Friday, July 3, 2015

The next progressive shoe to drop

I cannot be the only one who thinks that the pace of leftward social change seems to have increased of late.

I find it interesting to try to guess in advance what the next cause will be to be taken up by our own vanguard of the proletariat. I’m not sure anything can be done about it, but it least it’s something to ponder.

Some of the causes, except for the benefit of hindsight, appear fairly random (transvestite rights? Removing Confederate flags 150 years after the end of the war?). These are perhaps just markers by which the wrongthinkers will be encouraged to identify themselves, for the lashings of some symbolic pizza shop and the termination of employment for a few more people who made the wrong jokes to someone, somewhere.

But while the particular order of what gets targeted when may be random, the list of targets themselves for the most part is not. In particular, one way to get a sense of likely targets is to ask the following question. Suppose the American governing class were establishing a new society on Mars, and for whatever reason were not able or willing to transport everything from the current setup. What institutions and arrangements that we currently have would they no longer choose to establish?

In other words, what about current society exists only because of social inertia, but does not actually fit the modern liberal mindset? What social arrangements, if they did not already exist, would no longer be invented?

Reader, I submit that everything you would put on that list will eventually be aimed at for destruction and undermining by progressives, if it hasn’t been already.

Not all of it will be successful in the short run. Social inertia is sometimes quite powerful, and while the forces of reaction are weak and divided, they are not zero. But all of it will be aimed at.

So what current institutions populate that list?

Some of them are small. Tax exemptions for religious institutions would not be something you would think up today. At the moment, the left is mostly content to use this as a potential club to beat churches who won’t get on board with gay marriage. But at some point in the increasing bankruptcy of the west, people will start asking why we are subsidizing churches at all (supposing, as they do, that any money not confiscated is a gift from the state). Not the least since most of the elite seems to be fairly atheist. If it is unconscionable to let schools teach creationism, why subsidize Churches to teach about God at all?

As Jokeocracy noted, we would not set up separate local police forces either. Too many of them keep doing reactionary things, like arresting minorities at impolite rates. Better to put everything in the hands of the Feds, who surely will do a better job.

And then we move up to the mid-sized. The modern left would definitely not set up the second amendment. If not for political expediency, they would openly tell you that they’d rather it were repealed. Among Democrats not in the position of running for office, most would probably tell you that quite happily already.

But it’s worth noting that modern progressives would not even set up the First Amendment either. Would progressives not dearly love to set up legal prohibitions on “hate speech”, racial vilification, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism etc.? Just about every western country without a First Amendment has done this to a fair degree, and it is extremely unlikely America would be different. If the First Amendment did not already exist as a categorical guarantee, nobody would think to invent it. Sure, it’s a broadly good policy aim, but it has to be jettisoned from time to time for more important stuff. If you believe the New York Times, there are an awful lot of modern day crowded theatres about which it is deemed extremely risky to let people shout ‘fire!’. The First Amendment has become like the Turkish military in the 1990s – a pro-western, secular, mostly pragmatic military-run state was such an anachronism in the Islamic world that its days had to be numbered. Beware institutions that become anachronistic enough to attract attention.

Of course, the left will not explicitly abolish the First Amendment, probably even if they had the power to do so (though the same can’t be said of the Second). Partly this is because there is a nostalgic semi-religious attachment to certain parts of the constitution and democratic process, no matter how divorced from practicality it becomes. This is one such area. The unwillingness to explicitly target the First Amendment for destruction is not just fooling the rubes either – a lot of the people pushing for these laws will, as I’ve noted before, earnestly carve out absurd ad-hoc exceptions on the fly while claiming to maintain the principle – “I believe in free speech, but that has nothing to do with hate speech” etc. They really feel that they actually believe in free speech, even as they eviscerate it. Though of course fooling the rubes is a key component too. It is much easier to say that you’re just changing this one little bit of First Amendment jurisprudence, rather than saying that you’re junking the whole thing. The latter might give the bitter clingers the wrong idea that their government really is out to get them. The former is just one of those things that happens old chap, nothing we can do about the inscrutability of Anthony Kennedy’s decisions.

But the Mars motivating question really highlights the biggest anachronism of all – in a Martian society, there would be no countries.

There would be different regional governments, to be sure, for some purely administrative matters. But there would be no separate sovereign entities, with the power to entirely decide their own laws, admission of foreigners, and membership of other organizations. There would be no separate citizenship.

You can see this process already at work, in a piecemeal manner, in Europe. Each European country surrenders more and more of its sovereignty to the EU, and at the same time, the definition of ‘European’ keeps expanding more and more, to places of which the assertion of their fundamental Europeanness would have gotten you laughed out of Paris in the 1960s. Would you really bet that if the EU exists in 50 years time, it won’t include any African or Middle Eastern countries? I wouldn’t.

The reality is, the reasons why separate countries existed in the first place are things that nobody is willing to say publicly, and that makes their existence very highly dependent on inertia alone. Two hundred years ago, the reasons that every right-thinking person would give for the existence of separate countries would have gone without saying. They would assert that people of different nationalities are fundamentally different from each other in a variety of ways. They would assert that most people prefer to live mostly with their own ethnic group, celebrating their own culture and history, and that they are right to do so. They would note that, as a practical matter, the people living in their historical homeland will fight to defend against encroachment against their borders.

The last one, I think, people today would still state and agree with. But the first two sound strange and foreign to modern western ears, do they not? It is a case of Steve Sailer’s observation that what goes unsaid long enough eventually goes unthought.

If people believe the third premise, but not the first two, it is far easier to keep the fiction of separate countries but allow open borders (and in the case of Europe, transferal of sovereignty to supranational organizations) to erase the practical importance of them. That way, the rubes will just have a vague sense that “their country” looks very different from how it used to, but there’s no actual invasion to fight. And the young will just see the current demographics as the new normal. Hence the process proceeds without too much resistance.

If you proposed that Guyana be merged as a country with the US, provided we kept the US’s institutional arrangements, people would look at you like you’re crazy. But when it is noted that more than a quarter of the Guyanese population already lives in the US, what, exactly, would be the difference? If we imported the other three quarters, would not the change have effectively already occurred? Is there something particular to the patch of dirt that we are worried about incorporating? Is it radioactive?

The main obstacle here is a practical one. In the first place, the west simply cannot pay for western levels of welfare for the whole world, and hence can’t acknowledge that all citizens in other countries have a right to receive it. This is the Milton Friedman critique that you can either have open borders or a welfare state, but not both.

More broadly, even the most ardent multiculturalists who insist that everybody really deep down values the same thing have, so far, been unable or unwilling to put their conviction irreversibly to the test by organizing a joint democratic election of the 320 million Americans and (say) the 1.11 billion residents of Africa to see what kind of House of Representatives and policies resulted.

A lot hinges upon whether the key clause in the previous sentence is ‘unwilling’ or ‘unable’. I honestly don’t know which it is.

I used to think that you would see a sustained attack on the very concept of citizenship within our lifetimes.

I no longer think that’s true.

You don’t attack the Maginot line. You go around it.

US citizenship is an immensely important and valuable thing, both practically and symbolically. Hence, since everybody is equal, it should be open to everyone who wants to apply. We are a nation of immigrants, after all.

I suspect you will live to see it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Inferences I was happy with

Tell me what you infer about Chilean government from this photo. My answer below the fold

Friday, June 12, 2015

Of Speech Exclusion and Tariff Wars

In the context of the Strangeloop contretemps, it is worth being clear about what the aim is (in my view).

I think it is a rhetorical mistake to call the aim here 'free speech', because this tends to get used to describe a number of disparate concepts. In particular, people have a tendency to mentally substitute the phrase 'free speech' for 'first amendment' or 'no government restriction on speech'. This is indeed one form (and a necessary condition), but not the main thing at stake here in modern America.

I prefer to describe the principle here as Thick Liberty of Speech. The basic aim is thus:

I want everybody to suffer as few negative practical consequences as possible for saying what they think.

Because when the adverse consequences are low, people have a real, practical ability to actually say what they think. That's the thick liberty part. By contrast, thin liberty is being theoretically or legally able to say what you think, although the price for doing so may be considerable.

You and I have the thin liberty to own a Ferrari. Elon Musk has the thick liberty to own a Ferrari.

'Freedom of speech', at least in the form of 'no legal restrictions on speech', is fairly easy to identify. Either you go to prison for saying things, or you do not. Thick liberty of speech, however, is more an aim, a statement of principle that puts social actions on a continuum.

In part this stems from the question of what negative practical consequences are under consideration. These can include a range of possible things, ranging from:
-Not associating with the person socially
-Not doing business with the person
-Firing them from their job
-Assaulting the person
-Imprisoning the person under a relevant statute

Below this is the pure speech remedy - just calling them an asshole.

Let's describe speech that doesn't directly advocate any particular action as 'bare speech'.

From this point, we can start to see what's obnoxious about the Moldbug case, the Dickinson case, and the Eich case.

A speech exclusionist is someone who reacts to bare speech that is perceived as undesirable by performing and advocating negative social consequences for the speaker.

A speech inclusionist is thus the opposite - someone who does not escalate a disagreement on bare speech to an insistence to retaliatory actions.

The reason I think this distinction is important is that it helps clarify what's wrong with a certain view of this type of disagreement.

Over at the discussion on Hacker News, the reprehensible Steve Klabnik showed up to defend his actions thus:
"As has been said many times in this thread, Yarvin is free to say what he believes, and I am free to say what I believe, and organizers are allowed to do what they want. This is how a free market of ideas is supposed to work."
But we're now in a position to see that the two types of speech are fundamentally different.

Moldbug's writings are classic bare speech: discussions of esoteric political theory. By contrast, Alex Payne and Steve Klabnik's were explicitly speech exclusionism. They advocated responding to bare speech with action.

So what's wrong with speech exclusionism?

Well, on twitter, Mr Klabnik was gracious enough to drop the pretense of 'speech, glorious speech!' and tell us himself:

Reader, I cannot think of a more concise statement of the path to totalitarianism than 'everything is political'.

Do you want to live in a world where every decision you make is political? You were about to go to the store to buy some milk, but then you remembered you had to check whether the 7-11 owner had donated to Obama campaign. You pulled out of your bird-watching group because there was a man there who was known to have attended a tea-party rally, even though he never mentioned it and the whole discussion in the group was only ever about birds. You made sure a subordinate didn't get the promotion he might otherwise deserve because he had a 'I support Hillary' bumper sticker.

That social arrangement has existed before. It did not end well.

I personally find this idea repulsive and insidious. There is more to life than politics. It is only monomaniacial fanatics like Steve Klabnik who think otherwise.

These examples are chosen deliberately, as nearly every one of the @$$holes advocating speech exclusion is doing so over political ideas. Big surprise, several of them are explicitly and openly communist. There are some minor aspects of exclusion that are probably inevitable - if you really hate somebody's guys, it's a stretch to insist that you have to invite them to your dinner party. But to respond to abstract political arguments by trying to get people fired is repugnant and unworthy of free-born citizens.

How should one respond to speech exclusion?

Supposing one opposes it, it is always appropriate to respond with bare speech. Steve Klabnik is a reprehensible worm who deserves to find out first-hand the joys of life under communism, ideally its brutal Stalinist versions.

But what else? In particular, is it reasonable to advocate exlusionism for those who themselves demand exclusion of others?

Here's where it gets tricky.

To me, the problem resembles that of tariffs. We'd prefer a world where nobody had any tariffs. But we don't get to directly determine other people's tariff policies, only our own.

If our trading partners are reasonable and can see the merit of trade in general, we can negotiate co-ordinated tariff reductions via a free trade agreement. But maybe they're mercantilists, and they think that tariffs are actually helping them. In other words, they're willing to have our tariffs at moderate levels as long as they can keep their own.

Sometimes, you can create change by a unilateral reduction in tariffs. Industry gets competitive, and you perhaps provide a moral example to others. Brendan Eich advocates this strategy:

In the language of the prisoners dilemma, Eich is always co-operating. Which is very noble, except that the thugs are always defecting, and this doesn't always provide a great incentive for them to change. Hey, I can exclude Brendan Eich and he'll actively dissuade others from excluding me back - score! In other news, Australia unilaterally got rid of its agricultural tariffs decades ago. If you see signs of the US Farm Bill and the EU Common Agricultural Policy disappearing any time soon, you have sharper eyes than I do.

Sometimes, what is needed are punitive tariffs. Under various free trade agreements, a breach of the rules by one party raising tariffs can be punished by a targeted punitive tariff arrangement from the counterparty until the original breach is rectified. Typically, these are designed to hurt one foreign industry at a time by large increases in tariffs that cut off the export market of the target ted firms.

To a game theorist, this is immediately recognizable as a version of tit-for-tat, appropriately adjusted for the slightly different context.

In other words, targeted exclusion of speech exclusionists, if done right, need not be either hypocritical or impractical. It's not ideal, but sometimes one has to use the tools that might work.

There are a couple of aspects here that are worth mentioning.

Firstly, it's very important that the other party be clearly and explicitly given a way out by permanently renouncing their earlier exclusionary demands. The aim here is to get rid of speech exclusionism overall - in other words, an ultimate reduction in overall tariffs, not an ongoing escalating trade war. As a result, if people like Klabnik drop their thuggish attitude and sincerely apologize, they should be accepted back into polite society. It's easy to forget the importance of carrots as well as sticks in this arrangement. David Cole makes the point about the effectiveness of this when discussing the way Jewish groups fight against Holocaust denial and revisionism
After I was “exposed” as David Cole in 2013, the “punishment and reward” thing showed itself in full force. Some members of Gary Sinise’s Hollywood conservative “Friends of Abe” group offered “rehabilitation” if I denounced my revisionist views.
And regarding Fritzsche’s point about hope versus fear, the Jewish method offers “hope.” You can always throw yourself on the mercy of the court, or plead insanity, or—as I did to get the JDL off my back—recant. 
Secondly, if you want to protest speech exclusionism, you have to practice it yourself. Steve Klabnik seems like a thoroughly noxious person, but neither his odious personality nor contemptible political views should be grounds for him being barred from tech. His insistence that other people get banned for their views, however, is entirely fair game.

Finally, you don't want to respond to someone else's punitive tariffs with more punitive tariffs, otherwise you end up getting dragged into the trade war equivalent of conflicts like World War I. In other words, only target speech exclusion that was itself aimed at bare speech. If someone else imposes punitive exclusion against other exclusion in a way you don't agree with, just let it slide, otherwise exclusion really does beget more exclusion.

I'm certainly not the first person to talk about this - Clark at Popehat got me thinking about it initially, and had a really good follow-up post.

But I think one thing that's missing is a concise label for exactly the type of bad behaviour we're trying to stamp out here.

The aim in all of this is tolerance, in the old way the term was meant - taking people as you find them, and accepting differences between people cheerfully and politely. The modern version of tolerance insists on cheerful acceptance of different races and sexualities. It also insists on a rabid lack of acceptance of any meaningful differences in political opinion. Modern tolerance today is everybody looking different, but thinking and speaking the same.

How dreary! How stifling!

Speech exclusion on political grounds is everywhere and always the hallmark of thuggish would-be totalitarians.

Friday, June 5, 2015

'Stop oppressing us!', the lynch mob thugs cry

I worried, but secretly knew, that this day would eventually come. 

So, I strongly suspect, did he.

It seems that the political retributions have begun against Curtis Yarvin, better known in these parts as Mencius Moldbug. His current project, since he stopped writing at Unqualified Reservations, is Urbit, a bizarre and fascinating new operating system and programming language. The best description I know of as to what Urbit is comes from Clark at Popehat. Read it if you want to get a flavor. It very much is Moldbug doing to computing what he did to politics: rethinking everything from the ground up in a weird but compelling way.

Anyway, he was scheduled to present about Urbit at the Strangeloop tech conference. You can probably guess where this goes next.

Lynch mob leftist thugs complain to conference organiser.

Conference organiser acts like spineless coward, rescinds invitation:
A large number of current and former speakers and attendees contacted me to say that they found Curtis's writings objectionable. I have not personally read them.
I am trying to create a conference where the focus is on the technology and the topics being presented. Ultimately, I decided that if Curtis was part of the program, his mere inclusion and/or presence would overshadow the content of his talk and become the focus. This would not serve the conference, the other speakers, the attendees, or even Curtis.
Thus, I chose to rescind Curtis's invitation and remove him from the program. 
You didn't want to overshadow the the talk and become the focus, you say? Ha! Perhaps you've heard of the Streisand Effect?

Readers of this august periodical will recognise this pattern. We've been here before. We've been here with Brendan Eich, getting fired from Firefox for donating to opponents of gay marriage. We've been here with Pax Dickinson, fired from Business Insider for having a private twitter account in which he made hilarious off-colour jokes.

The best way to understand this spread of virulent intolerance of any right wing opinion being publicly expressed is as a 'brown scare' - a witch hunt for fascists inside of tech. The definition of fascists, is of course, very flexible, including people like Moldbug who explicitly disavow fascism:
Here is my perception of fascism: it was a reactionary movement that combined the worst ideas of the ancien regime, the worst politics of the democrats, and the worst tyrannies of the Bolsheviks. And what was the result? It is every bit as vanished as the Borboni. For a reactionary, fascism is more or less a short course in what not to do.
But why let that stop you? The whole point of a witch hunt is that there aren't actually any witches, just the fun of bullies persecuting those with different views. The best description of how this process works, both in the case of the technology brown scare specifically (indeed, the article that invented the term) and the psychology of witch hunts in general, can be found here. You should read the whole thing, as it's the best description of the current situation. A mere sample:
The logic of the witch hunter is simple.  It has hardly changed since Matthew Hopkins' day.  The first requirement is to invert the reality of power.  Power at its most basic level is the power to harm or destroy other human beings.  The obvious reality is that witch hunters gang up and destroy witches. Whereas witches are never, ever seen to gang up and destroy witch hunters.  By this test alone, we can see that the conspiracy is imaginary (Brown Scare) rather than real (Red Scare).
Think about it.  Obviously, if the witches had any power whatsoever, they wouldn't waste their time gallivanting around on broomsticks, fellating Satan and cursing cows with sour milk.  They're getting burned right and left, for Christ's sake!  Priorities!  No, they'd turn the tables and lay some serious voodoo on the witch-hunters.  In a country where anyone who speaks out against the witches is soon found dangling by his heels from an oak at midnight with his head shrunk to the size of a baseball, we won't see a lot of witch-hunting and we know there's a serious witch problem.  In a country where witch-hunting is a stable and lucrative career, and also an amateur pastime enjoyed by millions of hobbyists on the weekend, we know there are no real witches worth a damn.
We do not see Pax Dickinson and Paul Graham ganging up to destroy Gawker.  We see them curling up into a fetal position and trying to survive.  An America in which hackers could purge journalists for communist deviation, rather than journalists purging hackers for fascist deviation, would be a very different America.  Ya think?
Perceptive, no? Do you know who wrote that?

Mencius Moldbug. The current imbroglio is not exactly doing much to discredit his argument.

My position on these matters is quite simple - thick liberty of speech. As I put it in the case of Donald Sterling:
I want Donald Sterling, and Pax Dickinson, and everyone else, to be able to say what's on their mind with as few negative practical consequences flowing to them for doing so as humanly possible. I want the same thing for people whose views I find stupid or repugnant - "Stalin wasn't that bad" communists, kill-the-humans hardcore environmentalists, carpet-bagging race hucksters, humourless radical feminists, whatever. I want them to be able to express themselves unmolested either by the government or by offended grievance lobbies, regardless of whether they're from the right or the left, trying to get them fired or excluded from polite society based only on things they've said.
But I think, at this point, it is also time to be realistic. You will not convince bullies by defending speech in the abstract.

Those who prosecute this war do not do so because they dislike liberty of speech. This is a war on any right wing thought. Speech is just a casualty, but not one the proponents care particularly about, except as a way of covering themselves.

Abstract defenses of speech will not do anything to convince these thugs, because they will simply carve out absurd ad hoc exceptions on the fly that make this case totally different. For an example in this oeuvre, see this defense from one of the bullies:
The reason I joined the call for Urbit’s author’s invitation to be rescinded is not his political views. Had he spoken, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve interacted with someone who espouses a politics divergent from my own at a technology conference, and nor would I hope it would be the last. I value a diversity of viewpoints, as must anyone committed to democratic processes....
Strewn throughout the Urbit author’s writings are statements in support of racism and slavery. To my mind, this is where the line is crossed from the abstract debate of politics into something more visceral and emotional: hate. Hate is a necessary component of any defense of racism, slavery, and other dehumanizing practices. Hate is necessary to reduce a person to a commodity or strip them of rights based on innate traits. Couch it all you want in the trappings of academic writing: hate is always laid bare for what it is.
Hate has no place in the Strange Loop community, nor in any community with a future. Some have found it convenient and exciting to assume that Urbit’s author was uninvited – nay, censored! – due to his political views. Trust me: those views could not be less frightening or less interesting. What does concern me is the idea that Strange Loop attendees would no longer feel welcome because an avowed racist and proponent of slavery has been given a tacit endorsement by virtue of his speaking slot.
Ah, you see, it's not about political views, it's about hate! How, well might you ask, can you distinguish between 'far right views' (which are okay, nay, valued by this modern day Voltaire) and 'hate'? Well, we're not told, except that it's something to do with racism and slavery.

I would have thought that if Moldbug's writings are so hateful, this clown might have had the courtesy to provide, you know, a shred of actual evidence from his writing. A hyperlink or two would do the trick. But don't worry - they're 'scattered through his writings', trust him.

The reason that you will never convince thugs like Alex Payne is that nobody is the villain in their own narrative. Alex Payne values free speech. Alex Payne values diversity of opinions and tolerates even far right thought. Alex Payne does not support censorship. If the converse of any of these were true, it would be most unfortunate. It might cause you to think badly of Alex Payne. More importantly, it would cause Alex Payne to think badly of himself.

Alex Payne knows this, so he goes to some length to assert that none of these nasty claims apply to him. He does this, you see, because he has to explain why the actions he took seem blatantly inconsistent with the principles he's claiming to espouse. Thus does cognitive dissonance spring eternal.

The logic (and I use the term loosely, of course), is threadbare. Hate! Along with its subcategories of racism and slavery, it's the Deus Ex Machina that makes all the contradictions disappear. I disagree with what you say, but am prepared to fight and die to let you say it, provided it's not hateful.

This is why you will not reason such people out of their views. The reasoning is constructed ex post to justify the tribal vengeance and preserve the self image. Alex Payne simply cannot conceive that he is the bully in this story. If you remove his current justification, he will simply find another equally absurd distinction, and the game of whack a mole will continue.

The grotesque aspect of this charade is the spectacle of the bullies claiming to be either oppressed themselves or standing up for the oppressed. Yarvin giving a technical talk on programming languages is oppressive. Yarvin being in the room is oppressive. Not for Alex Payne, you see, but on behalf of unnamed offended victims. Destroying someone's company by actively trying to make them persona non grata in the tech community, and implicitly threatening consequences to anyone who refuses to join the boycott? That may seem oppressive on a naive reading, but have you considered hate?

The only thing thugs understand is consequences to their bad behavior.

This is an area where I feel the  right has failed to understand the incentives they set up when they respond to these kinds of spectacles.

The first instinct of many is to attack the group that did the firing. Alex Miller, organizer of Strange Loop, is a gormless nitwit, but he was placed in an admittedly difficult position. It's the same position as Business Insider in the Dickinson case, and Mozilla in the Eich case. They're going to get screwed either way once this blows up. Keep Yarvin, and the social justice warriors boycott. Ditch Yarvin, and the conservatives and free speech types boycott. There is a calculus to be made, assuredly, over which group is larger when deciding this question. Even an organizer who didn't intrinsically care one way or another is forced to decide on this, as I noted in the Dickinson case. So when conservatives boycott a conference over this, they are sending a message that there are consequences to acting against free speech and conservatism. This goes some of the way to perhaps convincing future organisers not to side with the social justice warriors if these controversies arise.

But to focus on this component is to deeply misunderstand the overall lesson future organisers will learn from this event. They will note three possible options.
a) Invite Yarvin, when the progressives complain, side with the progressives. Lose the conservative group.
b) Invite Yarvin, when the progressives complain, side with the conservatives. Lose the progressive group.
c) Don't invite Yarvin in the first place, but don't say that you did it out of politics. Lose Yarvin, perhaps his immediate supporters at worst. Maybe don't even lose them, since they might not know that he was barred because of politics.

What future conference organiser will choose anything other than option c)?

What you punish, in other words, is uninviting Yarvin. But this is not the same as rewarding inviting him in the first place. Indeed, the worse you make the consequences for the organiser for uninviting him, the more future organisers will worry about the possible risk of inviting him in the first place. And as a result, even if you get Yarvin reinstated in this particular conference, the thugs still get their way. 

Are you starting to see why the standard response of lashing out primarily at the person who does the firing may not quite achieve the outcome you wanted?

So how do you stop this thuggery happening?

I fear, unfortunately, that given the zeitgeist is what it is, one cannot.

But if there is to be any hope, it requires bringing consequences for the people who initiated the demands for a boycott in the first place.

That is the only way this will stop. When future Alex Paynes worry that they can't call for a boycott without risking themselves getting excluded from future events, and without their companies and employment suffering as a result.

Without such consequences, these people have absolutely no reason not to start future lynch mobs.

As it turns out, this is not something we simply have to speculate on. The first tweet I posted at the start complaining about Moldbug is from a man called Steve Klabnik. As Nick Steves noted, we have seen Steve Klabnik before, in the discussion of the Pax Dickinson case. It is the same lynch mob each time.

Steve Klabnik, you are a bully and a coward. You may dress your tribalism and will to power in the garments of "social justice", but you cannot hide the sheer malignity of your actions. You are undeserving of living in a free society.

Bodil Stokke, you are a malicious and mean-spirited thug. The glee with which you gang up on others is repugnant and contemptible. I cannot conceive how any person of character would be willing to associate with you.

Alex Payne, you are a miserable hypocrite and a craven fool. Yours is the thinnest gruel of thin liberty that cannot even speak its name honestly. You are unworthy of licking Curtis Yarvin's boots.

Gore the matador and not the cape.

Update: Linked at Free Northerner.

Update: More thoughts on the issue here.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The New Dark Ages

I used to tell people that they should read Mencius Moldbug, because he was the single person writing today most likely to be read in two hundred years time.

I still think that’s right (both that you should read it, and that he's the most likely to be read in 200 years), but the more I reflect on it, the more I think the chances he will be read far in the future are still rather small.

The problem, rather, is that we live in the dark ages of the written word.

It’s not that things aren’t being written. Quite the contrary. Perhaps more is being written now, by more people, than ever before.

The sense in which it is the dark ages is that much of the writing from today is likely to be lost to history. Everything is being written in a very temporary format, in a way that will not survive for historians of the future to read.

The vast majority of what is written is on the internet. Anything stored privately stays up only as long as the person paying to have it hosted continues to do so. Should they get slack and stop doing it, or get tired of paying for their web domain, that’s that. But even if it continues to exist, link rot sets in pretty fast, making a lot of the context of the original writing which embeds these links hard to follow. The links you had stored suddenly lead nowhere. You can search for the title and hope you find the new address. If there is one, that is. Often times people deliberately take down what they wrote. You couldn’t unpublish a book, but you can easily unpublish a website.

Some things still survive for longer. Newspapers are generally better at keeping hyperlinks and archives because they’re used to this. Books that get to printing also get kept as before. The only problem is that both newspapers and publishing are, if not dying industries, then at least considerably distressed. See: the internet. And lots of interesting stuff isn’t written in books any more. Neoreaction, for instance, would vanish almost entirely without a trace.

The only hope, as far as I can see, is Google Cache, which does store their own local copies of things (albeit in a considerably degraded form that doesn’t always support images). There are two caveats here, however.

The first is to recognize that the ongoing success or failure of Google’s caching efforts may do more to alter the way that future historians understand the early 21st century more than anything else happening on the planet today. Give that company a medal! They are also unusually open in giving people access to their cached data. Facebook, by contrast, treats your data as their possessions inside a walled garden that they control. Do you think historians of the future will have access to all of this? They sure don’t have access to it today.

The second is to recognize that storing things in a way that will be accessible in 200 years time is surprisingly hard. The simple reason is that technology changes so frequently, and storage devices have incredibly limited lifespans. We live in a time of acid printing, except that what we write on today may as well be 1 molar hydrochloric acid paper.

The only way that documents survive over any period of time is if someone is willing to continually transfer them to whatever the new storage medium is at each point in time. That’s certainly what you have to do for, say, your digital photos. If you think you can just leave them on your current computer, camera or SD card, you’re going to be very disappointed in ten years’ time. Just try getting files off your old 5 inch floppy disks. Heck, try something using a SCSI port or a 3 inch floppy. In ten years time, this is how hard it will be to find a laptop that reads a CD.

Even if you actually do this stuff, it’s going to be a) very ad hoc and selective, and b) stored in random locations by random people around the world. If the google cache doesn’t end up working out, it’s going to be a tough business being a future historian studying the 21st century. They may well end up with fewer primary sources than they have for the early 20th century.

But forget historians. What about your own personal consumption? I used to love reading TJIC’s blog. Now it’s gone, completely.

Take my advice, readers. If there is a blog you like, download the whole thing to your hard drive, now. That still won’t be perfect, because blogs link to each other. If you’re really committed, download everything linked to in each post too. In many cases, you’ll find it’s already too late. For Moldbug, a decent fraction of the primary sources that he linked to are already gone. We are talking about a blog that began in 2007. It is already too late, in 2015, to read his writing in the full original context that was intended. The current period is so dark that we can’t even see fully the things we ourselves once remembered seeing.

If you’re relying on Google to keep everything in perfect order for you to return to in 30 years time, you may wake up one day and find it’s already too late.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Some allegorical thoughts on the anniversary of the massacre of Armenians that may or may not be a genocide, depending on whom you ask

Scene: Kiev, 1933. It is the height of the Holodomor. Two Ukranian men, Aleksandr and Dmitriy, both lie hopelessly prone on the side of a road. They are emaciated to the point of looking like skin-covered skeletons. They are, in the words Solzhenitsyn used to describe many similar people in Russian prison camps over those and subsequent years, 'last-leggers'.

Aleksandr: Dima, I don't think we have long for this world.

Dimitriy: I suspect you are right, my friend. I can scarcely move, and haven't eaten for weeks. I fear this is the end.

Aleksandr: Before we go, there is one question I have been pondering in my delirious state, and it will sadden me if we die before we get an answer. Might you help me puzzle over it a while?

Dimitriy: Of course, Sasha. What breath I have, I give to you.

Aleksandr: I have been trying to figure something out. Why did Stalin do this to us?

Dimitriy: Do you mean how can such evil exist in the hearts of men, and how can God let such misery go on?

Aleksandr: No, not that specifically. I mean, what precise feelings and motivations do you think Stalin had in his heart of hearts at the time he issued his orders to murder us? Do you think his aim in this massacre might have been one of... racism?

Dimitriy: Perish the thought, Sasha! We are all Slavs, so there is clearly no racial component to the mass murder by Russia of three million odd Ukranian souls.

Aleksandr: But there surely is at least a national angle to it, which makes it racism in the loose sense that people use the word these days, no? The murders show a clear intent to kill a large part of our nation, for no motivation other than hatred of us as a people.

Dimitriy: You worry too much, my friend. Stalin's policies of deliberate farm collectivisation and punishing reduction in rations to targeted areas, which will clearly result in mass starvation as predictably as the laws of thermodynamics continue to operate, do indeed cause our bellies to be distended in a grotesque manner as we rapidly approach a miserable death. But assuredly Stalin's actions are merely due to a desire to stamp out excessive civil unrest in Ukraine, and to stem potential protests aimed at the continuation of his unjust and barbarous rule. While there is a related question as to whether these actions may indirectly constitute racism if the uprisings he is crushing can be described as being due to Ukranian nationalism, I feel this is merely misdirection. Stalin would have gladly done the same thing to groups of Russians who acted the same way. Not only would, come to think of it, but did! It's all in the Gulag Archipelago. Exactly this same kind of starvation is going on as we speak in the gulags all over Russia for all sorts of people of many nationalities who may or may not have posed a similar remote threat to Stalin's rule. Given such context, this makes his actions here in Ukraine merely mass murder, and nothing more.

Aleksandr: Oh, thank goodness for that! Because if I thought that this agony I am experiencing were due to sufficiently racist motives that historians of the future might label it as genocide, I sure would feel a lot worse right now.

Dimitriy didn't answer, as he was dead.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sentences not normally uttered in these pages

A really excellent column by David Brooks today, entitled 'The Moral Bucket List'.
But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be okay. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys.
True indeed.

It seems to me that the main time you hear the concept of 'character' being used these days is when ironically describing some unpleasant experience as being one that 'builds character'. It is rare to hear it talked about as a set of moral virtues that one ought to spend time contemplating and working on.

This is a great shame. The enormous rise of narcissism in our society is in some sense the receding shoreline that gets exposed when the other higher purposes and virtues that people used to live for are all stripped away. We only think of ourselves, about ourselves, and in the interests of ourselves, because there is no longer anything else worth aiming for.

The good news is, this ennui is fixable.

The bad news is, changing yourself is hard, unsparing work.

The good news is, the work itself has its own joy, and is most of the solution to the ennui you'd been feeling.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

First World Problems: Immigration

There exists a continual tension among respectable social scientists when trying to understand what influence culture plays on the world. One must navigate between the Scylla of assuming that only that which is easily measured is real, and the Charybdis of seeing nothing but the unmeasured everywhere.

The Scylla is that of the uber-economist who denies that ideas like culture are meaningful, testable, or important. Human behavior is pretty much reducible to incentives. If he’s feeling a little bit expansionist in his gaze, said uber-economist might admit that psychological biases and market frictions sometimes prevent the proper response to incentives. But other than that, there’s very little else important that determines variation in human behavior. Social changes are best understood as merely changes in technology, cost structures, and resources.

One version of this, which sounds almost like a straw man (but I assure you is not), is that policy should treat people as wholly economic units. When setting immigration policies, there are no differences whatsoever of any importance between a thousand laborers from El Salvador, a thousand laborers from Sudan, or a thousand laborers from South Korea. The variation in visa requirements for nationals from such countries to enter the US suggests that the powers that be do not appear to wholly share this view. The fact that, notwithstanding setting policy based on the presumption of some differences, nobody in any position of authority is willing to publicly assert the existence of such differences, let alone elaborate on exactly what they are, tells you everything you need to know about how policy in this area ended up in such a mess.

The Charybdis, by contrast, is the non-economist, who sees only cultural decline and progress. This can take a variety of forms. There is the progressive who sees nothing but the glorious march of social justice in every economically deleterious policy from affirmative action to the rise of public sector unions, for instance. But there is also the cultural conservative who sees nothing but a steady rise in depravity and degeneracy in modern culture, often to the point of almost rhetorically waving away the enormous increases in material welfare and life expectancy over the past several centuries. Both the progressive and cultural conservative agree, however, that if we could only get people to hold the right beliefs, nearly everything could be fixed in the world.

Between these two extremes, the man of judgment must navigate a path that best approximates his understanding of reality. I vary day by day on much I lean towards each extreme. My training is that of the Scylla, but my personal reading is that of the Charybdis.

One aspect that tends to get largely ignored all around, however, is the interaction between the two ideas. How often, for instance, does technological or economic change end up driving cultural shifts? Or indeed the reverse?

As one candidate phenomena that may have a depressingly economic cause (from the cultural conservative’s perspective), consider the problem of mass illegal immigration of third world populations to the west. Whether in Europe or America, there appears to be a complete inability (and unwillingness) to enforce the border against arbitrarily large numbers of incursions from illegal third world economic migrants. The blindness of the modern left to the potential problems of this phenomena is a source of both incredulity and immense frustration to reactionaries and conservatives alike. As I have written before in these pages, the west has taken an enormous bet that it can resettle large numbers of people from countries that share very little in the way of common culture, language, or values. Moreover, it wagers that from this it can somehow produce a society that retains the strengths that made it a desirable place for people from the third world to move to in the first place. Let us take it as given that the outcome of this bet is not yet written. What, would you say, are the odds though?

Of course, if this problem were merely political stupidity by blank slate cultural Marxists in positions of power, then it is at least conceivably soluble by convincing enough people in positions of power of the potentially disastrous consequences, then the mistaken policies can be reversed.

But what if the big increase in illegal immigration is driven by mostly economic factors? Then, dear cultural conservatives, we have a larger problem on our hands.

I have to conclude, rather depressingly, that I think it is.

Why were the populations of Europe mostly stable for thousands of years? Other than the occasional invasion which radically upset the cultural and genetic balance, there’s a reason that 23andMe can say with a high degree of certainty whom your ancestors were. It’s because they mostly stayed as a culturally homogeneous group in a fairly circumscribed area.

Okay, so why did they stay in a single area, when today we move all around the place? Is it because of a firm cultural value that one should mostly mingle with one’s extended kin and clan? Partly. But I think it’s far more to do with the fact that it was both technologically infeasible and economically prohibitive for the vast majority of people to move very far from their place of birth.

In the case of seafaring voyages, this is easy to understand. Sailing any large distance was risky and difficult, and when you arrived you’d have absolutely nothing but what you brought. If the place you landed was inhabited by people who were hostile to you, they’d probably try to kill you, and they’d probably have the advantage of resources, numbers and local knowledge. Faced with that choice, you’d probably just stay put in your village too. But even travelling large distances over land created similar problems. Someone else is already on that land, you can’t speak their language, and they probably won’t be glad to see you. A single family just packing up and moving to a wholly alien land was extraordinarily unlikely.

The point is, societies in the past simply didn’t have to think about how they’d treat the problem of mass immigration. The only form of mass immigration was a military invasion, and the desirability of averting that didn’t have to be explained to people. The issue of how one should treat an influx of culturally different foreigners who came to work probably didn’t even arise to the level of philosophical speculation. I’d guess that lots of people spent their whole lives never meeting any foreigners.

The simple fact, however, is that the west is caught in a pincer movement between two economic forces. First, technological improvements in transportation have made the cost of long-distance travel get cheaper and cheaper over time. And second, the rising wealth of the third world, even when starting at very low levels, has put this journey in reach of more and more people. It’s the same question as with nuclear weapons. If they can be developed with technology and wealth available in America in 1945, sooner or later lots of countries are going to cross that threshold.

In the case of immigration, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to enforce the border as a western country. Israel does it quite successfully, for instance. But it does mean that the cost of doing so, in both dollar terms and political will to take actions that will strike some as uncharitable, continues to rise. It is perhaps not surprising that many countries no longer have any meaningful national will to enforce their borders.

Costs and practicality also explain why the countries with the most sensible immigration policies are the ones for which geography still presents non-trivial cost obstacles to illegal immigration. Australia continues to be hard to get to illegally (New Zealand even more so), and Canada is a long way from anywhere in the third world (and most need to cross the US to get there, at which point in the journey they’ll probably just stay where they are).

If you’re a progressive, this is all great news. We’re on our way to our cultural Marxist multicultural utopia, whatever that proves to be like in practice.

But if you’re a conservative, there isn’t much uplifting news to be had. Illegal immigration is primarily a problem of wealth and technology, and neither of those look like abating any time soon.
The only grim solace is that cultural conservatives are at least well used to depressing news by now. It’s not for nothing that John Derbyshire’s book was titled ‘We Are Doomed’.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

British Travels, Part 2

Sometimes when I travel, the things that are striking are the absences compared with my home (adopted, in this case). America is very much the land of convenience. When one wants something, one wants it immediately, available exactly where one is standing. Anything else is an affront, an imposition from bad design and customer service. If you want to see this, next time you’re in an airport from a different country, take note of how far you have to walk to find a bathroom from the moment that you decide you have to go. In nearly every US airport I’ve been to, it’s rare to have to walk more than 50m, usually more like 20m. In Frankfurt (and in Perth, I recall) it was at least 100m as the median.

The other one is rubbish bins out in public. In most major US cities, they seem to be spaced about 10m apart, so that if one has the urge to get rid of something, the cost to putting it in the bin instead of on the ground is essentially zero. In London, bins in public don’t seem to exist at all. I got handed a ‘certificate of climbing the London monument’ as I exited, and immediately looked for a place to throw it out, but there wasn’t one. Because I viscerally hate the idea of littering, it became the equivalent of a stone in my shoe for the rest of the day, having to be fished out and put back in each time I wanted to get my wallet or phone. For this daily hassle, we can thank the repulsive IRA, under whose bombing campaigns all the bins were removed and never replaced. Just when you thought you’d seen every way that that contemptible organization had managed to make the world a worse place, they find another way to surprise you.

Related to the previous post, the place that is similarly as inspiring as St Paul's Crypt is the National Portrait Gallery. Because this is forced to display parts from different eras, you can see the relative pathetic state of Britain in sharp contrast. The main benefit, however, is that this makes it much better as a museum experience. To wit, the rubes are all in the modern section looking at paintings of Paul McCartney, so you can enjoy the Tudors, Stewarts and Victorians in relative peace and quiet.

I was interested to find that the big driving force behind the museum was the great Thomas Carlyle, the most fascinating of Victorian political philosophers, and the biggest influence behind Mencius Moldbug, the most fascinating of modern ones. It’s always nice to find that your interests and views independently align with people whom you admire, to avoid the conclusion that you like the same stuff as them simply because they told you to like it.

The National Portrait Gallery is my favourite place in all of London. It is one of the very few museums where the subjects of the paintings are of considerably more interest than the artists, making it essentially an art museum dedicated to history. What a splendid idea! Take my advice, start with the Tudors and Stewarts and end with the Victorians to feel inspired for the day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On London's greatness past

It is interesting to compare the fate of two St Paul’s Churches. The one in London was famously and mercifully intact and mostly unharmed after the German bombing during the blitz. Which was a pretty darn lucky outcome:

The Paulskirche in Frankfurt (which I wrote about here), however, was bombed out, and rebuilt hurriedly afterwards in a deliberately modern style to strip out nearly all of the original church elements. As a result, it’s a bland whitewashed circular room, where the only parts of interest are the flags from different regions and an organ at the front. It’s as if the post office were charged with building an assembly hall.

St Paul’s in London manages to capture both the glory and tragedy of Britain. The glory is in the rich history from when it was a world-bestriding empire. The tragedy, of course, is that the modern version of Britain is a shriveled, diminished entity, squatting in the remains left over from when it was still a serious country. Instead of Winston Churchill or Pitt the Elder, we have David Bloody Cameron. Put briefly, there is almost nothing good in Britain – institutional, architectural, cultural, literary, even for the most part scientific - dating from after 1945. Ponder that, if you will. Even the graffiti these days is worse. Consider the relative elegance of the lettering on this carving inside the stairwell of St Paul's.

But if you want to see what Britain once was, look at St Paul’s Crypt. What an inspiring monument to great men! The statues and plaques tell you what the society at the time valued. Most of them are tales of heroism, sacrifice, and leadership. Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington are justly revered, as are a number of military figures who died securing what was ultimately a victory. There is a large proportion of people from military backgrounds, but important people from other walks are represented too – Joseph Turner, John Constable, Christopher Wren, William Blake, Samuel Johnson. The only category of greatness that seems relatively underrepresented, for some reason, is science. If you are any kind of historian, it won't escape your notice that some of the accounts tend towards hagiography – you probably didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Lord Kitchener or General Gordon, for instance. It also becomes apparent that the men were drawn largely from the nobility. But rather than this fact being a source of embarrassment, as it would be today, it was a source of pride. This was how things were meant to be – nobility meant the requirement to perform acts of valor and leadership, often (in the military context) ending up killed in the process. These are not the tombs of kings or idle nobility. These are the tombs of citizens who were beloved enough by their countrymen for their deeds to warrant a place in the halls.

To take one random example that made my Australian heart glad, I was pleased to see the memorial to our former Governor General, the great Viscount Slim:

What kind of testimony does such a person produce from his contemporaries?
George MacDonald Fraser, later author of the Flashman novels, then a nineteen-year-old lance corporal, recalled:
"But the biggest boost to morale was the burly man who came to talk to the assembled battalion … it was unforgettable. Slim was like that: the only man I've ever seen who had a force that came out of him...British soldiers don't love their commanders much less worship them; Fourteenth Army trusted Slim and thought of him as one of themselves, and perhaps his real secret was that the feeling was mutual."
Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely has recommended Slim's memoirs (Defeat into Victory) (1956) describing Slim as "perhaps the Greatest Commander of the 20th Century"

Military historian Max Hastings:
"In contrast to almost every other outstanding commander of the war, Slim was a disarmingly normal human being, possessed of notable self-knowledge. He was without pretension, devoted to his wife, Aileen, their family and the Indian Army. His calm, robust style of leadership and concern for the interests of his men won the admiration of all who served under him ... His blunt honesty, lack of bombast and unwillingness to play courtier did him few favours in the corridors of power. Only his soldiers never wavered in their devotion."
That, my friends, is what greatness looks like.

But you will notice, if you look closely, a subtle change in the recent memorials. The last monuments to specific heroism date back to World War 2. Society is now so pathologically egalitarian that greatness often makes us uncomfortable. The only modern military memorials in St Paul's crypt are for groups, not individuals – lists of the dead from wars. What is celebrated is their sacrifice, not their achievement. And this is why all the dead are listed equally, as is common and indeed appropriate to war memorials. But St Pauls Crypt was formerly not primarily a war memorial, whose function was solemn remembrance of loss and sacrifice – it was a triumphal place of individual greatness and heroism. And that is something we no longer do. The only individual greatness we celebrate any more is athletic, and to a lesser extent, commercial (Steve Jobs, for instance). But neither would appropriately be described as fields of heroism. Instead, heroism, to the extent that the now-devalued term is used, is identified with actions mostly formed on compassion, rather than on achievement. Today's "heroes" are more likely to be people caring for the unfortunate, or looking after a sick or dying relative. That is noble, and praiseworthy, and admirable. But it is not heroic.

One view you might form is that such heroism no longer exists. But it does. If you doubt it, read at random some of the recent awardees of the Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross. We simply do not celebrate it.

Doubt it not, if St Paul's had been destroyed during the London Blitz, whatever version they rebuilt would have never had most of the current monuments inside, if they included any at all. It seems more likely that they would have scrapped the whole idea altogether.

More shame us.


As if to emphasise the contrast, here's a modern individual memorial they are willing to include:

Working for nuclear disarmament, eh? How's that going? How would you compare that with, say, the Battle of Waterloo?

Are you, like me, embarrassed on behalf of modernity?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Notes from Heidelberg

-If you want to see how long-lived civic effects can operate, just compare Mannheim and Heidelberg. Both have quite famous universities. One also has the BASF chemical factory next door, and hence was bombed flat in World War 2. The other one is fairly well preserved. Hence, 70 years later, one is a kind of ugly but functional university town, and the other is chock a block with Japanese tourists. The relative price of old German buildings got a lot higher after WW2.

-Regarding the above, the spectre of the war still hangs heavy over the country, with little reminders like this everywhere you go. I well understand the rationale for why the towns were bombed, brutal though it was. If you don't believe me, read Paul Fussel's arrestingly-titled 'Thank God for the Atom Bomb'. Still, when you see how pretty Heidelberg is and how ugly Mannheim is, it made me sad for how much of German history was lost in WW2. But then I realised how much I was doing exactly what the War Nerd skewered so well in his great column on why Sherman was right to burn Atlanta:
But there does happen to be one demographic—an arguably insane one, indeed—which does not accept that war is cruel: the bitter white Southern neo-Confederate one to which Leigh belongs. For them, war was wonderful when it was just brave Southern gentlemen killing 360,000 loyal American soldiers.
That was the good war, as far as they were concerned. War became “intrinsically cruel” for them when that dastardly Sherman started visiting its consequences on rural Georgia, burning or destroying all supplies that could be used by the Confederate armies which had been slaughtering American troops for several years. Oh, that bad, bad Sherman!
You know what’s worse than a little girl asking “Mister Soldier” not to burn her house? Getting your leg sawed off by a drunken corpsman after a Minie ball fired by traitors turned your femur into bone shards. Or getting a letter that your son died of gangrene in one of those field hospitals where the screaming never stopped, and the stench endured weeks after the army had moved on. 
Of course, this is all lost on the Phil Leighs of the world, who—for reasons that cut deep into the ideology of the American right wing—always take burnt houses too seriously, and dead people far too lightly. To them, burning a house is a crime, while shooting a Yankee soldier in the eye is just part of war’s rich tapestry. So their horror of messing with private property joins their sense of emasculation, and their total ignorance of what war on one’s home ground actually means, to form a sediment that could never have been cured, even temporarily, except by the river of armed humanity Sherman sent pouring south and east from Atlanta on November 15, 1864. That cold shower woke them for a little while, at least—long enough to quicken the end of the war and save thousands of lives.
He's right, of course. In the context of the horror and atrocity of World War 2's 50-odd million dead, it is obscene to be worrying about lost buildings. The lost buildings, however, are salient and visible. The mountains of corpses, by contrast, are long gone.

 -I was talking to a German man, age early 30s or so. He was saying how his grandfather lived in Leipzig, which was also heavily bombed by the incendiary fire-bomb method. But the thing that his grandfather figured out is that the way these bombs worked is that they were just a flammable gel dropped into the house - the effects came because they set other stuff on fire, but only once they'd had a chance to get the blaze going. Of course, this always happened, because people hide in their basements during bombing raids. But the guy's grandfather decided instead to keep large piles of sand and buckets of water on all floors of his house. He put his family in the basement, and when a bomb went through the roof, he extinguished it. When the bombing raid was over, every other house on the street had been burnt to the ground, except his.

-Walking up the steep hill to the castle in Heidelberg, it gives one a strong sense of the wisdom of Sun Tzu's observation that 'it is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill'. I would not like to advance up that road while fighting hand-to-hand combat with swords and getting showered with arrows.

-For a reactionary like me, there is something quite stirring in seeing a castle with statues of kings from hundreds of years in the past. The tradition hangs thick in the air, in a way that is hard to describe. We indeed live in a kingless age.

-From the castle, I watched the sun set for the first time in quite a while. Because of the fog/smog/haze, the sun was a deep red while still relatively high in the sky, and actually faded into nothing before reaching the horizon. The last time I remember seeing this, incidentally, was 15 years ago in Munich. Perhaps there's something about German sunsets.

Bun Arbitrage

It is left as an exercise to the reader to show that, under the law of one price and the absence of arbitrage, the market-clearing price of a hamburger bun in Heidelberg is zero.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Thoughts from Frankfurt

-I never tire while in foreign countries of seeing the subtle differences in appearance of people. German men often have a certain demeanor about them that always seems very recognisable - soft-spoken, small wry smile, horn-rimmed glasses, well-dressed with clothes that are cut a little tighter than American or Australian fashion. I actually was reminded of it just by the clerk at the front desk of the hotel when I arrived. It's a different look from, say, the Danes, where I've spent a bit of time. Of course, a good part of this is probably just the power of suggestion - recognising Germanness once you know the nationality is a lot easier than being able to guess German heritage based on appearance alone. Based on the number of questions I've received in German while walking through the streets, apparently I don't look sufficiently Australian (or American, as some might argue is more relevant these days) for me to be identifiable as a foreigner.

-Another contrast between Frankfurt and Copenhagen is the nature of the public squares. Both cities share the same narrow, walkable streets common to cities designed before the automobile. But in central Copenhagen, huge swathes are filled with gorgeous old architecture from centuries in the past. Frankfurt, by contrast, had the misfortune of being bombed flat in 1944. No, really:

File:Frankfurt Am Main-Altstadt-Zerstoerung-Luftbild 1944.jpg

This, as it turns out was doubly unfortunate. Firstly, being bombed flat is bad news at the best of times. But the mid-1940's was far from the best of times aesthetically, because it meant that the city was being rebuilt just as the west was getting into some of the most ghastly forms of architecture in history. Hence even in the Frankfurt squares with old-looking buildings, not only are they noticeably of recent vintage, but they're next to horrible 50's and 60's looking square concrete and glass monstrosities. A shame, really. Wars have consequences, that's for sure. At least things improved with the modern skyscrapers, which are much nicer. I got to see the Commerzbank Tower up close, which I remember from a desktop photo on my old computer years ago, where the shape made it look like it was only half finished with bits sticking up off the top.

Commerzbank Tower

-I wrote last time from Copenhagen about the pleasures of walking idly through foreign cities. I can't improve much on those notes, except that since then I learned that the French have a term for this kind of activity - Flânerie, with me taking the role of the Flâneur.

-For a recovering introvert who occasionally enjoys relapsing into his natural state, it is glorious to be a monolingual English speaker in Germany. Nearly all the service staff here speak English, so you can order whatever you want (when you're trying to spend money, most people will find a way to figure out what you want). In addition, the museums are courteous enough to put nearly all their explanations in English and German (there was even a public statue of Goethe that had a translation of the plaque in English too - not sure what Goethe would have thought of that). But more than that, it is an active pleasure to not speak German. Especially in museums, most people's conversations are inane and distracting. When they're in a language you understand, you can't help but listen, even when it's annoying. But when it's just unintelligible German, you observe the people at a pleasant sociological distance, and their conversation is just the linguistic curiosity of different sound combinations than what you're used to.

-I went to an Impressionist exhibit at the art museum here, helpfully titled 'Monet' in huge letters. Of course, at least half the paintings weren't actually by Monet, but the museum folks know what sells. Just show the rubes some paintings and call them all Monet, they won't know the difference! I imagine Cezanne and Degas are spinning in their graves, but hey, what are you going to do?

-There was one aspect of the Monet exhibit that was really striking. In some of the side rooms, they displayed some contemporaneous black and white photographs of some of the areas being depicted in the paintings - men in row boats on rivers with cypresses next to them, Parisian street scenes with horses and carts. The effect was really quite shocking. The photographs looked incredibly drab and mundane. All these glorious scenes that one had simply imagined to be like the beautiful paintings instead looked like everyday stuff that you would walk past. Of course, they looked old, but in a vaguely dirty and primitive way, not in a romantic way. The effect was rather similar to when one sees photos of famous celebrities without their makeup on, and they look ugly and ordinary. It struck me that Impressionist painting does a similar job to makeup and a soft focus lens - brushing out the details that make the world imperfect and familiar. No wonder people like it, especially when they have very little sense of what the original source material was.

-In the Paulskirche church, they have a fascinating history of German politics during the 19th century. The building was the house of the first German Parliament, after the Germanic states started to unite once Napoleon no longer ran the place. The stories of the politicians really emphasise the Moldbug point about how much the world has moved left over time. Back then, the 'radical far left' believed that there should be democracy under universal (male) suffrage. The far right wanted the restoration of rule by hereditory aristocrats. Worth bearing mind next time someone talks about how 'extreme' the modern Republican party has become. What was also remarkable reading the stories is seeing right wing movements actually win for once. And decisively, too - the German parliament was shuttered. Take that, modernity! Of course, seeing where this increased nationalism ended up puts a bit of a dampener on the whole thing. But it depends where you finish the line - if you chart things up to World War I, the Allies hardly come off looking more civilised or just in their cause than the Axis powers. If you see German politics as a continual line from the mid-1800s to the Nazi party (which I suspect most modern Germans do), then it's a lot more problematic. Then again, the continuation from socialism to Communist atrocities is hardly edifying either, but somehow the left never seems to lose much sleep over that one. Cthulu swims left, after all, except for a hundred odd years in Germany.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Thirty-Something Single Man's Ghost of Christmas Future

Part 1, from Junot Diaz - The Cheater's Guide to Love. If you take out the infidelity part (which, ultimately, is only a plot opener for the real dynamic of a great love lost by one's mistakes), the rest sounds rather believable.

Part 2, from SMBC, which is unambiguously the best comic in existence today:

On the myopia of macroeconomics

On matters of macroeconomics, I am mostly an agnostic in the classical sense - one who is unsure where everyone else (in the original, stupider people, but that seems presumptuous) seems to be sure.

Of course, the fact that everyone else is sure and manages to come to wildly different conclusions is always puzzling. Should the Greek government be spending more to grow its way out of debt, or spending less to pay off the existing debt? I confess, dear reader, to not being very confident in my answer to this question. Partly this may be because I'm an idiot who didn't learn enough macroeconomics. The latter is certainly true. Although the chances that I know less macroeconomics that half the idiots spouting off about austerity on facebook is also quite slim.

Every now and again, I'm struck by a sense that a lot of macroeconomics seems rather unimaginative, in the sense of focusing only on the current set of institutional arrangements that we have, rather than contemplating very different sets of arrangements and figuring out whether they might be an improvement.

This is fine, if you think that the current arrangements are the product of extended scientific experimentation. But given that a lot of them seem to have come about mostly by historical accident, it's hard to be so confident that we live in the panglossian best macroeconomic world of all macroeconomic worlds.

For example, everyone who's anyone knows that the optimal way to run a money system is to have all currency printed by a central bank on special pieces of paper. These pieces of paper should have a fixed face value, and be backed by nothing but the central bank's presumed desire to avoid too much inflation.

Be honest, how confident are you that all of these assumptions are optimal?

The paper aspect is surely not optimal. As I've said before, we exist on a 'paper standard' - the real money is the electronic dollars recorded at the bank, and people have the notional ability to convert all of these to pieces of paper. Which they do occasionally, for a small amount of their dollars, and over time will do less and less. But already, it would be totally feasible to convert all currency over to electronic forms without too much effort. Should we do it? Should it have already happened?

Once you start doubting, it makes you wonder how sure you are of the rest of it.

What would happen if the US switched to a gold standard? Let's take it as given that the loss of monetary policy would be a problem. But how big, exactly? If you had to forecast the stock returns on the day the policy was announced out of the blue, do you think you could come within +/- 5%? I'm not sure I could. Are you also equally confident that the gold standard wouldn't have any offsetting benefits to at least partly counterbalance the loss of monetary policy?

This ambiguity is especially true when you ponder things like Bitcoin. It's still going merrily along - Stripe now lets you accept it easily as a payment form. Sure, both search volume and price are lower than a few years ago - it seemed like there was probably a bubble at the time.

One way to look at this graph is to think 'Ha, look at how far it's fallen! The increasing scandals and decreasing interest surely herald the end for Bitcoin.'

The other way to look at it, which I think is more relevant, is that Bitcoin is still going after almost 4 years, even though very few academic economists can explain its existence at all.

To wit, the standard requirements for money is that it is a unit of account, a mechanism of exchange, and a store of value. Bitcoin has the first two, but not the third - there's nothing inherently valuable about certain mineable bits of information, hence nobody should be willing to hold it. Yet they are. And in response, few respectable academic theories seemed to have evolved much beyond 'people are idiots' and 'you can't short it'. At some point, this is a bit unsatisfactory. Shouldn't you at least consider the possibility that the third requirement is not actually 'store of value' but rather 'belief that the next guy will accept it'? In which case 'store of value' is just a way of getting there, and Bitcoin seems to be on the way to being accepted without it. And once something becomes widely accepted, this belief becomes self-fulfulling.

The reason that I think it behooves one to have a little modesty in one's own theories here is that I am almost certain that if you took academic economists from 100 years ago and told them that instead of trading gold-backed currencies, people will be entirely comfortable accepting otherwise worthless pieces of paper issued by the government, and nobody will think this odd, they would say you were crazy. And frankly, they'd have a point. After the fact, economists will be around to tell you that the key thing actually is that the bits of paper have a reliable value as a way to pay tax bills. But doesn't this sound like a rationalisation? It's certainly a lot flimsier than 'it's tradable for actual gold', and yet a) here we are, and b) people are now saying that any further decline in the inherent value of currency is absolutely unthinkable, notwithstanding the huge decline we've already made.

There are tons of examples. Central banks themselves were a random populist intervention that economists took decades to even begin to rationalize. So was deposit insurance. These schemes both predated our formal understanding of why they seemed to work.

Given all this, I think it's okay, and probably even desirable, to have pretty darn flat priors about macroeconomic policy. You probably don't want massive deflation, to jack up interest rates to 20% overnight, or to permanently spend more than you earn. But you're a braver man than I if you think our current institutional arrangements are close to optimal.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thoughts from New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, 2015

-One of the most striking things about New Orleans during Mardi gras, oddly enough, is the attitude of the police. (Okay, lest you be questioning whether red blood still flows through my veins, there are other striking things too, noted below, but this one was perhaps the most surprising). I’ve never seen police so chilled out in my whole life, entirely unconcerned by the debauchery around them. I spent a while watching them trying to figure out if this was

a) the fact that nothing surprises them anymore, having seen all this nonsense thousands of times,

b) part of a brilliantly devised ‘small footprint’ strategy whereby they let small infractions go and concentrate only on the big stuff, as the debauchery is important for the city and police antagonism will mostly make the situation worse, or

c) whether they were in fact wholly nonchalant about crime, and simply didn’t give a flying @#$%.

It’s probably a little of all three, but I ended up putting more weight on the latter option than I had initially. Part of this came from hearing various stories from locals, including seeing a cop in uniform light up a joint, someone trying to alert police to a man passed out on the side of the road and receiving a shrug as the official response, and of course the murder rate of 57 per 100,000 which would make the Republic of New Orleans the second highest murder rate country in the world.

-Related to strategy b) above, New Orleans really reveals the absurdity of open container and street drinking laws. Who would have thought that people can actually take a beer from a bar out into the street and society doesn’t collapse around them. Instead, the focus is on more practical thing like having all drinks served in plastic cups to minimize the risk of broken glass. You’d think that this kind of sensible example would catch on around the western world, but only if you’d never seen the absurd moral panics that society gets attached to. Giving people a ticket for having a beer in public is contemptible and unworthy of a free society.

-Having a passing familiarity some of the extant literature on the subject, there was actually less public nudity at Mardi Gras than I expected. Which is to say, there was some, but it certainly wasn’t ubiquitous. Never underestimate the power of good editing to create a very unrepresentative sample. As well as being more clothed on average, the crowd was also older and blacker than the literature would suggest. The fact that editing would hide the first fact is unsurprising, the second fact perhaps more so.

-In the annals of ‘curious facts about male sexual preferences’, the odd fascination with public nudity is definitely up there. This is put into sharp relief when you have on Bourbon street multiple strip clubs which will show you highly attractive fully nude women at a moment’s notice for not very much money. But instead, during Mardi Gras people seem far more interested in the possibility of a one second flash from some who isn’t a stripper, and usually doesn’t have a stripper’s body. Never underestimate the appeal of the illicit, of seeing what is normally covered up, and overall the aspect of slight reluctance. Seeing someone get convinced by a crowd to flash appeals to the male brain in ways that a girl on stage willingly taking off her clothes never quite captures. Male sexual preference is odd indeed, especially when it comes to strip clubs

-Mardi Gras attracts a large number of very earnest Christians out to try to save the souls of revelers. I find these people fascinating. Say what you will about their beliefs, it takes some serious cojones to stand in the middle of Bourbon Street carrying a huge cross and yelling about Jesus to the potentially antagonistic drunks all around you. Most of us never believe anything with that kind of sincerity (for better or worse).

-The fact that Mardi Gras is associated with the Catholic traditions around Lent is always hilarious to me. People seem to have taken the idea of penance and renunciation for Lent and instead transformed it exclusively into a time-series shift in debauchery while keeping the total amount either constant, or more likely increasing it in total. Even funnier, the tradition of increasing sordid behavior before lent stuck around long after people stopped following the other part of piety and giving up pleasures. Substitution effects are tricky things.

-Bourbon street is another example like the Vegas strip of the unusually strong power of network effects. There is very little architecturally, visually or resource-wise to set apart Bourbon street from nearby streets. But one of them is packed when the others are nearly deserted. Truly, people like being around other people.
-I went to the Orpheuscapade Ball, which was awesome. I only found out about the various balls because one of the girls in our group had grown up in New Orleans, and knew that this was the thing to do (while the tourists all go to Bourbon Street). There were thousands of people in black tie, watching the floats go through the New Orleans convention center. I really enjoyed seeing the old Southern High Society. You never hear about them much – I kind of thought the Civil War had routed most of that old tradition, but it still lingers on. All you hear about the South is the rural white trash side, but never the rich upper class white side. Especially the Southern society girls. Smoking hot, rich, conservative – what’s not to love?

-Related to the above, the ball had as its main musical act a guy who was apparently a big country star. I’ve been in this country more than a decade now, which is long enough to lull me into the sense that I’ve pretty much got the hang of the place. And then I’ll hear a country music concert and get reminded how there’s a huge side of America than I just about never see. To make matters even stranger, a lot of the country music crowd would probably vote in a more similar way to me (if I were inclined to vote, which I’m not) than the people I live around. Though if you broke it down issue by issue instead of shoe-boxing everyone into one of two parties, the overlap would certainly become smaller. While the crowd here was a long way from the standard rural Republican voting set, the enthusiasm of the crowd for a wholly alien musical genre was a bit of a reminder of the extent of the country that is essentially invisible when you live in big coastal cities.