Saturday, July 26, 2014

I've Moved! (To a New Blogging Platform)

I moved to Svbtle because I like how simple and clean it is. So there, Blogger. :P

Friday, April 25, 2014

How to Write Headlines According to John Caples and Upworthy

This little presentation from Upworthy is one of the best things I've read about the art of rhetoric.

The basic science behind the company goes something like this:
Write 25 versions of a headline
Choose your two favorites
A/B test those two favorites with a small group
Send the winning headline to your full audience

The Upworthy method mirrors this advice from John Caples's book Time-Tested Advertising Methods, first published in 1932:

Write a large number of headlines for every advertisement and then select the best one.

Caples gave some additional tips on writing good headlines, tips that are still relevant today (more than 80 years later):

16 Formulas for Writing Headlines

  1. Begin your headline with the words “How to”
  2. Begin your headline with the word “How”
  3. Make an announcement
  4. Begin your headline with the word “New
  5. Begin your headline with the word “Now”
  6. One-word headlines “apply the one-word headline idea to full-page space”
  7. Begin your headline with “Which
  8. Money headlines
  9. Use the word “Free” in your headline
  10. The “Amazing” headline
  11. Begin your headline with the word “Wanted”
  12. Begin your headline with the words “At last”
  13. Begin your headline with the word “This”
  14. Begin your headline with the word “To”
  15. Begin your headline with the words “They laughed”
  16. Begin your headline with the word “Advice” While I don't always have the time or patience to knock out 25 headlines (what a bore that can be), I've found these basic tips and worth sharing.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Reading List of Marketing Books, With My Favorites In Italics

I've been digging into marketing/management books lately, with the goal of becoming an expert in the field. Here's what I've read so far this year.

What should I add to the list?

101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising
The Guerilla Marketer’s Handbook
Hey Whipple, Squeeze This
Tested Advertising Methods
Confessions of an Advertising Man
Ogilvy on Advertising

The King of Madison Avenue
Scientific Advertising
Write On Target: The Direct Marketer’s Handbook
Writing That Works
Winning at the Sport of Business
Internet Marketing for Smart People
A Content Marketing Strategy That Works
How to Craft Compelling Copy
SPIN Selling
Steal Like An Artist
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
The Ultimate Sales Machine
How to Advertise
Show Your Work!

Currently Reading
Breakthrough Advertising
The Challenger Sale
The Everything Store

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Three Languages of Politics, or: How To Not Get Mad When Discussing Big Issues

Arnold Kling's new book The Three Languages of Politics contains an idea I hope catches on.

Kling asserts that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians typically think about politics according to three different axes, or spectrums:

Oppressor/oppressed [naturally preferred by progressives] Civilization/barbarism [naturally preferred by conservatives] Freedom/coercion [naturally preferred by libertarians]

In other words:

Progressives primarily care about helping the oppressed, and they therefore can't fathom why other people would oppose something like gay marriage. 

Conservatives primarily care about maintaining the strictures of civilization, and they therefore can't fathom why someone would oppose banning late-term abortion.

Libertarians primarily care about freedom, and they therefore can't fathom why someone would oppose free markets.

Understanding Political Opponents

Kling's main point is that most of the time when we speak at cross purposes or get into heated political arguments, it's because we frame our political opponents in a way that they wouldn't frame themselves. In other words, we use a different axis than they do when talking about a political idea, and according to our axis our political opponents look like idiots.

We don't have to do this, though. Kling says that if we step back and see an issue as an opponent frames it, then we can better understand them, and they don't seem so ignorant.

It's a simple theory that opens up lots of possibilities. The first is that in light of the theory it doesn't make sense to be strictly progressive, conservative, or libertarian. Instead, it seems ideal to be open to the possibility that there are times when helping the oppressed is the best choice, or times when maintaining civilization is the best choice, or times when fighting for freedom is the best choice.

Additionally, it opens up the possibility for political opponents to discover commonalities. For instance, an issue like gay marriage can be framed as not only helping the oppressed, but also as supporting family values (i.e. civilization) and freedom. Once an issue is convincingly framed in light of all three axes like this, then it will likely overcome the status quo and be supported by a majority (just as gay marriage is supported by a majority in many places now).

Narratives That Exemplify the Three Languages

The theory can also help us understand how different narratives are framed, which can in turn help us better understand make use of the theory.

I'll start with Cloud Atlas, which is one of the most progressive narratives I've encountered. 

The story tells of oppressed people in six different time periods and places, ranging from mid-18th century England to tribal islands in the 24th century. In each case the central tension is oppressed vs. oppressor. (You can see an oppressor in the picture above looking down at his oppressed slaves in 22nd century Korea.)

"There is a natural order to this world," one of the oppressors says toward the end, "and those who try to upend it do not fare well." It's a key quote of the narrative, a warning that it's safer to adhere to the demands of established institutions than to buck against them. Of course, the heros in each time period don't listen, and they buck against the institutions anyway—something they're later admired for doing. 

The narrative takes the view, then, that the oppressed people of prior ages become the heros or gods of the next (mirroring Christ in Christianity, who was pitted against civilized Pharisees). It's a very progressive narrative. One that pits the oppressed against oppressors.

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is a more conservative narrative, with a central tension of civilization (Batman) vs. barbarianism (the Joker). 

In this case, the villain isn't a long-established institution. Instead, he's an underground psycho, motivated solely by chaos, making statements like "the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules" and destroying the symbols of power and greed (piles of cash, for instance) that drive other villains.

What's more, Batman uses a surveillance apparatus to catch the Joker, and even though the movie doesn't reduce the message to "surveillance = good," libertarians likely balk that the apparatus is shown as useful in tracking the Joker and restoring order to Gotham.

It's a narrative where we root for the hero to return the people to civilization, a city without barbaric villains.

And of course a classic libertarian narrative is 1984, a story where the central tension is freedom vs coercion. The narrative is well known: the protagonist realizes that his government is totally coercive, and he desperately tries to break away and be free—even if it's just the freedom to think what he wants! And yet [spoiler alert] the coercive powers are too powerful.

The story that doesn't hide its message even a little bit. The heros are those who want freedom; the villains, those who are coercive.

So What? 

The point here is that people of all stripes enjoy these narratives and have no problem imaging these worlds centered on different axes. I mean, there are progressives, conservatives, and libertarians who admire all three stories. 

And so when it comes to storytelling most of us seem totally willing to buy into different ways of viewing the world. When we read a book like Cloud Atlas or watch a movie like The Dark Knight we typically don't have our political hat on, and we just enjoy the exploration of ideas and storytelling. 

But something happens when we start talking about politics. When we talk about politics we generally assume that the world functions only according to one axis (our own). Kling's point is that we should be more willing to imagine how each political issue falls along multiple axes, including oppressor/oppressed, civilization/barbarism, and freedom/coercion.

If we did that, I imagine we'd discover a truth very similar to this quote from Justin Freeman: "Your opponent in any debate is not the other person, but ignorance." And then political conversations would turn from a matter of so-called idiots talking at cross purposes with each other, and instead become something more productive. That's the hope, at least.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Why We Should Be Using Nassim Taleb's Neologism, Antifragile

Nassim Taleb has coined a useful word, antifragile—a word that will be permanently lodged in our lexicon. 

Here's how to explain it. When you send a box of glasses in the mail, you write fragile on the box. When you send something robust, you write nothing. So robust isn't the opposite of fragile, as some might suppose. The opposite of fragile is something that gets stronger when it's broken—something antifragile. 

It's a useful word for many reasons, but I'm primarily interested in how it applies to politics because it allows us to bypass many typical (boring) partisan arguments about whether regulation is inherently good or bad. 

Taleb starts with the premise that we will never eliminate volatility (i.e. Black Swan events, or random unforeseen changes). From that premise it follows that we should only pass regulations which will make the economy more antifragile (that is, stronger after the inevitable future volatility).

That may sound simple-minded, but the implications are important. For instance, this rule of thumb would eliminate endlessly complicated regulation like the Dodd-Frank Act (which may eventually sprawl to 30,000 pages of rules—creating loopholes ripe for cronyism), but it would leave open the possibility for simple, market-wide regulations like breaking up the banks, or banning credit-default swaps.

In other words, an antifragile economy is one that implements
 only regulations that aren't needlessly complex, don't pick winners and losers, and never add hosts of bureaucrats. By this token an antifragile economy also favors diverse, simple, small and medium-sized governments over the concentrated hive of bureaucrats that Washington has become. (Taleb's uses early America and Switzerland as models to follow, and I agree.)

What's more, an antifragile economy is full of entrepreneurs and small/medium-sized businesses instead of megacorporations. We know that entrepreneurs fail frequently, over and over, but each failure makes the future economy stronger as it quickly learns from their/our mistakes (thus, it's antifragile). This is the opposite of "too big to fail," a system where each recurring failure weakens the future economy for years to come, with losses spilling over to unrelated parties (i.e. taxpayers).

So here's a word that breaks the pro-regulation/anti-regulation dichotomy: antifragile. It provides us with a useful rule of thumb, a new and better way to frame debates about the intersection of business and government. It's a word we should start using.

Here's a link to an interview with Taleb from a year ago that I've listened to (perhaps embarrassingly?) more than half a dozen times. You can get a feel from the interview about whether you'd like the book (which is divisive and admittedly off-putting to some people).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Guns, Tragedy, and Team Politics

Did you know that not everywhere on earth has frequent school shootings?

Here are the number of school shootings since 1999's Columbine tragedy. 

United States: 31
Rest of the world: 14

See the interactive version of the map here.

People talk about American exceptionalism as though it's always a good thing, but on this issue we're exceptional in the most twisted way possible, and we had better reform quickly. The frequency of the shootings is on the rise.

What's our problem?

People say that if we were just nicer to shy people, just said "hi" more frequently, then these killers wouldn't do what they've done. My response to that is: Look at Russia on the map above. You think Russia's a land of remarkably happy, smiley teenagers? I haven't been there, but I have my doubts.

Of course, being nicer would help. I'm only claiming that niceness alone won't solve our problem.

To be honest, I don't know what exactly will solve our problem.

But I do know that team politics isn't helping. In reaction to these tragedies, people choose a political team, and then they play the "either/or" game, just like sports teaches them to do. There's little nuance in sports, after all. It's one team vs. another, with the fans deciding before the game who to cheer and who to boo.

Likewise after every major tragedy, people line up according to their pre-chosen alliances.

"The problem isn't a lack of gun control; it's the crazy news coverage."
"The problem isn't the crazy news coverage; it's Hollywood."
"The problem isn't Hollywood; it's video games."
"The problem isn't video games; it's lack of mental health facilities."
"The problem isn't a lack of mental health facilities; it's American culture."
"The problem isn't American culture; it's a lack of gun control."

Why does the debate have to be a matter of either/or? Why can't the starting point be: There's good reason to believe that each of these things is playing a role in our problem, and I'm willing to judge the importance of each point according to the evidence I find rather than according to the team I belong to.

To solve our problem, I would start by looking at the data in the map above and then finding what is different about the United States. Do we have more sensational news coverage? Do we have more relaxed gun laws? Is our mental health coverage worse? 

I'd guess the answer to most of those questions is: Yes.

So I'm willing to fight passionately for all of the above. Got a good idea for how to get the news to tone things down? Let's try it. Got a good list of ways to improve mental health facilities? I'll fight for it. Know some ways to improve gun laws? Yes!

Unfortunately, what happens too often is that the teams end up canceling each other out. So we don't get mental health reform or gun control reform, and when the next school shooting happens we're still saddened, but less surprised.

Why not break from the "either/or" game and say something like, "I think that gun control is the primary issue, but I'm willing to join you in the fight for mental health reform, too"?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

15 Tax Charts You Should Be Acquainted with. Also, If You Know of Others, I'd Love to See Them.

This post is somewhat in conjunction with my last post, which is about capital gains tax cuts.

A couple of days ago a friend posted a chart about the top US marginal tax rate (see below). I like the chart, but I soon realized it doesn't present a full picture. This finding led me to question several other common assumptions about the tax code.

I compiled this list because I couldn't find a single source that answered these particular questions, questions that I find essential to the debates about the tax code.

Here's that chart I was talking about.

Q. The purpose of this chart is to imply that raising the top marginal tax rate back to 39.6% wouldn't be a big deal, right?


Q. So why not raise the rate back to 91%? It seems like the economic growth in the 1950s was great. If we raised it again to 91%, would we have the equivalent of what was happening in the 50s?

A. Not quite. Today, the top marginal tax rate affects a wider group—those making over $397,000. In the 50s the top bracket only affected those who made the equivalent of over $2.3M (see below).

This means that someone who made the equivalent of $3M in 1955 would have only been taxed 91% on the portion that was above $2.3M, but someone making $3M today would be tax 91% on everything above $397,000. That's an enormous difference—the difference between making $700,000 and $2.4M a year (excluding all other taxes, credits, deductions, etc.).

So things are not as simple as the graph above lets on because the income level for the top bracket have shifted many times—and often dramatically!

Still, the differences between tax brackets from 1993 to 2011 aren't very large, so if the top marginal rate were to rise back to 1993 levels, it would be nearly equivalent to what it was then.

Q. Okay, I see. There's something else I'm wondering about: The chart above only focuses on rates, which is totally different from what people actually paid (taking into account all the shifting tax credits and deductions). No one really paid 91%, right?

A. I think that's right. I had a hard time finding a chart I could trust on this one. If anyone knows where to find the amount each bracket actually paid, I would love to see it.

Until then, here is this chart that shows the effective rate—including payroll, estate, and other taxes—for each segment of income distribution.

Q. So according to this chart, nobody had an effective rate of 91%. 

A. Right, remember the 91% just referred to the marginal rate—the rate that the income above a certain threshold is taxed. This chart shows the effective rate.

Also, this chart gets around the problem about shifting tax brackets by splitting everything according to segments of income distribution (not according to arbitrary brackets).

Q. What exactly is meant by the Bush tax cuts?


Q. Since Obama continued these cuts, why aren't they now called the Obama tax cuts?

A. Good question.

Q. I hear Republicans say that it won't matter if we raise taxes because tax revenues average around 20% pretty much no matter what we do. They show charts like this one.

A. It's true. Even though tax rates have changed pretty dramatically 1945-2010, revenue as a percent of GDP hasn't changed much. I don't know all the reasons for this (though I suspect it has to do with certain tax cuts in certain years, or certain recessions, or both), but I don't buy that getting above 20% would be impossible for the US. After all, look at where the US lands on this chart.

Most of these countries get far more revenue as a percent of GDP than the US does. There are tradeoffs for this, obviously, but it certainly wouldn't be impossible for the US to get more tax revenue if it wanted to.

(And if we want to continue to expand our warfare/welfare state, we probably will need to eventually raise rates to European levels.)


Q. How much does the lowest income bracket pay in taxes?

It depends on how you break it down. Here are a few key data points that emphasize just how much the richest actually end up paying.

But these charts don't factor in all taxes—sales tax, gasoline tax, payroll tax. When you factor those things in, the share each bracket pays is fairly close to the share each bracket earns.

And the effective tax totals for each bracket aren't quite so unequal as the earlier charts seem to indicate. 

Particularly when you factor in income inequality.

Q. Okay, okay. Just one more question. Why does any of this matter?

There are several reasons, but the biggest reason is that the long-term health of the United States depends on its citizens really understanding this issue. Right now we're a little confused:

And we're heading into a strange place:

We're fooling ourselves if we think we can keep heading in this direction.

 Q. Okay, sorry—I have one more question. What are we supposed to do?

A. Well, mathematically speaking, the problem isn't tough. We need to cut warfare and welfare spending, and raise tax rates across the board, for everyone. That's it. Do it over a ten year period, but do it.

The problem is that team politics—the constant left vs. right chatter—will never allow us to seriously move forward on simple mathematical necessities.

But we can 
gather the best data we can find, create a better dialogue about these issues, and then hope for the best.


How we pay taxes: 11 charts
Who pays taxes in America
Income tax in the US
Who pays taxes 2012
History of tax rates
Another excellent inequality study

Dear Government: Please Hurry Up and Compromise Because If You Don't This Country is Screwed

Added! A chart suggestion from Dallin in the comments section, showing the share of people paying taxes by age. This is from March 2008, and while things certainly looked different through the recession, it shows that many of the people who don't pay federal income taxes are young or old.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Debating about a Comic and Political Conversation

A friend recently posted this comic with the caption, "every political conversation ever." The caption, I'm sure, was written half in jest, half in earnest—just like this post.

Every political conversation ever.
J2: It's true, you know. If you think about everyone you've discussed politics with over the past 5 years, they all hold the same political identity they held 5 years ago. Nobody's mind has changed; nobody's mind is going to change. Political debates are merely academic calisthenics.

J1: Academic calisthenics are nice, though, in their own way.

J2: They haven't improved your abs, is what I'm saying. Think of your abs. All that time you've been debating politics . . .

J1: Well, maybe I just need to do more sit-ups as I type.

J2: Go ahead.

J1: Okay. [The rest of the post has been written while doing sit-ups.]

J1: Really, though—getting back to your point—I don't know if my purpose in debating politics is to persuade. 

J2: Of course it is. You have a drive for respect, I know you do—like most people. When you write, you want the homage that comes with being right. 

J1: But I've cut that side of me down. I don't know what good it's ever done me. Certainly everyone craves admiration through different avenues. That's human. And, anyway, a longing for respect isn't what's motivating me to write about politics.

J2: What else?

J1: I don't know. I've got a strange sense of urgency, it hangs like a ghost at my back, that if I don't contribute something meaningful to our public discourse, I'll regret it. 

J2: Why? If minds can't change, why the interest in politics? 

J1: Because minds can change. My mind has changed tremendously, for instance, as a result of the collective conversations I've had with people on- and off-line. 

J2: Well maybe that's just you. You want to appear openminded, and so you change your mind sometimes just to prove you're openminded.

J1: Haha, no. That's not it. I'm not alone in this. It happens to everyone. We read an argument and our mind changes. Without exception. I don't mean we experience a groundbreaking change in worldview—though that might happen once or twice in a lifetime. I mean when we hear an argument, our mind changes. 

J2: But I hear you and I'm unconvinced.

J1: Convincing you isn't the hope. My hope is that through an ongoing conversation, and because of it, you and I will inch closer to truth. 

J2: That's just a semantic trick, though—a meaningless turn of the phrase change your mind. In the comic change your mind means convince someone, and I remain unconvinced—though I must say your ability to do sit-ups while typing makes you more persuasive. Hats off.

J1: Thank you. And I haven't even broken a sweat . . .

J2: But look at all the incessant political chatter between team Republican and team Democrat—I don't see minds changing.

J1: You're confusing changing labels with changing minds. People seldom change labels, but they do change their minds. Over time. By degrees. Every rational conversation forces us to rethink our assumptions and fine-tune our positions.

J2: Ah, I see you slipped the qualifier rational in there. Every rational conversation forces us to rethink. Before you seemed to be saying every conversation does that. 

J1: Oh, you see I've changed my mind?

J2: Haha. My point is that most political conversations aren't rational. In the comic, for instance, the argument consists of "change your mind, change your mind, CHANGE YOUR MIND"—not the nuanced interchange of ideas you're idealizing about. 

J1: That's true. Maybe it is an ideal. I don't know. I'm convinced that our opinions are nothing more than the collective conversations we've had, through books, blogs, film, art, etc. And if that's the case, then each conversation affects us. But—I'm sorry to interrupt this conversation—can I be done? I'm sorry . . . it's just that I simply can't do another sit-up.

J2: Sorry, you can't stop until you concede that I'm right about this.

J1: What? I'm not going to admit that. 

[endless sit-ups]

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I'm Debating with Myself about Conservatism and All This Political Boondoggle

J1 (me) and J2 (also me) are talking about what the title of this post says they're talking about. Why hello, they're in the middle of their conversation right now:

J2: So were you ever a conservative?

J1: I don't know. It doesn't seem like a useful label. I mean, I don't know what I'm trying to conserve . . .

J2: Well, traditional marriage, for one. 

J1: No, I'm not interested in that, per se. I've written about traditional marriage and gay marriage, but it was mostly because I didn't think that Americans debate the issue in a meaningful way. Republicans cite biblical passages (none of which have to do with gay marriage), and Democrats toss snark bombs about how Republicans supposedly claim God will blow hurricanes across the land if we let gays marry. I tried to open up another view using secular sources, which is more along the lines of what the French have done in the marriage debate. Anyway, I'm more libertarian than anything when it comes to marriage. Not conservative.

J2: Okay, then. But you care about conserving water. 

J1: Right. I am always trying to conserve water. Very important.

J2: But, seriously, you are the most conservative, the reddest, of all your friends. Certainly the reddest of all the friends you hung around with in the English department at college.

J1: Who knows? How does one measure blue and red?

J2: Well, do you disagree with the Republican party on anything?

J1: Of course.

J2: Name something.

J1: Global warming, gun control, immigration, war, drug laws, deregulating big business, and so on. 

J2: . . . 

J1: Yeah.

J2: So you're a Democrat?

J1: No. I won't ever be Democrat because I reject concentrated power, and the Democratic party is unabashed in their attempts to grow the power of the federal government. 

J2: Libertarian then?

J1: No, because I believe that regulation—the rule of law—is a necessity, especially when it comes to corporations. And I strongly reject Ayn Rand's argument that taxation is theft.

J2: Green party?

J1: I don't even know what they believe. Pro-plants?

J2: Yeah, maybe.

J1: Well, I definitely like plants. So . . .

J2: But are you more left or more right?

J1: It's impossible to say. I could sit down with someone who identifies as a Republican and agree with them on a range of issues. Same with a Democrat. Left vs. right seems to be an increasingly meaningless spectrum, a spectrum that exists only because TV news needs it to exist.

J2: But what's a better spectrum?

J1: I wish I knew. I like what Jon Stewart said in an interview with Rachel Maddow. He said that the spectrum should be corrupt vs. non-corrupt. I like that. I also like Steve Jobs's argument that the spectrum should be constructive vs. destructive.

J2: Would you say then that you belong to the constructive party?

J1: Haha. That'd be a great party. Impeccable! Actually, I don't know what to call my ideology. I think a lot of Americans feel what I'm feeling. We look at the current political pony show and we know that we're not that.

J2: I know I feel that way.

J1: Yeah you do. The problem is that I don't know what group I fit with. Mainly, I like community and democracy. I admire the first democracy—ancient Athens—above any ancient society and most modern ones. Athenian playwrights, politicians, philosophers. They all were able to produce what they did because of the best idea humans have ever invented: Democracy. 

J2: But the word democrat is already taken.

J1: Exactly. So I don't know what to call myself. I only know I identify with the statement "I seek not for power, but to pull it down." That's my political ideology. It's strange because it's an ideology that's more or less just against something—against the status quo, and against cronyism in politics and corporations. I wish I could find an organization that shared my ideology—not an official political party, but just some group of people I could belong with. I wish I could find a group that recognized that the opposite of left isn't right despite what the TV says.

J2: Those notions seem noble but somewhat vague . . .

J1: That's true. I probably need to define my own beliefs more clearly before I can find a group to join. But that's the making of another discussion, right?

J2: Right.

J1: You know, it's hokey, but I created snapshots of three quotes that resonated with me as I read in preparation for this post.

J2: Oooo, snapshots?

J1: Yes. Words slapped together in Illustrator.

J2: Our creativity never ceases to amaze me.