do we value and respect each other’s parents? Do either of us have any concern about parents or in-laws interfering with our relationship? What does my family do that annoys you? How will we resolve differences between our families? How will we care for aging parents?
        2. Do we like and respect each other’s friends? Anyone of particular concern? How often will we socialize? 
      12. Health:
        1. Do we fully understand each other’s emotional and physical health, as well as family history? Do we have any experience with addiction?
        2. When you are sick, how do you want others to respond to you? When a significant person in your life is sick, how do you respond?
        3. How will we work through real tragedy (e.g. death of our parents)?
        4. Are we willing to diligently pursue calm? How can we best tackle day to day stress?
      13. Familiarity: Don’t marry a stranger
        1. Has dating and being in love been a close enough approximation of a future relationship as a married couple and introduced major fault lines? Do we need more time?
        2. If I could live your life for one day, what do you think would surprise me the most? 
        3. Do you think Younger You would be happy with what you have become? 
        4. What are the highs and lows of your life so far?
        5. What would be one thing you’d change about our relationship? 
        6. Are there things I say or do that make you want to spend less time with me? 
        7. When do you feel most loved? Are we familiar with each other’s Love Languages?
        8. How do we keep love alive?
        9. Can we comfortably and openly discuss our sexual needs, preferences, and fears? 
      14. Commitment:
        1. What is your greatest fear or concern about being married? What have you done to address these concerns?
        2. What are our honest feelings about divorce and under what circumstances we would consider it?
        3. Will our experiences with our parents help or hinder us? Will our experiences with our exes help or hinder us? What have you learned?
        4. How will we be vigilant in protecting our marriage, especially from adultery?
        5. Are there some things that you and I are NOT prepared to give up in the marriage?
        6. If our marriage runs into trouble, what are we prepared to do to work on them? Would we go to counseling?
        7. Have we been completely honest with each other? Is there anything that the other person should know but does not?
        8. Are we confident in agreeing to a contract in front of our family, friends, and God to be with each other for the rest of our lives?
      15. Returning to First Principles
        1. Will we be good friends for a lifetime? 
        2. Will we be partners in success? Will we assume the best about each other and work on problems together?
        3. Will we be good parents whose qualities we want our kids to inherit?
        4. Are we willing to sacrifice for each other?
      questions before engaged

      Figure 5. Click here to acquire 101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged (7.5/10). Focused on Christian couples, there is a mix of questions good for anyone and those specific to the Bible. I’ve incorporated some of the best above, but there are other provocative questions here: What are five reasons a person would want to spend the rest of their live with you, and three reasons they wouldn’t? Who are the people in your life you’ve needed to forgive and how did you accomplish this?

      things I wish I'd Known

      Figure 6. Click here to acquire Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married (8/10). Also from a Christian perspective, though has a fairly broad application. By Gary Chapman, who also wrote the Five Love Languages. Especially good at discussing the two stages of love – the initial brain chemistry euphoria in which everything is easy and the following reality that requires intentionality but is far more rewarding. 

       

      Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone seriously dating and thinking about marriage? How about someone engaged? Or anybody who hasn’t found the right person yet but is looking ahead?

      For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Five Love Languages. 

      I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

        Marriage: Recommended

        The Gist: Get intentional about the most important decision in your life.

        The first of a three-part exploration of the marriage mindset. Click here to read part two: Derisking Marriage, and here to read part three: Two Weddings, One Marriage.

        The marriage mindset comes down to this:

         

        If you’re single, get serious: who you marry is just about the most important decision in your life. 

         

        If you’re dating, be deliberate: if s/he’s not the one, s/he’s in the way. 

         

        If you’re engaged or on your way there, congratulations! But look hard before you leap. 

         

        If you’re married, marvelous! Cherish your spouse and place yourself second.

        Rose

        Figure 1. An addendum and disclaimer: if you’re 13 years old, it’s perfectly fine to dream about getting married, but if you get caught up in a whirlwind romance with the heir to your parents’ enemies, please don’t take any drastic measures. Though the world often feels like it’s going to end when you’re a teenager and something goes wrong, try a little patience. For never was a story of more idiots than that of Romeo and his Juliet.

         

        Why get serious? Because marriage is awesome. There is nothing like having a permanent partner to pray with, to pray for, to pray for you; someone to hug when you get home; a trusted confidant who knows you and wants what is best for you; a companion who surprises you with delicious chocolate chip cookies; a protector who investigates sounds in the night (perhaps aided by a small arsenal or a big dog); a lover to experience countless intimate moments; another parent to raise your children to be all they can be; a sacrificing spouse that you will sacrifice yourself for; a friend to share your laughter and your tears, your highs and lows forever.

        So, yes, five stars out of five, I personally recommend it.  And you can observe that I’m a year and change in so you can say I’m still honeymooning but I’ll simply report that my life is better than ever. You should join the club. And if you’re like most Americans, you do want to get married – a delightful and worthy aspiration that you should pay at least as much attention to as you do plotting your career.  

        Notably, getting serious is more than being open to getting swept off your feet. There’s a harsh reality at work for women, compounded by modern society’s lie that men and women can pursue love and work at identical pacing. Many of my wife’s friends are in their twenties, hyper-focused on work (with the encouragement of everyone around them) and succeeding in acquiring degrees and job offers, but carefree about romance, sharing a fantasy that they’ll be reading Jane Austin in their favorite boutique coffee shop when Mr. Darcy will appear to lead them on a great adventure of love. Sometimes some version of that can happen, but there’s danger waiting around for it (just as there would be danger hoping that your dream job would magically open to you without your doing anything about it).

        Fancy guy

        Figure 2. Indeed, the very pronounced lesson of 19th century romantic literature is that a good marriage takes much scheming.

         

        The reasons are obvious, though nobody likes to acknowledge or discuss them at the appropriate ages: as if millennia of history could be doubted, dating apps confirm that women prefer to date older, more educated, more successful men and men prefer to date younger women. As a result, a man’s pool of opportunities expands well into his thirties and remains rather large almost until 50 while a woman’s shrinks almost immediately into adulthood, and more so if she pursues postgraduate education. This is an uncomfortable fact, but absolutely vital to transmit to young women, especially insofar as school may be one of the best sources of spouses (41% less likely to get divorced compared to alternative meeting locales).

        Football

        Figure 3. Imagine a five-star recruit who decides to just dabble in intramurals until he starts feeling the pressure in his early thirties to try out for the NFL – and then expects to join the Hall of Fame.

         

        The other factor that should encourage women to marry young is so they can have maximum flexibility in having as many kids as they want to. The biological window is not as small as you might think: according to Emily Oster, “the chance of having any children [is] very similar for women who [get] married at any age between 20 and 35” then it begins to decline, with those married between 35 and 39 90% as likely to have a child; 40-44 62%, 45-49 14%. That being said, according to surveys, American women are having fewer children than they want, so getting intentional early helps achieve the ultimate goal.

        Grandpa starrett

        Figure 4. Note that the data is mixed on whether having kids is good for your happiness, though the data is rather decisive that having grandkids is great for your happiness. And even the data claiming that kids are a hit to happiness also suggests that you’d have to have seven kids before you’d be as relatively unhappy as a single person.

         

        That men can wait longer to get serious about getting married and perhaps do better is unfair but true – and the truth is what should inform women’s strategy. Parents should tell their daughters, schools should educate their students, friends should strategize together: think about marriage prospects soon and often! Women need to know that their present appeal is not permanent – and decisively act on that knowledge to attract the best, reject the rest. And, in this context, the “best” means not just a great guy full of wonderful qualities but in particular a man who is ready to get married.

        Of course, that’s often the problem with men. And irrationally so! I offered above a rather poetic take on how marriage is awesome – but marriage is so awesome that its awesomeness can be shown statistically. The Institute for Family Studies reports that, compared to their single peers, married men…

        • Live longer (average: about 10 years); 
        • Make more money ($16,000 more – which is about half the median personal income! Or, put another way, 10-40% more for those otherwise similarly situated)
        • Report being happier (more than double as many married people as singles reporting being “very happy”), and perhaps relatedly…
        • Have sex more frequently and report greater satisfaction in it – even greater than those who cohabitate, so it’s not purely a matter of convenience;

        What more does the typical guy want?

        A man’s optimal dating strategy is to pursue the highest career prospects he can, knowing that his opportunities in the dating market expand with success and (some) age. (Once men drift toward their later thirties and beyond, they still have a lot of options but there are less women in the younger range who want to date that old and high quality women of various ages have already been taken.) But men in their twenties should still embrace the marriage mindset – again, school is a great source for a spouse and some religious communities do a fantastic job of creating a culture of marriage and practically set up young men for success (the Mormons, for example, host singles wards where pairing off happens rather efficiently). Perhaps from a pure dating economics perspective a full court press can wait until their early thirties, but men should be on the lookout for the one rather than a series of hot dates – because if a guy gets too used to looking for the wrong thing, he might not really know what the right thing is.

        Crosshair

        Figure 5. Also, the thousands of hours mastering targeting in Call of Duty turn out to have low romantic relevance.

         

        Strategically, both men and women should be upfront about what exactly they’re looking for: saying that you are dating to look for a spouse will properly screen out a good amount of people who don’t share your goal. And both genders should understand the math of romance, otherwise known as the optimal stopping problem. I’ve written about this before and you can read the explanation here, but the bottom line is that if you want to be married by age 35, you should go on lots of dates without committing to get a sense of what you want until you’re 24 – and then marry the next person you date who is better than anyone else you’ve dated before. Along the way, you should really think about what it is you do want (and what would be good for you). As time goes on, acknowledge the real and flawed human beings you are spending time with and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

        You should also be aware that the median age at first marriage in the United States has been climbing over time, with men now just over 30 and women just over 28 (with a couple years added if you pursued higher education). Given that a couple of years of dating before marriage is decent due diligence and that you’re trying out multiple options, adjust your strategy accordingly. If you’re fast approaching or beyond the average marriage age and getting concerned, forget regrets – they’re just sunk cost – and channel your concern into taking marriage more seriously than ever. The good news is that almost 70% of women who wait until 40 to get married eventually do tie the knot. 

        Tactically, in an age of dating apps, it’s easier than ever to put yourself out there. But it also can be emotionally draining to sift through so many choices, screen out the creeps, and make all the arrangements. What truly bothered me is that I like to think that most of what I do I am investing in for a lifetime of returns – when I sit down with a friend, I hope we benefit from each other’s company for decades. But when I was dating, I had to simultaneously approach each date as if this person could be the love of my life or someone I’d never see again! And yet quantity leads to quality. Keep at it – and take it as seriously as you would the most important decision in your life – because the payoff is so large.

        This is the best advice I’ve got for any individual – and I think it has a nice payoff for society at large as well. I’ve done my best to point to larger trends and data – but it’s also a reflection of my personal experience. I am a man who has always wanted to get married; was open-minded to it happening in my twenties and dated around enough to have a sense of what was good and bad, occasionally making mistakes along the way; decided to dedicate significant time, energy, and attention to finding my spouse when I was 30, leading me to a goal of taking out 3 women a week for 13 weeks; exhausted, I met a wonderful woman as date #31 and told her soon into meeting that I wanted to date her to explore if we would get married and if we discovered that wasn’t where we were headed, go our separate ways. Today, I’m married to her.

        But before we got married, we took a hard look at our odds. More on that in my next email.

        Seven Principles for making marriage work

        Figure 6. Click here to acquire Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (10/10). You can read my full review at this link – the author has run a gazillion experiments at the University of Washington trying to get at what makes people tick. I think it’s very helpful to be reading about what makes a good marriage before you get married so you have a sense of what to look for and what to avoid.

        meaning of marriage

        Figure 7. Click here to acquire the Meaning of Marriage (10/10). The book is based on a series of sermons that Tim Keller gave about being single and looking for love. I mentioned repeatedly that who you marry is just about the most important decision in your life – but the one more important may be that which affects your afterlife. Still, many faithful people have a version of the fantasy I described before regarding Mr. Darcy, except they assume their faith will lead them to the right person. I think the proper advice here is, as ever, pray as if it all depended on God, work as if it all depended on you. 

         

        Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is looking to get married? Or someone who should be? Or a parent who knows someone who should be?

        For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Five Love Languages. 

        I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

          If You’d Like To Be Liked

          The Gist: Honestly appreciate people.

          A review of How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

          If you’d like to be liked, Dale Carnegie says you already know the “greatest winner of friends the world has ever known.” Indeed, “You may meet him tomorrow coming down the street. When you get within ten feet of him, he will begin to wag his tail. If you stop and pat him, he will almost jump out of his skin to show you how much he likes you.” Yes, if you want to win friends and influence people, take as your model the family dog. 

          Dog

          Figure 1. “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx.

           

          Carnegie’s fundamental advice in one of the best selling books of all time is really very simple: honestly appreciate people. Whenever you are going to talk to someone – even or perhaps especially if it’s a difficult conversation – think: what do you like about this person? At the very least, that will put you in the right mindset. And then as you meet, if you happen to think of something that is true, positive, and would be appreciated by the person, share it! As Megan McArdle observes, “‘You are amazing and here’s why’ never gets old.”

          Stalin

          Figure 2. In college, I got an internship with the White House Office of Political Affairs, which reported to Karl Rove. I told my grandmother what I’d be doing that summer and she, a lifelong Democrat, said that she could think of something nice to say about nearly everyone – but not Karl Rove. I inquired, “What about Stalin?” She replied, “He had a nice mustache.”

           

          A related mandate is to embrace curiosity and take a genuine interest in others. After all, everyone you meet knows something you don’t. (Unless you’re a teenager. Then you know everything already.) Personally, I am fascinated by what people actually do in their job day to day, rather than simply the topline on their resume – someone may tell you she’s a teacher, but of what topics and what ages and how many kids does she see per day and how is she evaluated and what does she think of homeschooling and, my gosh, I have a thousand questions!

          Carnegie advises that there’s another benefit: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” Forget the basic small talk about the weather or the weekend. Move beyond the standard “how’s it going” “fine, you?” interaction. Caroline Webb advises to ask open questions “that can’t be answered with a yes or a no” and invite people “to share their thoughts, motivations, or feelings, rather than merely facts.” Find out what makes people come alive!

          Graveyard

          Figure 3. I once had lunch with a man who most came alive when recalling his recreational visits to graveyards. Ironic? Sure. Atypical? Different from every other meal I’ve ever had. But bear in mind that one of the most famous subjects of classical literature came alive from graveyard visits.

           

          You may recall that this is a neat echo of Carnegie’s wonderful advice for giving a speech: find your passion and you can connect with an audience. Find your conversation partner’s passion and they can connect with you! You can even just directly ask: what are you currently excited about? What are you spending time thinking about? The results are often extraordinarily interesting. And Carnegie reminds us, “the royal road to a person’s heart is to talk about the things he or she treasures most.” If it’s a commonality, you have a ready friendship. If it’s not, you can learn something new.

          Carnegie published his book in 1936 so we might add a particular exhortation: put away your phone and commit to being fully present with anyone you meet one study has found that even the mere presence of your digital device on a table can lessen people’s feelings of connection.  Focus instead entirely on the person in front of you – really intentionally listen to what they have to say and try to understand what values or goals you might have in common.

          Furthermore, be generally positive and specifically compassionate. Carnegie mentions you can’t wag your tail but you can and should smile to express your gratitude for someone’s time. Webb cites a study that found that “merely being near someone in a good mood can be enough to lift people’s motivation (and therefore their performance), and being near someone grumpy can do the opposite.” Remarkably “this happened even when people were working on completely different tasks—and it happened within five minutes, without any conversation.” But you of course will be having a conversation – so celebrate all the good things you can find going on in each other’s lives, laugh, swap stories and jokes. Olivia Fox Cabane defines charm as how delightful it is to interact with someone. Have a good time and you can give someone else the same.

          All of this is well and good but here we arrive at an insistence of Carnegie’s that clashes with my own personality: “You can’t win an argument.” Why not? Because at most you get “an academic, theatrical victory” but you lose “a person’s good will.” People don’t like to be wrong, or made to feel so. Warren Buffett considered this lesson one of the most profound of his life and he worked hard to change his natural tendency to be a contrarian so that he could win people over. 

          I haven’t quite followed that path as of yet, for better or worse. One interviewer set expectations in this way: “When you meet Grant Starrett, you’ll likely have two experiences: you’ll get in a debate with him, and you’ll like him.” Perhaps he was being generous. If he’s right, my guess is that humor plays a role. Or Bryan Caplan offers his own interpretation: “When Carnegie urges us to avoid argument, he primarily means a one-on-one attempt to reverse someone’s position even though at least one of you is upset.  He’s not against argumentative essays or public debates; neither does he oppose sportsmanlike conversations on controversial topics.” Indeed, Caplan argues that in a public debate, you want that theatrical victory. But in more personal settings, Carnegie’s warning should be in the back of your mind if tensions rise.

          Indeed, Carnegie’s very first piece of advice is to insist that you should not criticize, condemn, or complain. “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.” Carnegie holds up the example of Abraham Lincoln, who as a young lawyer was quite a vocal critic until he was drawn into a duel that was barely averted and vowed to change his ways. Your best bet is to take a cue from Lord Chesterfield: “Be wiser than other people if you can; but do not tell them so.”

          Flintlock

          Figure 4. If you’d really like to restore civility to politics, take advice from Abe Lincoln and Zell Miller: a dueling society is a polite society.

           

          This may be sensible if your utmost goal is to get people to like you – no one likes getting criticized – but as a practical matter, I don’t think that a good boss, parent, or friend should avoid it entirely. In Kim Scott’s popular matrix, Carnegie’s advice can seem awfully close to “ruinous empathy” while she encourages you to move to “radical candor.” Given that Carnegie puts such an emphasis on authenticity, a careful and honest approach may still be kosher. Cabane suggests that, before you criticize, you have to get into the right mindset of compassion:  “When people feel that you have their best interests at heart, it can change the dynamic entirely.” In particular, “try thinking of a person whom you highly respect just before you deliver criticism” – like a favorite grandparent. “If you were to make this comment to them, or in front of them, how would you word your criticism?”

          Carnegie realizes that sometimes some sort of correction is needed but he encourages you to be indirect. You might engage someone socratically to raise questions they had not thought about and tease out nuance. Just make sure you truly understand their position: Marshall Rosenberg writes that “Studies in labor-management negotiations demonstrate that the time required to reach conflict resolution is cut in half when each negotiator agrees, before responding, to accurately repeat what the previous speaker had said.” Webb suggests “the trick is to express your views without making the other person wrong, by finding ways in which they could be (partly) right and building your suggestions around that.” Tell people what you like and then what would make you like it even more. 

          For Carnegie, the important thing is to allow people to save face. Rosenberg warns that “When we combine observation with evaluation, others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying.”  The marriage expert John Gottman suggests that a lot of perennial disagreements are unresolvable, but if you are going to raise something, follow a few intentional steps: soften your introduction to set the right tone and ask for permission for a discussion, identify a specific situation (not a general trait), acknowledge your own responsibility, describe your own feelings about it, and then specifically identify what you want done going forward. And if you are the one in the wrong, Carnegie encourages you to “admit it quickly and emphatically.” 

          Of course, all of Carnegie’s advice has to do with what I mentioned in the very first sentence: If you’d like to be liked. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about that goal as one to pursue above and beyond any else. It certainly is wonderful to be blessed with friends – and I’d certainly like to influence ideas. But I also am interested in pursuing truth, which often best emerges through argument and bringing up uncomfortable ideas. I’ve been told that it’s impossible to know me without becoming more conservative and the trick may be to try to disagree without being disagreeable. And yet sometimes when I think of Dale Carnegie, I think of Will Rogers, a charming humorist who claimed he never met a man he didn’t like – but he had met Mussolini

          The critic of capitalism Sinclair Lewis was also a critic of Carnegie, claiming that the advice above taught people to “smile and bob and pretend to be interested in other people’s hobbies precisely so that you may screw things out of them.” But I think Lewis misses the boat on this one – if there’s one thing Carnegie is very clear on, it’s to give honest and sincere and genuine appreciation and interest. This contrasts entirely against more manipulative advice built on insincerity. Relatedly, one of the reasons older people tend to be happier is that, over the years, they edit their friend group and spend more and more time with people they actually like.

          Bryan Caplan, another natural contrarian, has the most insightful take on Carnegie’s work. Caplan argues that likability is not the only key to success, but it is certainly one of the easiest ones. “If a toxic genius builds a multi-billion-dollar company, the reason is probably his genius – not his toxicity.  And though you can’t choose to be a genius, you can choose to treat others well.” Caplan suggests that “While [the Carnegie method] isn’t a good way to accurately assess another person, it’s a good way to make friends and influence people.” The “big picture” is to “Stop demanding reciprocation from others. Unilaterally smile.  Unilaterally show interest.  Unilaterally encourage others to talk about themselves.” Ask yourself: “Before you treat another person in a less-than-perfectly-pleasant way, always ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to accomplish?’  You’ll rarely have a good answer for yourself…. Before you speak to another person in a less-than-perfectly-pleasant way, always ask yourself, ‘Is there a more constructive way to say this?’” Ultimately, he teaches his “kids to be the kind of positive person we’re delighted to meet.” May you do the same!

          I’ll close with an anecdote about two different kinds of charm. In the late 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone were two giants of British politics and the great offices went back and forth between them. One woman managed to sit next to each at different occasions and reported: “After dining with Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest person in England. But after dining with Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest person in England.”

          How to win friends and influence people

          Figure 5. Click here to acquire How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Carnegie claims that he “hired a trained researcher to spend one and a half years in various libraries reading everything [he] had missed, plowing through erudite tomes on psychology, poring over hundreds of magazine articles, searching through countless biographies, trying to ascertain how the great leaders of all ages had dealt with people.” And, amazingly, they “read over one hundred biographies of Theodore Roosevelt alone.” Which is appropriate in that TR every night used to look at who he was meeting the next day and stay up late reading books about whatever they were interested in. I’ll leave you with perhaps Carnegie’s most famous line: “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

           

          Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend.

          I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

            Bring Your Life Up To Code

            The Gist: How computer programs can make a better you.

            A review of Algorithms To Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.

            You might expect that the only use you have for a computer scientist is designing a better app. But he might be able to help you design a better you.

            Cyborg

            Figure 1. Especially if you’re a cyborg!

             

            Programmer Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths argue that “There is a particular set of problems that all people face, problems that are a direct result of the fact that our lives are carried out in finite space and time… For more than half a century, computer scientists have been grappling with, and in many cases solving, the equivalents of these everyday dilemmas.” Their book, Algorithms to Live By, is a survey of solutions to computer problems that have insightful things to say about human problems, like finding a mate or organizing your closet. And don’t be intimidated by the jargon: Oxford defines “algorithm” as a “A process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” Our authors insist: “When you cook bread from a recipe, you’re following an algorithm. When you knit a sweater from a pattern, you’re following an algorithm.” What other sets of rules might be helpful?

            Snapchat

            Figure 2. The computer scientist approach to romance is really quite simple – make a few billion dollars developing an extremely popular app, then maybe follow closely the steps described below, and you, too, could marry a supermodel

             

            You could spend a lifetime searching for the perfect spouse or house; a computer could spend perhaps even longer time searching for the perfect solution to a query. To actually arrive at a good solution sometime soon, computer scientists have continuously explored the optimal time to stop and move on to other problems – and it turns out that there is a proven mathematical solution under certain conditions: review the first 37% of an expected total and then choose the next best option that is better than anything seen so far. Why does this work? Imagine you are trying to hire the best secretary – but with the condition that once you’ve dismissed a candidate, you cannot recall him.

            “With just one applicant the problem is easy to solve—hire her! With two applicants, you have a 50/50 chance of success no matter what you do. You can hire the first applicant (who’ll turn out to be the best half the time), or dismiss the first and by default hire the second (who is also best half the time). Add a third applicant, and all of a sudden things get interesting. The odds if we hire at random are one-third, or 33%. With two applicants we could do no better than chance; with three, can we? It turns out we can, and it all comes down to what we do with the second interviewee. When we see the first applicant, we have no information—she’ll always appear to be the best yet. When we see the third applicant, we have no agency—we have to make an offer to the final applicant, since we’ve dismissed the others. But when we see the second applicant, we have a little bit of both: we know whether she’s better or worse than the first, and we have the freedom to either hire or dismiss her. What happens when we just hire her if she’s better than the first applicant, and dismiss her if she’s not? This turns out to be the best possible strategy when facing three applicants; using this approach it’s possible, surprisingly, to do just as well in the three-applicant problem as with two, choosing the best applicant exactly half the time.”

            Notably, “Even when we act optimally in the secretary problem, we will still fail most of the time—that is, we won’t end up with the single best applicant in the pool.” In other words, your soulmate could have been in the first 37% of people you dated and you’ll never find another person better – or your soulmate could be the 39th person out of 100 you would have dated had you not married #38 because she was better than the previous 37. But, crucially, there’s actually no better method of improving your odds within the parameters. Of course, the parameters might not perfectly reflect the real world – if there’s a chance your best reject of the first 37% will take you back, then you could explore more options without trying to commit; but, on the other hand, if there’s a chance that your best options won’t actually agree to marry you (perhaps you’re in their first 37%) then you actually should explore less before trying to settle down.

            A significant challenge comes if you don’t know the expected total: how can anyone guess, for example, the total number of people they’ll date in their lifetime? You could try to find an average or a proxy but the easiest expected total to examine is time. One way of looking at it is lifetime: if the average American male lives to 78, he has until just under 29 to explore and thereafter should marry his next best option; likewise, the average American woman lives to 81, suggesting she has until just under 30 to get the lay of the land – but this calculation does not take into account either the more narrow biological window for women having kids nor the economic reality that younger women tend to be able to date a larger pool of men. One might instead have a different model in mind: if one is absolutely determined to get married by a certain time – say 35 – then, factoring in only adult dating, the “better than before” optimal stopping age is 24.

            Diamond ring

            Figure 3. If lifetime is the proper window, then things worked out neatly for me but my younger wife apparently should have held off for more observation. She assures me, however, that she was on the accelerated timeline.

             

            Regardless, the implications of a time-based plan are twofold: first, you should explore a great variety of options in your initial phase so you know what kind of options are available to you and what you want; second, as your time window closes, you may need to lower your standards to succeed. 

            Inherently, the more you explore new options, the less likely they will be better than your familiar favorites – but everything that is currently a favorite was once new. So, front-load your exploration.Very amusingly, the mathematician who popularized this problem, Merrill Flood, introduced it in order to convince his daughter, who had just graduated high school but was in a serious relationship with an older man he did not approve of, to keep looking while she was still so young. Practically, if you’ve just moved to a city, you would do well to try out lots of different restaurants all at once – but by the time you’ve lived there for several years, the chances are that a new restaurant will not be as enjoyable as a favorite you’ve never had a bad experience with. Indeed, happiness researchers speculate that older people are happier partially because they’ve trimmed their social group and daily activities and spend most of their time with people they actually like doing things they want to do. In experiments where people try slot machines that have different pay-out rates than each other but the same over time, “people tend to over-explore—to favor the new disproportionately over the best.” But a dynamic situation – in which an individual slot machine’s pay-out rate differs over time – is impossible to perfectly optimize. That can be closer to actual life – but it does suggest that until your favorites disappoint, exploration after a certain point is overrated. 

            Indeed, optimal stopping is trying to prevent you from over-exploring: once you’ve seen 37% of a group, you tend to have a good sense of what’s out there. When you find the next best thing, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: quit while you’re ahead. You should also beware the situation in which your exploration phase is meaningfully different from your decision phase – where, for whatever reason, the kind and quality of options you had available to you before are no longer available (and then perhaps you ought to reset the clock). If what you’re looking for is quantifiable, then the math is pretty straightforward – if you wanted to hire the secretary who was the best typist, regardless of other qualities, “the chance that our next applicant is in the 96th percentile or higher will always be 1 in 20… the decision of whether to stop comes down entirely to how many applicants we have left to see.” So, “when looking at the next-to-last applicant, the question becomes: is she above the 50th percentile? If yes, then hire her; if not, it’s worth rolling the dice on the last applicant instead, since her odds of being above the 50th percentile are 50/50 by definition.” For the quantifiable, the math rolls on easily: “you should choose the third-to-last applicant if she’s above the 69th percentile, the fourth-to-last applicant if she’s above the 78th, and so on, being more choosy the more applicants are left. No matter what, never hire someone who’s below average unless you’re totally out of options.” Notably, if you have this kind of specific information, your chance of getting the best option jumps considerably, up to 58% – and you might even adopt a rule that says if an option appears above a certain threshold, it should be instantly taken. For the less quantifiable, you might chance committing to a dream option in the exploration phase – but as the commitment phase drags on without an obviously superior option, you might need to reconsider what you’re looking for.

            So far we’ve been considering searching for new intrigues like restaurants and romances but computer science can also tell us how to best organize (for best search) things stored in email inboxes, closets, and bookshelves – and it turns out that the best method for sorting is often not to sort at all. “Sorting something that you will never search is a complete waste; searching something you never sorted is merely inefficient.” How often are you trying to find a specific book on your personal shelves? Consider the opportunity cost: “we search with our quick eyes and sort with slow hands.” You should be especially wary as the size of the organizing task grows – the more stuff there is, the greater multiple of wrong places each item could be. Christian and Griffiths argue further that for your own inbox or computer, it’s often faster simply to use a search bar than to devote lots of ongoing time meticulously grouping everything into folders.

            socks

            Figure 4. The post-laundry optimal sorting of “‘socks confound[s] me!’ confessed legendary cryptographer and Turing Award-winning computer scientist Ron Rivest… He was wearing sandals at the time.”

             

            You may be determined to get organized – and maybe you have to because you’re running out of room. I’ve previously reviewed (and enjoyed) Marie Kondo’s Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the main advice of which is to only keep things that spark joy – but Kondo also has detailed instructions as to how to beautifully organize your closets according to the colors and types of items. Computer scientists reject beauty in favor of utility because there’s a significant trade-off between computer performance and storage capacity. And apparently innumerable studies have shown that the most efficient way to organize is to sort everything such that your most recently used items are the most convenient. Or, to put it in more familiar closet purging terminology, the winning question is: “When was the last time you wore it?” Notably, demonstrably less efficient means of purging include random removal, getting rid of the oldest stuff, and even getting rid of the least frequently used stuff (but computer scientists appear not yet to have tested the efficiency of “spark joy.”)

            underwear

            Figure 5. The computer scientist who arrived at the “least recently used” optimization was a Hungarian named Lazlo Belady who fled Hungary in 1956 with nothing more than “one change of underwear” and his thesis. In 1961, he managed to get into the United States but only with “his wife, an infant son, and $1,000.” Christian and Griffiths note: “It seems he had acquired a finely tuned sense of what to keep and what to leave behind by the time he found himself at IBM, working on cache eviction.” 

             

            An overarching theme of the book is to be computationally kind to yourself and others. “One of the implicit principles of computer science, as odd as it may sound, is that computation is bad: the underlying directive of any good algorithm is to minimize the labor of thought.” Humans can easily be overloaded: “With one ball in the air, there’s enough spare time while that ball is aloft for the juggler to toss some others upward as well. But what if the juggler takes on one more ball than he can handle? He doesn’t drop that ball; he drops everything. The whole system, quite literally, goes down.” Unfortunately, humans can’t simply get more RAM – “we’re stuck with what we got.” Computers avoid getting thrashed by doing fewer things at once and coalescing similar tasks to do together  – which neatly echoes the best of self-help: focus on one thing at a time, be willing to say no to things outside your core interests, and group tasks to minimize switching costs. Work on whatever you are most passionate about, decline invitations to less important activities, and treat your email like your mailbox by checking it once a day. If that’s hard given your responsibilities, do your best:

            “For your computer, the annoying interruption that it has to check on [is] you. You might not move the mouse for minutes or hours, but when you do, you expect to see the pointer on the screen move immediately, which means the machine expends a lot of effort simply checking in on you. The more frequently it checks on the mouse and keyboard, the quicker it can react when there is input, but the more context switches it has to do. So the rule that computer operating systems follow when deciding how long they can afford to dedicate themselves to some task is simple: as long as possible without seeming jittery or slow to the user…To find this balancing point, operating systems programmers have turned to psychology, mining papers in psychophysics for the exact number of milliseconds of delay it takes for a human brain to register lag or flicker. There is no point in attending to the user any more often than that… The moral is that you should try to stay on a single task as long as possible without decreasing your responsiveness below the minimum acceptable limit. Decide how responsive you need to be—and then, if you want to get things done, be no more responsive than that.”

            “We can be ‘computationally kind’ to others by framing issues in terms that make the underlying computational problem easier.” You’ll get better results asking for something specific and easily answerable (“Are you available Tuesday at 2 PM?”) then something general that requires much more cognitive work (“When are you available in the next few weeks?”) Or to use another example: if a group of friends (or couple) is trying to decide where to eat or what movie to watch or what to do, the least empathetic answer is some punting version of “I don’t know, I’m flexible – what do you want to do?” which translates into “Here’s a problem, you handle it.” The much better option is to answer “Personally, I’m inclined toward x. What do you think?” Trying to guess what others want is one of the most difficult computational issues there is – help others out! Indeed, this is why you need to tell your loved ones what you want for Christmas.

            Because of the prospect of overload, simple systems are very often much better than complex systems. “A theme that came up again and again in [their] interviews with computer scientists was: sometimes ‘good enough’ really is good enough” Harry Markowitz won the Nobel prize in economics for demonstrating that diversifying across risky assets could produce a superior, less risky return – but his personal investments were actually a very simple 50/50 split between US stocks and bonds and he did just fine. For most people whose heads hurt when they have to think about money, they’ll be far better off with a set-it-and-forget-it diversified self-balancing index than trying to manage it closely themselves.

            pencil

            Figure 6. You just need to be careful that you don’t “overfit” your goals by creating the wrong incentives for your organization or overzealously pursuing one thing at the expense of others (such as taking unhealthy steroids to build muscles.) A fear among futurists is that some mega-computer is going to someday be directed to maximize pencil production and then bulldoze everyone’s home for the wood (perhaps with you in it because you’re wasting pencils). 

             

            Consistent with the overarching theme of doing less computing, if you do need to solve a really hard problem, the experience of computer science would tell you to first make the problem less hard and solve that first. In “constraint relaxation,” ask yourself how you’d take on a challenge if you had unlimited resources or if you could instantly learn a new skill or whatever and you may very well find that you’re well on your way to figuring out how to overcome your issue.

            underwear

            Figure 7. Just don’t start executing as if the constraint doesn’t exist at all, a la South Park gnomes’ problematic plan: Step 1 – Collect underpants. Step 2 – ? Step 3 – Profit

             

            Christian and Griffith have got lots of other advice from computer science – about how to best do your laundry (find “the single step that takes the least amount of time—the load that will wash or dry the quickest. If that shortest step involves the washer, plan to do that load first. If it involves the dryer, plan to do it last”), run auctions (everyone should submit their best price with the anticipation that the highest bidder will pay whatever the second highest bidder proposed), or manage your to do list (if a low priority thing is preventing a high priority thing, low becomes high – but 84% of scheduling problems have not settled on an optimal solution) They’ve got complaints – about sports tournaments (which are not optimized to ensure the best team prevails, for better or worse), about libraries and bookstores (which should display the most recently returned/bought books up front, not the newest acquisitions), and about people’s approach to gambling (slot machines are memoryless and so you can never improve your odds – because there is no optimal stopping point, you probably should never start). But let’s conclude where we began, with romance:

            A game-theoretic argument for love would highlight one further point: marriage is a prisoner’s dilemma in which you get to choose the person with whom you’re in cahoots. This might seem like a small change, but it potentially has a big effect on the structure of the game you’re playing. If you knew that, for some reason, your partner in crime would be miserable if you weren’t around—the kind of misery even a million dollars couldn’t cure—then you’d worry much less about them defecting and leaving you to rot in jail.

            algorithms to live by

            Figure 8. Click here to acquire Christian and Griffith’s Algorithms to Live By (8/10). I very much appreciated the idea of trying to apply solutions in one field to a much broader array – and I wish there were more quality books from a variety of professions that did this. Note that if you are absolutely determined to organize your bookshelves, apparently the best algorithm is “mergesort” where you divide your books into approximately equal piles, ideally recruit as many volunteers as piles, sort each pile, then combine the piles two at a time.

             

            Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is unmarried and wants to optimize their dating? Or anybody you try to do things with? How about someone with a closet of finite space?

            For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Tech-Wise Family, which includes 7 specific and escalating steps to spend less time with your favorite screen. 

              Let Me Follow My Bent

              The Gist: What happens if kids have no curriculum at all?

              A review of multiple books, most notably Unschooled by Kerry McDonald.

              “Nancy was concerned for her son. At eight years old, in school for the first time in his life, Tom was not doing well. After three months, his teacher, Mr. Engle, called him ‘addled,’ or unable to think clearly. Tom had spent his childhood up to that point freely playing and exploring near his home, and he found the adjustment to school difficult. He especially disliked the emphasis on sitting, memorizing, and repeating, and he found the teacher’s ways harsh and rigid. Tom was miserable. Nancy went to speak to Mr. Engle about her son, but she was turned off by his sharp ways. Frustrated by the teacher’s tactics and his low opinion of her son, Nancy removed Tom from school and homeschooled him. Thomas Edison was done being schooled.

              At home, free to be a curious boy once again, Edison developed a passion for books and knowledge. Nancy mostly allowed Tom to learn naturally, following his own interests. Edison biographer Matthew Josephson writes that ‘she avoided forcing or prodding and made an effort to engage his interest by reading him works of good literature and history that she had learned to love.’ A former teacher, Nancy Edison facilitated her son’s learning by noticing the things that interested him and gathering books and resources to help him explore those topics more fully. Tom became a voracious reader, reading at age nine the great works of Dickens and Shakespeare and many others. Also at nine, Tom became interested in science, so his mother brought him a book on the physical sciences… and he performed every experiment within it. This led to a passion for chemistry, so his mother gathered more books for him. Edison spent all of his extra money to buy chemicals from a local pharmacist and to purchase science equipment, and he conducted his first experiments in a makeshift lab in his home’s basement while still just a tween. Josephson writes that in allowing Edison so much freedom and autonomy, his mother ‘brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path.’ Edison himself wrote about his mother: ‘She understood me; she let me follow my bent.’”

              Lightbulb

              Figure 1. Enlightened learning in this case led to much broader enlightenment.

               

              This story about Thomas Edison is provided by homeschooling mother of four and Harvard education school graduate Kerry McDonald in her book Unschooled and demonstrates an especially different approach to education in which children self-direct their own learning. But – my gosh! – if children choose what to do day in and day out, will they learn anything at all? Won’t kids endlessly play games, fail to get into college (much less the Ivy of their parents’ dreams), and then be totally unprepared for the “real world” that awaits them in adulthood? There is a really small sample size of kids who are brought up this way but advocates claim that trusting children yields amazing results. Whether you’re prepared to completely abandon the traditional curriculum or not, there’s something to learn from their experiences.

              It’s probably worthwhile exploring the origin story of the Sudbury Valley School, one of the rare institutions that practices unschooling. Daniel Greenberg was a popular physics professor at Columbia University who became frustrated that his students “seemed motivated to get the highest grades they could while learning the least possible amount of the subject matter.” Students gave him high marks for teaching but practically none used his class as inspiration to read and learn deeper about physics outside his curriculum. Greenberg became convinced that conventional school had so strangled the natural curiosity of kids that college was much too late to fix them and so he abandoned his prestigious position to found Sudbury, a 10 acre campus in rural Massachusetts. His ideal was “a free market place of ideas, a free enterprise system of talents” where “students should be free to explore any ideas that engage their interests” and, incredibly, without any required curriculum at all. Operating since 1968, about 75% of alumni have gone on to college and, according to one survey done by Boston College psychologist and Sudbury parent Dr. Peter Gray, the vast majority have been “remarkably successful in finding employment that interested them and earned them a living.”

              Panda

              Figure 2. I once took a seminar on the history of Chinese-American relations in which one of my peers soon confessed that she was a proud “panda-hugger” who adored the People’s Republic. That description seemed to capture the mood of the class, except for myself and a couple of others who vigorously dissented against the party line (thankfully, there was no Cultural Revolution to dispense with us.) My professor was not exactly sympathetic to the minority. At one point, he proposed a rule that each person get equal time to air their views; I countered that each view deserved equal time and there wasn’t much learning from continuous echoes. But, more remarkably, he asked me to stop reading material outside the curriculum because my unique knowledge of the area disadvantaged my classmates.

               

              What unschooling relies on is children’s natural curiosity about how the world works – and then fanning that curiosity into a roaring flame. As McDonald insists, “The deepest, most meaningful, most enduring learning is the kind of learning that is self determined.” Adults unschooling kids do three things: model the behaviors you want your kids to pursue, give your kids a rich variety of opportunities to explore, and empower your kids to chase their curiosities to the maximum.

              Lighter

              Figure 3. Be an arsonist of curiosity! 

               

              John Holt, who became so frustrated with conventional school that he helped popularize homeschooling as an alternative, described an incredible semester at an open-minded 1960s-era elementary school in which the teacher was in the habit of writing down any unanswered questions that her children had on big pieces of paper hung around their homeroom, to be investigated at leisure as much as children’s curiosity persisted. One spring, as children put away their winter clothes, one asked why they could not be washed. “Many of them knew that it was because the wool would shrink. But why did wool shrink?” The class wrote a letter to the state university asking for use of a microscope, which eventually arrived. The kids excitedly learned how to use the microscope and soon examined “wool fibers before and after washing,” followed by a “number of other fabrics,” noticing differences based on how they were woven. So these elementary school children then decided that they wanted to learn how to weave, wrote another letter to get raw wool, “washed it, carded it, spun it, and wove it.” One kid “thought it would be interesting to find out how much work it would take to make the cloth” and so they tracked the man hours to produce one “small square of cloth” and were shocked to discover it was 72! They then got interested in calculating “how long would it take to make a whole suit,” which “brought in a good deal of arithmetic, plus the problem of calculating the area of an odd-shaped object.” Once discovered, “they began to wonder how people like the early colonists ever managed to find time to make their own clothes” and researched history, which led to both to looking at the innovations of time-saving devices and labor relations, even prompting a class field trip to a textile mill. From there, they researched how to dye their cloth (which led to an exploration of botany); then they got interested in the diversity of wool and wondered why different kinds cost different prices, so one kid began to map out the origins of wool across the world, others investigated the different animals wool came from and how hard they were to raise. They did all this while investigating other questions of interest. “In a year the class of thirty-five children borrowed seven hundred books.”

              Warren Buffett

              Figure 4. Sure, this sounds like an impressive semester. But, with just a little more effort, the class could have discovered the undervalued textile mill stock Berkshire Hathaway.

               

              Perhaps the most vital skills your child should learn are literacy and numeracy – both subjects wind up being tested ahead of college (for now) but they are also genuinely useful in the real world. Unschooling seizes on that second point: showing your kids the actual uses you and they have for math and reading will be infinitely more engaging than a compulsory examination of abstract blackboard formulas or reading at a preset pace a boring book of no special relevance or interest. Between kindergarten and 6th grade, the average Tennessean spends over 7,000 hours attending school. But according to award-winning public school teacher John Taylor Gatto, “reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on.” Sudbury more specifically reports that “it takes about twenty hours to learn the entire K–6 mathematics curriculum when a child is interested in learning it.”

              Many unschoolers initially get excited about math due to interest in games – adding and subtracting from their Monopoly money, calculating probability for Dungeons and Dragons dice rolls, comparing on base percentages for baseball players. McDonald insists that her kids just treat math workbooks as fun puzzles to work on, the same way you might fill in the daily crossword for your own fun. The idea is to explicitly discuss all the math around your kids – the measuring and timing of daily cooking, the list-making and bargain-hunting of weekly shopping – and then cultivate their interests until the political kid examines campaign contributions and creates a pie chart of the federal budget, the budding businesswoman follows stock market price-to-earnings ratios and learns accounting, the hands-on tinkerer reads manuals and takes apart and rebuilds equipment to precision. Notably, unschoolers are openly skeptical that every child should study all advanced math that never comes up in day to day life – if a child loves the subject and wants to study it further, by all means, they should do so; if a teenager wants to go to a college with certain requirements they have not yet hit, they’ll be incentivized to hit them on their own.

              Ace of spades

              Figure 5. One economist helpfully suggests making bets with your kids. This can be especially profitable shortly after a birthday check arrives from Grandma: kids make perfect poker marks!

               

              Meanwhile, perhaps the primary motivation for unschoolers to read is envy. In an institution like Sudbury, children “became motivated to read primarily by observing older students reading and talking about what they had read.” As one reported, “I wanted the same magic they had; I wanted to join that club.” In a home, if you want your children to read, you should read – yes, aloud to them, but also tell them about what you’re reading and let them see you read and let them see the fruits of your reading, including the books spread across the house for little hands to thumb through. The same principle applies if a particular subject is important to you: if you want your kids to love the Gospel, then make it a center of your home with your own personal Bible study, grace at meals, your own prayer at bedtime, etc. If you really want your child to love reading, let them read what they’d like. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Samuel Johnson is “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history;” he advised:

              “I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach. If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study”

              Once they have the basics, the world is their oyster! Gatto insists anything in the world of any significance is accessible to a 13 year old mind – the question, as ever, is what engages your child’s ambition and delight? Gatto recalls that “until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all” and that “only a few lifetimes ago, things were very different in the United States. Originality and variety were common currency.” Draw attention to the heroes of America: “A considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln…” And, yes, these are exceptional historical figures who had meaningfully different experiences from contemporaries who instead had to spend their time cultivating fields or practicing a trade – but presumably your kids don’t have to do those things, either. Indeed, “if David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do.” 

              This flexibility can lead to kids truly pursuing their passions. At Sudbury, “Classes in specific subjects are offered when students request them, but no one is required or particularly encouraged to join a class and many students never join one. Classes have no formal status and last only as long as student interest lasts.” One girl, Carol, “developed a love of boats,” first playing with small models in a pond on campus but later “took advantage of the school’s open-campus policy to spend as much time as possible at a nearby seacoast area, where she studied navigation and sailing.” She became captain of a cruise ship. Another girl, Fran, got fascinated with making clothes for her dolls, “then, as a teenager, she began making clothes for herself and her friends.” She graduated to become a “master patternmaker and head of a facility in the high-fashion clothing industry.” One boy, Henry, was enchanted with science and biology – and was able to regularly retrieve dead animals for dissection. He wound up becoming a successful mortician!

              Lightning

              Figure 6. A tad more challenging, at least for a muggle, would be if your child is primarily interested in a wizarding career. To this end, you may instead embrace the advice of Cal Newport, who argued that most people’s biggest passions (such as sports or movies) do not have commensurate employment opportunities and that you should instead focus on what you’re good at. But don’t count out flexibility! Perhaps your child may become, if not a wizard, a magician.

               

              The core of unschooling involves entrusting children with responsibility with the understanding that it’s the best preparation for adulthood they could receive. In Gray’s survey,

              “Graduates explained that at Sudbury Valley they had always had to make their own decisions about how to spend their time, that there was nobody to blame but themselves for mistakes they made, and that they had had to work through the school’s democratic procedures for any changes they had wanted in the school. The resultant sense of personal responsibility remained with them, they said, and served them well in higher education and employment.”

              But if your kid does not have a particular, immediate focus to pursue to the ends of the earth, then try to draw it out. At its purest, unschooling repositions education as an invitation – for better or worse, “A primary characteristic of unschooling is its emphasis on noncoercive education, or the ability to say no.” McDonald offers the analogy of a museum: 

              “Information, exhibits, and lectures are offered, usually centered on the museum’s focus (art, science, nature), and museum guides are available to answer questions or lead a demonstration. Nothing is forced. If you want to explore a particular exhibit for a long period of time and ignore the other ones, you can. If you want to spend time in the contemporary art wing and ignore the impressionist painters, go for it. If you want to listen to a lecture on animal behavior or do a hands-on geology activity, it’s there for you. If you don’t want to, that’s OK too. You can come and go as you choose. The museum won’t cajole you or evaluate what you know. With unschooling, as with museum learning, resources, materials, and opportunities are made widely available for exploration and discovery—without coercion.”

              For reasons that are probably obvious, the small number of kids who are unschooled can underperform conventionally schooled kids on early standardized tests (though those conventionally schooled kids underperform structured homeschoolers). Unschoolers are not especially concerned. William Stixrud argues that “brain development makes it easier to learn virtually everything (except foreign languages) as we get older.” Gatto notes that there was no widespread formal schooling in the American colonies, yet literacy was near-universal among free adults. When it matters, it will come – and stay. “Most of us learned the periodic table through a preestablished schooling curriculum with various learning objectives and assessments. How much do you remember? In one family McDonald describes, most of the kids learned to read early – but, incredibly, the parents let one kid’s illiteracy persist until he was 13 – at that time, he really wanted to read his sports schedule – and he went from reading Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare in a matter of weeks.

              Now, I don’t know about you, but I personally would have a difficult time letting illiteracy persist into teenage years. My own read on unschooling is that it can give you hope that if a complete abandonment of the traditional curriculum seems to work out not too shabbily, giving kids substantial autonomy to pursue their interests within the broad goals of advancing literacy and numeracy offers a lot of promise. If our goal is to teach kids how to effectively communicate ideas, I don’t mind if they read and write about topics that they themselves are curious about rather than are imposed upon them – but I do rather think they may need the broad requirement to indeed read and write on a regular basis. I’ve reviewed the work of the economist Bryan Caplan before on how schools are wasting lots of time – he homeschooled his kids and gave them lots of flexibility on what to read but required that they do math problem sets for at least 90 minutes a day. But beyond those basics – read, write, and calculate – there’s a lot of room for parents to curate kids’ adventures and curiosities.

              There are still other elements of unschooling that I have mixed feelings about.

              Unschoolers are very wary of evaluation. At Sudbury, there are two exceptions: “students who wish to use expensive or potentially dangerous equipment… must first become ‘certified’… by proving they can use it appropriately” and, if they wish to acquire a diploma, they must “prepare and defend a thesis explaining why they are ready to graduate and how they have prepared themselves for responsible adult life outside of the school” – to be graded by outside reviewers not present at the school. Unschoolers do this because they want kids to constantly explore their curiosity rather than chase grades and scores. They also argue that testing does not necessarily enforce genuine learning and that it’s artificially outside the real world experience with arbitrary restrictions (such as forbidding the use of calculators or notes). They also point to evidence that the very act of knowing you’re being evaluated has two effects: people are generally less creative and novices in particular underperform. But on the flip side of that equation, experts actually perform better when they know they’re being evaluated. My sense is that mastery requires relatively constant feedback on performance and I am not sure, based on my reading, whether unschoolers reject that entirely or are open-minded to it so long as kids are actively asking for it. 

              Unschoolers are also quite zealous about the opportunity for kids to play – some of the benefits of which you may very well agree with. Gray argues:

              “Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates. In vigorous outdoor play, children deliberately dose themselves with moderate amounts of fear—as they swing, slide, or twirl on playground equipment, climb on monkey bars or trees, or skateboard down banisters—and they thereby learn how to control not only their bodies, but also their fear. In social play children learn how to negotiate with others, how to please others, and how to modulate and overcome the anger that can arise from conflicts.”

              Sudbury believes that free play is especially powerful for kids playing with other kids, especially of mixed age and without adult interference (in other words, a pick-up sandlot baseball game rather than Little League). Sudbury believes that by mixing children of different ages, younger children can get exposure to advanced topics familiar to their older peers and also be effectively taught by near-peers who might better understand their difficulties. Further, mixing ages allows younger children to participate in activities that would otherwise be beyond their skill level, such as a game of catch where their throws aren’t very precise. Meanwhile, older children get the benefit of reinforcing their skills by teaching younger kids, apparently inducing more nurturing behavior. Younger children also apparently inspire older kids to be more creative. For better or worse, Sudbury also rejects adult-organized sports in order to foster kids’ ownership of their activities, including negotiating mutually satisfactory conclusions to disputes. There are some interesting arguments here and I am quite open-minded to letting kids play but I am not quite there at letting it go on indefinitely and I do wonder if fully embracing every kid’s opportunity to exit at any time undermines resilience.  Of course, all of these benefits of play with other kids can be more difficult to regularly achieve in a homeschooling environment.

              Baseball

              Figure 7. The real question is how kids on the sandlot resolve the infield fly rule.   

               

              I suspect, however, that there is a bigger problem: what if a kid only wants to play video games? At Sudbury, “all [kids] have unlimited access to computers and television, and almost all of them play and enjoy video games.” Unschoolers argue that it’s essential to give kids exposure to and understanding of the tools of the adult world – and that prohibition may even make tech more appealing. Sudbury further reports that kids are learning to read faster as a result of early exposure to social media – and various authors cite additional benefits to video gaming, including problem solving and hand-eye coordination. One homeschooling parent suggests that her kids were inspired by playing video games to learn Japanese, take music lessons to be able to play the theme song to their favorites, and work to earn money for more games. And, ultimately, Sudbury argues that, for most kids, video games are a release from their hyper-controlled daily life, the digital realm being a place where they can “make their own decisions and strive to meet challenges that they themselves have chosen. At school and in other adult-dominated contexts they may be treated as idiots who need constant direction, but in the game they are in charge and can solve difficult problems and exhibit extraordinary skills.” Sudbury reports that their students strike a healthy balance – and indeed prefer to be out in the woods playing with their friends than playing a game. Unschoolers generally advise that as kids are given control over their time, the appeal of screens dissipate. 

              I am not so sure. If you look at time data on unemployed adult men, who have presumably complete control over their time, they are spending 7.5 hours a day on leisure via screens. Further, as Stixrud notes, “If you’re a kid, the formula begins to look like this: the more technology you use, the poorer your self-regulation. The more technology you use, the worse your executive function (your Pilot). This matters a lot; self-regulation and executive function are about twice as good predictors of academic success as IQ at all grade levels, including college.” Screen leisure has significant opportunity cost: sleep and time in real life with family and friends, not to mention reading, writing, and math. I’ve reviewed Andy Crouch’s thoughtful take on technology for families before – and he recommends a total prohibition on kids using screens until age 10, with limits thereafter. I also think of the neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was doing pretty poorly in conventional school until his mother limited his television time and required that he write for her two book reports a week and – wouldn’t you know it? – his grades improved as he went on to bigger and better things.

              Amidst all their trust for kids, unschoolers do like to cite the doctrine of A.S. Neill, who said he gave the children at his British boarding (un)school Summerhill, “freedom, not license” – that is, responsibility, not permissiveness. It meant that kids were welcome to play the trumpet – but not in the middle of the night when people were trying to sleep. It also meant that kids were welcome to swear – but were not allowed to insult each other. A related concept is distinguishing hazards and risks: “The minute a child thinks an adult is in charge of the space, and in charge of determining risks, setting limits, and managing conflicts, the play space can become both more sterile and more dangerous. In such instances, the responsibility for safety rests outside the child.” All of which sounds like at least some cabining of total freedom, except that Summerhill allegedly permitted underage sex and had anarchic problems associated with its completely democratic operating structure (in which students, outnumbering teachers by a significant margin, exercised full power – Sudbury operates similarly but without the same reported problems). As if that wasn’t enough, some of its teachers were prominent British Communists and Neill himself was sympathetic – though, to his credit, he realized that his anarchic school was rather inconsistent with totalitarian Stalinism.

              All of which is to say: I both recognize the benefits of play but also think it ought to have limitations – that kids should be directed to learn but with empowerment to take that whatever direction they might. Especially with more structure, I don’t think college should be much of a problem – McDonald reports that one successful applicant remarked “For my application transcript, my dad and I sat down and tried to list out all of the books I had read. Books were my curriculum.” The standard curriculum has problems – especially if it is true that it teaches in 7,000 hours what only takes 100. Ultimately, trusting kids to pursue their own interests has great promise, especially in that it much better prepares them for the “real world” than the compulsory abstractions of conventional school.

              Unschooled

              Figure 8. Click here to acquire Unschooled by Kerry McDonald, a Harvard education school graduate and homeschooling mom of four. In addition to her overview of how to unschool your kids at home, she also thinks ahead to a broader reform: “When trying to envision what an unschooled future might look like, public libraries are ideal examples. Publicly funded, sometimes supplemented by private donations, libraries are free, self-directed learning spaces in the truest sense.”

              Free to learn

              Figure 9. Click here to acquire Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray, a Boston College psychologist who sent his son to Sudbury Valley School. Much of the book is a profile of how the school works, though he does begin with some underwhelming anthropology about the nature of childhood. Gray rather boldly predicts that most schools will adopt the Sudbury model in the decades to come – but also notes that at Sudbury, there’s quite a bit of self-selection going on, with about half the students having trouble in conventional school before arriving and the other half being the children of true-believing parents. To give you a sense of how much he entrusted his son with responsibility, I relay this anecdote:

              When he was thirteen, my son went to London for two weeks by himself. I must admit, that was back in 1982, when it was easier to be a trustful parent than it is today. He had approached his mom and me in the spring, when he was still twelve, with this proposal. He would earn all the money for the trip himself, so we couldn’t use cost as an excuse to stop him. He would plan the whole trip himself—in fact, he had already planned much of it. He wanted to prove to himself that he could organize and do something this complicated without adult help. He also wanted to see certain castles and museum treasures, which he had been reading about and which were prominent in the Dungeons and Dragons games he played. He had never been abroad. Neither, for that matter, had his mom or I.

              Unschooled

              Figure 10. Click here to acquire How Children Learn, by John Holt, an educator who helped popularize homeschooling. The book is a bit odd, sometimes reading like diary entries of interactions with specific children, other times having general observations of education. The edition I read also included commentary by Holt more than a decade after he first wrote the book about how his thinking had developed – and that actually was often quite interesting as a contrast. Holt said: “this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult.”  Holt was an advocate of youth rights and believed that “A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing. Why can’t we make more use of this great drive for understanding and competence?” Kids needed to get real exposure to the real world because “[Children] want to be able to do what the bigger people around them do—read, write, go places, use tools and machines. Above all, they want, like the big people, to control their immediate physical lives, to stand, sit, walk, eat, and sleep where and when they want.

               

              Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is a parent? How about a grandparent? How about anyone who is a former child?

              For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Case Against Education

                Housetraining Your Teen Wolf

                The Gist: “Kids need responsibility more than they deserve it”.

                 

                A review of The Self Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, and the Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

                What if the reason that younger adults act like children is that older children (i.e. teenagers) are not treated like adults?

                Gavel

                Figure 1. Or perhaps what if it’s because teenagers are not tried like adults? Ever since teens stopped fearing the death penalty…  

                 

                Georgetown neuropsychologist William Stixrud and tutor Ned Johnson co-wrote the Self-Driven Child, which argues that while parents should model good behavior and offer sound advice, they also need to let their children make more of their own decisions (and mistakes).

                Stixrud and Johnson start from the basic premise that all “humans have three basic [psychological] needs.” First, we need to feel a sense of competence, not necessarily of Olympic caliber, but more in the sense of comfortably handling our day to day responsibilities and challenges. Second, we need to feel a sense of relatedness, where we feel a caring connection to others. And third, we need to feel a sense of autonomy, in which we decide what we might do and whether to do it.

                Freud

                Figure 2. Unclear how that summary fits within Freud’s crucial insight that we are really just attempting to displace our fathers to be with our mothers.

                 

                Various authors suggest that teens today are especially lacking in the last, autonomy – legally obligated to spend most of their time in regimented educational institutions, heavily encouraged to take on specific extracurriculars, assigned mandatory homework, relatively restricted from employment opportunities, and closely regulated in what remains of their personal life. Dr. Peter Gray argues that, “I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today. Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions.” Teenage angst may be a well-worn stereotype, but a former editor in chief of Psychology Today found that “teenage distress – whether mild or severe – is a distinctly American phenomenon.”

                State u

                Figure 3. Who knew that American exceptionalism boiled down to mopey teenagers?

                 

                Over-scheduled, overwhelmed, and over-protected, today’s kids can become anxious, angry, or resigned. Indeed, one definition of anxiety is feeling a lack of control. Stixrud and Johnson believe that “autonomy is key to developing motivation” and report that over the last sixty years, “students have steadily reported lower and lower levels of internal locus of control (the belief that they can control their own destiny) and higher levels of external locus of control (the belief that their destiny is determined by external forces).” Gray notes, “the average young person in 2002 was more external (more prone to claim lack of personal control) than were 80 percent of young people in the 1960s.” Stixrud gives a practical example of this in action: “If you act as if it’s your job to see that your child does his homework, practices the piano, or plays a sport, you reinforce the mistaken belief that somebody other than he is responsible for getting his work done. He doesn’t have to think about it because, on some level, he knows that eventually someone will ‘make’ him do it.”

                This sense of helplessness among the young could be leading to broader social phenomena. The very essence of the American dream is that you, through your own efforts and hard work, can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps to achieve prosperity. But if an increasing proportion of young people believe that the events and outcomes of their life are directed from elsewhere, what motivation do they have to do much of anything? Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warn in the Coddling of the American Mind that kids have embraced three untruths: that they should always trust their feelings, that challenges make them weaker, and that evil people are keeping them down. But, of course, feelings are not facts, overcoming adversity can make people stronger, and modernity seems to have lost a good deal of its understanding of good and evil. Sheltered kids grow into adults craving safe spaces, constantly assuming the worst of others’ microaggressions. Instead, Lukianoff and Haidt say that parents and educators should “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”

                Stixrud and Johnson concede that kids, inherently, are still developing but “kids need responsibility more than they deserve it.” Their advice consists of a total rejection of helicopter parenting. “if you want to keep your children as safe as possible, the best thing to do is to give them experience and teach them judgment. Let them climb that tree and fall when they’re six—it will teach them important skills about risk and about being in their bodies.”

                But Stixrud’s ideal may require an adjustment for lots of parents. Stixrud and Johnson encourage parents to be less bosses and more consultants. Gray makes the distinction between “trustful parenting” and two related alternatives – “protective parenting,” where parents personally remove or insist on avoiding every possible challenge their kids could face (you can’t play football because it’s dangerous), and “directive parenting,” where parents take command of their kids’ lives to do whatever Mom and Dad think is best (you must play football because it builds character). The authors argue that the source of teenage angst, and often bad decisions, is an outcry for autonomy. Parents’ “attempts to assert control triggered [a child]’s determination to reassert his own control, even if it meant doing the opposite of what was in his own best interest.” To give you a sense of your kids’ feelings, 

                “Imagine if you had a conversation with your spouse in which he or she said something like: ‘How was work today? Did you get a good report on your project? You understand how important it is for you to take your work seriously, right? I mean, I know it isn’t always easy or fun, but you really should see if you can get a promotion so you’ll have more options in the future. It just seems like maybe you aren’t doing your best all the time. Like maybe you could work a little harder.’”

                But amidst this plea for autonomy, there’s also something to be learned from the Founding Fathers, who insisted that liberty can only really work alongside virtue. The authors dance around this without necessarily calming all concerns. Stixrud and Johnson insist that “‘It’s your call’ does not conflict with limit setting, which will always be an essential part of parenting.” The trick is probably establishing firm outside limits but giving kids lots of space within them. Your teenage daughter might be free to decide how to spend a Saturday afternoon, but she won’t be allowed to sleep at her boyfriend’s house. And, of course, you do not need to subsidize bad decisions – giving your kids’ latitude does not require you to buy them a video game console on demand. The specific limit Stixrud and Johnson cite is that “if frequent chemical use is a problem, remember, all bets are off and you need to intervene.” But otherwise, Stixrud encourages a thoroughly honest ongoing conversation where you “Tell your child what you’re worried about, and talk those points through. In this way, you are supportive and engaged, but you’re not steering the boat.” Generally, you want to transmit: “I have confidence in your ability to make informed decisions about your own life and to learn from your mistakes.” Ultimately, “For most judgment lapses, though, we suggest asking Dr. Phil’s question, ‘How’d that work for you?’ and discussing ways to make better decisions next time.”

                Or take a cue from Chief Justice John Roberts, who told his child’s graduating class:

                From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either… I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

                Stixrud argues that you really cannot compel anyone to do what he really does not want to do –  the question is what does your kid really want to do? Have an open-minded conversation, encourage your children to handwrite their very own personal goals, and then try to help them strategize how to get there. It’s very hard for an angsty teenager to say their parents are ruining their life if he has substantial choice about how his life is going. If your kid is an ambitious high-achiever, then it’s pretty simple to give her advice about how to set herself up for success. Stixrud’s practice inherently dealt with kids who were the least interested in school – but he found that when he talked to kids outside of their parents’ expectations about what they really wanted to do, suddenly they could find their motivation. One kid was not meeting any requirements for getting a high school degree until he realized that it would mean the embarrassment of not graduating with his friends – and experienced a dramatic turn-around. Another thought school was useless in his ambition to become a firefighter – but, after being genuinely encouraged for the first time to investigate it as a career – discovered that he needed a high school degree and became keenly interested.

                guitar

                Figure 4. Even if your child’s deepest ambition is to become a country music superstar, you can note that most of them did in fact graduate high school. 

                 

                A challenge for some parents in trusting their kids is that it may mean widening their definition of success – a kid who is making his own decisions (and mistakes) may not be ready for college immediately after high school graduation. But there are plenty of worthwhile alternatives: take a cue from the Mormons, whose young men go on an evangelizing mission for a couple of years when they turn 18. Or from the Israelis, most of whose young people serve in the armed forces. Each person has got to figure out life for himself. My wife’s grandparents were educators who were passionate about school and dedicated to sending their only son to college – but he was not that interested in the classroom and instead had the skills and passion to become a master welder – and he has led a great life! Or, put another way, if you had a heart attack in the middle of a restaurant, who would you rather rush to your aid, an attorney or an EMT?

                Stixrud insists that parents need to let go of some of their stress and control without giving up caring about their children. And it means embracing a literal world of opportunity for children and adults to make their own way – on their own time. Indeed,

                If a thirty-year-old came into Bill’s office and said that his life had been wasted because he’d made a bad decision in the eighth grade, or in high school, and had closed off all his options, Bill would say, “Buddy, get over it. You still have plenty of opportunities to shape your life.”

                In our next correspondence, we’ll talk about a specific way of embracing kids’ autonomy in their education but I also want to observe that,  even to the degree that teenage angst is an American phenomenon, it’s not obvious to me that teenage empowerment is the norm elsewhere. Indeed, tiger parenting would seem to suggest the exact opposite of the advice that Stixrud et al offer in the preceding paragraphs, with rather dramatic results in the form of BAs, MDs, JDs, and other letters following names. Generally, in the United States, do we suffer more from over-parenting or under-parenting? As a former child myself, I certainly appreciate the idea of autonomy to pursue things of interest – but I also had lots of interests to pursue. I look forward to exploring this more with you but I think it’s certainly safe to say that the most important thing kids need is engaged parenting.

                self driven child

                Figure 5. Click here to acquire The Self Driven Child, a book about how to give kids the space they need to grow up.

                coddling of the american mind

                Figure 6. Click here to acquire the Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. While both authors fear the collapse of the marketplace of ideas to oversensitive kids, neither has ever voted for a Republican. They agree with former UChicago President Hanna Holborn Gray that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” and have found that cognitive behavioral therapy is especially effective at countering the tricks one’s mind plays. 

                 

                Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is a parent? How about a grandparent? How about anyone who is a former child?

                  Why Homeschool?

                  The Gist: Individualized attention and pacing through a customized curriculum to achieve, on average, higher academic performance.

                  A newsletter inspired by Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto.

                  The biggest reason why you should NOT homeschool your kids is because it’s hard. Though some families pull it off with two working parents (or even a single parent!) by making the most of weekends, co-ops, and time around work, most often a parent needs to stay at home or work part-time, or the family must have the resources to hire outside help. Conventional school allows, per Peter Drucker’s general advice, for parents to do what they do best and delegate the rest. Still, how much better would homeschooling have to be for your kids for you to consider it?

                  Conventional school has the advantage of setting your kids up to be taught by a team of professionals. But consider two things: first, fairly compare yourself as an amateur to what it takes to become a teacher. With a college degree, you could be teaching dozens of kids at the start of the next school year without too much difficulty. To highlight a well-known example, Teach for America trains its participants for a single summer before putting them in a classroom. And, notably, “just 23 percent of new teachers come from the top third of their graduating class” – compared to 100% in South Korea. Of course, the median teacher is going to have more experience, but, at least in the early years, are you so sure you can’t teach addition?

                  Second, no matter how passionate teachers are about their job, they have different incentives than you do as a parent. The performance (and well-being) of any individual child is not especially relevant to their total careers – and, indeed, they might be compelled against their own desires to do any number of things that are not the best for your kid, such as teaching to a useless test. But forget bureaucratic mandates and public service job protection, put teachers trying their best in context by thinking about your own experience: in your own jobs, have you ever given less attention to a particular customer’s needs than you would a family member in the same situation?

                  forget teacher

                  Figure 1. Have you ever, years after being in school, run into one of your teachers and they had no idea who you are? That tends not to happen with parents. 

                   

                  Conventional school teachers are also charged with teaching en masse. Within a single class, teachers must teach at an average pace, leaving some behind and some bored. But teachers can also be responsible for a much larger group of kids that they see throughout the day, such that there may be a 16:1 student to teacher ratio at the entire school, but a single teacher is not always closely tracking the same 16 kids throughout their education but may instead be looking after a slice of 100+ kids’ education. And, of course, teachers are likely to change every year, with new adults trying to get a fresh handle on your kids.

                  The biggest reason why you SHOULD homeschool is that your child receives individualized attention at the pacing that is best for her. Absent unusually active procreation, the student to teacher ratio is going to be better than any conventional school – and the teacher is going to know students’ precise strengths and weaknesses for years. Kids get to zoom ahead with what they’re good at and spend more time with what they find challenging. This individualized attention tends to be credited for the results: “Numerous studies demonstrate that homeschooled students obtain exceptionally high scores on standardized academic achievement tests” – whereas public school students average the 50th percentile, homeschool kids average in the mid-to-high 80th percentiles. Relatedly, homeschool kids can be years ahead of the standard school curriculum and, though you may think that parents constitute generous graders, homeschoolers enjoy higher average GPAs in college. If you were comparing two conventional schools against each other, wouldn’t you want your kids at the place with the (dramatically) higher averages?

                  bell

                  Figure 2. BBBBRRRRRRRRIING!!!!!! Alright, that’s all we have time for today. Please return to this same place in this email at the same time tomorrow. Or, you could take a homeschooling philosophy: rather than bells governing the schedule, arbitrarily interrupting the brink of insight, momentum can govern the schedule. Read on, or don’t, it’s up to you!

                   

                  Of course, academics are not everything – the most frequent concern skeptics bring up is that kids are not properly socialized outside conventional school. This critique is rather difficult to prove or refute statistically – I often ask critics if they’ve actually met homeschoolers or if this is speculation; my own anecdotal experience is that some of the friendliest, most social people I know were homeschooled. But taking the question seriously: what exactly are your kids being socialized to? Or, put another way, would you rather your kids learn values from their peers or their parents? 

                  Homeschooling parents have more options in how to socialize their kids consistent with their values –  joining an organized sports team, Bible study, co-op, or whatever they think is valuable. But there’s also something else: conventional schools, for the sake of convenience, segregate kids by age, forcing students into the study of every subject based on when they were born, not how much they get the concept. But why should kids – up until they’re 18, sometimes 22 – spend the vast majority of their time with their exact same age? John Taylor Gatto, an award-winning New York City public teacher, decried that modern kids are ahistorically separated from the adult world, prolonging adolescence. Homeschoolers have the opportunity to forge meaningful relationships with adult mentors and get real world experience through volunteering, community service, observation of workplaces, or even work and apprenticeships.

                  Doc Brown

                  Figure 3. Great Scott! Not enough kids have their own Doc Brown.

                   

                  At the heart of homeschooling is flexibility: you are not wed to the “comprehensive,” standardized, politically correct curriculum offered (and too often obligated) by the state. Your customized curriculum for your kids has almost limitless options – you can teach your kids eminently practical subjects like cooking, personal finance, and car maintenance; or you can invest deeper into the great works of Western civilization rather than whatever is trendy; or you can edit the standard curriculum to focus more on what’s important (literacy and numeracy) and less on frills (foreign languages); or you can have your kid specialize early on in whatever their passion is, taking time to pursue it as far as he possibly can, with appropriately less attention on other subjects – a budding businessman might spend the time allocated for English on biographies of industrial titans, for math on analyzing cash flow statements!

                  300

                  Figure 4. Great works of Western civilization like Zack Snyder’s 300!

                   

                  For better or worse, conventional school was literally designed by the Prussians to induce conformity and indoctrination. To that end, there’s an interesting question as to whether the 5th Amendment to the Constitution makes compulsory school problematic: “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” If adults were compelled to attend re-education camps under threat of separation from their families, you can bet a court would rule that unconstitutional. Still, some argue that conventional school imposes routine and discipline on children that prepares them for the reality of submitting to employers’ hierarchy. Of course, homeschooling can offer similar values but it can also offer different ones: do you want your child to learn conformity or curiosity, compliance or creativity? 

                  There are other things at the margins that can make a real difference. Teenagers have meaningfully different sleep patterns than adults – and yet school’s start is based on adult convenience more than teenage sleep optimization. When one public school delayed start an hour, standardized test scores jumped double digits. Unless you’re in that district, you could adjust your homeschool schedule to accommodate your kids’ health. In the same vein, what is served in school cafeterias is inherently the result of a political lobbying process – you could instead ensure that your kids are eating leafy greens at every meal.

                  School lunch

                  Figure 5. Then again, can your kids really become adults without the modern rite of passage that is consuming mystery meat and plastic cheese with a spork?

                   

                  Still, any conventional school, operating at economies of scale, is going to have resources from tax dollars or tuition that allow for lab equipment, theaters, gymnasiums, and any number of other expensive facilities. Some of these can be directly accessed (Tim Tebow laws), some of these can be easily replicated (plenty of private gyms, especially available in the middle of a school day), and some can’t – which might very well limit your kids’ opportunities, especially for leadership. At the same time, homeschoolers have the flexibility to use the world’s resources not at any school – to visit museums and zoos as any field trip might, but also to factories and fire stations or anything else that a parent might think helps a kid learn.

                  You may read all this and conclude that a custom education may be ideal for your kids but not realistic for your family – neither parent has the confidence, passion, time to take on the responsibility. Even if one did, parenting and homeschooling may soon become a 24-7 job with no breaks – and that can be a recipe for a lot of stress. Interestingly, when parents are polled about what they would like to do better as parents, they report that they’d like to spend more time with their kids. When kids are polled as to how their parents could be better, they report that their parents really need to reduce their own stress. Whether you pursue homeschooling or not, think about getting yourself in the right place for both yourself and for the quality of your family relationships. 

                  Still – not available to all parents – if you’re spending substantial resources on your children – such as sending them to a private school – consider whether your kids might be better served by redirecting those same resources to private tutor(s) whose job security relies totally on the performance of your own kids. The real question is whether there’s a marketplace for quality tutors in your area – good places to look include homeschooling co-ops, the best local conventional school teachers who would like to make some additional money after school, graduate students in particular subjects, or even professionals to teach what they do for a living. 

                  The worst reason people do not even consider homeschooling is social pressure – parents’ peers will always understand and approve of efforts to get kids into the right conventional schools but might think homeschooling is weird. It is certainly unusual in the sense that homeschooling is only done by a small minority of parents – but I hope that this email clarifies why they might do what they do! And to quote that old chestnut of parental wisdom: if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do so, too? 

                  You may also be concerned about getting your kid into the best college possible. Assuming that college is indeed best for your kid, homeschooling actually allows maximum positioning – increased performance on standardized tests but also the flexibility for your kids to accentuate their eccentricities to tell a compelling story to admissions departments. You could also mix and match to some degree, homeschooling until the 9th grade to give your kids a head start and then send them to a high school renowned for sending kids to colleges of interest. Alternatively, you could use the time before and after conventional school hours to help kids with troublesome subjects, encourage them to advance in easy ones, or teach them new subjects altogether – but note that this practice only involves addition, not subtraction, so you won’t be able to totally pick and choose to exclude what you don’t want from conventional school.

                  To sum up: conventional school allows parents to delegate education to a team of professionals (often with divided attention and mixed incentives) with substantial pooled resources for facilities, potentially providing opportunity for kids for leadership and social interaction with exact-same-age peers. Homeschooling allows for highly motivated (but perhaps inexperienced) teachers to provide individualized attention and pacing through a customized curriculum, including family values and flexible real world experiences, according to kids’ talents and desires, producing, on average, higher academic performance.

                  Dumbing Us Down

                  Figure 6. This email was inspired by Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto, an award-winning New York City public school teacher writing passionately about his attempts to be less juvenile prison guard and more facilitating mentor. Gatto argues that conventional school works well as a daycare and jobs program but fails to fully unleash kids’ potential. He contrasts an earlier American era filled with adventurers and tinkerers supported by families dedicated to virtue against a modernity of divorced parents divorced from fully attending their kids who themselves default to television rather than creating their own fun. Gatto set up a guerilla community service program where each of his students did over 320 hours a year! But he also routinely set up his students for individual “apprenticeships,” dispatching a litterer to apologize to the police and spend a day getting to know how cops work, other kids to learn in real workplaces about journalism or truck dispatching or whatever. Ultimately, Gatto insists that  “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness—curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight—simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.” I feel compelled to relate a particular story in full:

                  “It’s likely I’d have returned to advertising if a little girl, desperate to free herself from an intolerable situation, hadn’t drawn me into her personal school nightmare and shown me how I could find my own significance in teaching… It happened this way. Occasionally I’d get a call from an elementary school. This particular day it was a third grade assignment at a school on 107th Street, which in those days was nearly one hundred percent non-Hispanic in its teaching staff and 99% Hispanic in its student body. Like many desperate teachers, I lolled most of the day listening to the kids read, one after another, and expending most of my energy trying to shut the audience up. This class had a very low ranking, and no one was able to put more than three or four words together without stumbling. All of a sudden, though, a little girl named Milagros sailed through a selection without a mistake. After class I called her over to my desk and asked why she was in this class of bad readers. She replied that “they” (the administration) wouldn’t let her out because, as they explained to her mother, she was really a bad reader who had fantasies of being a better reader than she was. “But look, Mr. Gatto, my brother is in the sixth grade, and I can read every word in his English book better than he can!” I was a little intrigued, but truthfully not much. Surely the authorities knew what they were doing. Still, the little girl seemed so frustrated I invited her to calm down and read to me from the sixth grade book. I explained that if she did well, I would take her case to the principal. I expected nothing. Milagros, on the other hand, expected justice. Diving into “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” she polished off the first two pages without a gulp. My God, I thought, this is a real reader. What is she doing here? Well, maybe it was a simple accident, easily corrected. I sent her home, promising to argue her case. Little did I suspect what a hornet’s nest my request to have Milagros moved to a better class would stir up. “You have some nerve, Mr. Gatto. I can’t remember when a substitute ever told me how to run my school before. Have you taken specialized courses in reading?” “No.” “Well then, suppose you leave these matters to the experts!” “But the kid can read!” “What do you suggest?” “I suggest you test her, and if she isn’t a dummy, get her out of the class she’s in!” “I don’t like your tone. None of our children are dummies, Mr. Gatto. And you will find that girls like Milagros have many ways to fool amateurs like yourself. This is a matter of a child having memorized one story. You can see if I had to waste my time arguing with people like you, I’d have no time left to run a school.”

                  But, strangely, I felt self-appointed as the girl’s champion, even though I’d probably never see her again. I insisted, and the principal finally agreed to test Milagros herself the following Wednesday after school. I made it a point to tell the little girl the next day. By that time I’d come to think that the principal was probably right—she’d memorized one story—but I still warned her she’d need to know the vocabulary from the whole advanced reader and be able to read any story the principal picked, without hesitation. My responsibility was over, I told myself. The following Wednesday after school, I waited in the room for Milagros’ ordeal to be over. At 3:30 she shyly opened the door of the room. “How’d it go?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she answered, “but I didn’t make any mistakes. Mrs. Hefferman was very angry, I could tell.” I saw Mrs. Hefferman, the principal, early the next morning before school opened. “It seems we’ve made a mistake with Milagros,” she said curtly. “She will be moved, Mr. Gatto. Her mother has been informed.” Several weeks later, when I got back to the school to sub, Milagros dropped by, telling me she was in the fast class now and doing very well. She also gave me a sealed card. When I got home that night, I found it, unopened, in my suitcoat pocket. I opened it and saw a gaudy birthday card with blue flowers on it. Opening the card, I read, “A teacher like you cannot be found. Signed. Your student, Milagros.” That simple sentence made me a teacher for life…

                  I never saw Milagros again and only heard of her again in 1988, twenty-four years later. Then one day I picked up a newspaper and read: Occupational Teacher Award Milagros M… has won the Distinguished Occupational Teacher Award of the State Education Department for “demonstrated achievement and exemplary professionalism.” … Miss M. was selected as a Manhattan Teacher of the Year in 1985.”

                  Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below and forward it to a friend: know anyone who is a parent? How about someone who went to a conventional school? Or perhaps someone who was once a child?

                    Literally Making Money

                    The Gist: 4 ways that conservatives might handle monetary policy to grow the economy and limit government.

                    For 73 years, from 1886 to 1959, you could buy 6.5 ounces of Coca-Cola for a nickel. Customers may have just come off a horse or a jet, but the price did not change. Today, more than six decades later, glancing at my neighborhood grocery shelves, you might pay more than eight nickels for the same amount of the same product.

                    Coke

                    Figure 1. Though it lacks the pep of the original formula which, of course, contained cocaine. You also would be hard-pressed to find just 6.5 ounces to purchase as the nation’s waistlines have inflated along with its currency.

                     

                    On a surprisingly related note, you probably dislike writing a check to the government (or having the government directly take money out of your paycheck). If a politician were to advocate for an increase in your personal taxes (rather than the always promised increase in taxes on someone else), you likely would not be happy with them. Worse, if a politician advocated a tax not just on your income but on your wealth, perhaps 2-3% a year, you’d be outraged. And yet that’s not too different from what actually happens with inflation: all of the money in your bank account is worth that much less in Coca-Cola.

                    Inflation is a hidden tax and an especially clever one because you might think you have more when you in fact have less. But, of course, it does not affect just you. As Murray Rothbard observed, “By creating illusory profits and distorting economic calculation, inflation will suspend the free market’s penalizing of inefficient, and rewarding of efficient, firms. Almost all firms will seemingly prosper.” As F.A. Hayek added, “including some which ought to fail.” Beyond distorting the price system at the heart of our economy, inflation also punishes savers. At its most extreme, during the Weimar Republic, factory workers were given multiple breaks a day to rush out and buy anything they could with their rapidly depreciating currency. But even at its most gentle: the same number in your account gets less than last year. Rationally, you are tempted to spend it now or even borrow something valuable today to be repaid with something less valuable. The benefits accrue to the nation’s largest debtor, the government, who is largely responsible for inflation. But if one day the government can no longer freely determine the value of its debts, then it faces a reckoning with its profligate spending.

                    “Monetary policy” can sound oblique and intimidating but it’s the least familiar, most important topic in American politics. Beyond its hiding behind technical gobbledygook, it’s probably especially unfamiliar because inflation has been fairly low since the 1980s so people aren’t crying out for reform. If (when?) more noticeable inflation makes a comeback, that’s an opportunity to consider alternatives. The ideal system grows the economy, not the government, by sending clean signals to businesses and consumers while restricting the government’s ability to borrow. As a conservative, here is your menu of options:

                     

                    1. Appoint the right God-King to run the Federal Reserve

                    This is actually the easiest route under our present system and about as far as conservatives have ever gotten. It helps considerably if you surround the God-King with like-minded nobility (those anonymous other members of the Federal Reserve that 99.9999% of Americans would not be able to pick out of a line up). The idea is that, at least for the time he is in office, the God-King will astutely manage the nation’s money supply to avoid inflation and, in particular, pursue potentially unpopular policies like the classic example of taking away the punch bowl when the party gets too rowdy or, to continue the analogy, refusing to bail out the friend who gets arrested for drunk driving out of fear that it might prompt other friends in the future to not better manage their own drinking.

                    Greenspan

                    Figure 2. You might, for example, look to see if there’s some dispositionally unthreatening radical who once served as Ayn Rand’s personal economist

                     

                    The trouble is that the President appoints the God-King and Senators confirm him and their job security can be intimately related to the God-King’s decisions, which makes them extremely interested in his being pliable to goosing the economy whenever an election is around a corner (which is always). But that’s not all. Because the nation’s elected representatives want to deliver goodies at minimal cost (for maximum re-electability), they want to borrow ever greater amounts and have a compliant central bank aid them along their merry way. 

                    This is why conservatives tend to dislike the God-King system, which is basically rigged against sound money – indeed, a nickel in 1913, when the Federal Reserve was created, had more purchasing power than a dollar does today. Insofar as the God-King system is preserved, there is no guarantee (in fact, little hope) that you’d get the right God-King (indeed, you might even get one swept up with magical monetary theory). 

                    Importantly, even if you have an extremely smart, fairly independent, very well-meaning God-King, any hint of crisis will tempt him (as fallible as any man) to use the heavy-handed powers of the Fed – to lend out money at generous rates, to buy and sell bonds in vast quantities, to regulate how much reserves banks have – to try to fix the problem. Conservatives generally think that the Fed has no idea what the right interest rate ought to be and should get out of that business altogether to let the market work it out. Conservatives also have very different perspectives from the mainstream on banking reserves (to be discussed later). The power to buy and sell bonds – intimately related to printing more money and the ability of the government to finance its operations – is where there is some acknowledged room for maneuver. But Milton Friedman feared there were excessive, destabilizing lags between a problem like unemployment arising; central bankers discovering and interpreting the problem through statistic collection; and central bankers finally conjuring and applying unpredictable, bespoke, and ham-handed responses. Adeptly deploying sledgehammers with discretion proves impossible.

                    And yet, among the options we are going to discuss, this is how things will probably work for the foreseeable future. At the very least, conservatives ought to pay a lot closer attention to who gets nominated to the Fed. Indeed, we probably need a Federalist Society for monetary policy. Who knows if any alternative will ever be politically palpable but one thing is significant: the advocacy of alternatives tends to make the God-King behave.

                    andrew jackson

                    Figure 3. You can replace Fed Soc’s James Madison silhouette logo with a similar one depicting the magnificent mane of Andrew Jackson. Motto: “The Bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I shall kill it!” Since a central bank came back, might as well bring back AJ, too. 

                     

                    2. Compel the Federal Reserve to follow a simple rule

                    The theoretically easiest change to make to our system would be to impose upon the central bank a rule it must follow. The trouble comes quickly in determining what the exact rule ought to be. The Fed currently is supposed to maintain stable prices and “full employment”, the pairing of which actually gives the Fed more discretion as it pursues two goals that tend to require opposite practices. Conservatives tend to favor eliminating the Fed’s goal of reaching full employment not because more people working isn’t great but because the Fed has only so much to do with achieving the dang thing (i.e. is there unemployment because businesses don’t have easy access to capital… or because of regulations or unemployment subsidy or workforce suitability or what?) Nevertheless, Stanford’s John Taylor came up with a mathematical formula that takes into account both goals and spits out a rule that the Fed could follow – but Republican presidents have passed over appointing him God-King because even that limit on discretion has proven too controversial. 

                    Conservatives are far more attracted to a rule that simply tracks stable prices or purchasing power. While attractive in principle (isn’t reducing inflation what we want?), there are two significant problems: first, there is substantial disagreement on what prices the Fed ought to track and how it ought to do so. Second, deflation (i.e. cheaper prices) is not necessarily a bad thing – it could be that the cheaper prices are the results of gigantic productivity improvements. Note two things about this chart: healthcare, education, and housing are major and escalating costs for Americans but are not included in the typical government inflation index; screened devices have dropped their prices like a rock. How should the Fed deal with prices moving in opposite directions? It would be silly for the Fed to print more money so that you always had to spend $1,000 on a television even as the manufacturers figured out how to make it for less and less. Simultaneously, increasing healthcare costs may be partially the result of loose money – but they also are more likely to be reflective of a broken system simultaneously subsidized and regulated by the government. Milton Friedman ultimately concluded that such a rule was “too loose and too imperfect” – and that it, too, would easily invite central bankers to tinker. 

                    Viagra

                    Figure 4. Central bankers are constantly self-conscious about deflation and so they often needlessly take “corrective” actions. But when their inflation lasts for more than four years, they don’t bother contacting anyone, they just pile on.

                     

                    Reflecting his belief that money was responsive to the laws of supply and demand, Milton Friedman instead suggested that the Fed should simply increase the money supply by a small amount every year – equal to the long-run growth rate of the United States, or about 4%. Interestingly, by doing so, Friedman was actually targeting 0% inflation, hoping that the increase in the money supply would be taken up by economic growth. Relatedly, one of the big worries about a monetary rule is that the Fed would not have discretion to react to a crisis. At first glance, Friedman’s rule looks unresponsive but, because a crisis is often accompanied by a shrinkage in the money supply, a constant 4% increase in the nation’s money supply over last year’s total would actually result in a bigger cash infusion to make up the difference. The trouble with this rule is that the money supply is surprisingly difficult to determine and, due to the constant innovation of the banking system, determination gets harder all the time (Of course money is cash in your hands and your savings accounts – but does it include the surrender value of a life insurance policy?) Notably, this is the rule that has come closest to adoption in the United States, as Paul Volcker broke inflation by letting the market set interest rates and instead managing the money supply. But the God-Kings didn’t stick to it.

                    The newest conservative proposal is for the Federal Reserve to target a certain percentage growth in how much is spent in the economy (nominal gross domestic product). That number would combine both inflation and actual economic growth, thus policy would be attempting to balance the two. While it may suffer from some problems we’ve seen before – errors in statistic collection, lags, perhaps punishing good deflation – it tends to be the presently favored rule. There are still other rules out there – smaller countries might, for example, peg their exchange rate to the currency of a country better at fighting inflation than they. Ideally central banks around the world would have different rules and we’d see what happens to their currencies – but because they are subject to the same political pressures as us, we have not seen that level of experimentation in restraint.

                    George Selgin argues that “Of countless monetary rules that have been proposed at one time or another, the vast majority would eventually have led to some extremely undesirable outcomes, if not to outright disaster.” He continues, “The argument for a monetary rule isn’t that sticking to such a rule will never have adverse consequences. It’s that the adverse consequences of sticking to a rule may be less serious than those of relying upon the discretionary choices of fallible monetary authorities.” And yet that brings up an important question: even if there was a Constitution for the Fed, would they actually follow it in an emergency when the temptation is greatest to deviate? Milton Friedman mischievously suggested that the Fed be replaced with a computer preprogrammed with the rule – and yet even he suggested that maybe Japan ought not to have such a rule until they break out of their slump. And who is feeding the computer its information? Still, there was once a quasi-automatic standard.

                    Hal 2001

                    Figure 5. “Grow the money supply by 30% in one year? I’m sorry, Jerome. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

                     

                    3. Define the dollar as a certain amount of a commodity (such as gold) and require the government to exchange that commodity for anyone who shows up with a dollar.

                    The more you think about a fiat currency, the more your head might hurt. The dollar is worth something because you and other people believe it’s worth something and are willing to trade goods and services for it. But that value might change at any time in the future, such that your dollar is worth considerably less (indeed, your nickel might buy 8x less Coca-Cola). Government is responsible for managing the value of the fiat currency but it instead irresponsibly mismanages, mostly because it does not share the same incentives as other users of money. To keep the government honest and limit its ability to infinitely and freely increase the money supply at any time, you could restore the requirement that the government convert the dollar to a preset amount of commodities for anyone who demanded it. This was in fact how paper currency originally worked – the British pound earned its name by once being defined as a pound of silver – the name of the currency was simply a weight and measure, like a yard of yarn.

                    Scales

                    Figure 6. A dollar was originally an ounce of silver. No longer. But how familiar are you with the Imperial system’s next smallest unit of weight measure? A dollar is now worth an awkward 1.5 drachm. Only a few more years until we have to measure the dollar in grains of silver!

                     

                    Attractively, a currency backed by commodities almost inherently cannot undergo hyperinflation – and, indeed, has a ceiling on the amount of inflation it can experience based on how much of the stuff there is. For 500 years between 1260 and 1760, English prices rose 0.38% a year, topping out at a whopping 1.28% a year with the massive influx of Spanish colonial silver. Michael Bordo reports that  “Between 1880 and 1914, the period when the United States was on the ‘classical gold standard,’ inflation averaged only 0.1 percent per year… It was also a period of unprecedented economic growth with relatively free trade in goods, labor, and capital.” No wonder Andrew Carnegie agreed to sell his company in exchange for fifty year bonds. Little did he know what was to come: the U.S. dollar was once pegged at $20.67 per ounce of gold. In 2020, an ounce of gold crossed $2,000.

                    The principal trouble for consumers is that a commodity-based currency can undergo short-term volatility in its value. For better or worse, the supply of a commodity-based currency can only be increased by an increase in the commodity. If the economy as a whole grows faster than the money supply, the money will actually increase in value – for advocates of the gold standard, this is a virtue: the increased value invites miners to find more gold and for foreigners to export more gold to the country under the standard. Milton Friedman argues that, before World War I, “The blind, undesigned, and quasi-automatic workings of the gold standard turned out to produce a greater measure of predictability and regularity — perhaps because its discipline was impersonal and inescapable — than did deliberate and conscious control exercised within institutional arrangements intended to promote stability.” Mark Skousen argues that, somewhat intriguingly, the supply of gold grows at about the same rate as historic U.S. growth, even during the big shocks, between 1-5% a year, and that it functions more similarly to Friedman’s favored rule than you might guess, though obviously it would not grow at the same rate every year. 

                    But the short-term volatility of money’s value has a particular problem with sticky wages: nobody likes to get paid less, even if “less” actually buys more. You tend to think in terms of the stated amount – “I’m paid $30,000 a year” not “I can buy this amount of groceries.” Rather than reduce employees’ wages (which are increasingly expensive), companies might fire them and try to hire someone else. But that someone else might not have mentally adjusted for purchasing power themselves and not be willing to work for less than a certain price. It’s a problematic cycle. Murray Rothbard suggests that money inherently can’t have price stability as a commodity but that if businessmen, consumers, employees were interested in it, they could contract around it by tying their payments to some mutually agreed index.

                    A conventional criticism of a commodity standard is that it wastes resources. Austrian economist Roger Garrison seems to have undermined the critique by demonstrating that after the gold standard was abandoned, contrary to Keynesian predictions, substantial resources were still expended pursuing precious metals – in fact, more than before, because of fears about paper currency being worthless. But even were resources specially expended for the purposes of money, George Selgin argues, “Trying to save resources by forcing a switch from a commodity standard to a fiat standard is like trying to save resources by forcing people to take off the locks on their doors and give them to scrap-metal dealers. It is obvious that the cost of making locks is far less than the cost of losing one’s property.” 

                    The fact that a commodity standard actually employs resources is what keeps the government honest. If the government wants to expand, it can raise taxes (never popular), borrow (usually at a good rate from its central bank), or it can just overprint money (which is cheap and even gives people the temporary illusion of prosperity). The last is the easiest – unless the government is obligated to exchange its money for a commodity, thereby requiring it to use real resources. Notably, this is something the Founders appeared to understand –  the U.S. Constitution says that “no state shall… make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts” (alas, unincorporated against the federal government) and also gives Congress the power to “coin” alongside, not coincidentally, the power to fix weights and measures. (For what it’s worth, the Federal Reserve itself is of questionable constitutionality, as are all “independent” agencies)

                    Though it may sound fairly simple, there are several ways to run a commodity-backed currency and how it’s run affects how “good” it might be. The biggest question is this: does the dollar supply equal the government’s gold supply? For the period that America was supposed to be on the gold standard, the answer was no. The government overprinted dollars on the hope that not everyone would show up at once to claim physical gold. During the Great Depression, the government not only closed the opportunity for citizens to get gold for their dollars, they made private gold ownership illegal. But to at least maintain the fiction we retained the standard, we allowed foreign governments to exchange dollars for gold. But by the time of the Nixon administration, we had overprinted so much that foreigners were rationally demanding gold redemptions for their depreciating dollars. Rather than painfully reign in the money supply, we ended redemption. Given this record, can you really trust the government to maintain the gold standard in a crisis? In the past, the gold standard only really worked because it was considered a source of national shame to abandon it. No longer.

                    Isaac Newton

                    Figure 7. Isaac Newton spent a good portion of his life trying to figure out alchemy when the secret was right in front of him the entire time: as master of the Royal Mint for 30 years, he just needed to convert to a fiat currency and start printing!

                     

                    If we were somehow convinced of the government’s benevolence (perhaps through a Constitutional amendment), the economic transition would be a challenge because we have overprinted so many dollars. For maximum benefit, gold standard advocates tend to favor 100% backing, but it’s also 100% theoretical. Indeed, Hayek feared that the global economy was too large for everyone to be on the gold standard. The U.S. government has trillions of dollars of gold in its vaults but not as much as the supply of dollars, which means that it would have to expend resources to get more gold (or, dangerously, restore the gold standard at not 100% backing, thereby tempting the government to gamble on lesser and lesser reserves and you’d quickly get into the problem of defining the money supply). There’s even some questions about whether the government could secure enough gold to back our current money supply. An intermediate step might be the U.S. government selling bonds which promised interest payments in gold ounces, but the U.S. government defaulted on its last issue of those, again raising the question of government trustworthiness. 

                    Of course, the dollar does not have to be backed by just gold – gold just happens to have been historically demonstrated over a long time, relatively convenient as a medium of exchange, and somewhat mystical in the public imagination. This last part is fairly intriguing: does gold really have much intrinsic value or does it, like the fiat currency that replaced it, have value because people believe it has value? Some economists have argued for the currency to be backed by a basket of goods, thus limiting the impact of any one commodity’s shortage or glut. But like the problem of determining the price index, what should be in the basket? Relatedly, some supply siders have suggested that the government need not keep any gold at all, just use its powers to try to get an ounce of gold to equal a certain amount of dollars. But, given the short-term volatility of the price and the Fed’s heavy-handed imprecision, implementation would be challenging – and the most significant benefit of a commodity standard is that convertibility keeps the government honest.

                    Scissors

                    Figure 8. Has anyone in the history of rock, paper, scissors ever really thought that paper beats rock?

                     

                    As Hayek sums up, “The gold standard… served no other purpose than to impose upon the issuers of money such a discipline and, by making its regulation automatic, to deprive them of the power arbitrarily to change the quantity of money. It is a discipline that has proved too weak to prevent governments from breaking it.” But Hayek points to a fourth option: “so long as the management of money is in the hands of government, the gold standard with all its imperfections is the only tolerably safe system. But we certainly can do better than that, though not through government.”

                     

                    4. Restore private currencies to compete with and perhaps replace the government one.

                    Fundamentally, if you don’t think the government does an especially good job of anything, why trust it with the fundamental responsibility of maintaining currency? Or, at the very least, why require that the government have a monopoly on currency? As Hayek observed, government’s exclusive control over currency “has the defects of all monopolies: one must use their product even if it is unsatisfactory, and, above all, it prevents the discovery of better methods of satisfying a need for which a monopolist has no incentive.” Friedman thought that the law of supply and demand applied to money in managing the supply – but why not take the perspective further? Whatever you personally want out of money – stable purchasing power, for example – the free market might be able to deliver if left to its own devices. Hayek argued we should have “the control of money in the hands of agencies whose sole and exclusive concern [is] to give the public what currency it liked best among several kinds offered, and which at the same time staked their existence on fulfilling the expectations they had created.”

                    Why the heck would you want a Deutsche Bank mark rather than the United States government dollar? Well, Deutsche Bank would have to convince you that their currency had value. In the real historical examples of free banking, private currency issuers operated on their own commodity standards, offering to convert their currency to a commodity, usually gold, whenever a customer showed up and demanded it. Essentially, your Deutsche Bank mark is really just a claim on something in Deutsche Bank’s vaults, while your Chase yen is a claim on something in Chase’s vaults, etc. You would accept a salary in DBM because Amazon would accept payment in DBM because ultimately it could be converted into something tangible and useful as a medium of exchange. What sounds novel and scary at first seems a lot more grounded than the system we have.

                    Hayek strongly believed that the free market would deliver an inflation-resistant currency: “Money is the one thing competition would not make cheap, because its attractiveness rests on it preserving its ‘dearness’.” Free banking allows money to be chosen by consumers – you and me – not imposed by the nation’s largest debtor. Politicians not only can be but want to be irresponsible with a monopoly state currency. Bankers have to be responsible or else no one would use their currency and they might go out of business. Hayek concludes, “Blessed indeed will be the day when it will no longer be from the benevolence of the government that we expect good money but from the regard of the banks for their own interest.”

                    But just how free ought to be banking? An interesting aspect of historic free banking systems is that they were largely self-regulating. Currency issuers not only competed for consumers with better offers of service and reliability but, due to the magic of redeemability, they also were constantly testing their competitors by redeeming other currencies for their promised gold. In other words, a customer might deposit Chase yen with Deutsche Bank, who would then trade Chase for any marks it held – but if the trade were uneven, Deutsche would demand Chase turn over additional gold. As Lawrence White notes, “The overexpansive bank will discover that its specie reserves are draining away, a situation it cannot let persist.” An aggressive bank might quickly get to the point where no competitor would accept their deposits, no credit card would process their currency, no merchant would accept it, no consumer would use it. Contrast this against the experience of the Savings and Loans industry heavily regulated by the U.S. government: in the 1980s, over 2,800 banks and S&Ls failed.

                    soccer

                    Figure 9. In a professional soccer match regulated by refs, a light tap inspires an Academy Award caliber performance of a career-ending injury. In a self-regulated street game, players play on, lest they not be able to play again.

                     

                    The United States once had private currency issuers but over-regulation produced more problems than benefits. Rural banks feared that city banks would gobble them up and so successfully lobbied state governments to impose branching restrictions that limited any bank from opening many locations, sometimes not more than one. As a result, banks were not big nor diversified enough to deal with crises and often failed. Furthermore, state governments attempted to make banks partners by requiring that they carry state debt as their reserves – but that debt often was not worth very much, thus leaving banks with a fundamentally unstable foundation. Finally, entry into the banking industry was tightly controlled by state legislatures, meaning that one had to be a better lobbyist than a banker in order to get a license to print money. 

                    Across the border, Canada’s contemporary free banking experience was a model of stability (and, indeed, their lack of branching restrictions meant that in contrast to the thousands of American banks that failed after 1929 in the Great Depression, zero Canadian banks failed). Scotland had a free banking system for about 150 years with considerably less regulation and, in particular, zero barrier to entry, such that one of the largest ultimate banks began as a linen exporter. Our modern world feels so vastly different from a proliferation of currencies that it can be hard to contemplate. Hayek began thinking about the idea in the context of border towns and tourist centers that took multiple government currencies. Cryptocurrencies give you a bit of insight but ultimately differ in their lack of redeemability for a commodity as well as their very limited present use in purchases of goods and services. But consider your possible enthusiasm for airline miles or credit card points or any number of other practically private currencies in effect today, where you can redeem them for some product, perhaps only at their offering store – but why should they not be allowed to trade on the open marketplace? There’s a small secondary market for gift cards, where Amazon trades basically at par and less popular retailers you can get at a discount. To the degree that you’re afraid the airline will devalue your miles on the open marketplace, that’s the point: you would not want to be paid in such a currency. But if a merchant found that its rewards program was circulating at par around the economy, perhaps because it offered redeemability in a commodity, then it might quickly find out that it’s actually a currency-issuing bank.

                    Notably, most Scottish banks had a feature that is very unusual in today’s world: they were unlimited liability corporations, meaning that shareholders were completely on the hook for their problems. As you can imagine, this led to a great degree of prudence in their operations. Even when Scottish banks did (rarely) fail, currency holders were made whole. While the purest free bankers believe that banks should be able to choose their liability exposure and then advertise to customers to choose between them accordingly, this is one simple, significant regulation that could head off a lot of future issues while not even requiring any regulators.

                    Jail

                    Figure 10. As if personal liability was not enough, this was also a time of debtors’ prisons!

                     

                    The more contentious bank regulation – something that is considered across all four possible ways to reform our monetary system we’ve been discussing – is how to deal with regulating bank reserves. Conservatives have tended to believe that the financial system relies on a myth that money can be in two places at once – you have your money in a bank account that you can withdraw entirely at any time, but the bank is simultaneously using that money to lend out to others. That’s why a run can ruin a bank. Presently, the government requires that banks hold a certain relatively small percentage (about 10%) of their outstanding loans in reserve in case depositors need it and, through the FDIC, it also guarantees that, eventually, accounts under a certain size will be restored to full value by taxpayers in case of the bank’s failure.

                    Conservatives have tended to consider this a pre-bailout inviting banks to moral hazard and have for a long time favored 100% reserve banking (also called single-purpose banking). Banks would be split between two functions, warehouses for money and lenders. You could either have total access to all of your money at any time (as if it was in a safe deposit box) or you could agree to eliminate your access in exchange for an interest payment (as if you bought a bond). An unpopular feature of this is that you may have to pay to store your money – but perhaps not if banks ran it as a loss leader to attract customers. But conservatives have nevertheless advocated for the position as a way to stabilize the banking system (if your bank must keep 100% of your money, no reason to make a run on on it) and (especially for Friedman) control the money supply (banks no longer have discretion on what proportion of their reserves to lend out). Notably, no lender of last resort is necessary.

                    If banks were legally able to issue their own currencies, the outstanding currencies would be, from an accounting perspective, very similar to the liabilities that banks possess in savings accounts. The freest bankers insist that the government really ought to have a 0% reserve requirement and let competition work out the problems. Notably, in the Scottish system, this occasionally meant that banks were down to as little as 2% of their reserves – and, as a result, they sometimes instituted policies that meant customers might have to wait 6 months from a redemption request in order to get their gold. Interestingly, though this delayed redeemability was unpopular and attracted some limited regulation, the notes circulated at par in the interim and were indeed redeemed as promised. While no restrictions on reserves worked for the Scottish banking system, it might have been due to other factors like their unlimited liability and (eventual) convertibility to gold. If we had instant totally free banking today, there might be more risk if consumers were prepared to accept, say, cryptocurrency, as a reserve. Compared to our current system, though, Selgin suggests, “If consumers were willing to accept a fiat standard voluntarily, banks could induce them to do so by offering higher interest rates than competitors who still held commodity-money reserves, reflecting the lower operating costs of not having to hold non-interest earning assets. If this does not happen, one must conclude that consumers perceive a commodity standard as a higher-quality good than a fiat standard.” Notably, if there is no reserve requirement, there is dramatically less pressure on having the exact amount of resources to match the money supply.

                    Mark Skousen asks, “On a practical level, who wants to deal with potentially dozens of different kinds of privately issued bank notes?” Hayek responds, “If the public understood what price in periodic inflation and instability it pays for the convenience of having to deal with only one kind of money in ordinary transactions, and not occasionally to have to contemplate the advantage of using other money than the familiar kind, it would probably find it very excessive.” The point is that there is no natural monopoly in currency where competitors are allowed to produce. Hayek continued, “in the field of money I do not want to prohibit government from doing anything except preventing others from doing things they might do better.” Sweden for seventy some years had a system of begrudging free bank acceptance in addition to a government-preferred bank with a very explicit policy that no private bank would be bailed out. But the government favoritism backfired: the private banks were so responsible that none failed – indeed, despite the facts that their currency was not legal tender and was actually taxed, they were so successful at attracting consumers that the preferred bank successfully lobbied that it could only survive if given a monopoly on currency issue, thus ending free banking in Sweden.

                    Walmart

                    Figure 11. On a practical level who wants to deal with potentially dozens of different kinds of private grocery stores or newspapers or anything else free enterprise competitively offers? Very probably: You.

                     

                    I must conclude with the sad story of the Liberty Dollar. For nine years, Bernard von NotHaus sold tens of millions of dollars in gold and silver medallions to hundreds of thousands of Americans who either could take delivery outright or receive a certificate that allowed them to redeem their precious metals at any time. The George W. Bush administration responded by raiding his vault, seizing nine tons of precious metals (some medallions depicting Ron Paul), publicly accusing von NotHaus of “domestic terrorism,” and trying him for counterfeiting. Tragically amusing, his lawyer insisted “the last thing Mr. von NotHaus wanted was for Liberty Dollars to be confused with coins issued by the United States government.” We shall see what happens to cryptocurrency, but the U.S. government does not appear to be interested in currency competition in the near future. 

                    As stated near the beginning, the ideal monetary system sends as clean signals as possible to business and consumers while restricting government’s ability to grow.  If government’s growth was fueled by central banks, then reverse engineering the process means eliminating the central bank. As Hayek noted, “There can be little doubt that the spectacular increase in government expenditure [-] with governments in some Western countries claiming up to half or more of the national income for collective purposes [-] was made possible by government control of the issue of money.” So, “Unless we restore a situation in which governments (and other public authorities) find that if they overspend they will, like everybody else, be unable to meet their obligations, there will be no halt to this growth which, by substituting collective for private activity, threatens to suffocate individual initiative.” Indeed, “Under the prevailing form of unlimited democracy, in which government has power to confer special material benefits on groups, it is forced to buy the support of sufficient numbers to add up to a majority. Even with the best will in the world, no government can resist this pressure unless it can point to a firm barrier it cannot cross.”

                    Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote eloquently about the power of capitalism to bring us wealth. Perhaps not surprisingly, he lived right in the middle of Scottish free banking with redeemability for commodities. At the time that he wrote, he considered his advocacy of free markets practically utopian, and yet within the coming decades Britain embraced most of his agenda. If you desire limited government and sound money, don’t be deterred by what is seemingly politically possible. Fight for the firm barrier that government cannot cross.

                    vienna chicago

                    Figure 12. For background about conservative economic approaches, check out Mark Skousen’s Vienna & Chicago: Friends or Foes? Chicago tends to prefer a rule-based solution to our monetary predicaments, though Milton Friedman softened on gold and free banking in his later years. Austrians tend to be split between those who favor a gold standard and those who favor free banking. See my two part review: first, about the history of how the schools came to be; second, about what their differences are. For a primer on what the Fed actually does, Steven Horwitz’ introduction from the Mercatus Center is quite good, though the Fed’s response to covid will require an update.

                    capitalism and freedom

                    Figure 13. For more details on a monetary rule, check out Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, which tackles a lot of topics but also explains his preference for a rule slowly growing the money supply. You should also read Scott Sumner’s case for NDGP targeting. You can also read George Selgin’s caution about monetary rules in this blog post. 

                    What has gov done to our money

                    Figure 14. For more details about a commodity based standard, check out In Search of a Monetary Constitution, an anthology of various bright conservative scholars arguing about different potential monetary systems in 1962. Ben Graham favors a basket of goods, James Buchanan playfully argues for a brick standard, someone else argues for a fractional reserve gold standard, and Murray Rothbard argues for a 100% gold standard (and there are still others, including Milton Friedman, arguing for various non-commodity standards). Though this book is quite good, it can be hard to pin down. If you’re eager to read something on this, try Murray Rothbard’s What Has the Government Done to Our Money?, which includes both his contribution to In Search of a Monetary Constitution and an additional essay.

                    denationalisation

                    Figure 15. For more details on free banking, check out F.A. Hayek’s Denationalization of Money; Lawrence White’s Free Banking in Britain; and George Selgin’s The Theory of Free Banking. Hayek revitalized interest in free banking and his book is a smart, speculative take on what free banking might look like. White did significant research into how free banking worked in practice during his longest run: some 150 years in Scotland. Selgin surveys other historical examples but spends most of his book digging deep into the theory of how it might work. Notably, the works of White and Selgin are available for free!

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