Friday, December 20, 2019

On Defenses Against Charges of Crimethink

I was recently sent the following article by a friend of mine. He thought it would make my head explode.
Judge rules against researcher who lost job over transgender tweets
Maya Forstater’s view of sex ‘not worthy of respect in democratic society’, employment judge finds
My head, as it turns out, is intact. I have long stopped expecting sanity out of Current Year thinking. That something is insane does not mean it is surprising.

It is increasingly apparent that the holiness spiral of cultural Marxist thought is not only increasing, but accelerating. It took probably 80 years between the start of feminism and refusing to support it being a fireable offense. For gay rights, it took maybe 30. For trans rights, it’s less than 5. Whatever the next shoe to drop will be (I’ve long guessed citizenship), expect it to become a condition of mainstream employment within a few years, maybe less. The best guess as to why is from Moldbug’s recent writings – social media increased not only visible social signaling, but also became the metric for media success, thereby shaping topic choice by increasingly low-paid journalists. Anything with traction for generating social justice mob outrage suddenly got large signal boosts in short spaces of time, leading to more signaling, leading to more articles, leading to rapid changes in leftist norms.

But there is another aspect to this rapid acceleration that is more noteworthy. We are now at the point where previously acceptable ideas that are now essentially forbidden (opposing gay marriage, thinking there are only two immutable sexes) were mainstream within the period of permanent electronic storage of online writing. Which means that anybody who happened to share the wrong article or write some moderate-at-the-time facebook post back in 2013 is at risk of being crowbarred out of employment and polite society, should someone care enough to dig through all of their old writings and posts.

In other words, it is no longer a reliable guarantee of being left alone, like Havel’s greengrocer, to hold fairly mainstream opinions on social justice matters. One must, in addition, be willing to change one’s ideas at an increasingly rapid rate. In other words, you have to be mainstream at every point in time. It used to be prudent advice to not post extreme opinions online, and that this would be sufficient. But the faster moral fashions change, the less this is going to work. The only solution is going to be full passivism – don’t post anything political, at all, in any publicly searchable forum that can be linked to you. You never really know which ideas that are normal today will become crimethink tomorrow.

To make matters worse, the fact that these are moral fashions, rather than dress fashions, prevents a lot of honest discourse or understanding about the underlying process if you want to come across as sincere. When hemlines go up or down, you can just change from a long skirt to a miniskirt without having to explain why, as it’s well understood that keeping with the times is just a pastime and a sport. You don’t have to denounce last season’s miniskirts as the work of the devil. On the other hand, people that are sincerely concerned about trans rights (or indeed gay marriage) have an almost complete inability to explain, even to themselves, when exactly they began to view this as a crucial moral issue and why. A mere five or six years ago, they almost certainly found cross-dressing (as it was known then, but which probably will become a hate-term in a year or two) and its associated subcultures as largely ridiculous, curious, or comical. At some point, it become the world’s most important moral issue to them. What changed their mind? If it is such an obvious human right now, why was it not an obvious human right in 2012? They were fully functioning adults. Did they just not care? Surely it can’t just be that the New York Times started publishing articles about it. Are they really so sheep-like on the supposedly great moral questions of our age?

The people who are apt to get themselves in the most trouble are those who don’t understand the process, want to discuss and take seriously these ideas at each point in time, but change their tune at an insufficiently rapid pace.

But there is another aspect worth noting. Steve Sailer had a wonderful expression for the process of crimethink hunting – the Eye of Soros. Like the Eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, it is very powerful, and you don’t want it to fall on you, as it will destroy you. But thankfully, it can’t be looking in all places at once. Most people who shared some article back in 2016 saying there were only two sexes won’t actually be fired. It needs someone malicious to go to the effort of hunting through all your previous postings, finding the most incriminating thing that can be taken out of context, and starting a big publicity campaign against your employer, your friends and your family. Most people aren’t nasty or sociopathic enough to do this on a regular basis. It’s usually journalists, or some particularly vindictive person you know.

Which means that increasingly, there will only be one reliable precaution against both current and future crimethink charges. It is the same one as during the Soviet Union.

You need to be able to judge the character of the people you’re talking to, and whether you can trust them. The worse things get, the more all of us will live and die on this ability.

In real life, I crimethink quite freely. Many aspects of modernity are so comical and ridiculous that bonding over them is sometimes entertaining, in a clownworld sense. I do so at a level that strikes some people as imprudent. If I think someone is likely to be receptive, I’ll often lead with a mild joke to gauge their reactions. If I’ve judged them incorrectly, which happens sometimes, and they look uncomfortable, I moderate down or stop. If they appear to genuinely enjoy them, I push it a little further.

Once such people become my friends, they sometimes are reluctant to bring me to some context where crimethink would be badly received (a dinner party with a number of lefty guests, for instance). But on such occasions, they’re usually surprised that I won’t talk about controversial things much at all. They’d formed the opinion that I simply couldn’t turn it off.

As I point out, in such cases – do you think that I could have survived as long as I have, with the opinions I have, if I didn’t know the rules of the game? If I speak freely in front of you, that’s a mark of esteem, that I view you as a friend whom I can trust.

Trustworthiness in terms of crimethink is less correlated than you might think with simple partisan voting patterns. There are republican friends I have that I can only say certain things to, and democrats to whom I can say almost anything.

If I had to summarize the two strongest indicators that someone is trustworthy enough to be spoken to freely, I’d say they are the following.

First, do they have a sense of humor, both in general, and about political matters specifically? This is probably the largest one. Anybody who treats everything going on in the Current Year as deathly serious is heavily invested in the partisan aspects of the game, which sooner or later includes joining outrage mobs against bad thoughts.

Second, are they able to have an argument about questions of abstract principle without taking it personally and getting angry? People who can listen to strange arguments and consider them without an immediate need to lash out at you are much less likely to then badmouth you to everyone around  you. Actually getting you in trouble generally requires active work, and mostly only those with a grudge are willing to do it.

In my experience, people who pass both tests have a very high likelihood of being trustworthy in terms of talking about forbidden political and social thoughts.

There have only been perhaps two or three instances where I’ve gotten things badly wrong. In all of them, with the benefit of hindsight, the failure mode was me enjoying the contrarianism and humor of argument too much, and persisting with a line of discussion when warning signs were there that they were starting to get angry or upset, even though they kept engaging. If they’d stopped, I would have stopped. When they didn’t, I lacked the discipline and presence of mind to disengage and refuse to discuss it further.

I don’t hold myself up as a particular expert at this process. The nature of the game is that everyone thinks they’re doing well and things are just fine, right up until they get zogged. All of this may yet prove an epitaph to eventual unemployment.

All of us crimethinkers, however, do have one significant advantage over most normies. We’ve been thinking about this question for a lot longer, namely how to survive when you think things outside the Overton Window.

This of course leaves the last question. Why do it? Isn’t it just safer to shut your mouth?

Of course it is. It always is. The only justification is the one Solzhenitsyn gave, which is as true now as it was then.

Live not by lies.

He walked the walk, in a way that few others do. But he makes a strong moral case for the position. Every day, we choose some point on the spectrum between prudent silence and ill-advised honesty. If Solzhenitsyn’s work has a running theme, it’s that when you do the right and truthful thing, you probably won’t be rewarded for it, and will likely be punished.

But you should do it anyway.
If we are too frightened, then we should stop complaining that someone is suffocating us.
We ourselves are doing it. Let us then bow down even more, let us wail, and out brothers the biologists will help to bring nearer the day when they are able to read our thoughts are worthless and hopeless.
And if we get cold feet, even taking this step, then we are worthless and hopeless, and the scorn of Pushkin should be directed to us:
Why should cattle have the gifts of freedom? Their heritage from generation to generation is the belled yoke and the lash

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Ave Atque Vale - Grandma Holmes, 1916-2019

Every day, the rolls of the dead expand, never to be shrunk again.

I am fortunate to have gone as long as I have knowing personally only a few such entries. My friend from childhood who got killed in a nightclub. My family friend in Sydney who died in a diving accident. My other grandma, twenty years ago. My uncle, whom I only saw every few years, because he and my Dad didn't really get along.

And now, alas, you.

The world must be a strange place when you reach 103. Every friend you had from childhood is dead. All your peers from work and school are dead. In fact, the only people still alive that you spent any sizable fraction of your life with are necessarily at least a generation removed from you. How many people form lifelong friendships with those twenty to thirty years their junior? Not very many. So who's going to still come calling?

In other words, all that is left is family.

One of the great joys of talking to you in your later years was you being the repository of all family news and lore. I could find out immediately by talking to you the latest news from my cousins, or aunt, or even my parents. It was wonderful. You'd always have endless questions about how my life was going, and what I was up to. But not just in a general "tell me some stuff" sense. Rather, it was specific questions about the details of my recent life events that you'd heard about from Mum or my brother or someone else, and you wanted to know more about how they were unfolding. It was very touching, and made me feel embarrassed at my conversational tendency to just tell stories and grandstand during conversation, rather than interestedly just ask people about their lives and listen to an answer. I tend to treat this phase as a prelude to "let's exchange some great and fun stories and witticisms". Talking with you made me realize how self-centered this must come across as.

Getting old is somewhat like getting drunk, or perhaps like being a small child. You find out that the ability and willingness to mask and master one's impulses in order to achieve social ends in fact requires quite large cognitive resources. When people get old, they lose a lot of their inhibitions. Whatever they have in them just tends to come out. Some people become lecherous old people. Some people become angry, or pontificating. And some people just become endlessly sweet and easy-going. You were in the last category. Everyone loved you deeply. I literally don't remember anyone saying a bad word about you, which is true for very few people I know.

Modernity being what it is, when someone is described as being "a product of their time", this is usually meant in a pejorative sense. It mostly means that they failed to be on board with the latest particular societal preoccupations. But you were truly a product of your time in a way that's much less remarked on, and reflects poorly on our utterly narcissistic modern world. Namely, there was a strong sense that one shouldn't complain or be an imposition on those around you, because life wasn't just about you. Naturally, this made everyone around you want to look after you and provide for you as much as they could. The closest I ever heard to you complaining was recently when recounting a heart attack a few days earlier. "It was very distressing," you remarked, when asked about the specific incident. This made me realize how bad it was, that this was the only indication you gave that you genuinely thought you were dying. But a few days later when I saw you again, you were doing well, in your account. It made me think about the writings of Theodore Dalrymple:
No culture changes suddenly, and the elderly often retained the attitudes of their youth. I remember working for a short time in a general practice in a small country town where an old man called me to his house. I found him very weak from chronic blood loss, unable to rise from his bed, and asked him why he had not called me earlier. “I didn’t like to disturb you, Doctor,” he said. “I know you are a very busy man.”
From a rational point of view, this was absurd. What could I possibly need to do that was more important than attending to such an ill man? But I found his self-effacement deeply moving. It was not the product of a lack of self-esteem, that psychological notion used to justify rampant egotism; nor was it the result of having been downtrodden by a tyrannical government that accorded no worth to its citizens. It was instead an existential, almost religious, modesty, an awareness that he was far from being all-important.
I experienced other instances of this modesty. I used to pass the time of day with the husband of an elderly patient of mine who would accompany her to the hospital. One day, I found him so jaundiced that he was almost orange. At his age, it was overwhelmingly likely to mean one thing: inoperable cancer. He was dying. He knew it and I knew it; he knew that I knew it. I asked him how he was. “Not very well,” he said. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” I replied. “Well,” he said quietly, and with a slight smile, “we shall just have to do the best we can, won’t we?” Two weeks later, he was dead.
I often remember the nobility of this quite ordinary man’s conduct and words. He wanted an appropriate, but only an appropriate, degree of commiseration from me; in his view, which was that of his generation and culture, it was a moral requirement that emotion and sentiment should be expressed proportionately, and not in an exaggerated or self-absorbed way. My acquaintance with him was slight; therefore my regret, while genuine, should be slight. (Oddly enough, my regret has grown over the years, with the memory.) Further, he considered it important that he should not embarrass me with any displays of emotion that might discomfit me. A man has to think of others, even when he is dying.
As Mum noted, you always said you wanted to pass away in your sleep, so as to not be a burden on those around you. You got your wish, with your daughter sleeping in the next room.

We shall miss you very much, Mimi. This has been a salutary lesson in humility. One fancies oneself that years of Buddhist reading and contemplation of impermanence will make one calmly accept the mortality of loved ones with equanimity and contemplation. And then one finds out that, after all, one is more like everyone else than one suspected.

But Buddhism is indeed consolation. In times like these, I often reflect on the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, recounting the last days of the Buddha. The incomparable teacher had told all the monks three months ahead of time that he would soon pass away and achieve his final parinibbana. To make matters worse, the Buddha had not appointed any successor to take over in his stead. The uncertainty and misery surrounding their future must have been extraordinary. Not only were they losing a beloved teacher, but also all sense of certainty as to what would happen to the Sangha, the order of monks. How ought one go on, in such a time?
And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: "Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!"
This was the last word of the Tathagata.
...
Then, when the Blessed One had passed away, some bhikkhus, not yet freed from passion, lifted up their arms and wept; and some, flinging themselves on the ground, rolled from side to side and wept, lamenting: "Too soon has the Blessed One come to his Parinibbana! Too soon has the Happy One come to his Parinibbana! Too soon has the Eye of the World vanished from sight!"
But the bhikkhus who were freed from passion, mindful and clearly comprehending, reflected in this way: "Impermanent are all compounded things. How could this be otherwise?"

Indeed, how could it be otherwise?

Saturday, November 16, 2019

What, Exactly, Do You Want?

(The inspiration for this post comes from here, and from a coffee conversation with The Grinch, who asked me the subject line bluntly during a political discussion.)

It seems prudent to break the subject into three discrete questions, all of which might on their own be considered variations on the subject line, but which are, on reflection, very different.

1. What are the problems of modernity?

If you take people on the right, either outer right or mainstream right, and ask them what are the specific problems with modernity, you will get a surprisingly uniform and well-agreed-upon list of problems. The most ardent reactionary and the most mainstream Republican will probably not actually disagree very much on what are the particularly wretched aspects of life in contemporary America. Open borders. Welfare moochers. Criminals not being punished. Endless propaganda against straight white Christian males. You get the idea.

This is worth pondering. The things which trouble us are a substantial cause of agreement.

2. What would be your ideal solution to fix those problems?

If you took the same range of people, and asked them what kind of governing arrangements they would prefer, they might give you quite different answers. Normie conservatives want a return to the constitution as understood in 1950, or 1920, or 1850, or what have you. Further right republicans might want the authoritarian capitalism of Lee Kuan Yew, or the colonial administration of British Hong Kong. Reactionaries might want an absolute monarch, or Moldbug's sovereign corporations. 

And yet, among the more thoughtful ones, even if they disagreed on exactly what was their preferred model, they would probably also take any other right-winger's governing arrangements over the status quo, if it could actually be achieved. In other words, we might haggle over the ordering, but any of them would likely be an improvement. If agreeing to this were all it took to get it to actually happen, we'd have a reasonable shot at all being on board.

3. How do we get to there from here?

A.K.A. What should we actually do about all this? And on this question, people come to all sorts of answers. I think the reason is that nobody really knows. I tend to believe the Moldbug point that activist strategies are a disaster for the right (see, for instance, Charlottesville). But this is very different from knowing what will work, or even might work. I don't honestly have a great idea, but I'm working on it. When it comes to things like voting, we can't even agree on which direction the sign goes.  

To see how wild the divergence can be between the first point (agreeing on current problems) and the third (what to do to concretely improve things), consider the following description of leftism. See if it rings true:
Almost everyone will agree that we live in a deeply troubled society. One of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world is leftism, so a discussion of the psychology of leftism can serve as an introduction to the discussion of the problems of modern society in general.
But what is leftism? During the first half of the 20th century leftism could have been practically identified with socialism. Today the movement is fragmented and it is not clear who can properly be called a leftist. When we speak of leftists in this article we have in mind mainly socialists, collectivists, “politically correct” types, feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like. But not everyone who is associated with one of these movements is a leftist. What we are trying to get at in discussing leftism is not so much movement or an ideology as a psychological type, or rather a collection of related types.
Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality. The reasons that leftists give for hating the West, etc. clearly do not correspond with their real motives. They SAY they hate the West because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in primitive cultures, the leftist finds excuses for them, or at best he GRUDGINGLY admits that they exist; whereas he ENTHUSIASTICALLY points out (and often greatly exaggerates) these faults where they appear in Western civilization. Thus it is clear that these faults are not the leftist’s real motive for hating America and the West. He hates America and the West because they are strong and successful.
Sounds pretty reasonable, right?

So what do you think the guy who wrote this proposed to do to fix this problem?

As it turns out, the completely bonkers answer was to send home made bombs to try to blow up a random computer store owner, geneticist, biologist, computer scientist, and a bunch of others. The quote is from the Unabomber manifesto. He's actually one of the few exceptions to point 2 - I wouldn't actually prefer to live in his entirely pre-industrial-revolution society, even if I can agree on some of what has been lost. It's actually worth reading, if for no other reason than the whiplash disconnect between the quite incisive observations he makes about the problems of modernity, and the absolutely insane things he did that made him famous:

Step 1. Send home-made bombs to random people who do things somehow associated with modernity
Step 2. ????
Step 3. Profit!
Step 4. Worldwide revolution where technology is abolished. 

That said, I think the widespread agreement on point 2 is, in many ways, equally surprising. Because it's not obvious that we should necessarily find some kind of consensus improvement just because we dislike the status quo. And moreover, it suggests that there actually might be something common to all these alternative governing arrangements that would make them an improvement. Why exactly, do we all instinctively support a lot of each others' solutions?

I think there is a value in trying to condense down a description of what it is at a high level we want. Partly, this is because even if one dislikes voting, one can't get around having to convince people somehow. Maybe not the general public, maybe just the elites. Fine. But also as an important intellectual exercise of understanding what the actual problem with the status quo is. What is it that unites Singaporean authoritarianism, British Hong Kong, absolute monarchy, and sovereign corporations, but isn't present in modern democratic states?

The shortest answer I have, which I think can be given in a lot of different settings without offending people, is this.

Well-defined and secure property rights in the state itself.

You want to know what I want? That's what I want.

Who owns the state? And in whose interest is it to be run? Not some b.s. answer like "the people". Which people, specifically, and in which proportion? What exactly is the decision-making process? How are the cash flows going to be distributed?

That's what's so appealing about sovereign corporations. Not only is there one answer, but everybody knows that answer, and everybody pretty much has incentives to continue to respect that answer. Who owns Microsoft? Not "the people", that's for sure. And in a sense, does it matter who specifically owns Microsoft? Not really. What matters is the structure and the incentives. If the shares all changed hands tomorrow, would you expect Microsoft to act very differently? No. The shares will change hands tomorrow, and you won't even bother to think about it when you load up Windows.

But if we all agree that Lee Kuan Yew owns the state, or that the British Civil Service with their well-defined system of promotions and personnel owns the state, or that Louis XIV owns the state, that's probably fine as well. If they really truly own it, they probably will have sufficient incentives to run it decently well. They might screw it up - this is why I generally prefer sovereign corporations to absolute monarchy, because regression to the mean and bad genetic draws periodically produces fools at the top. But if they do, they'll be hurt themselves, which probably gives them incentives to hire or consult someone who understands statecraft properly.

A completely well-defined and secure set of state property rights is probably itself a Platonic ideal that can't actually be achieved. Specifying exactly why the individual soldier or policeman carries out the order in every situation, or where exactly the King/CEO's advisors come from, will always be thorny. But we can probably still rank order different arrangements in terms of approximate stability and agreement on state ownership.

Why do we want well-defined and secure property rights in the state?

Because a stationary bandit is better than roving bandits. 

When you have one bandit, you get expropriated efficiently. When you get multiple bandits, it turns out like the descriptions in one of the War Nerd podcasts of what it was like to have armies coming over your area during the Thirty Years War. Even if they were just passing through, they had to resupply. So they'd come by, steal all your grain, use your furniture as firewood, perhaps rape a daughter or two, and then camp for the night. Then a few months later, another army would do the same, except they'd be annoyed that the first guys had taken most of the good stuff.

Strikingly, in Brecher's recount, it made surprisingly little difference whether the army was notionally friendly to the country in question, or notionally hostile. Either way, you were getting everything taken. It didn't matter if they were taking next year's seed grain, or you didn't have enough to survive the winter. That's your problem.

Such accounts also show the risk of being hyperbolic. In modernity, we aren't getting randomly mobbed as a society in anything like the way peasants were in the Thirty Years War. Why not?

Well, in the modern west what we have isn't several groups of roving bandits. That indeed would be worse. When the bandits are entirely an outside force, and one that will only be here temporarily, you get absolute catastrophe, and they'll take everything. Rather, we have internal banditry by unstable coalition. None of the bandits are individually strong enough to rob you, but collectively they are. The good news is, the bandits are part of the society themselves, so they're here for a while at least. The other good news is that they (so far, and on average) view their coalition as kinda sorta stable  - enough that they can exploit semi efficiently the various groups they eating. And, so far at least, they're smart enough to figure out a way to do that. This is why modern America is grim in many respects, but you'd never confuse it with Mugabe's Zimbabwe, or a the Holy Roman Empire when the Swedish army paid a visit. In a modern context, neither stable coalitions not semi-intelligent leaders exist, for instance, in modern South Africa. Unsurprisingly, it's rapidly going down the toilet. My predictions on that have been correct for as long as I've been writing. If any of my readers are working for the South African tourism board, I suggest the slogan "See it before it's gone", or if you're more optimistic, "See it before it gets worse".

The force which binds the western coalition together is Spandrell's Bio-Leninism - the coalition of the fringes, in Steve Sailer's formulation. It's still approximately the same group over time, or at least there's a fair degree of overlap, which is why the modern west isn't a total disaster. But who exactly is on top, and who is getting more of the spoils, and who is at risk of being cast out altogether - those things are much less stable.

Hence the need for endless political propaganda, because the coalition needs to signal out-group hatred to keep itself together. Hence the ever shifting potpourri of fashionable causes competing for attention, because the relative ownership stakes in the coalition aren't well defined. Hence the endless insistence on public assent to obvious lies, because you need credible litmus tests to determine loyalty. Hence the need to keep bringing in foreign electoral ringers, because some of the important organs of power are still laundered through our four year American Idol contest, and there's the risk that some of the yokels might get uppity.

The best summary of the theoretical solution to all this is still Moldbug's first post on Formalism. Find out who already owns the state, and give it to them officially. That way you only have one hard problem to solve (find out who owns the state), not two (expropriate the existing owners and give it to some new set of stable owners)

The problem is that we have no idea how to define properly who owns the state, because the answer keeps changing. There's also a problem that people who think they should own the state but currently don't may not assent to formalising the current ownership arrangements. And overconfidence makes everyone think they'll get more in the next round of coalition rearranging.

But a whole lot of us instinctively seem to see the appeal in systems where that problem has been solved somehow. Anyhow. King Charles II, Emperor Bill Gates, or the dispersed shareholders in the Disney Company. It doesn't matter much to me. I'll take any of them.

So we're still somewhat back at the problem of point 3. How do we move towards a system where property rights in the state are well-defined?

I don't know, exactly.

But at least I have a more concrete idea of what I'm aiming at, and what might achieve it, rather than having to split the difference between Catholic Integralism and Sovereign Corporations.

And it's phrased at a sufficiently high level of generality that you can say it at a dinner party and not immediately get thrown out.

Maybe that's something. Maybe it's not.

Nobody said point 3 would be easy, or even solvable at all.

Friday, September 20, 2019

An Open Letter to a Smart Young Man About Dating Women

0.


Dear [redacted],

It’s been a while since we spoke. You’re finishing high school and starting college soon, no? Very good. One of your parents (I won’t say which) asked me to talk to you about dating issues. It’s not that they couldn’t tell you some of this stuff themselves. It’s just that teenagers often don’t want to listen to things coming from their parents.

From your point of view, this is basically unsolicited advice. The first rule of interpreting unsolicited advice is that it is nearly always actually about the person dispensing the advice, and only somewhat about the person to whom advice is being given. Solicited advice is fundamentally different in this regard. Usually, the most heartfelt, passionate advice that people give is addressed to a younger version of themselves, no matter who the nominal audience is. It is usually about the mistakes they made that they now understand better, but also sometimes about great triumphs they had which their younger self wouldn’t have envisaged. These two possibilities complicate matters. It's somewhat like Freud. He was wrong on the specific point that everyone secretly wanted to have sex with their parents, but right on the broader point that if you want to understand someone's personality, you need to start with the relationship they have with their parents. So it is here. It doesn't mean that unsolicited advice is wrong, it just means you should consider the extent to which you actually fit the same case as the younger version of them, and adjust accordingly. I’ve tried to tailor this as much as possible to a) the parts I think you might actually listen to, and b) the things you might not figure out on your own. It as much about you as possible, subject to the caveats above.


1. 

This is not primarily advice about how women work, or how to find one to date. For that, read the Chateau Heartiste archives, especially the early stuff. He’s brilliant, but you need to be careful with Heartiste. His observations about women and their psychology are very apt and incisive. Follow what Heartiste says, and you will get laid. For a man of your age, this is almost certainly your main concern. But make sure you keep an eye on the positive versus the normative. Heartiste is at his best as a positive description of evolutionary psychology of the sexes - in other words, how the world works. But there's a separate normative question - how ought you act in your life with this knowledge? This is distinct. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you ought to. And we're back at the point above – Heartiste’s advice, like everyone’s, is probably going to be slanted towards being somewhat self-serving. There's a normative suggestion that endless philandering is something that you should do, that it's a life well lived. Well, that's the rub, isn't it? Do you want to end up like Heartiste, at least as much as you can estimate what his life is like?

But you're busy. You don't want to spend weeks reading old blog posts (though you should, they're very entertaining too). Okay, fine. Let me give you the condensed Cliff notes version, as much as I understand it.

Lesson #1.

On average, women will be attracted to behaviors and traits that would have been associated with the alpha male chimp in pre-historic society.

Being big and strong, obviously. But more importantly, how you carry yourself. Are you confident? This is nearly universally stated by women as being attractive. Being confident in a chimp society, if you weren't the top chimp, was a fast way to get yourself killed. Now it isn't, of course, but our brains are still wired the same way. Similar things apply for status and social proof. Acting like you have options with women, and could take it or leave it with any particular girl, is paradoxically more likely to succeed than acting very eager and desperate. Girls can smell desperation at a thousand miles. If you are desperate, it’s all the more important to act like you’re not.

You're a smart young man, and like most smart young men, your social status will probably go up as you leave high school, not down. The dumb jocks peak at age 14. But in the interim, you'd be amazed just how far "fake it" can take you as advice. If you pretend to be confident, it works almost the same as the real thing. Easier said than done, of course, but that's life.

Lesson #2.

In any battle between women's stated preference and their revealed preference, bet on their revealed preference.

Applying this takes some skill, because you have to pay attention to what women's revealed preference actually is, and society tends to give you bad advice on this front. Moreover, you will be tempted to make the worst common mistake that many young men make - if in doubt, they substitute the question "what would I want in this situation", which is generally a very poor strategy. The traits and behaviors that you would want in a woman are generally not the same traits and behaviors that a woman wants in you.

For instance, suppose a woman says that she wants a sweet, funny guy who buys her roses and cuddles her at night. She's not lying, she does want this. But what it's important to realize is that when she says this, she's imagining Brad Pitt doing these things. When a man is high in status, displays of commitment are desired, because the primary worry is that he's going to leave. You, however, have the preliminary problem - how to I become more of a facsimile of Brad Pitt? Not a movie star necessarily, but how do I carry myself like Tyler Durden in Fight Club? This is the problem you need to solve, but women won't tell you this. If you start out being Bob from Accounting and act like their stated preference claims, you'll get fired. If they say they want sweet guys and instead keep going out with the @**hole bass player from the band, you'd do far better learning how to play bass and give less of a damn when dealing with women.

A crude but effective approximation of “bet on revealed preference” is just “act as much as possible like the guys who are successful with women”.

Lesson #3.

Don't be pathetic.

The reason I like this version is that it condenses many things down into one idea, because we all kind of know what "pathetic" looks like. Like many things in life, game advice eventually hits diminishing returns. And the biggest benefits actually come early on, from cutting out the left tail of pathetic, cringeworthy behavior. If you do nothing else, read Heartiste's hilarious "Beta of the Monthseries. This will give you a range of examples of terrible behavior to avoid. If you just avoid this kind of thing, you'll be way ahead of the curve.

As they used to say when people still wrote blogs, go read the whole thing. There are only a few blogs I've gone back and read from start to finish. Heartiste is one, and Moldbug is the other.


2. 






At some point, I decided that I was only going to write blog posts about things that I hadn't actually read elsewhere. So think of this letter as an addendum to the kinds of things I've seen written in game blogs, and a way of avoiding the pitfalls that might come from taking 2010-2018 manosphere advice too literally.

Chief among these is the following. One of the most consistently unpopular messages in human society is the reality of the budget constraint. Telling people that life has hard, unpleasant binding tradeoffs, and that something inevitably has to be sacrificed, is a truth that it is human nature to resist as far as possible.

It is extraordinarily unlikely that you will get everything you want. If you are lucky, you will get some or most of what you want, depending on how expansive are your wants. The right choice, in a big picture sense, will very likely involve giving up something else you want, with all the attendant regret that entails.

The fact that people generally don’t want to hear this message goes doubly so for those who write about self-improvement. They’re right to do so for the purpose they have. For game in particular, imbuing a sense of irrational self-confidence is very important when approaching women, especially among self-doubting beginners. It’s not for nothing that I began by saying “read Heartiste first”.

Being irrationally overconfident when it comes to women is great tactics, but not great strategy. In other words, when approaching any one woman at a bar, you absolutely want to be irrationally overconfident. But it doesn’t follow that you also want to be irrationally overconfident about your long-term budget constraint, and what tradeoffs it implies.

The rest of this post is primarily about what some of those budget constraints are, as I see them, and what you should do about them.


3.

Game authors are very good at skewering women's self-deceits and delusions. The largest among these is that they can just date around, prioritise their job and travel, and start thinking about trying to find a husband in their late twenties or early thirties. This is, of course, a disastrous strategy, on average, and comes with a high probability of ending up as a cat lady, or ending up with no children/fewer children than you’d like, if you do find a husband.

But still, there's an equivalent male delusion, and it goes like this.

“Men just keep getting better and better over time.”

It is indeed true that men don't have nearly as steep a decline in sexual market value over time. This is complicated by the fact that wealth and status take on different trajectories, and women's preferences aren't as strictly driven by looks and youth as men's are.

But the basic idea that men just keep getting better seems ludicrous to me, particularly because it violates revealed preference arguments. Limiting oneself to women above the age of consent (here assumed 18), at what age are women the most physically attractive? Probably ages 18-22. Men mostly, but not entirely, have preferences based on age and physical attractiveness, both of which are correlated on average. Great. So who are the 18 year old women actually dating?

The answer is, largely men ages 18-25. The 22 year olds are generally dating men ages 22-28. At least in my observational experience.

Now, part of this is just the mechanics of dating. Who are you actually interacting with? If you're at college, probably other people at college. In a different world, say southern Europe 300 years ago, it may have been much more normal for a 15 year old to marry a 40 year old. But we ain’t in that world. The Smashing Pumpkins put it quite memorably: Love – it’s who you know. At a bare minimum, people the same age have a much higher chance in our largely age-stratified society to meet and interact with hot young women in an environment where dating is on the cards.

But even so, let's consider the hypothesis that 18 year olds are actually more attracted to 35 or 40 year old men. In such a case, we have to posit a fairly significant market failure as to why they aren't dating them. Does Tinder not exist for such women? Could they not just go online and select their desired age range as 35-45? Of course they could. Doesn't revealed preference seem more believable? In this view, your ability to attract 18 year olds probably maxes out at about 22, at least if you’re still in college then. Your ability to date 22 year olds probably maxes out at 26-27. If you're getting better on other dimensions (richer, higher status job), you can compensate partially, but probably only partially.

If you want to date 27 year olds, you'll have a good many years ahead in which you can do this easily. If you want to date college freshmen, you won't. You can still do it, it just involves getting luckier, or drawing from more idiosyncratic bits of the distribution (i.e. paying a cost on some other dimension).

Positing that George Clooney has gotten more attractive to women as he aged is every bit as absurd as saying that Christie Brinkley still looked hot at 50. Neither is remotely representative of the average person's experience. If you want to find out how easy it is for a 40 year old to date 18 year olds, ask a 40 year old. They'll tell you. Or if you don’t believe me, just set up a tinder account yourself with some pictures of decently attractive 40 year old men, set your age as 40, start swiping, and see how many matches with 18 year olds you get.

There is one offsetting aspect to this, however, which is especially apt to confuse some people. Many of the people writing game advice are generally smarter than average. And in my anecdotal experience, smart men who think explicitly about game do so because a) it’s not something that came naturally to them as a teenager, and b) it’s something they only got better at with age. So for these people, the age decline tends to be muted by the fact that their experience with how to interact with women was getting better, at least for some time.

This can indeed offset a good amount of the decline, and as a point estimate will probably actually improve your chances.

But this is best understood as you moving up the cross-sectional distribution over time. It doesn’t change what the age-related decline is for the distribution as a whole.


4.

Why does this matter? Well, in the short term, it tells you that the regret avoidance strategy when you’re just casually dating is to date as young as you can, for as long as you can. There’ll be a good number more years where you can date 25 year olds, but the 18 year olds are going away faster than you think.

But this is a relatively shallow lesson. There’s a more important one.

Suppose you believe, as survey evidence tends to indicate, that marital unhappiness and a woman’s divorce risk increases with her lifetime number of sexual partners. Or, suppose you’re one of the mass of normal men that feels somewhere between uncomfortable, grossed out, or angrily jealous when they think about the idea of one’s dearly beloved having boned other men, especially lots of other men.

Partner counts are a ratchet. They go up, but they never come down.

For any given sex drive that a woman has, her partner count is lower when she is younger.

Add this to the point above, and you have the following.

Your ability to wind up with a wife where you got to enjoy all of her best years and experiences peaks relatively early.

The price you pay is likely giving her most of your best years.

If you choose to spend those years just casually hooking up with random women who you aren’t going to marry, you will get the fun of banging lots of women. But it will probably come at the cost that your wife, when you meet her, will be older, and will have banged more guys already. To make things worse, the longer it takes you to realise this, the more you’ll keep chasing after the dwindling chances of getting the kind of wife you could have gotten if you’d met her at age 22. The longer you wait, the larger the gap between what you ideally want, and what you’re likely to get. At a certain point, you might not end up with anything at all that meets your estimates of minimum acceptable partner.

This is not fun to contemplate, but I think it’s true nonetheless.

I don’t mean this rhetorically to imply one course of action or the other. A budget constraint is not advice. The guys that met their wife when they were both freshmen in college nearly always have regrets about the fact that they didn’t get to have as many years in college and in their 20s being free and single. This message is true, and it tends to get emphasized fairly loudly in the modern world. Which is why I bring up the flip side. The guys that did get to enjoy lots of years of partying in college and their 20s don’t generally get to marry women they met when such women were 18 year old virgins, and go into a relationship with their eventual wife when neither one has very much baggage from past relationships. This doesn’t get talked about at all, because it cuts against much of the grain of modernity to acknowledge that lots of men prefer women to have lower partner counts. It sounds to modern ears like “slut shaming” (a hilarious concept that tries to paper over the reality that the harshest critics of women who sleep around a lot tend to be… other women).

See point zero. The extent to which this applies to you depends to a considerable extent on your preferences.

If you aren’t jealous by nature, great! You can sleep around more in your early 20s and it won’t trouble you that your wife wasn’t a virgin when you met. I think jealousy is an understandable and common human trait, but the more common character flaw comes from having too much of it, rather than too little. If you don’t feel it, I certainly wouldn’t try to talk you into it. You’ve got a preference set that will pose you fewer hard tradeoffs in life. Happy days!

If you aren’t particularly into younger women, also great! You’ve got a much longer horizon in which to meet late 20s and early 30s women. Doubly so if you don’t want to have children. The budget constraint is thus considerably relaxed.

But if you do feel the above things, you might want to ponder such a tradeoff in advance. You’re probably going to have to give up something, unless you get lucky and meet a hot 18 year old when you’re 29 who’s super into you.

On average, by definition, people do not get lucky.


5. 

Gary Becker modeled the marriage market as being a matching problem. Men and women assortatively match on some set of traits, whether income, race, intelligence, attractiveness, or what have you. Gary Becker was a God damn genius, so I don’t mean to cast aspersions on this view. But I think there’s another aspect worth understanding that’s better described as an optimal stopping time problem.

If I had to sketch out the model, it would look as follows. Women come along according to some Poisson process. They are drawn from a distribution of quality and interest in you / compatibility. You can date each woman for some time period, during which you stop receiving a flow of new women. Your utility function is increasing in the number of women you hook up with, and with the average quality multiplied by the duration of the women you’re hooking up with. Finally, the average quality rate of the women you meet decreases with time, as per the point above. Your choices are a) which women to date versus reject, b) if you’re going to date them, for how long, and  c) when to pick a single woman to stick with for the remainder of your time period.

Solve for the optimal strategy.

One lesson from this is that the required quality threshold for marriage should be higher when you’re younger to settle on a person as a wife. This holds even if you know the true quality distribution, and would get worse if you were trying to learn about, e.g. how much is that I really love this girl, and how much is this just what nice long term dating feels like?

Another is that anything that increases the rate of meeting women (e.g. online dating) will have large increases in welfare. A lack of new arrivals is the biggest cause of failure to find a wife. If your life station is preventing this from happening, think very hard as to whether it’s worth it.

Yet another is that you should be particularly careful whom you “casually” date for extended periods of time, because this is going to reduce the rate at which you meet someone you might actually settle on. You will feel like you’re still single-ish, but if you’re not actively looking, you’re less likely to find someone.

Still another is that the greater your risk aversion, the more you’re going to settle on a medium quality partner early on.

But for our purposes here, the biggest philosophical difference is that the “optimal” part of optimal stopping time only holds in an ex ante sense. Once you stop, you’ll never really know what else would have come along. Unlike in a matching model where one sees the whole distribution, here you never do. Whoever you pick will always end up containing what ifs and uncertainties.

This setup also highlights the problem of having standards that are too high. I think this is another area where one can get mislead by with manosphere writings. It’s easy to enumerate a list of stuff that’s important in a woman, or stuff that’s a deal-breaker. Women do the same thing all the time, with their endless point checklists.

Rather, what’s hard is know the actual distribution of potential traits that you want, and which combination you might be able to plausibly get.

The “combination” part is especially hard. If you’re someone with options, you can probably score very highly on any one trait that you like in a woman. But the danger is in wanting too many traits at once, each of which is individually attainable. Even if the probabilities are independent, you start multiplying them out, and you realize you’ve got a pretty small chance of meeting them all.

The stereotype of bad women’s checklists is that they all want a 6’4 male model billionaire with rippling abs. But this understates the universality of the problem. The giveaway is “billionaire”, which is shorthand for “unattainable all on its own.”

Rather, the more pertinent problem is if you want a blond, 18 year old, hot, slim, smart Christian virgin with a sweet personality and a sense of humor (and I want to have banged a hundred girls before I met her).

This is the equivalent. But there’s not one single trait that gives it away. You probably could get at least any one trait if you really tried, or perhaps several. It’s unlikely you’ll get all of them.

This problem gets even worse if you fail to account for the likelihood that at least some of the traits you want are probably negatively correlated. For instance, one tradeoff I’ve noticed – being smart, and being easy going (broadly defined) are negatively correlated in women. Not hugely negatively correlated, but negatively correlated. Being smart tends to go with career ambition, and higher than average chances of teeth and claws ball cutting lawyer-like behavior. This is just one example. Being hot and smart might be another. Being hot and a nice person might be another still. When the world is willing to put up with all your b.s. because you’re very attractive, it’s hard to not turn into a bit of a b****. Having a high sex drive and low partner count is a definite one.

This is hard enough to forecast when you know the correlations, let alone if you’re not thinking about them.

Very few people in the manosphere write about which negative traits you should just lump it and put up with in order to compromise, because your wife is going to inevitably have things about her that you don’t like, just like there’ll be things about you that she doesn’t like. It doesn’t fit the “get irrationally overconfident!” vibe.

But I assure you that being irrationally overconfident that you’ll marry a blond, 18 year old, hot, slim, smart Christian virgin with a sweet personality and a sense of humor is not a recipe for winding up happy, if it causes you to reject all sorts of very eligible women who don’t meet that standard, and you only realise your mistake once your pool of options has shrunk.

Compromise is easier to stomach when you’ve got both tradeoffs in front of you, and you can see exactly what you get in return – in other words, when you’re choosing between two direct options. It’s much harder in an optimal stopping time world. Because you’ll have the lingering uncertainty that perhaps if you’d just waited longer and gotten a higher draw, the compromise might not have been necessary in the first place. This is the problem of the optimal stopping time psychology.

But if you set your standards high enough, you only end up with a wife if you effectively win the lottery. Or, even worse, if you win the lottery at the right time in your life, when your optimal quality threshold is sufficiently low that you’d actually take it.


6. 

The above is just one example of the point that the budget constraint problem is made much worse when the person doesn't realize that what they want is either impossible, mutually contradictory, or so negatively correlated as to be astonishingly unlikely.

To a psychologist, unlike an economist, the idea that people want impossible and contradictory things is not unusual. Rather, it's par for the course.

So what, in the generality, do men want?

I think they want three things.

First, they want to have a beautiful wife/long term girlfriend figure, who is sweet and caring, loyal and faithful only to them, that they can fall asleep next to at night and wake up next to in the morning.

Second, they want to be able to bang a wide range of hot young women on the side in a casual, no-strings-attached way, in a manner that makes them feel powerful and attractive (which, as I've noted before, rules out prostitution, which is begging for sex via the medium of money).

Third, they want to not feel like a hypocritical @**hole who goes around hurting those near and dear to them.

If you are lucky, you get to pick two out of three. Unless you are a sociopath, and they tend to have other problems. If you are unlucky, maybe you get one or none.

This is a fairly hard tradeoff. The number of women that are genuinely happy with a one-way open relationship is very few. The number of men who are genuinely happy with a two-way open relationship is similarly few.

This has an important lesson.

The hallmark of a good life decision is that it will probably feel vaguely unsatisfying, and there will always be a "grass is always greener" aspect. Beyond a certain point, the married man will vaguely envy the single man's variety of women. The single man will envy the married man's companionship and life certainty. The faithful will vaguely envy the freedom of the man with the selfish courage to have an affair or sleep with a prostitute. The cheater will envy the faithful man's ability to sleep peacefully at night and not have to hide his phone and lie about his whereabouts.

It is unlikely that the right decision will leave you with no regrets whatsoever, unless your preferences score very low on one of the three points above. Way down the line, one should not take the fact of vague regrets as indicating that you’ve made some mistake. The same problem exists on a smaller scale in any long term relationship.


7.

You’re thinking, “Come on Holmes, I’ve barely started in college. I’ve got better things to do than worry about either finding a wife now, or some weird scenario where I’m having difficulty finding a wife at age 40.”

Fine.

I can only end with the prompting to think further ahead, with a kind of empathy of what things might feel like at the time, and what you might do today as a consequence. This is not most people's default way of thinking, as a famous statesman once said:

The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils. In seeking to do so, it encounters obstacles which are deeply rooted in human nature. 
One is that by the very order of things such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred: at each stage in their onset there is room for doubt and for dispute whether they be real or imaginary. By the same token, they attract little attention in comparison with current troubles, which are both indisputable and pressing: whence the besetting temptation of all politics to concern itself with the immediate present at the expense of the future.
Above all, people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: "If only," they love to think, "if only people wouldn't talk about it, it probably wouldn't happen."
Perhaps this habit goes back to the primitive belief that the word and the thing, the name and the object, are identical.
At all events, the discussion of future grave but, with effort now, avoidable evils is the most unpopular and at the same time the most necessary occupation for the politician. Those who knowingly shirk it deserve, and not infrequently receive, the curses of those who come after.

This sounds very downbeat, but it’s not. Quite the contrary. Get it right, and you've got a lifetime of happiness ahead of you. More importantly, only in the fullness of time will you realise just how many options you had in front of you right at this moment, and how much possibility lay ahead of you. It’s an exciting time, and many is the old man who wishes he could be back in your shoes.

Good luck.


Your friend,


Shylock.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

On the Surprisingly Apolitical Nature of the Fed

The eternal question about the civil service is its level of competence. At one end of the spectrum is the fat, curmudgeonly woman at the DMV. At the other is the Hollywood depiction of the CIA. Reality seems to vary by department, and is usually somewhere in between. I think a lot of conservatives tend to be skeptical of government in general partly because the bits of government that they are forced to interact with are so woeful. Waiting hours in line at the DMV to fill in a form that should be able to be done online, for instance. The ridiculous and inefficient security theatre of the TSA, staffed by inept, surly, disgruntled buffoons. The post office managing to screw up deliveries at a far higher rate than FedEx or UPS. It’s only natural that this perception is extrapolated to all the bits of government that we don’t actually interact with personally.

But to a large extent, this is a function of the types of people these places hire. There’s some aspects of government that will inevitably involve distorted incentives and poor performance from a lack of competition. But even if the difference with the private sector is always there, the level doesn’t have to be appalling. In Singapore, government jobs seem to be viewed as prestigious and well-paying, and so attract relatively talented and competent people. Or, to go back further, you would give your left nut to have Evelyn Cromer administering the USA, rather than any of the leaders we’ve had since I’ve been alive. In other words, it certainly doesn’t always have to be as bad as the modern US.

When the US scrapped the civil service exams because of disparate impact (incredible, I know), it ended up having the biggest effect on low level jobs that you can’t sneak in other requirements like college degrees. This is how the DMV and the TSA got so awful – it turns out that IQ matters, even in low level clerical or customer service jobs. In this respect, the Fed has held out incredibly well by virtue of the fact that a lot of its jobs require a PhD in finance or economics from a top university. PhD programs have so far mercifully been largely spared the wrath of the Cultural Marxist need to bring in diversity even at the cost of competence. Moreover, even if you get in, you still need to pass, and convince the hiring committee that your thesis is actually good. In this sense, the Fed is largely drawing on a fairly talented pool of people who are pretty well versed in current economic research (for what that’s worth).

So if the Fed has avoided the obvious failure mode of being staffed by imbeciles, how does it fare on other measures? The interesting one is regulatory capture. Like any regulator, it can be captured by its employees, by politicians (which, ironically, is how the system is meant to work, but which in practice is usually treated as a design defect), or by the companies and groups that it’s meant to be regulating.

In terms of being captured by its own employees, this is hard to discern clearly, but I think that this has happened less than at most agencies. The biggest reason is that, other than the Fed Board, the regional Feds are notionally private, and so can set their own salaries and hiring/firing conditions. Even the Board seems to pay approximately market rates for the people it hires. This seems to gets rid of a decent amount of the insanity of the public service working conditions. When you can’t pay employees more, they extract concessions in the form of goofing off, unions to make it so they can’t get fired, etc etc. But they’d probably rather take the costs just in the form of more cash. This doesn’t have the deleterious effect that them simply being lazy has – it’s at least a transfer, rather than deadweight loss.

The biggest surprise about the Fed, however, is the fact that it seems to have been able to maintain relative political independence up to now. Independent central banks were a radical idea in the 19th century, where monetary policy was hot button political issue. William Jennings Bryan effectively wanted loose monetary policy (in the form of bi-metalism) to inflate away the debts of farmers. Letting a bunch of PhDs just run the show was probably not likely to be viewed as a compromise answer. But oddly, this kind of redistributive aspect of monetary policy doesn’t get thought about a ton anymore. Instead, the main effect seems to be about what monetary policy does to people’s 401K plans via the level of the stock market. This may be dumb short-termism, but at least everyone is on pretty much the same side.

In the modern ear, Donald Trump has decided, at least via twitter, to talk derogatively about the Fed’s policy, and suggest that they need lower interest rates. I don’t think the Fed takes this especially seriously. Which is fortunate, to be honest. Whatever you think about the Fed’s monetary policy since the great recession, you’d have to be incredibly optimistic to think that Congress or the Presidents would have done a better job. Instead, you can see exactly what the pressure would have been – lower interest rates before an election, consequences be damned. If it creates inflation, well too bad for the next guy. In other words, we could have the same level of far-sighted statesmanship that we currently observe with the US fiscal deficit, but with monetary policy as well. What a delight that would be.

At least on the monetary side, part of the reason the Fed seems to have stayed largely professional and apolitical is that it really has only one main button it can press – interest rates up, or interest rates down. And while people debate furiously over the relationship between that and the state of the economy, most people are agreed on at least the outcome they’re aiming it, namely high growth, low unemployment, and price stability, currently taken to mean low but positive inflation. It seems likely that the Fed has only an approximate idea of the relationship between the variables in question. But then again, it doesn’t seem like most of the public has any better idea either, and so are largely content to let them do what they think is best as long as things aren’t collapsing.

The main people with strong views on the matter seem to be people that want the Fed abolished and US dollars replaced with gold or bitcoin. I tend to think monetary policy when implemented sensibly is a useful tool, and giving it up for a fixed money supply would probably cause more harm than good. That said, my priors are pretty wide on what a fixed money supply would actually do for an economy. I found the Friedman case pretty convincing that letting the banks fail in the 1930s was one of the worst things the government did, and contributed significantly to prolonging the depression. But even if you disagree on this (and plenty of smart Austrians do) the Austrians’ view seems especially far-fetched on a political economy basis. When the world is melting down, governments are always going to do something, even if that something turns out to be significantly counterproductive. Even from an Austrian perspective, lowering interest rates is probably among the less harmful knee-jerk policies one could imagine, compared with, say, nationalizing industry or applying across-the-board price controls.

The more interesting question, and the one that’s harder to answer, is whether the Fed has been captured by the banks. In terms of the broad question of monetary policy, and whether and how to intervene during financial crises, there’s probably not a lot of disagreement between major banks and the Fed. If you think that they’re both wrong, this understandably looks like collusion and regulatory capture. But I think it’s more likely that both groups tended to come from the same business schools and economics departments, and this is largely what gets taught there. And while there is reasonable agreement between banks and the Fed on what should happen ex-post in a crisis (grumblingly bail out failed banks), the ex-ante question is not nearly so clear. In particular, most banks would probably like to see capital requirements cut significantly, and scrap the various costly stress tests that the Fed does on major banks. I’m not saying this is a major bone of contention, but it’s not exactly like banks get everything they want either. 

The stronger case, however, seems to involve some of the current implicit subsidies given to banks. I’m not even talking about deposit insurance, which is related to the “letting the banks fail” question above. Rather, the decision since the crisis to start paying interest on reserves looks a lot like a back-door bailout and subsidy. No no, they say, it’s just an important aspect of unconventional monetary policy. Great! So can I, as an individual deposit my own money at the Fed to take advantage of this same policy? Ha ha, no, of course not! Also, we’ll continually shut down any bank that tries to just operate as a pass-through entity to enable this, a proposal called narrow banking. When even John Cochrane is saying this makes you as the Fed look dumb and crooked, you should probably take heed.

But that’s the messy nature of regulation. You’re never going to get all of what you want, and sometimes dumb things happen anyway, usually for a mix of motives. In other words, the Fed isn’t the Hollywood version of the CIA, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it could be. I almost keep expecting it to get gutted and politicized at some point, and end up as some social justice economic group like the CFPB. It could be worse. It probably will be worse.

Contra Chinese folk wisdom, may you continue to live in uninteresting economic times.

Friday, July 19, 2019

On the Divided Nature of the Civil Service

At some point a few years ago, the predictive power of my models of permanent government improved significantly when I stopped conceiving of the government as a single monolithic entity with a single set of preferences. Rather, one usually gets a lot further by conceiving of different parts of the government as separate fiefdoms, with different aims, different power structures, and different allies.

The standard version of this is to distinguish between the politicians and the permanent civil service. It's definitely true that these groups often diverge a lot. You saw this most flagrantly during the 2013 government shutdown, where in response to mild threatened funding cuts, the Parks service put up barricades to shut down the Washington Mall, even though a) it's just some statues and grass, b) it's not clear what the Parks service even does there, and c) it takes less work to just not show up than to show up with barricades to ruin tourists' vacations. If you don't have this in your mental model of the world, I honestly don't know how to help you. But it seems that, even when just considering the actions of the bureaucracy as a whole, similar things apply. A lot of the time, there isn't even just one civil service.

For the US in particular, one occasionally runs into situations where if one is forced to ask "what does the US government want to happen?", the only conceivable description is that the US government is insane, evil and schizophrenic. To me, the cleanest example of this was the late Obama era policy towards Syria, where the US as a whole was supporting three out of the four sides of a civil war. The State Department and the CIA seemed to be gung-ho about regime change at any cost, supporting the "moderate" Sunni rebels, who kept on defecting to ISIS. ISIS was clearly undesirable, but apparently still viewed as better than Assad. While there wasn't any explicit support for them, the constant drumbeat that Assad had to go, and the fact that ISIS were almost certainly the most poised to take over the place, came across as at least tacit support. The Department of Defense was supporting the Kurdish rebels, who were fighting against ISIS. But they were also supporting the Turks, who were periodically fighting against the Kurds, because they were long-term important Defense allies.

Now, if one were forced to explain all this in terms of what "the US government" wanted, the only plausible models would seem to be that the US was just an agent of chaos, supporting everyone fighting everyone else, or that the US had gone completely mad and no longer understood the predictable consequences of its actions. If you break things down into component departments, it looks slightly less insane. Still somewhat insane, mind you, but not completely self defeating given any coherent set of policy aims.

Not only that, but you even get similar dynamics operating at times within government departments. You see this with immigration policy in Australia, and from what I hear in Canada too. Australian legal immigration is a hard-assed, skills-based, points-based system that aims to let in only people likely to be useful contributors to the Australian economy. But meanwhile, the Australian refugee processing apparatus seemed determine to wave in almost anyone, accepting 9 out of 10 claims of boat people. Including, hilariously, the captain of the people smuggling ship Captain Emad, who was also granted asylum, which suggests that they either had no ability to discern true claims from false claims, or were so worried about false negatives that they just accept any old story. If you take this seriously, it suggests that there isn't even one coherent immigration policy. Otherwise, why would it make sense to take in the highest performing migrants and every freebooter and scammer who turns up in a boat with a sob story, but not the people in between? I mean, it's not impossible to rationalise. But doesn't it just seem much simpler to posit that the refugee processing section is stuffed with bleeding heart leftists who stamp in anybody, and the other sections are much more skeptical?

This alternative theory also explains something about the Australian government's offshore processing of refugee claims. The government was eager to process claims almost anywhere except the Australian mainland - Christmas Island, Manus Island, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, you name it. Most people naively focused on the symbolism aspect - asylum seekers don't get to come to Australia! Fine, sure. But what else do all these places have in common? They're basically out of the reach of the Australian court system and existing refugee processing apparatus. It seemed to be easier for the Liberal government to set up an entirely separate parallel system of refugee processing than to reform the existing system which it was nominally in charge of.

You see a similar dynamic at play in the US as well. The only government agency that seems to genuinely support Trump is ICE, since they stand to get more money and power if his policies get through. Meanwhile, an antifa goon actually tried to assault an ICE facility with a rifle and "incendiary devices", and got killed for his troubles. The left seems to have figured out that ICE is in fact aligned with Trump, and is targeting them specifically. You sure don't see them trying to bomb the INS, which assigns citizenship to migrants.

This may sound like an argument that everything is inscrutable and you need to know endless detail about every part of the government, but this isn't really the case. Most the bits of the permanent government are at least center left in their aims and ideology, if not outright leftist. So there usually isn't that much conflict about broad objectives. Things tend to get interesting when the there's departments whose functions involve generally right wing tasks - border enforcement, the armed forces, policing, prisons. This is where the tension between the left wing slant of public servants and the right wing nature of people drawn to the particular job tend to be at odds. It's perhaps not surprising that the authors and commenters on Second City Cop seem far more sensible than Chicago's actual elected officials. They also seem substantially more sensible than Chicago's actual police chiefs of the past, who are basically political appointees.

It's not just that nobody is in charge of Moloch. It's that Moloch isn't even a single entity in charge of itself.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

These are the good times, people

The world's financial commentators reliably inform us that periods of market activity can be divided up into bull markets, where stock prices are generally rising, and bear markets, where they are generally falling.

Of course, the problem with these terms is that a linguistic sleight of hand hides a considerable uncertainty. When we say prices are going down, present tense, we are of course describing a current movement, akin to a derivative in mathematics. But prices are not like an automobile that has an actual velocity and momentum ("momentum" in stock prices being nothing of the sort). Each change is discrete. So what we can measure is that they went down. What we'd like to know is that they will go down. The difference, of course, is the difference between knowing yesterday's winning lottery numbers and tomorrow's winning lottery numbers.

And yet, even in the case of hindsight, there seems to be an odd asymmetry.

When markets are crashing, like they were in 2008, people are fairly quick to label the event as disaster. In other words, negative returns seems to be taken as portending further negative returns.

But oddly, when markets are rising, it seems to my anecdotal observation that it takes a very long period before people are willing to describe it as a bull market. You read about how big the returns were in the 1980's, or the mid 1990's, and assume that everyone must have been partying the whole time. Not necessarily. It turns out, we've been living through an astonishing period of high stock returns for over a decade. Did it feel like that to you each day? It sure didn't to me. Yet it's true.



That's right, the famous financial crisis is that medium sized dip about one third of the way through the picture. The rest is a collossal bull market that you didn't hear much about for most of its history if you just read the front page of the New York Times each day.

Puts a little bit of a different perspective on the matter, no?

Financial markets seem to indicate the Solon perspective that no man should be called happy until he dies. Nothing is a bull market until it is finished.

And while I think financial markets are the somewhat extreme example of this, I think something similar applies in politics.

A recurring theme in recent dissident right twitter commentary is that we live in clown world. The modern west, and America in particular, seems increasingly focused on going full steam ahead with the most absurd aspects of cultural marxism.



Increasingly aggressive propaganda aims to demonize straight white men as the cause of everything wrong in the world. The most pressing civil rights issue in America these days seems to be trans rights. Whatever you think of them, it is striking what a tiny fraction of the population they actually affect. If you're a conservative, the heartening thing about Drag Queen Story Hour is that there just doesn't seem to be a large enough supply of drag queens interested in it to make it anything more than a fringe cultural phenomenon, rather than something coming soon to a library near you.

The clown world critique gets right that the modern west is increasingly absurd. But there are many types of absurd. It is hard to think of a more morbidly absurd, pointlessly gruesome spectacle than the trenches of WWI. And yet you wouldn't be tempted to describe it as clown world. It's just too horrifying for ironic humour to seem appropriate, even as a cynical defense mechanism (though Joseph Heller did a good job of credibly portraying this attitude about WW2 in Catch-22).

No, what clown world also requires is an obsession with trivialities. The correct representation of women and minorities in pop culture. Ginned up internet outrage mobs because some white teenager smirked at a Native American banging a drum in his face. Whether we should pay reparations to black Americans because their ancestors were slaves.

These are the problems you create for yourself when you don't have any real problems to worry about. Like, for instance, the threat that the Russians might nuke you at any moment. Or that terrorists have just murdered thousands of people and destroyed two buildings in New York City. Or even that you're in the midst of the largest financial crisis in eighty years. They are, in other words, not existential threats to the very existence of our society, or terrifying possibilities that might destroy your life, safety or livelihood at any moment. They are the societal equivalent of first world problems.

Reader, I am old enough to vaguely remember when slavery reparations were last a thing. It was the 1990s, an era of similarly aimless cultural drifting, as America struggled to find a purpose after the end of the Cold War. The most pressing social problem was the grim farce of the OJ Simpson trial. The 90's were a decade characterised best by the show Seinfeld, which I loved, a show which billed itself as a show about nothing. This was, of course, misdirection, as the show was an extremely sharp commentary about the ambiguities that occur when societal expectations of manners and behaviour are unclear, or have broken down. And yet, it's extremely hard to imagine Seinfeld working well in a post-September 11th world, when things suddenly became serious. It's not for nothing that Billy Domineau's spec script of the Seinfeld September 11th episode was a huge hit, inasmuch as it insisted on the same irreverence about a topic that is still considered very serious in America. But it's also no coincidence that the spec script was only written in 2016, a time when the events of September 11th were sufficiently far in the past, and no new similarly large and shocking events had been forthcoming, such that people could laugh about this stuff, even in a "can you believe people are making light of this?" kind of way.

Indeed, to me the Current Year feels a lot like the 1990s. Even the crypocurrency boom of 2017 reminded me a lot of the internet boom in 1998. Neither could have taken place in an environment of 10% unemployment like in 2009. And yet, at the time, the 1990s problems felt like real problems. There seems to be something in human nature that laments boredom above everything else, and will raise small problems to the level of large problems if none really exist. In 1999, there were large violent protests in Seattle about... the World Trade Organization. Just think about that. Can you imagine getting in a brawl with the cops today about trade policy?

Because the thing that makes the Current Year even more unnoticed as a pretty good era is the fact that, unlike the Cold War, the end of the previous era was never really announced. On the current trajectory, unless the other shoe drops and there's another major terrorist strike on America, historians of the future will probably view the matter as being that Al Qaeda only really had one big hit in them, before law enforcement and the CIA figured out they needed to throw gigantic resources at infiltrating and destroying them. After that, all that was left was "lone wolf" small scale attacks that, while tragic and attention-grabbing at the time, eventually faded into the background. Once upon a time, I remember wondering seriously about whether moving to New York might mean you'd die in a smuggled nuke attack. I don't get the feeling people worry about this much any more.

This doesn't mean that America doesn't have problems. Far from it. The late stage US empire can't have enough children to sustain itself, and is both aging and replacing itself with third world immigrants. Meanwhile, the increasing rhetorical hostility to white Americans may yet be seen as the precursor to actual rising violence, much like in South Africa. For now, the main effect seems to be the white death, as lower class whites in flyover country kill themselves with opioids, alcohol and suicide.

But these are the grinding, endemic problems of a society that seems to be in decline. They may be very important, but like anything ongoing, they don't seem to present the impression that if they are not solved immediately (as in, this week or this month) then we are forever doomed. The Cuban missile crisis is an urgent problem. Opioids are merely a very serious problem. Societies, like Hemingway quipped about individuals, go bankrupt in two ways - gradually, then suddenly. At the moment, we seem to be in the "gradually" phase. For people who start out with a lot of money, parts of the "gradually" phase are likely to be quite a bit of fun. In many ways, this is exactly the problem. The "suddenly" phase, however, is never fun.

The bad news, therefore, is that we really are living in clown world.

The other news, which I can't tell whether is good or bad, is the following: when serious and immediate problems strike again, as they inevitably will, you will actually miss clown world.