Cultural Traps, Part II

America is a great place. That said, there’s nothing wrong with critiquing it in the hopes that it can get better. As we are all products of the culture in which we live, it’s important to look yet again at some of the American cultural shibboleths that should be re-examined or even discarded as we form a more perfect union.

In Part I of this series, I defined a “cultural traps” as:

…[those] idioms, maxims, ethics, and ways of living that we except as normal, “the conventional wisdom.”

So with lot further ado, let’s take a look at a few more.

Everyone is rational. Western civilization loves this idea. Here in America, we still cling to this myth that everybody–ourselves, our neighbors, our leaders–are rational beings who act in a rational manner in furtherance of their own rational best interests. If you still believe this, then I’d like to talk to you about Amway…

The fact of the matter is, rationality is only something we can get to if we keep our emotions in check. And even then, there are other things that go into our decisionmaking, not just emotion but things like morality, instincts (whatever that means), and peer pressure.

What do I mean by “morality” is irrational? Here’s a scenario: Let’s say you are a rich, ruling-class elite. The rational, most efficient way to solve the problem of poverty, which would be in your own self-interest, would be to kill the poor. Morality, by stopping his, could be seen as irrational.


We ignore these things at our own peril, because while you think everybody’s acting rationally, their actions will often make no sense. And don’t forget, you are not acting rationally either. Taking into account why you and others are making a choice can keep you from committing costly mistakes–or trusting others. 

Youth is where it’s at. It’s an ugly fact, but America doesn’t like old people, and by old, I mean anybody over the age of 40 or so. This is pretty new, and I would say took off  in the mid-1960s.

We are youth-obsessed to the point of madness. 

Teenagers, that demographic covered by advertisers, dictate all of our popular tastes and norms. 

People who don’t know anything are essentially leading this country, since politics and policies are downstream from culture.

It’s less the tail wagging the dog and more like the eyebrows doing the wagging.

There is nothing wrong with being young. We are all there once, and it’s fun! We all miss it when we get old, don’t we? And that’s the danger.

The young can bring energy, new ideas, and fresh perspective. What they do not have are experience and a long-term, future orientation.

We are born stupid and spend the rest of our life getting less stupid. Yet for whatever reason, and I can think of several cynical and sinister ones, we’ve used the old people a stupid, dumb, outdated, antiquated, incompetent, detective, and probably racist to boot. Age and wisdom are something to be mocked, because young people like totally know everything!


This, of course, leads to the phenomenon of 50-year-old man wearing sports jerseys and getting drunk in bars on weekends and middle-aged women who dress like their teenage daughters. Don’t do it.

Man as economic man.
 Hoo boy, here’s a controversial one. America is built partially on the idea that anybody can get rich. We have no hereditary nobility–in fact, the Constitution specifically prohibits this. It’s a great thing.

And I am all for capitalism, as long as it’s not cronyism or immoral. That said, we have this mistaken belief similar to the one that everybody is rational, that everybody makes economic decisions on a purely rational basis. The Austrian economists, many of whom I admire and respect their work–and in fact largely agree with–would have you believe that every single person’s economic decision can be predicted based on what the graphs and the number say is the best outcome. It’s all about trade-offs, which is true.

Does this mean that everybody acts in this manner? Absolutely not. In fact, I differ with the Milton Friedman’s of the world who try to take morality entirely  out of every economic decision. I’m sorry, but this is why I can’t support open borders for the sake of cheap labor for the top few whiel the rest of us–new arrivals included–get depressed wages, and American workers from the blue-collar to the white-collar are displaced by people who can be illegally paid a pittance also that gigantic corporations, who play ball with Uncle Sam, can see their stock prices can go up.

Oh sure, they’ll tell you that this leads to cheaper goods because things can be outsourced and cheap labor means that you pay less for stuff! But it also means that you don’t have a job to buy the cheap stuff, and two, somebody’s getting rich off of this but it sure ain’t us regular folks.

In other words, sometimes you do need to think about the greater social good before doing something that could make you a boatload of money, even if it’s not “rational.” 

If you can’t understand why hazardous working conditions or dumping stuff in the water supply that will give people cancer is bad, even though it’s good for the bottom line, then you really need your head and your soul examined.

What does equality even mean anyway? Here in America we love the fact that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. This goes for women to, so pipe down, I’m just paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence.

And this sentiment itself is correct! If you believe, like most of us do, that we’re all God’s children or otherwise created and therefore have dignity and worth as human beings, then you are all for equality. America!

Unfortunately, this sentiment has been conflated with equality of outcome–by design, I might add–as opposed to what the founders and all of us throughout most of our history understood to be equality of opportunity and equality under the law.

Now, it’s funny that this is become an American cultural trap, because in order to guarantee the equality of outcome, you need a state that so massive that, if the Founding Fathers could have anticipated what their Republic is becoming, would have torn up the Constitution, said “Screw this,” and rejoined the British Empire.

In awe of credentials. Higher education has been a favorite whipping boy of many of late, present company included, but I will give you the cultural trap version of this: We in America reflexively equate a credential like a college degree with mastery.

No. It means you have had some training, and you are likely ready to begin your journey. Or if you are older and more experienced, the credentials matter less, because you actually need a record to back up any trust.

It does not automatically make, say, a doctor with a great reputation who graduated from a smaller, lesser-known medical school suck and a mediocre doctor who graduated from Harvard good, yet we all assume the Harvard guy is a better doctor.

I have first-hand experience with this: I practiced law in Boston for several years, and was not impressed by the Harvard-educated lawyers I came across.

This is a cognitive bias that we all should be careful on for this reason: Experts, who have a useful wrong society, are very influential. However, they rarely get penalized–for example, by losing their jobs–if their predictions or recommendations turn out to be wrong, or worse, harmful.

There is nothing wrong with questioning the so-called experts, no matter how nice their degrees look hanging on their walls.

America! Love it or leave it; change it or lose it.

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