Monday, September 10, 2018

The other counterfactual to wasteful childhood spending

In the modern world, much parental investment in their children is wasted. Parents would almost certainly be better off investing less per child.

They overinvest relative to what the twin studies reliably tell us we should do. Genetic influence is large for most things we care about (e.g. 62% for core educational achievement in the UK. Or if you want a wider sample of traits, look at Table 1 here and see how many are in the category of "high heritability"). Not only that, but most parenting is in the category of common environment, in the language of twin studies - non-genetic factors that are common to both twins in a family. And shared environment generally doesn't do very much, particularly for outcomes measured in adulthood. Which means that all the things you do in common for your children, whether it's the choice of school district, or commonly instilled values, or not having a TV in the house, or whatever... none of them do that much. The components of that which cost you money are probably money spent in vain. The environment terms that do seem to matter are mostly idiosyncratic environment: the non-genetic factors that differ between two twins in a family. Unfortunately, we don't really know what these are. People like to talk about peers at school, but it's also parasites, and head trauma, and infectious diseases, and measurement error, and lots of other weird things.

To sum all this up - parenting doesn't matter very much. It certainly doesn't matter nearly as much as people these days think it does. The main reason nobody notices this is that parenting is nearly always correlated with genetic variation. What matters is if you have the kind of genes that would make you want to read a book to your children each night. Whether you actually read the book or not is far less important. Outside of twin studies, adoption studies, and a few other places, these things are very difficult to tease apart.

But I suspect a lot of people will instinctively resist this conclusion. Am I really saying parents should spend less on their children? People being what they are, they will resist the scientific validity of the above claims because they sound like they're implying parents should be more stingy towards their children. How could I be so heartless and selfish!

First off, if you're ever tempted to deny basic facts just because you don't like the conclusions that flow from them, you're so many levels deep in shonky motivated reasoning that I don't know how to help you.

But more importantly, you're assuming a particular counterfactual, one which I never stated.

I said that parents should spend less per child. And that's true.

When I say that, you're assuming that the relevant tradeoff is "take the money you were going to spend on maths tutoring, and spend it on a fancy new car for yourself". In other words, you make the choice between altruism and selfishness, and then declare yourself righteous by advocating on the side of altruism.

But spending-per-child has both a numerator and a denominator.

People only seem to think of the numerator, to spend less in total. Of course, there's another way to reduce spending per child. Namely, hold total spending constant, and have more children.

And it's bizarre that this is almost never the tradeoff that people think of, even though they should. The real tradeoff should be "skip the maths tutoring and have one more child".

When phrased this way, the choice is much harder to feel righteous about, because now altruism is stacked on both sides of the ledger. And the altruism is actually quite jarring when considered explicitly.

"I'm saving for my child to have a debt-free college experience at the best university possible! What could be more noble than that?", asks John Q. GenXer. Well, let's phrase it differently. Suppose that you have two children, and you want to pay for both of their college. You're setting aside, what, $400K or so? In practical terms, that would go an awfully long way towards funding the entire existence of child #3. Suppose you had to confront the actual child #3, in some hypothetical universe. You have to tell him, "Sorry, son, I chose for you not to exist so that your older brother wouldn't have to have college debt."

Put that way, it doesn't sound nearly so noble, does it? In fact, it sounds downright disturbing and shallow.

And yet that's the actual alternative being faced. It doesn't feel that way, because the children you don't have aren't salient, or even fully real. But if they were, they'd be much harder to treat so callously.

The "aborted daughter" meme made this point very powerfully:

The late, great Gary Becker made a similar point, in the language of economics. People don't love their children, as much as they learn to love them. Because exactly as above, at some point people typically make a choice to stop having more. And yet if the children came along by accident, they'd love them anyway, very intensely, and would risk their lives to save them. But ex ante, they go to considerable lengths to make sure the children don't exist in the first place.

People aren't perfectly altruistic, of course. Surviving on zero sleep for 10 years, instead of 4 years, is a non-trivial difference to one's quality of life over the period. If a couple decides they simply can't do any more, so be it. Let he who has donated all his wealth to charity cast the first stone.

But there is a group of people for whom the alternative counterfactual is crucially important. These are the couples who feel that they might like to have one more kid, but they just can't afford it. Those are the people who are making the wrong choice. The piano lessons and the maths tutoring don't matter. If endless driving the kids to weekend soccer is too hard, just don't put them on the soccer team. They'll survive. If you don't have a huge house, then maybe they'll have to share a bedroom. People have turned out just fine, starting with much worse.

Have one more child, and spend less on each one.

The spending doesn't matter. The child does.

For the world, firstly. And for the child themselves.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Mudita, or Sympathetic Joy

One of Orwell’s great insights in 1984 was that when a language lacks a word for a concept, it becomes difficult for people to think coherently in terms of the idea. My vague recollection from 1984 was a sense that while this was a very important idea, the extent to which it drove people's thinking was slightly exaggerated in the book. Suppose there’s a word in a foreign language that English doesn’t have. It’s not like it’s impossible to express this idea in English, otherwise how could you ever convey to an English speaker what it means? Rather, it’s that words work as shorthand for broader concepts, and having a convenient shorthand helps people to recognise the concept and spot it more in their life. When something takes two sentences to explain instead of a single, immediately understood word, this acts as a surprisingly large friction in people's thought processes.

Consider, for instance, the scope of some possible virtues and vices, as an English speaker understands them.

The opposite of stupidity is intelligence.

The opposite of greed is generosity.

The opposite of cowardice is courage.

By having opposites, it helps to reinforce the need to not only eliminate the vice, but to cultivate the virtue. If they are at opposite points on a continuum, having a term for the other end of the scale helps remind people that they ought to cultivate a mindset to the further extreme, to goodness, rather than simply being contented with not being in the left tail of badness.

So along these lines, the opposite of envy is … what, exactly?

Admit it, nothing is quite springing to mind, is it?

You can roughly get the concept, but there is no equivalent word that comes to mind with anything like the immediacy of love/hate. In English, there simply isn’t a word for the opposite of envy. And I’ll wager that until now, you probably hadn’t considered this fact.

There is, however, a word in Pali, the language of the Buddha. And that word is Mudita. It is one of the four Brahmaviharas, that Buddhists are exhorted to work on in their mental development. The closest English translation, which I like, is “sympathetic joy”. To take joy in the happiness of others. To be pleased for their success, not because you can get anything out of it, but simply because other people’s good fortune brings you happiness intrinsically. This is the opposite of envy, where other people’s success brings you pain and resentment because it didn’t happen to you.

I’ve also seen it translated as “altruistic joy”. Like all cases where translation is ambiguous, it blends both concepts. Like sympathy, we are happy on behalf of another, just as standard sympathy is feeling sad on behalf of another. Like altruism, we are happy because of the prospect of there being good for the world in general.

And as Orwell noted, without the concept to anchor on, it is harder to exhort people to develop it. We know not to have envy, and be bitter at other’s good fortune. But there is less distinction made between being indifferent to others’ success, and being actually gladdened by it.

Unlike the strong form of the Orwell idea, people have some instinctive sense of the concept, even when they lack the word as a shorthand. I'll further wager that when you think about the concept, you know who amongst your friends and family scores well in this respect. People who have sympathetic joy tend to be happier, because the set of good fortune among your friends and family is larger than the set of just your own. They tend to have more friends, because people are always pleased to be able to share their success with others without worrying about hurting their feelings or arousing resentment.

Sympathetic joy is not in vogue these days. It’s not that it’s actively discouraged. It’s just that it’s yet one more casualty of the rise of narcissism – thinking only in terms of oneself, and what one can get. Narcissism does not necessarily conflict with generosity, which is perhaps the closest single-word analogue in English. But generosity is different – to give things away is an action, and usually a public one at that. By increasing the public angle, one can fit in generosity with narcissism – look how benevolent I am, facebook friends! Here’s me flying to Haiti to help build houses.

But sympathetic joy doesn’t work that way. It’s a thought, not an action. It might sometimes express itself in speech, but it doesn’t tend to manifest much in ways that lend themselves to social media posts. Rather, the root mindset is one of empathy, thinking from the point of view of others. Take that away, and the tendency towards sympathetic joy goes away too. The other person must be the subject. They can’t simply be an object against which one’s own lack of success is measured, and against which oneself is the real protagonist.

I try to cultivate sympathetic joy in small ways (not always with success, obviously). For it to be a good test, it has to be something that one actively wants oneself – something that, if one were unguarded, might easily slip into envy. To be pleased at someone else’s extreme wealth is less difficult if one is not particularly driven by wealth as a goal, for instance. In my case, it was always pretty girls. The younger Holmes, especially before I understood game, would often get annoyed by seeing alpha male assholes with hot chicks. But these days, I try to reflect, “Man, good for homie over there. He’s done well for himself!”. When cultivated, this actually becomes easier to do than simply eliminating envy by sheer willpower and replacing it with nothing. Substituting it with sympathetic joy gives one a reason to be more than simply indifferent or disinterested. If successful, it actually becomes easier to be glad at seeing a pretty girl (that one can't have) with another guy, than seeing a pretty girl on her own. In the first case, one can redirect greed towards sympathetic joy. In the latter, one has to work on the harder task of mere renunciation. 

At one end of the scale, you have people who claim that every time a friend succeeds, they die a little. Usually this is said in a way that the speaker mostly intends jest, but any perceptive audience understands that there is likely a considerable degree of seriousness. It nearly always causes me to think, if not say: what a sad way to go through life, torn up inside by good things in the world. Wouldn’t you be ashamed to say this, even if you felt it?

And at the other end?

Also many years ago, the teenage Holmes used to listen to a lot of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Being not quite so reactionary at the time, Seeger’s communism, while still palpable and striking me as rather stupid, didn't seem quite as tiresome. But even with the benefit of hindsight, Seeger comes across as a complex figure who wrote about a wide range of subjects, and a man whose virtues one can admire without endorsing the whole package. In a better ordered society where power was actually secure, writing songs with vague communist sympathies would be as harmless as writing songs about absolute monarchy is today.

Seeger also wrote one of the great songs about sympathetic joy.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

It's not "I must work to build a better world". That may be practically a more useful and motivating sentiment. But at heart, it still has a considerable tendency for the real emphasis to be the word I. Even with the best of intentions, egotism tends to creeps in. But in Seeger's song, not only did one not cause the world to go well, one won't even be there to witness it. And still, one wishes for it all the same. The above song may not be a great motto to get people to actually work for a better world. But it is a strong test of whether one's benevolence survives any sense of self-aggrandisement. As an example of mudita, it is superb.

It is easy to overstate the burden of sympathetic joy, as some chore and mental constraint. To focus, in other words, on the empathy and sympathy aspect. But this misses the other half. Sympathetic joy is also joy.

I simply cannot hear the song without smiling.

Yes, well may the world go,
When I'm far away.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

On the Cultural Aggression of the Quebecois

I was in Quebec recently. It's an odd place. Some parts, like the old part of Quebec City, feel like you've somehow set foot into a European town, with a walled city, cobblestone streets, and statues of local heroes from four hundred years prior. But then when you drive out of that part, especially between the major cities, it feels like you're in Anytown, USA, except that everything has been run through Google translate.

The attitude of the Quebecois towards their history is an interesting one. They very much celebrate their "Frenchness", but they're considered mostly as an object of humour and curiosity by the actual French themselves. In this regard, they share some similarities to the Northern Ireland Protestants, who are similarly ignored or viewed with mild embarrassment by the English. In the case of the Quebecois, their conception of France is also quite different to France itself. One aspect of this, that seems obvious and striking in hindsight, but is actually quite easy to overlook, is that the French Revolution never came to Quebec. The British took over in 1763, and so the Quebecois' conception of French rule dates back to this French Royal period. This is why you see the Fleur De Lis, the symbol of French monarchy, around everywhere. As I've written about before, you will walk around a long time in Paris before seeing many of these, or indeed any other celebration of the French Kings. But in Quebec, and indeed in Lousiana, the Fleur De Lis just means "French", not "Royal". 

The immediate aspect that strikes all tourists is of course the language. For a long time, I had always wondered about their stubborn intransigence towards issues of language and history. Not only do they insist on speaking French, but if anything they appear to have gotten more aggressive on the subject over time, not less. This includes the endless language police (an uber driver was recounting how a company he worked for was scrambling around to replace all the keyboards and telephone with French versions in advance of the language police visit). It also includes clamping down on English language education.

Not only that, but the Quebecois seem to have had a remarkable ability to shoot themselves in the foot with their endless hand-wringing about independence. They've managed to pick the worst possible outcome - neither becoming independent, nor being committed to staying part of Canada. Indeed, if you want a metric of just how much this screwed over Quebec, and Montreal specifically, consider the following: how many countries can you think of where most important city in the country changed in the past hundred years? London was the most important a century ago and is today, Paris was the most important a century ago and is today, Moscow was the most important city a century ago and is today, and so on. Not so in Canada. Montreal was the most important city for most of the 20th century. Then a wave of independence agitation, starting with the formation of Parti Quebecois in 1968 (of course! when else?) put paid to all that. You know who loves that kind of endless uncertainty? Businesses! Where do you think the operational headquarters of the Bank of Montreal are? Did you guess "Toronto"? They have been since 1977, when the bank decided to beat the rush ahead of the first referendum in 1980 on moves towards independence. 

I had just put all this down to the French generally being stubborn socialist assholes, and especially resenting Anglo-Saxons. Charles De Gaulle could never, ever forgive the British and Americans for kicking out the Nazis. It was almost easier to forgive the Nazis themselves. A recipient of charity nearly always hates his benefactor, as Orwell wisely observed. Quebec wasn't exactly in the same position, but resentment of the Anglos has a long, long history, dating at least back to the Plains of Abraham in 1759. It's not for nothing that the license plates read "Je Me Souviens" - "I remember". It's hard not to detect a vague note of sullen hostility in that, a determined insistence to bear a grudge. There are plenty of ways to remind people to celebrate their French heritage, and most of them sound more upbeat, like "Vive Le Français Canada".  Instead, it always seemed to imply to me "I remember when this used to be France".

But in any conflict, it's nearly always a useful exercise to consider "How did the other side think of the reasons behind the conflict?" One doesn't need to go full moral equivalence to think that if the Quebecois resent the Anglos, it's worth at least pondering why this might be. Actually, that's not quite sufficient, because that tends to lead one back to self-serving explanations. No, the better question is: what explanations might they have that, if true, were unflattering to our own self-image? This is nearly always the blind spot. "Why do they dislike us?" tends to produce answers like "They're assholes", "they're confused or misled" etc. "What did we do to provoke this?", even when asked in earnest, tends to produce answers like "We're too noble, too generous, too successful". You only get to the heart of the matter by asking "How might I be the asshole here?". Or as Mitchell and Webb put it - Are we the baddies?

Of course, the great irony in that skit is that while it's very funny, Mitchell and Webb could only jokingly portray Nazis asking this question of themselves, thereby displaying quite a high level of introspection. This is compounded by the fact that in the direct scene depicted, they appear to be fighting Stalin, who was a monster of the highest order. One does not have to be a Nazi sympathiser to reflect that on the Eastern Front, "good guys" were pretty damn thin on the ground.

But in the skit, there's no suggestion whatsoever that you, the audience member, should actually ponder the same question, even if just on the small scale of some pretty morally dubious choices. The point is not whether you or they are right overall, though that is surely important, and probably the most important question. But the other point is, do you know why the other side thinks you are in the wrong?

And one of the recurring themes that comes up among such honest questioning is that a lot of actions that seem to be aggressive offensive campaigns are perceived by those who wage them as actually defensive. Because we all live in America, the elephant in the room that we are all apt to leave out of the re-telling is America itself, the Vampire of the World. The ways in which the west may provoke things are rarely thought of, except to the extent that leftists claim that America provokes violence by being insufficiently progressive. 

I remember The War Nerd talking about this in the context of the Middle East. To America, jihad seems like an outrageous, insane form of unprovoked attack. But he makes a quite convincing case that many of the jihadis in the Middle East actually perceive it as a defensive war. How could that be?:
American exceptionalism is always just American provincialism, no matter how benevolent it seems. Not everyone is like us, and a lot of people are actively trying not to become like us. Jihadis are, roughly speaking, the armed wing of that group.
The truth about the clash of civilizations you hear people discussing is that it’s all the other way: The Mall is invading Islam, the Mall is taking over. There isn’t any Sharia Law in North Carolina, but there damn well are US-style malls in even the most conservative Islamic countries.
The Mutaween (“Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice”) has hundreds of men, and even a few women, working in Najran. Some wear the big beards and special headdress, but others are in disguise. And what these undercover morality police do, mostly, is patrol HyperPanda to see if boys are talking to girls, or looking at girls, or throwing girls little folded-up slips of paper with their cell phone numbers. That last one is perhaps the greatest threat to morality in town, and HyperPanda is the scene of most such crimes. The Mutaween mount multi-cop surveillance routines, with some disguised as Malays or Filipinos, to detect any instances of heterosexual contact at the mall.
The culture, the law, are very clear. No pre-marital fooling around, and that includes flirting at HyperPanda. Mall rules are very clear too: It’s an obvious place for boys and girls to check each other out. When mall meets culture, hijinks ensue—and murders sometimes follow, with the male relatives of the girl who’s been compromised at HyperPanda hunting down and killing the boy who accosted her.
And again:

The vectors for contagion in Najran are legion, starting with the usual suspects: Facebook, where daughters of respectable families maintain private accounts which feature “risqué” photos of young women without the niqab (face veil), hijab (head scarf), or abaya (black robe). These accounts also allow girls to “like” one professional footballer over another, an expression of preference in male appearance which violates every marriage norm in the rural-Arabian book.
Then there’s the cellphone itself, Ooredoo’s trademark product. Cellphones are lethal for traditional female prohibitions. In Najran, girls can’t leave the house without a male relative, even to visit female friends. But with a cellphone, they can jump outside the compound without breaking a sweat, texting unrelated males to say God knows what in that krazy lingo you kidz are using these days. And because the older generation in Najran grew up in a world without telephones of any kind, let alone cellphone culture, they’re hopeless at monitoring this coded, corrosive language.
And in a way, the most corrosive of all the alien influences attacking Najran were the most seemingly innocuous: K-Pop and Korean Soap Operas. It’s amazing that there are still people in the old countries, like the US, who don’t realize yet that Korea has taken over world culture. They don’t need your stinkin’ American pop no more. They’ve got Sistar and they’re humming “Can’t Go to Sinchon.”
The Korean dramas Najran girls watch on their computers are intensely romantic—and “romantic” is a Western, alien import, a very dangerous one in a world where marriage is between or within families, and where young women expect to feel little or no affection for their husbands. When you’re stuck in your room—and your room’s windows have been boarded up to prevent heterosexual gazes from passing in or out—it’s quite a trip to be suddenly transported to a Korean beach, where two young lovers are strolling, having a heart-to-heart on a program called “Autumn in My Heart.”
Read both those articles, they're eye-opening. Again, the point is not that Jihad is justified. Brecher's implication that there isn't any genuinely aggressive component of Muslim cultural expansion in the west (Europe in particular) seems, shall we say, naively optimistic. But that's not the question. The question is: how many Americans could think of any reasons why they might dislike the West that a) aren't entirely self-serving, and b) aren't just progressive talking points? I don't think Jihad was exactly the example that Moldbug has in mind, but if you want to understand how someone might consider America the Vampire of the World, you could do far worse.

Which brings us back to the Quebecois.

To wit: you simply cannot tell the story of Quebec's cultural aggressiveness without discussing America.

Because it doesn't take much pondering to realise that in the case of language and cultural preservation, the Quebecois almost certainly view their actions as entirely defensive.

And it doesn't take much more pondering to realise that they're almost certainly correct.

English is essentially like the Borg. If you're in North America, it just tends to creep in, with a thousand vectors of attack. The tourists come to Montreal and Quebec City with their US dollars (or even their Yen or Renminbi), which bring with them enormous incentives to speak English. If you're a shop owner in Montreal, how do you greet your customers? They seem to have settled on "Hello, Bonjour", an expression that must surely annoy the French-speaking locals. All the major movies and pop songs come in English. Educated French-speaking parents start thinking that it's important for their child to learn good English, so maybe they decide to send them to an English school, figuring they'll get the French at home anyway. Slowly, bit by bit, if you don't do anything, the degree of French-speaking gets chipped away.

This isn't even just hypothetical. We already have examples of what happens if you don't actively fight these trends.


New France extended over a huge territory, not just Quebec. So the question is: how much French is still spoken in these areas? Even the cities which were the biggest at the time, like New Orleans? To ask is to laugh. "French" becomes limited to street signs, a small section of historical architecture for the tourists, and the Fleur De Lis around the place. That's what happens when you aren't willing to aggressively insist on French being spoken in every official capacity. English slowly grinds you down until it's taken over, at which point it's probably there for good (or at least until the Chinese invade).

Even in this decayed age, America is still a great country. Yet it is one of the tragedies of our era that gradually everywhere is slowly turning into America. I like America, but I don't want everywhere to be America. To add to the tragedy, the main parts that seem to be most contagious are mass market consumer culture and humourless political correctness. But the vector of attack for all of this is the spread of the English language. It's no coincidence to me that, among first world countries, the Japanese have not only the least embrace of open borders diversity nonsense, but also the least embrace of spoken English.

The Quebecois seem to have little interest in fighting the message itself, at least that I've seen. But to the extent that they don't want to simply end up as American, I can entirely sympathise.

Friday, July 20, 2018

How to Break the College Monopoly on Credentials

Suppose you were to think, like me, that America suffers from a significant surplus of university education. It takes young men and women, ladens them with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and indoctrinates them with progressive propaganda in an atmosphere of hedonism for four years.

On its own, this is bad enough. But instead, a bizarre idea has developed that everyone needs a college degree in order to be a person of any worth. Which means that the above process now applies to a far greater fraction of the population than it did two generations ago. And the new people at the margin, going to crummy colleges, are likely to be those for whom the instructional value is of the least benefit.

As far as I can tell, the massive increase in demand for higher education over the previous decades seems to be cargo cult reasoning writ large - rich successful people went to college, ergo if I go to college I will be rich and successful. A fortiori, if we all go to college, we'll all end up rich! Better subsidize all those student loans, now helpfully made non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.

The unfortunate part is that I suspect that a good number of the people who go to college (or at least their parents) probably sympathise with the fact that the above reasoning is moronic. So how come they don't just skip it? Because, of course, it's a signalling arms race. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, and nobody ever got fired for hiring the Harvard undergrad. 

Surely, you may think, there must be enough people who see through this, and realise that intelligent people willing to spend the four years doing on-the-job training will end up much better skilled than those who just graduated from college? Wouldn't they be willing to punt on these people, and thereby put an end to much of the madness?

The problem, of course, is information asymmetry. The enormous college application system acts as a certification system of hopefully job-related traits, mixed in with pozz, affirmative action, and associated nonsense. But it is quite adept at producing one conclusion: if you go to a university ranked between #15 and #25, it is highly probable that you applied to, and got rejected from, universities ranked #1 through #14. What you actually learned in the college is harder to assess. There's some value in GPA, but that keeps getting grade inflated more and more.

And getting an equivalently good signal elsewhere is still quite difficult, which I suspect is why employers skeptical of the quality of instruction at colleges still use it. The Supreme Court has made IQ tests effectively prohibited in hiring decisions unless you're willing to risk ruinous disparate impact lawsuits, and the general mix of extra-curricular activities, essays, and in-person interviews that signals "high achieving and socially adept" is easier to outsource to universities than to do in-house for most companies.

So if employers rely on this signal, if you don't go to college, you get lumped in with the people who couldn't get into any college at all. Obviously, in person it's not hard to signal that you're smarter than the rest of that pool. But how do you get past the first HR screening? How do you avoid people just assuming that you didn't go to college simply because you couldn't go to college, or at least any one worth attending?

Well, one way you could deal with it is as follows. Work very hard in high school, and apply to all the best colleges. Then take your best five acceptance letters, staple them to your CV, but don't go to any of them. This is something that people wouldn't quite know what to make of. They have a category for people who couldn't get into college. They have a category for "college dropout", as someone who got into a good college, but (they assume) having got there was too lazy, too much of a misfit, or just unable to hack it. But they have no category for someone who got into a good school but never went in the first place. Which means they have to think a bit harder as to what to make of you. If you turn up with an acceptance from Stanford, and a glowing high school record, and that's the last data on the subject because you never actually turned up, it's much harder for employees to put you in the dropout category, as the last data on the subject indicates that you probably would have succeeded. The reason this works is that college has largely become a joke, whereby it's very hard to actually fail out. Getting in may be hard, but getting through is not. The more of a joke it becomes, the more viable becomes the strategy of just signalling that you got accepted.

If you include with your CV a brief letter explaining how you think that college is a very expensive, bad deal for most students, and you'd much rather spend the time earning money and acquiring useful on the job skills, lots of employers would probably agree. Moreover, if you've already credibly shown that you could have done it, much of the signalling value is already achieved. Most of the signal is getting accepted, but it doesn't cost $100K for an acceptance letter. It's still possible that idiot HR types that just mechanically screen on college degrees (though you wouldn't fit into a clean bucket, so they may have to ponder harder what to do with you). The other risk is that people will just assume you're weird, simply because this is an unorthodox choice to make. I think this is where it's particularly important to come across as reasonable, thoughtful and socially skillful in your explanatory letter, so that employers don't think that you didn't go just because you were too much a weirdo.

I suspect if this got going (particularly if people realised that you could actually get hired this way), the monopoly on "you have to go to college" might unravel quite quickly. At a minimum, if you're planning on not going to college, this is a pretty low cost exercise to go through with almost no downside. It almost certainly will make you look more appealing to the employers of the world for much less than the cost of a college degree.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Red, White and Green March

I write slowly and occasionally these days. Life gets busy (generally for good reasons, if you were worried), and the weeks slip by. Mostly, this is unfortunate for my writing, as I feel myself slipping into being a consumer of other people's thoughts, rather than a producer of something new. But one advantage is that sometimes I'm tempted to write about something, then events overtake me before I get around to it, and I'm forced to think harder about it.

Back in early April, you may remember a story about a coming gigantic migrant caravan making its way up from Honduras, through Mexico, to the US border.

April 2nd:
This year, the annual US-bound migrant caravan sparked a Trump tweetstorm
I'll bet you didn't know that America received an annual caravan of migrants turning up en masse before Trump tweeted about it, did you?

April 3rd:
Trump threatens Honduras' foreign aid over migrant caravan
April 7th
Trump Administration Sends Hundreds of National Guard Troops to U.S.-Mexico Border
You can tell that this was a big story, just by plotting the Google Trends search volume for "Camp of the Saints", Jean Raspail's prophetic novel about a mass refugee takeover of Europe. This really felt like the Camp of the Saints had arrived. Admittedly it was only a thousand people, whereas the million or so in Europe is much closer to Raspail's vision, but the organised aspect got people highly alarmed.

It was at about this point that I remember thinking about the two options given: threaten Mexico and Honduras to fix the problem, versus send the US troops to the border.

The first option seemed like a credible possibility. Unlike in Raspail's book, the caravan was coming over the land, not over sea. This means that if the land is owned by someone, and that someone can be threatened or cajoled by the US, you've probably got a good chance at it being in their interests to shut it down.

But it's worth pondering the following. Mexico is a broke, third world country, who ships lots of its own underclass to America, which is a large part of the overall immigration problem. And yet America is apparently relying on Mexico to police the flow of people from the even more wretched Honduras.  Which makes you wonder - why doesn't America do the job itself?

Which gets to the second policy - sending troops to the border. When I first heard about this, I suspected that it might turn into an absolute catastrophe.

You send the might of the US Army to the border. Then what?

Well, there's two possibilities, both of them bad. And both of them have actually happened.

The first is that the troops actually fire. This one played out in Israel, around the same time:
Israeli forces kill three Gaza border protesters, wound 600: medics
So what of that, you may say? 600 wounded to only 3 killed is actually a damn good ratio if you're trying to not kill them and you're vastly outnumbered.

But remember, this is America we're talking about, not Israel. And the key difference is that in Israel, there's enough political consensus backing these troops' actions that there was an effective fence there in the first place.

In America, the border wall will never get built, notwithstanding the hopes of Trump supporters. This is because the overwhelming majority of important political players oppose such a development. And this tells you what the reaction would be if the same thing happened here.

Let's consider the event where the protesters mass at the Mexican border and begin to stream across. Nation Guard units stand opposed, with instructions to stop them at all costs. The order is given to fire. Against all likelihood, the troops actually fire.

Congratulations, random National Guardsman who gave the order! You get to be painted as the modern William Calley, subjected to imprisonment and approbation for the rest of your life. Except it's The Current Year, not 1971, and some Democrat-appointed judge just can't wait to paste you with life in prison to set an example to not violate Steve Sailer's Zeroth Ammendment to the Constitution.

But deep down, everyone knows this is what will happen, and calculates accordingly. Plus people sign up for the US military with (optimistically) hopes of fighting against ISIS, not firing on women and children. And so, even if the order is given, nobody will actually fire.

Then what?

We'll we've seen that too. Welcome to one of the most criminally under-appreciated events of the 20th Century - the Green March.

The Green March was, to borrow from Boldmug, a little piece of 21st Century European history that somehow dropped into 20th Century Africa. 

Western Sahara was a Spanish Colony in the desert on the coast of North-West Africa. It was 1975, Franco was dying, and pretty much everybody knew the colonialism game in Africa was up. Spain was clinging onto control of the colony against an insurgency that had been going on for two years, out of Mauritania. Algeria and Morocco were similarly circling the sick wildebeest that the Spanish colony had become, hoping to take over once the Spanish retreated or were driven out.

And in this context, Morocco decided in November 1975 to do something brilliant. Instead of sending in the army, it assembled 350,000 Moroccan civilians, mostly women and children. This was symbolically chosen to be the number of births in Morocco that year. They were given the order to march on Western Sahara, waving flags and banners, green, the color of Islam.

It is an axiom of firearms training that you should understand the purpose of a gun. It is not a magic wand, a holy cross, or an amulet to ward off evil doers. It is a device constructed to end the life of its intended target. One of the first lessons any competent firearms instructor will tell you is to never, ever point a gun at anything you are not willing and intending to destroy right then.

Of course, this doesn't mean that you can't use a gun as a bluff. People do this all the time. But bluffing with a gun is a very dangerous game. You might be intending to bluff, and the gun goes off by accident. You might get your bluff called, and now you're in an even worse position than before. Your opponent now knows that you're unwilling to fire, and has a good chance of taking the gun off you.

An army is a merely a collection of men with guns. And having your troops point guns that they are unwilling to fire works no better at a national level than it does with the burglar in your home.

The bluff was called. The Moroccans marched, and the Spanish were unwilling to fire. Sensing that the jig was up, they even cleared away mines from some of the areas to avoid bloodshed. Ironically, Morocco's bigger problem turned out to be not the well-equipped but demoralised Spanish military, but the ramshackle yet willing troops of the Polisario Front out of Mauritania, with whom Morocco fought an ongoing insurgency for years afterwards. But win they did, and Morocco now firmly controls Western Sahara.

The Green March was a combination of weaponised mass immigration and weaponised non-violent protest. King Hassan II understood the Keyser Soze principle: to be in power, you didn't need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn't. He was willing to get hundreds of thousands of civilians killed. Spain was not.

It is prophetic, because it forces starry-eyed immigration supporters to confront something quite uncomfortable. We can haggle over whether the current torrent of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East flooding Europe right now ought to be considered an invasion. Your mileage may vary. But it is very, very hard to argue that the Green March was anything other than an invasion. The fact that women and children armed with flags proved more effective than young men armed with AK-47s is irrelevant. Sovereign control was transferred, involuntarily. The population was replaced, involuntarily.  The fact that this met with virtually no resistance in the end is as irrelevant as the fact that Nazi Germany met with virtually no resistance when it took Denmark.

A rinky-dink group like "Pueblo Sin Fronteras" can organise a thousand Central Americans to turn up at once. Decentralized incentives, combined will pull factors like Angela Merkel idiotically signalling that everybody could come on in, will get you a million people shambolically turning up over a year or two.

But if you want 350,000 people to turn up, at the same place and time, with co-ordinated flags and banners, there is simply no substitute for a nation-state doing the organising. This allows for a formal transfer of sovereignty. But many similar effects are achieved by an informal transformation by population inundation.

Or, if one is talking to a progressive, there is an even stronger example. How should the Native Americans have thought of the Pilgrims turning up at Plymouth Rock in 1620? They may be just a small number of civilians at the time, against a far larger combined group of Native Americans. And they may not be immediately attacking you, or doing anything hostile. But make no mistake: they're here to take everything you have. And if you don't treat them as an existential threat and a military invasion, right now, they'll succeed.

Immigration can very easily be weaponised. And the distinctions between the weaponised and non-weaponised forms are surprisingly difficult to pin down.

But for our purposes, regardless of where you think the present case falls on the spectrum, the response of western authorities against undesired migrants tells you a lot about the defenses available to the west if immigration were to be weaponised.

The answer is not universal. Weaponised immigration is a powerful weapon against an opponent riddled with virtue-signalling, pathological altruism, and a divided political system. It is literal suicide against an opponent who lacks these traits.

And the western response is not uniform. It failed spectacularly in Israel, repeatedly. It failed recently in Hungary and Poland. It worked well in Italy, Germany and France.

How well might it do in America?

For better or worse, Trump in his presidency is much better at talking a big game than he is at delivering a big game. This goes triply so for cases where the achievement of the goal cannot be established just by executive edict, or by provoking an easily-outraged media. If the goal requires the assent of a large bureaucracy, expect a lot of talk and little action. See, for instance, The Wall.

The charitable reading of this is that Trump is an expert at understanding the problem of kings from time immemorial. The central challenge of a king with notionally broad powers is to know what orders will actually be obeyed if given, and limit oneself to only those orders. Do not brandish a gun you are unwilling to fire. Do not attempt to fire a gun that is empty. Do not give orders that will be openly disobeyed. So he'll go for a stripped down version that achieves some limited media victory, and can be implemented. Because giving an order and seeing it flouted would be worse than nothing. It would undermine his authority, on top of not getting the actions implemented.

The uncharitable explanations mostly involve him being too lazy and inattentive to see complicated things through, too narcissistic to properly co-ordinate with a faceless bureacracy, or an outright conman just tricking the right-wing rubes with empty promises.

Pick your theory. But the prediction is pretty reliable.

After threatening to send the troops, within a few days came the first signs that those hoping for a military confrontation would come away disappointed.

On April 9, the Washington Post openly mocked:
Troops sent by Trump to border will fly drones, gather intel — and clear brush, too
He's sending troops, alright, just not sending them to actually confront the people marching on the border.

The right was probably disappointed in this. I can't share this view at all. We can thank our lucky stars that Trump, or someone near to him, understood what a catastrophe it would have been to send armed troops to confront the caravan.

Behind Door Number One is My Lai. Behind Door Number 2 is Western Sahara. Which one would you prefer?

In this respect, Trump's initial instinct is right. Threatening Honduras and Mexico is actually the best possible response, because the alternatives are calamitous in The Current Year. It is much, much easier for Trump to effectively threaten the Mexican government than to effectively assert control of his own government. And if you're going to lose, it is far better to lose quietly, than to lose noisily with all the TV cameras rolling.

Here, I'm going to make a pretty confident prediction, for those of you that remember hearing about the initial story in early April.

You never heard about how the whole thing ended, did you? How do I know this? Same picture as before.

In our ADHD culture, the caravan simply took too long to arrive, and by the time it did, people had lost interest.

So allow me to fill you in. From April 30th, when the Caravan finally reached San Diego:
Everyone who has been waiting is still here. Nobody has been processed,” said Alex Mensing, from the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
“They have not processed anybody at San Ysidro port of entry,” Mensing said.
Organizers of the group told ABC News that there are about 100 people sleeping outside a port of entry in San Diego. 
 On Sunday evening, Border Patrol commissioner Kevin McAleenan released a statement saying that the San Ysidro port of entry had "reached capacity."
He suggested that could change but gave no timetable, saying that in the meantime "those individuals may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities."
"As sufficient space and resources become available, CBP officers will be able to take additional individuals into the port for processing," McAleenan said in the statement.

From May 1st:
Slowly but steadily, caravan migrants who trekked across Mexico are pleading their cases to US authorities on why they should be granted asylum.
More than half of them have now been accepted to begin processing by US authorities at the border with Mexico, Alex Mensing -- whose group, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, organized the caravan -- said Wednesday.

Even though it's only a hundred of you, our boldest claim made by a government employee under the Trump presidency is that you may face some delays as the faceless bureaucracy processes your case. You start out claiming to be the mighty Parliament that toppled King Charles I. You end up being the modern House of Lords, with the ability to create mild inconvenience through small delay.

This much can be reliably inferred.

If the Mexican government ever decides to pull a King Hassan II, you would be a brave and foolish man to bet against them.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

On Predicting Divorce

Divorce, like death, is one of those things that deep down everyone assumes will only happen to other people. People believe this despite all the statistics and reasoning to the contrary. Also like death, it usually takes a divorce happening to someone close to you for the full gravity and horror of the situation to become apparent. But if it comes, there's a good chance it will take you by surprise. Maybe your marriage gets randomly run over by a bus. Maybe it develops a debilitating and malignant lung cancer, until when the end finally arrives it almost comes as a relief. Of course, divorce doesn’t have to happen to you. But maybe that’s just because the other inevitability steps in first. On a long enough time frame, the survival rate for everybody drops to zero, after all. If we lived for a million years, would any marriage last that long?

I have not been divorced. I have not even been married. Which makes me wholly unqualified to talk on the subject. But then again, even the most ardent real life students of the topic probably only have a few first-hand experiences on the subject. And knowledge on the subject is almost by construction going to be piecemeal. The people with the most firsthand experience of what it’s like to go through one are likely those with relatively less understanding of why it tends to occur. Or they’re bizarre gluttons for punishment.

If one is interested in forestalling divorce, there are two questions to ask. The first is how you should act in a marriage, conditional on your spouse. For this you can go to your local marriage counselor, or Dalrock, or Heartiste. Weight the three according to taste.

But there’s a second question – whom should you marry in the first place? I’ve probably spent more time thinking about this question, because it’s the Russian Roulette of high-stakes inference. And if I spend more time thinking about it than most people, perhaps oddly so, I at least have the defense that I think that most people spend an insufficient time thinking about it in cold, concrete terms.

So what might be things I’d look for?

The first, which doesn’t require much insight, is divorced parents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, etc. Everything is partly heritable, so a fair amount of behavior will come from genetics. But this is one of those cases where you don’t really care where the predictive power comes from. The bit that’s environmental is being passed down too. Freud may have been wrong about the specific hypotheses he had on how children relate to their parents, but he was right on one thing – if you want to understand the child, look at their parents, and the child’s relationship with their parents.

Some people end up explicitly modeling themselves as a rejection and reaction against their parents’ failings. But most people end up subconsciously taking in expectations of what “normal” behavior looks like. Marital breakdown is like a car crash. Because crashes are quite infrequent, you probably want to spend more time analyzing near misses, where there’s a lot more frequent data to go on. In the marital domain, I find a quite illuminating question to be “how often did your parents tend to argue when you were a kid”? Everyone assumes their answer holds across the board for everyone. It doesn’t. Try it out.

So then we turn to characteristics of the person themselves. What traits are worrying?

To me, the biggest personality trait I’d worry about is selfishness and self-centredness, broadly defined. And importantly, you can’t look to how they are with you. You have to look at how they are with other people, especially those they don’t really like. Sacrificing and making an effort when in the first flush of excitement and love is very different than doing it after ten years when you’ve got two young children and you’re chronically underslept. The latter is when it actually matters. How does the person behave when they’re tired, and stressed, and having to do something they don’t really like?

Selfishness and self-centredness aren’t the same thing, of course, but they overlap. Selfishness is probably something that people are more apt to notice and avoid instinctively – is the person just stingy and rarely generous in unsolicited ways, unless they’re getting something out of it? This is probably likely to make your marriage unpleasant, leading to a visible deterioration. But it’s also something that is likely to make you avoid marrying someone in the first place just as an experiential aspect, regardless of the specific divorce question.

I suspect that self-centredness is both harder to diagnose, and more likely to get you blind-sided by a surprise divorce. In other words, does the person think that the main question to be answered is “Is this marriage something that makes me happy?”. If this is the relevant question, you might be surprised how their behavior turns on a dime when the answer switches to “no”. When things are going well and marriage makes them happy, a self-centred person might do lots of nice things for their spouse. But once it doesn’t, suddenly their desire to be generous decreases a lot in a way that seems surprising from the outside.

So how do you spot someone who’s not self-centred? Self-centredness can have a number of opposite traits, which manifest in different ways. One is empathy – genuine empathy, that is. Genuine empathy frequently asks the question “I wonder how that would feel to the other person?”. Someone who asks this frequently will wonder far in advance what divorce would be like for their husband, and their children. Self-centredness can coexist with kindness to others, and even compassion. This is the main way people don’t tend to spot it. Doing well-understood nice things to other people, because it feels good, is not the same thing as habitually thinking about how one’s words and actions will affect those around them. A self-centred person might do sweet things like buy a present for someone, but then later inadvertently hurt them with some carelessly chosen phrase, because they just weren’t really thinking about how it would impact the other person.

Another opposite trait is a sense of duty. Duty is a very old-fashioned word. Someone who has a concept of the duties of a wife is not just thinking about themselves. I suspect that a general sense of duty across the board is useful. Do they call their parents often, for instance? Do they have a sense of religious obligation? Even beyond their specific views on marriage, duty says that there are more important questions than just whether something makes you happy in the short term, or even at all. Some things just ought be done. And the broad sense of duty does not need to require a specific set of saint-like devotion to husbandly happiness. Good luck finding that in the Current Year (or, honestly, probably in any year). It’s probably enough to just have a stubborn insistence that one is obligated to work out one’s marital problems no matter what, because divorce is just not done.

Between the two, empathy avoids self-centredness by being able to reason on-the-fly about what other people around them are thinking and feeling. Duty is the conservative, Chesterton’s Fence version – because most people will insufficiently be able to reason out all the ways to make social arrangements work, we should roughly codify the parts that seem to be best practice. The former is more useful in a wide range of social situations, but probably also harder to find. The latter is scalable to more people, but of course we as a society don’t bother doing that scaling anymore.

There’s an additional component at play here, but it requires more honest introspection. Having a partner who isn’t self-centred is especially important if you yourself are self-centred. Because that’s exactly the nightmare kind of situation. When you’re both in the first flush of love, it will bring you pleasure to do nice things for each other, the other person’s nice behavior will bring out more niceness in you, and you’ll think it will last that way forever. But when things deteriorate, you’ll both start making excuses to start looking out for number one.

The one trait that I think is a) true and b) more likely to be emphasized by marriage counselors than Heartiste is the other person's ability to communicate about problems, figure out reasonable solutions, and stick to them. If I don’t dwell on this one at length, it’s not because I think it’s less important, just that I think it’s sufficiently obvious that you don’t need to come here to hear about it.

The final trait I would look at is the extent to which the person bears grudges, or how they act towards people they hate. Do they just try to move on and remain civil, or do they dwell a lot on the subject of people they dislike? It’s not so much that this predicts the possibility of divorce, but I suspect it surely predicts how they will act if and when it comes about. The central mistake that causes people to underestimate how bitter their divorce will be is that when they imagine the process of divorce, they’re imagining their wife or girlfriend now who loves them deeply. This is a terrible failure to do statistical conditioning. Conditional on getting divorced, the person hates your guts. So how does this person act towards people whose guts they hate? More importantly, are they willing to be reasonable and compromise, or are they willing to pay a price to stick it to someone they hate? This is the difference between a grudging and terse two hour conversation about who gets what and $500 in lawyers fees, vs $200K and two years of utter misery. Once the arms race train gets started, it’s very hard to stop. And people underestimate the arms race. Your lawyers will emphasise the part that ends with the divorce settlement. They won’t emphasise what it’s like to have to see that person you now loathe every second weekend to pick up the kids.

But sometimes, to paraphrase Sherlock (not Shylock) Holmes, we have to decide when the R2 of the regression is not as good as we would like it to be. And this is one of those cases. It is hard not to feel that, when all is said and done, one’s best calculations may not help one much here. One cannot, after all, pick a constellation of personality traits. One can only evaluate the girlfriend or boyfriend in front of you, and make a call one way or the other without knowing in any concrete way who the actual counterfactual girlfriend you haven’t yet met is. So you go with your gut, and roll the dice.
There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite a word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.
The good news is that, having rolled the dice, one can then (or hopefully sooner) turn all one’s attention to the second question of what to do once you’re in a marriage.

The bad news is that that, too, is subject to the Kundera problem.

Sometimes, despite everything, death happens to you too.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Briar Patch Strategy

Suppose that one has reached the depressing conclusion that the United States is broken, ungovernable, and heading for some kind of protracted civil conflict as the Cold Civil War eventually turns hot.

Well, I'm just some guy with a blog, and you're just some guy reading a blog, so chances are we're both screwed.

My current plan is:

Plan A: Wait until the porridge hits the propeller, and hope that there will be enough commercial flights out of the country in the last days of Saigon that I can afford to get the hell out of here back to Oz with whatever Bitcoin I have and figure the rest out when I arrive. If this fails, then on to:

Plan B: Bend over and kiss my @** goodbye

This is obviously not a good plan, but at least it's realistic.

But suppose we had some way to actually influence the course of events. What's the best, realistic alternative that one could aim for?

War is nearly always the worst outcome. Ronald Coase's ghost is not amused by the wanton destruction of lives and property. Since this destruction is predictable ahead of time, you'd think people would just come to an agreement on whatever was in dispute. Even if this just means one side surrendering. Other than the glory of dying in a last stand, if you're going to lose anyway, you may as well avoid getting your country destroyed in the process. So war is usually the result of overconfidence - both sides thinking they're going to come out ahead.

You saw a lot of this in the 1860's with the South thinking they'd beat the soft Northerners in quick succession. And you get eerie echoes of it today, with conservatives consoling themselves that they own all the guns and hence would win any actual military conflict.

I'm not so sure. If it comes down to co-ordination, bet on the progressive leviathan (and it usually does, because you've got to get those guns to point in the same direction at once, as Nick B. Steves put it).

So anything that avoids the conflict is preferable.

Reforming the government would be preferable, so it stopped doing such insane things. Invade the world, invite the world, in hock to the world (in the immortal Sailer formulation).

But this inevitably brings you into conflict with people who benefit from the status quo.

Probably the best idea in this regard is Moldbug's Formalism. Find who has power under the current system, and convert it into equivalent cash flow rights under a new and better system. In other words, rather than try to expropriate the current owners and reform the system, just acknowledge the current owners, whoever they happen to be, and try to reform the system to their benefit. At least then you might get a less insane system with less of a deadweight loss.

The problem, however, is that at the level of the overall governing apparatus, it's very tricky to actually say who owns what in terms of shares of power and influence. What fraction of power does the New York Times have? You see the problem. Which means that in practice, changes of governing system usually end up being both changes of structure and expropriation of the existing owners.

This means that actually reforming the whole government will inevitably have a lot of opposition. It can be done, but it guarantees that the job will be hard, as the current structures either need to be subverted or destroyed.

However, there is another way to think of the formal ownership of the United States, and that is on geographical lines.

You see this in every election. The tribes of the United States are laid out pretty clearly in terms of their voting patterns, culture, ethnicity, etc. Like most cases, the borders are sometimes fuzzy, and you get small holdouts in opposing territory (Austin, New Hampshire).

But the key aspect is that pretty much everyone knows what goes in which category. Which ought to be the heart of any formalist settlement. If we think of the item to be allocated as "governing power over the continental US", it is very hard to say who owns what. But if we think that the United States has a couple of tribes (two? four?), once we're agreed on the number of tribes, it's fairly easy to answer the question "which tribe owns Kansas?", or "Which tribe owns New York City?".

And this is a good starting point for people to be reasonable about possible formal settlements of the cold civil war. The progressive state doesn’t really own Montana or Alabama, certainly not in the way they own San Francisco and New York City. And they pretty much know it. Even to the extent they’re somewhat in charge, they’re more in the position of a hostile power exercising some authority over a permanently restive province.

In other words, there is a reasonable case for the idea that secession, done right, looks quite a lot like a formalist division of America and allocation to each group based on the geography they actually own.

The idea of dividing up America in order to salvage some part of it, rather than lose the whole thing, is obviously not without its downsides. Psychologically, retreating in the face of enemy encroachment smells a lot more like delayed defeat than a stepping stone to impending victory. And there is a real question of whether Prog-istan would actually tolerate a genuinely reactionary state anywhere in the world, let alone on their border. (Ask Apartheid South Africa, that notable threat to world peace and stability).

I’ve written before about the reasons why secession might not be tolerated. And I stand by those difficulties. But there is a key assumption there which probably needs to be spelled out. Secession is probably likely to be fiercely resisted by the Cathedral if it is perceived that it is being imposed upon them against their will. And if push comes to shove, I suspect they’d win, for the reasons outlined before.

But what about the alternative possibility – could the Cathedral be convinced that letting red state America secede is actually in the Cathedral's interests?

Strangely enough, the informal division of cash flow rights makes this more likely. Sovereign land is very valuable, but it’s tempting to evaluate it under its current inefficient government. Any state that is currently a net tax drain (and there are many) might be able to be spun as a loss-making enterprise that it’s better to be rid of. In other words, the fact that we don’t have a clear shadow price for what sovereign Mississippi would be valued at if governed properly makes it much harder to calculate exactly what’s being given away. And if there isn’t going to be a competent takeover any time soon, then there’s a decent argument that the net tax position is not a bad assessment. It’s one thing to pay money to keep an area you like and value. It’s another thing to pay money to keep an area you hate, filled with people you hate, who hate you right back.

It takes no special insight to notice that red state and blue state America simply don’t like each other. They haven’t for a very long time. What’s more surprising is how little the idea of just separating is discussed. Partly I think this just comes from inertia. Partly it comes from residual attachment to the symbols that the country has in common, like the flag and the 4th of July.

Though I think the more important aspect to convincing progressives of the virtue of leaving is actually psychological.

The more progressives can be made to think that secession is a) their choice, and b) a victory that inflicts pain upon the hated red state America, the more likely it is that they’ll go along with it.

The right must follow the Briar Patch strategy.
In one tale, Br'er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and dresses it with some clothes. When Br'er Rabbit comes along he addresses the Tar-Baby amiably, but receives no response. Br'er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the Tar-Baby's lack of manners, punches it, and in doing so becomes stuck. The more Br'er Rabbit punches and kicks the tar "baby" out of rage, the more he gets stuck. When Br'er Fox reveals himself, the helpless but cunning Br'er Rabbit pleads, "please, Br'er Fox, don't fling me in dat brier-patch," prompting Fox to do exactly that. As rabbits are at home in thickets, the resourceful Br'er Rabbit uses the thorns and briers to escape.
"Please don't abandon me, Blue State America! I'm so dumb and poor and backwards, dependent on your tax transfers that I'll never survive without being part of your country!"

In other words, the aim is not for red state America to secede. The aim is to get blue state America to secede. If we're splitting the place up into pieces, it doesn't matter in practical terms who called the whole thing off. But it matters immensely to psychology. Both being dumped and doing the dumping result in the end of a relationship, but it feels very different to be on each side.

And this may the single biggest hope of the Trump presidency. It's becoming increasingly apparent that Trump is unlikely to enact any major right-wing reforms. But he is supremely good at one thing, namely driving progressives insane with rage. If somehow he manages to survive the Republican loss of the House in 2018, the ramping up of the Mueller deep state coup attempt, and then wins the 2020 election, he may just sufficiently enrage Californians that they decide to leave themselves rather than put up with four more years of misery and impotent rage.

Indeed, before the American Civil War, there was a decent fraction of radical Northern abolitionists who also favored the breakup of the Union, forming an odd single-issue alliance with the Southern secessionists. George Lunt talks about this in the Origins of the Late War:

But there were those in the North as well as in the South who both wished and hoped for the dissolution of the Union. The latter deemed their position unsafe in view of the increasing power and uncertain disposition of the free States; the former doubted whether the slave power would renew its alliance with the Northern Democracy, and prevent the accomplishment of their own ambitious purposes. The Southern secessionists trusted to effect a peaceable separation with the concurrence of the fanatical disunionists of the North.
Mr Wade a Senator from Ohio made the following declarations in a published speech:"And after all this to talk of a Union! Sir I have said you have no Union. I say you have no Union to day worthy of the name. I am here a conservative man, knowing as I do that the only salvation to your Union [that is, according to the resolve of Mr Wade and others] is that you divest it entirely from all the taints of slavery. If we can't have that then I go for no Union at all - but I go for a fight." 
On the other hand, Mr Chase appears to have wanted a dissolution without a fight. In a published letter of Gen FP Blair he says "I know Mr Chase tolerably well. When the rebellion broke out, Mr Chase held this language: "The South it not worth fighting for." Several gentlemen of high position in the country heard him utter this sentiment substantially. He was at that time Secretary of the Treasury. Jeff Davis said "Let us alone." Chase said "Let them alone."
Of course Southern members of Congress must have had the opportunity of knowing the private opinions of Northern members of the two branches, and, probably of those members of the administration whose views of the situation more or less coincided with those of the Secretary of the Treasury. Even General Scott, at the head of the military force of the Union on the 3d of March 1861, the day after Mr Greeley's announcement of his views, in his published letter to Mr Seward proposed as his final and apparently favorite alternative, "in the highly disordered condition of our so late happy and glorious Union, 'Say to the seceded States: Wayward sisters, depart in peace!'  "
It seems hard to imagine now, that the North who fought so bitterly to maintain the Union might have almost just decided to not bother. If you think that these decisions are made based on firm geostrategic considerations, it seems inconceivable. But if you think that many decisions of state get made out of feelings of wounded pride and nationalism, then it's not nearly so surprising.

Once Fort Sumter happened, those voices got entirely marginalised. Once it became a point of pride, the North was willing to grind out 4 years of brutal war to reintegrate the states that, by this point, they hated.

Whereas the same dislike, chanelled slightly differently, could have potentially convinced them that it's just easier to be done with these damn Southerners.

This seems especially true today. Modern Americans have little appetite for actually shooting each other, but they have many more years of explicit dislike, fighting over notional control of the increasingly powerful federal government. 

The key lesson from the Civil War appears to be: never fire the first shot. The first shot wounds the most important of enemy assets - their pride. This ensures that they won't back down, and then you have to brute force the issue (which, if you were strong enough to do, you probably wouldn't have to secede in the first place). And even if you succeed, the costs of war are still horrifying.

Resisting firing the first shot may or may not be possible. But to the extent it is, delay, hassle, low level antagonism and simple intransigence are probably much better strategies.

The best strategy is to do that, while making it seem like the decision to leave is their decision. 

To the extent that progressives would ever listen to anything said by conservatives, you might think that the best message would be something sensible that appeals to the idea of mutual gain: let's end this unhappy marriage.

But I suspect the much better message would be: Let's punish the red states! They say they hate big government, well let's see how much they like it when they don't have us around to keep paying for their broke, Jesus-and-welfare slums. Let's rehabilitate our world image by refusing to be associated with these gun-loving hicks. Let's run our own progressive utopia free from Fox News and the bitter clingers!

If I were running /pol/ and were trying to set up a psyop campaign, that's what I'd be devoting all my effort to at the moment. False flag campaigns for California to secede.

I may be a pessimist. But the other options I see look much worse, for all concerned.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

On Propaganda

What, exactly, is propaganda?

To most people, it resembles Justice Potter Stewart's description of pornography - they know it when they see it

If you pushed most of these people to describe what approximately it is that causes them to see it, they would likely have the sense of someone trying to manipulate public opinion for selfish political ends, to encourage conformity in viewpoint and values, particularly with regard to biased or untrue viewpoints.

But how exactly do we distinguish propaganda from public service announcements, or statements of shared values, or celebration of historical symbols and rituals, or any other number of related concepts?

One of the good lessons I remember from reading Less Wrong back in the day is the general pointlessness of arguing over definitions. If you're tempted to argue over what is or what isn't X, you're almost certainly better off just redefining X into its component pieces, and just saying what corresponds to what. 

So to me, there is one concept that can be defined in fairly value-neutral terms - attempting to influence public opinion. This covers a wide range of the examples above.

And layered on top of that is the pejorative sense - the perceived bias or bad faith of the messenger.

This latter part, of course, is mostly where people disagree.

And so in this sense, what people perceive as being propaganda is a far more interesting question.

As is often the case, one google image search is worth a thousand essays on the subject (see, for instance, here).

So here are some:

Image result for image propaganda


Image result for image propaganda


Image result for propaganda


Image result for propaganda


Image result for propaganda


Image result for propaganda


Image result for propaganda


These are just some samples. Your own image search will work just as well.

As always, it is a useful corrective to let data change your mind, even just if in small ways. My guess ahead of time was that the strongest association with "propaganda" would be "Nazi", but none of the images on the first pages are German. I didn't expect nearly as many American entries, but then again this might just reflect the preference for being able to easily understand the text.

So what are the common themes?

The overwhelming principle is that people perceive propaganda as being mostly from World War 2 and the surrounding era. 

One potential explanation is Moldbug's observation that the propaganda of the 30's and 40's was particularly crude (he cites this video as an example).

There's a certain truth to that. The images definitely look dated. But I suspect a large part of this is just that they use paintings where today we would use photographs, the fonts aren't computer-rendered, and the voiceovers emphasise the neutral mid-Atlantic broadcaster pronunciation. If you had given Goebbels some rudimentary training in Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Video Editor, I doubt it would have taken him long to get equally slick, modern-looking production values.

The small number of modern examples that show up are actually the most revealing. The two that seem to register as being of the same class tend to ape the old poster designs, with Soviet-style drawings, bold clashing colours, and over-the-top symbolism. In this regard, you usually have to be quite overt to trigger the propaganda label.

But there's another aspect here that ties together the past images and the small number of present images.

To wit: people only view things as propaganda when they don't actually share the viewpoint being pushed.

To share the underlying viewpoint is to suspend one's disbelief about the nature of the messaging, and the desire to convert the unbelievers. One cannot see the strings being dangled and the puppets being manipulated, because when one believes the same thing, they simply come across as the truth. The truth needs no justification other than itself. Hence anybody pushing it is not trying to influence the rubes in the general public, they're just delivering a genuine public service.

In this regard, the images above may seem strange at first glance - why are there so many American examples? The answer, I think, is that the cultural values of America in World War 2 are almost as alien to us as those of the Soviets of the time. Which is why crude racial caricatures and related national symbolism seem so jarring today. They are aimed at an audience that is very different from modern Americans, and so it's easy to perceive the messaging. 

And crucially, the only modern examples which show up are those covering the most partisan political issues.

Donald Trump in front of an American flag is propaganda, if you are a Democrat.

A Muslim women wrapped in an American flag as a hijab is propaganda, if you are a Republican.

But no Republican would have the first spring to mind as a symmetric example of propaganda, and no Democrat would think of the second.

Which makes one wonder - what are the types of propaganda that (at least in polite society) don't have an opposing partisan to point them out? What are the things that, in David Foster Wallace's wonderful essay, are simply the water that we swim about in and don't even notice? 

Or equivalently, what are the opinions that are taken for granted today, but which might be seen as propaganda by people in 50 or 100 years? These ideas almost certainly share a lot of overlap with Paul Graham's idea of "What You Can't Say". But sometimes it's not just things you'd get massive flak for disagreeing with, as just things most people wouldn't think to disagree with.

When I tell you to imagine "Communist propaganda" or "Nazi propaganda", you can picture an image.

When I tell you to imagine "Republican Propaganda" or "Democratic [Party] Propaganda", you can probably do the same.

But when I tell you to imagine "Democracy Propaganda", especially if I limit you to modern examples, your mind draws a blank. There is no cached entry there.

Isn't that strange?

Sometimes, it's helpful to proceed by way of analogy. So let's start with an example that we can all now look back on as having an enormous propaganda aspect - the Nazi concept of Aryan

Image result for image aryan nazi poster

Aryan Propaganda

Image result for image aryan nazi poster

Aryan Propaganda

Image result for image aryan nazi poster

Aryan Propaganda

With the benefit of hindsight, aryanism is a strange concept. It conveyed a sense of the canonical blue-eyed, blonde-haired German ethnic pride. It managed to be a hybrid mix of appearance, nationality, ethnicity, and character. It was an amorphous ideal that somehow conveyed positive connotations from ideas of racial uniformity, especially as applied to Germans and Nordic-looking people. Given its many uses, providing a concrete definition is non-trivial, let alone the difficulty of trying to explain why exactly aryanism was meant to be a good thing.

You can see this water. You can understand it intellectually, as an anthropological phenomenon. But it is utterly alien. You simply cannot see it as a German in 1941 would have seen it.

So, the question is - is there a modern equivalent of aryanism?

Is there a term that most Americans understand with approximately the same sense that Germans understood aryanism in 1941? Maybe there isn't one. Maybe modern readers, so inured to the constant bombardment of marketing images, couldn't possibly fall for such a peculiar and loaded term.

One possible answer is below the fold.