Preference Cultivation and Overcoming Inertia

Alexis de Tocqueville (*This portrait is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.)

For many problems, local and preference-sensitive solutions are more efficient and effective than distant fiats (e.g., U.S. university-based network computing was far more advanced than Soviet computing). However, local preferences themselves can be inefficient (e.g., single family home owners opposing new construction). Between market mythologizing and top-down, central planning lies an option of preference cultivation.

Local cruft and inertia often need to be fracked. But centrally-chosen alternatives leave much to be desired. For example, well-run charter schools employing common core materials can outperform stagnant district schools, but the common core can stymie good teachers. Centrally-imposed solutions might raise the floor but lower the ceiling.

What if we could raise the floor against the wishes of vested and complacent special interests opposing reform but also raise the ceiling against arrogant technocrats demanding standardization? What if local preferences themselves could be reformed without the need for preference-denying guardrails. It would be like having a market that eschewed fast food instead of requiring a mayor to tax or ban it.

Incentives and self-interest matter. An individual teacher’s union member can understand where her bread is buttered and oppose non-unionized charters competing for students and per-pupil funding. That’s rational. But it may not be rational on a longer time horizon. One generation may benefit from an inefficient allocation. But the next generation will be left with underperforming schools and unaffordable public employees.

Civilization is premised on one generation caring about the welfare of the next. Somewhere among those with vested interests lies concern (even if overshadowed by other considerations) for the long-term well being of the community or at least one’s own progeny. (Note: civilization will not work without progeny.)

Individuals’ understanding of self-interest can be expanded to “self-interest properly understood” a la de Tocqueville. Horizons can be broadened, consequences can be ascertained, lessons can be learned, and tastes can be made. Rejecting those premises would mean rejecting any possibility for education, political persuasion or cultural transformation. Those premises would seemingly have to be accepted by both the left and the right, otherwise why do people ever open their mouths?

If education is at all possible, preferences can be changed. Preparing market and political participants to better understand their own self-interest as enmeshed in long-term community values, and cultivating their preferences accordingly, should lead to better outcomes.

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Trees of Life: Turns out We Can GROW our Way Out of Climate Change

The New York Times has an optimistic piece about the potential of modern, wooden construction to improve urban design and transportation, all while sequestering carbon.

The only thing the story lacked was photos of the beautifully-designed buildings.

Photos from Ema Peter in Olivia Martin, “Largest mass timber building in U.S. opens tomorrow in Minneapolis,” The Architect’s Newspaper (Nov. 29, 2016),; see also

From Frank Lowenstein, Brian Donahue and David Foster in The NY Times:

“This opportunity arises from cross-laminated timber, or CLT. First introduced in the 1990s, it enables architects and engineers to design tall, fire-safe and beautiful wood buildings. Recent examples in the United States include the seven-story T3 building in Minneapolis, the eight-story Carbon12 building in Portland, Ore., and a six-story dormitory at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. In CanadaNorwaySwedenEngland and Australia, even taller wooden buildings are already in use….

Private industry is gearing up to provide engineered wood for more tall wood buildings here in the United States. This year a highly automated, large CLT plant opened in Washington state. Last week, the first ever CLT plant in New England was announced in Maine.

The energy embodied in the materials for new buildings around the world — mostly steel and concrete — accounts for 11 percent of global carbon emissions. Typically, coal is used to heat these materials to temperatures over 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit in the manufacturing process.”

“Transportation hubs in the inner suburbs of cities in the United States are often surrounded by multifamily housing of only five or six stories. With CLT, those buildings could be taller, creating more housing close to trains, subways and buses, and a more compact urban development pattern. That would save forests on the urban fringe from being cut to make way for more housing, and cut emissions and congestion on highways. Taller mid-rise wood buildings would also help lower the cost of housing by increasing supply.”

Frank Lowenstein, Brian Donahue & David Foster, “Let’s Fill Our Cities With Taller, Wooden Buildings,” The New York Times (Oct. 5, 2019),

Diagnoses and prescriptions for “Late Capitalism”

Attribution: Milei.vencel This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Common problems

Competing Explanations

  • It’s all the Neoliberals’ fault! (Monbiot, and really too many to name)
  • The Great Stagnation (Cowen, Thiel, Gordon)

Common Among Explanations

  • The music stopped sometime around the 1970s

Competing Solutions

  • Make America Grow Again
    • YIMBY
    • Moonshots
  • Make Stagnation Safe Again
    • More tax and transfer
    • Expand the safety net


  • Are the common solutions mutually exclusive?

Work-around for potential mutual exclusivity

  • Positive sum investments in public goods
    • Public health
    • Infrastructure
    • Education
    • Basic scientific research
    • Long-ball experimental investments

In Fairness

  • \\ Critics of inequality have a point when it comes to needing an elite that has skin in the game with respect to public institutions.
  • // Defenders of the growth(+) paradigm (see Cowen, Stubborn Attachments) have a point when it comes to needing a pie large enough to continually improve human well-being — not to mention meet our “embedded growth obligations” (Eric Weinstein).