Everything You Know May Be Wrong

Published in Online Spin, July 7th, 2017

Last year, I wrote an article called “The real reason this elephant chart is terrifying.”
In it, I looked at the work of Christoph Lakner and Branko  Milanovic, who charted change in real income, for every percentile of global population, across a 20-year period from 1988 to 2008. While lots of folks had their incomes go up over the period, there’s a big dip in the chart between the 75th and 90th percentiles. Those folks -- poor people in rich countries -- are seeing their incomes stagnate or decline.

The scary bit, I explained, is that the price-performance of technology is improving at an exponential pace. As the performance of technology gets better -- as computers start to be able to do the jobs of lawyers and accountants -- the people further up the percentile continuum become threatened by automation. And as the price of tech gets cheaper -- as it becomes more economical to buy robots than to pay people the minimum wage -- the people further down the percentile continuum become threatened.

Ultimately, I argued, we could envision a scenario where we are all suffering, with only the richest of the rich growing ever richer.

It hit a nerve. Front page of Reddit. Over 180,000 views. Almost 500 recommends.

I was extremely proud of it.

It may have been completely wrong. After I published it, the wonderfully insightful Azeem Azhar (you should seriously sign up for his newsletter right now) sent me a link to some info refuting Lakner and Milanovic.

According to the Resolution Foundation, the variation in incomes can be explained by varying rates of population growth. If population is growing more quickly in some places than others, you might find yourself at a different percentile. In other words, if you used to be at the 75th percentile, simply adding more people at the 50th percentile could move you to the 76th. Obviously, the person who used to be at the 76th percentile was making more than you, so now that you’re in that spot it will appear that the income of the person at the 76th percentile has gone down.

Okay, so should I retract my article? Not so fast. Turns out Lakner and Milanovic don’t agree with the Resolution Foundations’ findings. They published a lengthy rebuttal explaining why, in fact, their initial analysis was correct.

It’s tempting, at this point, to give up. These are not unqualified pundits shouting at each other on cable news. These are rigorous academics, exploring complex interactions, and coming to different conclusions. If they can’t figure out what to agree on, what hope do the rest of us have?

And yet, of course, this is precisely the point at which not to give up. This is the point where we realize that knowledge takes work.

Last week, David Sessions published a review of David Drezner’s book “The Ideas Industry,” exploring the rise of the “thought leader” and the decline of the public intellectual.

“Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg ‘develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.’ While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to ‘change the world.’ Many readers, Drezner observes, prefer the ‘big ideas’ of the latter to the complexity of the former.”

It’s tempting to latch onto a big idea, especially one that seems to explain the world. But the world is a complex place, and we need people who are unafraid of complexity.

If you must embrace a big idea, embrace the one that trumps all others: Everything you know may be wrong.

Kaila Colbin