Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

Podcast Listening Thoughts

I mentioned over a year ago that I'd started listening to podcasts. I only listen to them while I'm exercising, because exercise is boring and I usually exercise outdoors so watching videos is out. (On the occasions where I do exercise at home, I've watched some Netflix, and over the course of a year I've managed to finish two seasons of The Dragon Prince and of She-Ra. That's not a whole lot of videos for someone who usually exercises for several hours a week.)

I still like "#Fsck 'Em All" and "Make No Law", but those have become very irregular, so I don't get to listen to them much. I've been listening to "All the President's Lawyers", which is "Josh Barro (journalist) talks with Ken White (defense attorney and former federal prosecutor) about the current president's many legal problems". I really like it -- Ken White also does "Make No Law", and I enjoy his combination of scholarly knowledge and dry humor. I also listen to "Left, Right and Center", which is Josh Barro talking to political pundits about current hot topics. I do not love LRC nearly as much because I am just not that into political punditry. Both shows are by KCRW, a public* radio station in southern California.

* KCRW's website says they are "a community service of Santa Monica College" but the feel is way more like public radio than college radio and they broadcast NPR shows as well as original programming, so I'm gonna stick with "public radio."

I've tried some other podcasts that haven't stuck: "I'll listen to this writing-themed podcast! I like these writers! ... um ... I do not like this podcast, though."

"Maybe I'll try this food-themed show WAIT NO what was I thinking I hate listening to people eat and this is an audio show entirely composed of people eating."

I have listened to fiction before, but the truth is that my attention tends to wander when I'm listening to a podcast. With long-form fiction, missing a few minutes kind of means that I don't know what's going on anymore and it's very annoying. With a news podcast, it generally means "I missed part of this four-minute bit and they're gonna switch subjects soon anyway, whatever." I feel like I should try fiction again, either as podcasts or audiobooks, but I haven't.

What I did instead was look at NPR podcasts. I found "Planet Money", which I'd heard of before, and my thought process went "It's a show about business and economics! I used to love reading the WSJ, for reasons I have never been able to adequately explain. I will probably like this." I was right. "Planet Money" has a sister show, "The Indicator", and I've been listening to it too.

One old episode of "The Indicator" was about "animal spirits" as an economics concept. No, this has no connection with "spirit animals". Instead, it's a term Keynes used to describe the emotions that affect decision making in the marketplace, and in particular in the stock market. Decisions that cannot be explained by rational factors alone are considered to be motivated by "animal spirits".

Emotions tend to get a bad rap in decision-making, and so do "animal spirits", but one thing that struck me in the show was that one of the hosts pointed out that "animal spirits" are what prevent people from being paralyzed by indecision.

And this struck me because it reminded me of some case studies on brain damage. This article isn't where I first heard about it, but presents a couple of examples: of the phenomenon. In essence: brain damage can impair a person's ability to feel emotions. And you might think that this would make people better at making decisions: now they will only evaluate things rationally!

But it turns out that it makes people unable to make decisions at all. Without an emotional component -- without a reason to prefer one option over another, or even one outcome over another, people don't bother choosing. They cycle over different alternatives endlessly, unable to decide.

I find that fascinating, and it reminds me that it has always bothered me to put "rational/logical" on one end of a spectrum and "emotional" on the other, because I've always felt that emotion must inform the backbone of all logic. Logic is based upon assumptions, and assumptions in the real world include value judgments. If you take emotional weight out of your assumptions, you won't have premises like "it is better to be happy than miserable" and your logic will produce FREAKISHLY TERRIBLE results Not to mention that, without emotions, what is the point to having assumptions like "life is better than death"? What is a preference, if not an emotion?

So to my mind, "evaluating things rationally" doesn't mean "without emotion" but rather "use reason to determine how to meet your emotional needs." Incidentally, this informed the narrative in A Rational Arrangement, because Wisteria, my extremely rational female protagonist, also had lots of strong emotions: she had likes and dislikes, she fell in love, she got angry, etc. And Wisteria never thought "emotions are irrational; I shouldn't feel this." She used reason to meet her long-term needs for love, satisfaction, contentment, and happiness.

Irrationality is better defined as "short-term emotional states which run counter to your long-term needs." Or "emotional responses which are premised on an irrational assessment of risk." "Irrational assessment of risk" is a serious problem for human beings, because our gut feelings about "risky" vs "safe" are usually terrible. We estimate risk based on "how often have I heard stories about this happening/has it happened to me personally" and so we vastly overestimate the risk of dramatic events that get a lot of attention in the media, like kidnapping, and vastly underestimate the risk of boring hazards, like driving.

Another episode was about "private firefighters", which is an industry mostly funded by insurance companies. They hire private companies to protect houses they've insured during fires. The fact that this is a service funded by insurance companies -- people whose only incentive is economic -- made me feel that local governments -- at least in the areas where private firefighters flourish -- do not have fire departments that are remotely as robust as they ought to be. Why are we not hiring more firefighters? Is firefighting not sexy enough to spend tax dollars on? Do people not realize that more money on firefighters would result in less damage from fire and a net economic gain? I mean, there is obviously a point of diminishing returns on firefighting and I assumed that most areas were already at that point. But if insurance companies think it's worth buying more firefighting, then that strongly suggests they are not.

The podcast was only about California, which (a) catches fire more often in recent years than it used to (b) has always had a problem with fires and (c) has a lot of very expensive real estate in fire-prone areas. So I don't know if this is a case of "it would be a net economic gain if fire departments everywhere were better funded" or if it's a matter of "some areas in California and the Pacific Northwest have disproportionately underfunded fire departments relative to the risk of property damage."

The Indicator didn't talk about the impact on human lives because these were all cases of wildfire, where you had huge fires raging and everyone had been evacuated. They did compare it to education, in that we have a public education system that's not as good as the private education system that rich people can afford for their kids. I think that's a valid comparison, but also that firefighting is much easier to quantify than a public good like healthcare or education. You can measure the good done by firefighting in terms of "lives saved" and "property damage prevented". The "lives saved" part is hard to value, obviously. But the property damage side is easy. You can look at past years and how much it cost to rebuild after the fires in a given area, and analyze how much damage could have been averted by having more firefighters & equipment available. If in an average year, it costs more to rebuild than it would to pay for firefighters and their equipment, you should have more of the latter. There's obviously considerable guesswork involved; you're never going to know for sure what the likelihood of future fires is or how much damage is prevented per dollar spent on firefighting. But it's an area where you can get a lot of data, and it's not nearly as squidgy as the economic value of an education at a private elementary school vs a public one.

I will share one last favorite "indicator" from the show before I go: 3.5%. If 3.5% percent of a country's population participates in a protest, then that protest will effect revolutionary change in the country's government. That would be "the percentage of people who physically show up", obviously, and presumably it means that if your country has 3.5% who are passionate enough to go to a protest, a whole lot more than that support the protest's goals. But that's the statistic based on analysis of protests across the globe for the last hundred years.

3.5% of America's population would be 11.5 million, if you're curious.

Anyway, I'm enjoying the podcast and will stick with it. I still need a few more hours per week worth of podcasts to listen to in order to have something every day, though. So I'll probably catch up on the last few months of The Indicator and maybe Planet Money, and then look for something new.
This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
Tags: #fsck, economics, podcast review
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