Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Eternal Present Tense of the Liberal Mind

Out of all the critiques that Neoreaction makes of modernity, one of the most compelling is the sheer lack of historical knowledge (let alone perspective) that most people today have. The modern world is incredibly left-wing over any perspective longer than about 50 years, but how many people even know that? Liberalism is an ideology that exists only in the eternal twilight of the present tense. The past, to the extent that it exists at all, is merely a collection of evil ignorant attitudes and actions occasionally brought up in order to emphasise the righteousness of modern attitudes (that is to say, the righteousness of our liberal interlocutor).

But as I pointed out here in the context of colonialism, the actual level of knowledge about these matters is usually sparse to the point of being nugatory. Figures in the past are never actual people who might have had serious reasons for their views, no matter how far outside today's Overton Window they sit. There is no examination of why they thought the things they did, other than that they were deluded or evil or both. And because the signalling spiral must continue, even yesterday's liberal heroes are currently at risk of being thrown under the bus for being insufficiently progressive. Witness, for instance, the portrayal of LBJ in the movie 'Selma' about Martin Luther King.

For the left, this process of only focusing on the present views and preoccupations has the useful effect (for liberalism) of keeping people from noticing just how recent many of these ideas are. Despite being ardent cultural relativists in theory, the left's devotion to the absolute humorless eradication of the world's -isms is fanatical. These are deadly serious issues, you understand, and it would be inconvenient to note that it's only very recently that anybody even bothered to notice them.

Don't believe me? Consider the following.

Listen to the song 'Bourgeois Blues'. It was written in 1937 by Lead Belly, aka Huddie William Ledbetter, an American Folk Singer. It chronicles some of the treatment that Lead Belly received when on a trip to Washington DC. It's a great song - personally I like the Pete Seeger version, but I've given you the original. Pay attention to the story, and how he chooses to describe it.

Listen here people, listen to me 
Don't try to buy no home down in Washington DC 
Cause it's a Bourgeois Town, 
Ooh, it's a Bourgeois Town. 
I got the Bourgeois Blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.
Me and my sweet wife Miss Martha,
We run all over that town 
Everywhere we go the people would turn us down 
Lord, in a bourgeois town 
Ooh, it's a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around. 

Some white folks in Washington, 
They know just how 
Call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow. 
Lord, in a bourgeois town. 
It's a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around. 
Me and my sweet wife Miss Martha, 
We were standing upstairs 
I heard a white man say we don't want no Negroes up there, 
He was a bourgeois man 
Living in a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.
The home of the brave, 
The land of the free, 
I don't want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie, 
In a bourgeois town, 
Lord, it's a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.

Okay, got it?

So what strikes you about the song? Not about the story - that's obvious. What seems out of place in how Lead Belly describes the mistreatment he receives?

I'll give you a hint - what is the one word that you would use to describe the actions of the people here?

It's obvious - the word is 'racist'.

Now go back and look at the lyrics again - the word 'racism' is (along with its derivations) conspicuously absent. It's possible that this is a rhetorical or lyrical choice, and maybe he just decided not to use it. But the rest of the song doesn't feel that way. Consider again - you have a white man who calls at a married black couple 'we don't want no Negroes up there' (in other versions of the song, the man uses the word 'nigger' instead, suggesting extra malice in the nature of the demand). Now, faced with such a man, think of the list of words you might use to describe him, starting with racist, then bigoted, then ignorant, then whatever synonyms you want. Would you have thought of him as a 'bourgeois man'? Would this have even made top 20? It's inconceivable.

So what the hell is going on here?

The first point, which is the more obvious one, is that as late as 1937, the word 'racist' simply did not exist in the popular lexicon. This mirrors the history of the word racism - some attribute the first use to Leon Trotsky in 1930, and the first use in English to Lawrence Dennis in 1936. What seems hard to refute is that in 1937, it had not filtered down to Lead Belly when he was describing a situation where it pretty clearly applied.

And as George Orwell noticed, language tends to shape thoughts. It's not only that the word didn't exist. The concept simply didn't exist as an organising principle with which to critique various actions and views. Lead Belly knows what he doesn't like about the behaviour, but doesn't have a clear way of describing it. The most deathly important social injustice in the modern world, the worst sin and stain on character possible in today's society, the most important concept ever, dates all the way back to... some time after 1937. It's not only that people tolerated racism. It's that people didn't even have a clear concept of racism as a thing to be condemned.

There are many fascinating aspects to this worth pondering. One might wonder how it was that millennia of humans managed to live and die without even noticing the most important crime one can ever commit. Seems odd, no? If modernity is right, and all of history is wrong, racism is the worst injustice one can commit, and is evident in everything from requiring voter ID to banks failing to issue home mortgages at the same rate for all neighbourhoods. So how come nobody even noticed until the middle of the 20th Century? Don't hold your breath waiting for an answer from today's progressives.

But the song actually does give us a partial answer. It's not just that Lead Belly doesn't describe the behavior as racist, it's that he describes it as 'bourgeois'. Google tells me this means 'of or characteristic of the middle class, typically with reference to its perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes'.

What's going on, in other words, is that in 1937 the left was preoccupied with class, not race. 'Bourgeois' was an all-purpose slur for behaviour that the left disapproved of. Hence, it gets slung around in the same way when other words might be more appropriate.

These days, class is on wane as an organising principle of critique. The Cultural Marxists have displaced the Economic Marxists as the leaders of the left, and in the process 'materialism' and 'capitalism' have been shunted to the back of the '-ism' bus, elbowed out by racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia etc etc.

In 1937, the worst possible sin you could commit was to be a capitalist who was exploiting the poor. But times change. While being a capitalist exploiting the poor is still not ideal, in 2015 it pales into utter insignificance next to the currently unthinkable prospect of a hotel proprietor casually telling someone 'we don't want no Negros up there'.

Of course, if you think about this too long, you might begin to wonder whether in 2087, racism will have lost its place as the Worst Possible Thing Ever, and something else that today we don't even have a word for will have taken its place. This may also cause you to second guess whether the current emphasis is in fact misplaced.

Better to not think too much about it, you might end up too far down the rabbit hole, reading Moldbug and scorning modernity.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Brazil as the Racial Bizarro-verse

Gary Brecher once pointed out, in a podcast I think, that American exceptionalism dominates the American mindset. As he noted, this actually takes two forms. The more remarked-on form is from the right, whereby America is the last, best hope for everything good in the world. But there’s a left-wing version too – that America is the source of everything bad, and that the world would all be right except for the uniquely bad influence and history of America.

And while both are silly, the latter version seems somehow less studied. Which is a pity, because a broader view about how America compares with the rest of the world is actually quite illuminating.

The largest of the American Original Sins is of course racism. America is, so the story goes, not only the most racist country on the planet, but uniquely cursed because of its long legacy of slavery. This has forever poisoned the relations between the races, leading to the never-ending garment-rending and hysteria that characterises any discussion of race in the US.

The USA had slavery, it’s true. Over 300,000 slaves were imported from Africa. This creates a difficult legacy, it’s true. But just how uniquely difficult is the US experience with slavery? How much, in other words, could this actually explain?

Well, fortunately history has furnished us with another much larger slave power in the Americas. Brazil over its history had over 4.9 million slaves arrive. If the USA's slavery history is responsible for the stupidity of modern day race relations, surely Brazil must be many times worse!

In fact, race relations in Brazil are much, much better. Brazil actually manages to achieve what most of US claims to want to achieve – a mixed race country that is largely harmonious in terms of race relations. When you walk around here, it's striking how many genuine mixed-race groups of people there are - not only couples, but larger groups of men chatting away, covering all complexions from white to olivey to Hispanic-looking to black. In America, the vast majority of genuinely mixed race groupings you see are in commercials. When was the last time you saw a black guy, a Hispanic guy and white guy all hanging out together in real life?

And if you ask Brazilians, they'll mostly tell you that they don't have a race problem. Does this mean that every outcome is distributed identically across every possible combination of ancestry? No, but then again, neither is geography. The north is poor and black, the south richer and whiter, but with plenty of variation in both cases. More importantly, if “identical distributions” is your definition of 'no racism', I'll thank you for providing me a single socioeconomic variable of any importance that's so distributed, in any country on earth, in any period in history. No hurry, I'll wait for you to come back.

One of the things that's hardest to explain to Americans is just how stifling is the atmosphere of debate about race in the US, poisoning honest discussion of such a large range of topics and fueling antagonism and resentment at every turn. I suspect it's hard for Americans to see just how striking this phenomenon is, because it's just what you've grown up with. It's only us foreigners that tend to notice.

If there's one thing that Brazil teaches, it's that you cannot simply attribute this to slavery. Race paranoia, notwithstanding the observations at the start of this essay, actually is a very American pathology. It is also one that it is eagerly exporting to the rest of the world, with wholly deleterious consequences.

So if it's not slavery, what is it?

Well, here's one thought. Maybe the way to get people less pissed off about race is, ooh I dunno, stop encouraging them through the media, schools, and universities to view every single issue through the prism of a race war.

Maybe the solution to hypersensitivity is not actually encouraging ever more sensitivity. Maybe the solution is for everybody to chill the hell out. At the moment, the fact that people have resentments along racial lines is consider the most important reason for permanently fretting over racism. But what if this is actually the source of the problem? What if the permanent hypersensitivity is actually a significant source of the antagonism in the first place?

Perhaps this sounds too simplistic. Perhaps it is. There is a certain ‘don’t think of an elephant’ aspect to it, I’ll admit. But at a minimum, perhaps dial down the permanent ELEPHANT WATCH RED ALERT ELEPHANTS ON THE NEWS 24/7 if you want people to do so.

Or if you dislike my answer, come down here and figure out your explanation of why things seem to work so much better. Because ‘America has a uniquely racist past’ simply won’t cut it.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

At the Rescue Mission

Poverty, to an economist, is mostly an abstract matter. Just like GDP is a number and unemployment is a number, the poverty rate is also mostly thought of as a number. It’s a very important number, and one that we work hard to try to reduce. But the essential nature of the task is mostly thought of as a technical problem to be solved, like a constrained optimisation – consider the variable to be minimised and the policy variables that can be altered to achieve this, check that the Lagrange multipliers on all the constraints are satisfied, check the second order condition to make sure you haven’t found a maximum instead of a minimum etc. Out comes optimal policy.

But real poverty, when you see it up close and in the flesh, is raw and visceral.  It is shocking, in fact. This may sound melodramatic, but bear with me. Like anyone living in a large US city, I see poverty mostly in the form of the shambling figures of the homeless walking around downtown areas. But they tend to feature as the Banquo’s Ghost at the fringes of whatever otherwise pleasant social function I’m attending, or the nice area of town I’m walking around in. They are, in other words, an aberration – the puzzling exceptions left behind in the sea of prosperity.

No, to actually see what abject indigence looks like at the coal face, one must venture to where poverty is not the exception, but the norm. I was at a homeless rescue mission the other day, with an out of town friend of mine. His family was dropping off a large order of dinner for Thanksgiving and helping out in the serving. If I had not been spending the day with him, I would never in a million years have headed there.

They say that one of the important things that you are taught in the Marines is to overcome one’s instinct to run away from the sound of gunfire. Everyone has this instinct, but to an army, it is disastrous. A soldier must run towards the gunfire. In a less dramatic way, driving into the really poor part of town is like that. The onset of tent cities and strung out hoboes on the street is mostly experienced in life as a sensation that a) one has wandered into the wrong part of town, b) one should change routes, if possible, and c) a back of the mind feeling of hoping one’s car does not break down. Driving to the mission, in this metaphor, is the equivalent of having left the greenzone altogether and heading for the Fallujah of poverty. Of course, everyone else in the car has done this before and is relatively at ease – it’s only me seeing it for the first time.

Both in the car, and when I arrived inside the mission, we are the exception. Dysfunction is the norm, and the norm is all around us. To someone who generally associates homelessness with either drug use and/or mental illness, it is initially quite disconcerting to experience the sensation of being vastly outnumbered by the homeless. The instinct for self-preservation battles with the obvious cowardice and shame that such feelings generate. This is not a hostile army, and everyone here ought to be an object of pity. But the law of large numbers holds nonetheless – how many unstable people can one have in a room before the left tail of outcomes becomes dangerous? And yet here is this 5’4 blonde lady smiling and greeting me, seemingly unconcerned.

And, of course, it isn’t actually that bad, just unfamiliar. When we ascend the levels to meet people who have successfully gone through the programs to get their lives back on track, they seem relatively normal. We meet a man who is studying for a computer degree, and tells us he’s now been clean for 15 months. It’s really quite heartening. A lot of the people at the mission will only be in and out of the ‘emergency food’ section, where assistance is given without any questions. But for the ones that are trying to get their life back on track, I’m very glad to see that there are programs ready to help them.

The other fact that becomes very apparent is the reason the whole enterprise exists, evident from the signs on the walls and the people helping out at the center. The rescue mission is not staffed by economists or government social workers. It is staffed by Christian volunteers, as the various posters on the wall and the Chaplain in charge indicate. I am not a Christian, but I am glad they are there, toiling away at this kind of thankless task. If one ever needed a reminder that Christianity is not the problem with America, this was one. It motivates genuine selfless charity in a way that the default of consumerist secular humanism simply does not achieve. Of course, even the selfless often have personal reasons for being there. My friend’s brother in law ended up becoming very involved in the mission and donating a lot of money there after his own brother, who had been a drug addict, went through their program. The homeless live at the outskirts of society, and are easy to just look past, unless you have a particular reason to seek them out.

I drive back in the car, having mostly just been a silent observer during my time there. Going from the relative function of the program graduates back to the chaos of the tent cities outside, blending back into relieving normal society, reinforces the scope of the problem. How did all this happen? And was it always thus? George Orwell wrote of the tramps in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, and Dickens wrote of it even earlier. From talking with my friend’s sister, my preconception that a lot of the problem was mental illness is apparently overstated – a lot more of it, according to her, is just substance abuse. Some of the people who seem crazy actually just need to dry out, and they’re hallucinating at the moment.

It is tempting to see tent cities seem like an enormous failure of governance, and there is definitely a decent amount of truth to this. Whether the failure is a lack of money and support or a lack of police presence is a matter upon which people will disagree wildly, but the unsatisfactory nature of the status quo is hard to ignore.

Unfortunately, the narcissism of our age mistakes the feeling that ‘something ought to be done’ for the belief that as long as we vote for the right person (whoever that is) the problem will resolve itself. But does anyone really know how you deal with whatever it is that makes people start taking meth? Especially when they took it up even after seeing other meth addicts losing their teeth and turning into barely living skeletons (and then non-living corpses).

The lazy but satisfying response is outrage – substitute the feeling of pity and disgust for one of anger at some political force that is deemed to be responsible. Insufficient money. Lack of institutionalization of the mentally ill. Greater funding for substance abuse treatment. Stronger police action against vagrancy. Pick your chosen policy. They all make great soundbites and feel satisfying, but when you drive past the tent cities outside the rescue mission (and not for lack of space at the missions, either), it becomes apparent that there are a large number of real people in front of you who cannot find a reason in their life to stop taking self-destructive quantities of mind-altering substances, and this is actually an extraordinarily difficult problem to solve.

After all the policies are proposed, and some are even tried, few people today will tell you what was once considered received wisdom – the poor you will always have with you. When society as a whole was poorer, it used to be easier to convince ourselves that economic growth would take care of the problem. But it turns out the Biblical observation was wiser than we knew. If only the problem were just money. Money, we have now have substantial amounts of. What we do not have is a way to give purpose to the lives of those at the bottom of society. And if we have gotten any closer to solving the problem in the past few decades of growth, it is hard to see it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Financier's Roar

Finance is not generally considered a stirring subject. Interesting, maybe. Remunerative, certainly. Complicated, definitely (and don't believe anyone who says otherwise). But stirring?

Well, not often, but occasionally.

2001 was not a great year for Berkshire Hathaway. The firm had experienced its first decline in book value per share (their chosen measure of performance) in their history. This was coming off the back of a very poor 1999 result where their growth in book value per share underperformed the S&P 500 by 20.5%. In 2001, at least everyone else did poorly too, but to a firm that prided itself on consistent results, this was a tough pill to swallow.

The proximate cause of this problem was that they run a huge reinsurance business, and September 11th caused them to have to pay out a ton. And Warren Buffet, in his 2001 letter to shareholders, had the job of fronting up to investors about what was going on.

He began by explaining what he called the three principles of underwriting, which he acknowledged that they had failed to live up to:
1. They accept only those risks that they are able to properly evaluate (staying within their circle of competence) and that, after they have evaluated all relevant factors including remote loss scenarios, carry the expectancy of profit. These insurers ignore market-share considerations and are sanguine about losing business to competitors that are offering foolish prices or policy conditions.
2. They limit the business they accept in a manner that guarantees they will suffer no aggregation of losses from a single event or from related events that will threaten their solvency. They ceaselessly search for possible correlation among seemingly-unrelated risks.

3. They avoid business involving moral risk: No matter what the rate, trying to write good contracts with bad people doesn’t work. While most policyholders and clients are honorable and ethical, doing business with the few exceptions is usually expensive, sometimes extraordinarily so.
The third one I'm less certain of than the first two. But they all fit a pattern - pick carefully which risks you want to take on. Make sure you can survive them, and pick the ones likely to be profitable.

But having done that, how should one approach the vicissitudes of fortune? How should one weather the storm?

Buffet's answer is perhaps my favourite line in finance. I call it 'The Financier's Roar'.
At Berkshire, we retain our risks and depend on no one.
Just so.

Risk and return are not just academic constructs, but the very stuff on which the economic world is built. The point is not to eliminate risks. If one wants to do that, buy treasury bills, accept a zero rate of return, and don't ever leave your house. You will earn zero, and you will never succeed.

The vast majority of good plans carry a risk of failure. The reason they do is that arbitrage is rare. Sometimes, life hands you a risk-free profit opportunity, but, like the proverbial $20 bill on the sidewalk, they don't stick around for long. And in the space of risky ventures, a similar mechanism holds. If an opportunity has a really high return and very low risk and everyone sees this, mostly the price will get bid up until the expected return has gone back down.

Mostly. But not always. Arbitrage may be very rare, but undervalued assets are more common. Figuring out what they are is the substantive part of the Buffet risk management. Identify things that are good risks, and buying enough that you can take on and survive.

The second part, the Financier's Roar, is the call to courageous decisions. Having selected the right risks to take on, retain them. Be willing to eat the possibility of loss and failure, and don't try to hedge everything out. Have the confidence of your own calculations to hold the portfolio of life's payoffs that you think will work out the best overall. As I have noted before, one does not eat the expectation, but the realisation. No matter how well you calculate, sometimes you will lose. That's life. But at least you won't lose in a stupid manner. Courage, when properly applied, is taking the right risks, though risks they be nonetheless.

The second benefit is the one that's easy to overlook, but is important. When one retains one's risks, one is an island. The universe may deliver success or failure, but the only thing that matters is one's calculations and the roll of the dice. By contrast, the more you hedge out risks by trading with others, the more you rely on the success or failure of others. If you're relying on a counterparty to pay up when the porridge hits the propeller, your risk management now depends on their risk management. Just ask the people who bought credit protection from Lehman Brothers.

Retaining risks leads to self-reliance. Retaining the right risks leads to success or failure with the only tools one has against the cold indifference of fate - one's own wits.

Retain your risks, and depend on no one.

Friday, November 6, 2015

No Exit, Part 2: Coups

Last time I tackled the question of exit, we talked about the feasibility of secession, and how I thought that scenario would play out (short version: not likely, because the government will use the courts to pre-emptively squelch any peaceful way of achieving it).

But the other exit possibility is to take over some other crummy country via a coup. How might that play out?

Let's ignore the question of the logistics of the coup itself. This is hard to judge - on the one hand, there are lots of possible basket case countries out there to target. But the leaders of those countries, even if their countries are ramshackle, will likely have a lot more manpower on the ground. Taking over from the outside is likely to be hard. Just ask Sir Mark Thatcher.

The more interesting question would be what happens afterwards if you actually succeed, and set up your reactionary state in some or other Godforsaken part of earth? Could such a state survive? Would the US let it?

Like in the case of secession, it's hard to tell, because there's no direct example to compare.  One has to go off various different responses to similar cases.

Given that one is presumably limited to taking over a basket case country, the first point to note, which may seem trivial, is that the political fallout from the US would probably vary greatly with the ethnicity of the host country.

Put simply, the west would simply not stand for a white unelected leader of an African country. Just ask Ian Smith or P W Botha. The West treated Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa with a hateful vitriol that they never quite mustered for the Soviets, and those places were still partly democratic. Unless you were able to immediately turn yourself into North Korea, mostly self-sufficient and able to threaten to bring the crazy,  you could expect the full fury of the US to destroy you as soon as they could.

Unelected whites ruling over blacks simply sets off too many slavery alarm bells. Of course, if pressed nobody would say that's it's actually morally preferable for unelected whites to rule over Hispanics, South-East Asians, or Pacific Islanders. But the modern world being what it is, I somehow doubt that a coup in Fiji or Honduras would trigger quite the same visceral response.

Even better, pick somewhere dysfunctional that's  full of vaguely white people (Belarus? Turkmenistan?), or have a person of the same skin color (and ideally the same nationality as well) to lead the coup. That would help neutralise the imperialism/racism angle. The world would still be pissed, but at least you'd take away their biggest propaganda card against you.

Would that be sufficient? Hard to say, but probably not. The State Department may not actually assert control over the entire planet, but they sure as hell don't like it when you do things without consulting them first.

My basis for thinking this is the response they had to a grimly hilarious story from last December where a bunch of Ghanaian-born US citizens decided to launch a coup against the dictator of that country.

Seriously, check out this great long report on it from the Guardian. It's amazing stuff. The whole thing is like something from a Steve Sailer content generator - invade the world, invite the world. There's even a bizarre government-funded diversity angle, as one of the main financial backers of the coup made his money through getting government grants to build "affordable housing" projects in mostly white areas of Texas.

Meanwhile, the main focus of the article is about a man called Njaga Jagne, about whom the Guardian can speak more freely since he died in the coup attempt. He was a US National Guard member who served in Iraq. Iraq, as you'll no doubt remember in between the never-ending reports about ISIS, was the US's way of bringing the glories of multiparty democracy to a ramshackle dictatorship in the Middle East, as part of the crucial 'Bombing Muslims for Freedom' campaign.

Well, unfortunately Njaga imbibed the democracy Kool-Aid a little more deeply than the powers that be wanted him to. Hey, if it's such a good thing to turn dictatorships into democracies, surely the US government would be happy if I did this myself, right? After all, they've already employed me to do this once.

Yeah, it turns out, not so much.

The first problem, it seems, was plotting the coup on Facebook. Good thinking! Nobody else could infiltrate that. Things went as well as you might expect when they turned up
He and Njaga went with the team that approached the front door, while Faal went with the team taking the rear. The plan was for Njaga to fire his M4 rifle once in the air as a signal to their Gambian collaborators. But when the shot went up, the guards out front instead opened fire on him.
Afterwards, the survivors came to the bitter conclusion that they had been betrayed. But by whom? They blamed Sanneh’s moles. Some also wondered why Faal had turned himself in so quickly. But Faal told me that when he was flown back to the US and told his story to FBI agents, they indicated they had been aware of the plot all along. He claims that without prompting, they held up a picture of Njie, and asked: “Is this Dave?”
In May, the Washington Post reported that the FBI had visited Sanneh at his home in Maryland prior to his departure, asking why he had purchased a plane ticket to Dakar. The agency alerted the State Department, the Post reported, which in turn “secretly tipped off” an unnamed west African country – generally presumed to be Senegal – in the hope that it would intercept Sanneh. The coup plotters suspect that the information instead ended up in Jammeh’s [the dictator's] hands. 
Huh! It's almost like the State Department doesn't like people engaging in freelance foreign policy.

Also, how dumb do you have to be that when you're being asked questions by the FBI about the purpose of your coup-related plane trip, you aren't able to piece together the possibility that something has gone wrong in the op-sec process?
Amid the frantic uncertainty, Sigga [Njaga's sister] called the US embassy in Banjul. “They were more focused on saying, ‘If your brother is involved, it was a crime,’” she said. 
You don't say.

Talk about some stone cold diplomacy - the dead guy's sister is on the phone, and you're focused on imparting the message that the Federal Government plans to indict his corpse.

It all seems quite reminiscent of the police response to the Texas secessionists - woe be to the people that threaten the hegemony of the US Federal Government.

When the US says that it's important that all the countries of the world become democratic, what they mean is that it's important that the US make them democratic, on the US's terms.

This is very different from, say, the Russians organising a referendum for the people of Donetsk in the Ukraine to vote if they'd like to become part of Russia. THAT kind of democracy is far more problematic.

And some random pissant US National Guardsman deciding to create democracy himself in Gambia? That, my friend, simply will not fly.

I quite enjoyed the Moldbug quip that:
[T]he phrase "international community" could be profitably replaced, in all contexts, by "State Department," without any change in meaning.
I once told this line to a friend of mine who actually works for State. He laughed and said it was mostly true, in the inimitable way of diplomats in private circles who are glad to have an excuse to partially acknowledge from the mouths of others things that it would be imprudent for them to note themselves.

The international community takes coups very seriously, citizen. So if you're going to plan one, you need to think not just about how to take over, but how to resist the full might of the US government once you do. There are no partially sovereign nations. Either you have the ability to tell the US government to go screw themselves, or you don't. It would serve you well beforehand to figure out which of the two categories you fall into.

It's the US Government's world. We just live in it.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Portrait of a Nation

I love National Portrait Galleries (plural). I had previously written about the British version here - it's a wonderful example of the impressiveness of Victorian England, as personified in its great and famous men.

So it was with considerable interest that I finally went to the US National Portrait Gallery recently, when I was in DC.

My hunch going in was that the 19th century would be mostly a wasteland, but the 20th would be fascinating. National Portrait Galleries chart the fortunes of nations, and America's century of greatness was the 20th, in much the same way that Britain's century of greatness (or at least its last century of greatness) was the 19th. My presumption was that most of the famous 19th Century Americans are figures from the Civil War, which is fine as far as it goes, but ideally you'd like to see something of greater civilisational achievement. On the other hand, America dominated the world so thoroughly in the 20th that the category of great men in general over that period is largely a catalogue of famous Americans.

Thus were my predictions going in. As it turns out, both parts were wrong.

Firstly, the 19th Century was actually a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. I was expecting to see only Twain and Melville - the latter was oddly missing, but included were also Poe, and Sir Walter Scott, and others I'd forgotten - Longfellow, Hawthorne, Emerson. The late 19th century industrialists (Carnegie, Rockefeller) were interesting, as were some of the inventors I didn't know, like Samuel Morse and Isaac Singer. In other words, the 19th century, especially the later part, had more going on than I'd given it credit for.

But you could already see creeping in the sheer embarrassment of the curators at the whiteness and maleness of the rooms, strengthened by the fact that the 18th and 19th century parts were clearly the sections everyone had come to see. In the middle of the 19th century section, there was an oddly placed entire room dedicated to a Hispanic woman who was a labor activist in the 1960s. It's the same urge that saw them include in the 'Presidents of the US' section portraits (small, admittedly) of noted non-presidents Eleanor Roosevelt and Martha Washington.

How hard it must be to viscerally hate the composition of the collection you're tasked with curating! To know that the people streaming in every day stubbornly want to see famous dead white males - rubes educated enough to appreciate history, not educated enough to be ashamed at the lack of diversity that the real-life history of the US presents.

But the curators got their own back when it comes to the 20th century. It's basically Women and Minorities' R' Us. It's also included in a poky afterthought section on the top floor - apparently my enthusiasm for the US 20th century is not widely shared.

And how they relish their ability to finally shape the narrative. They do so even to the point of farce and absurdity. For instance, there was almost an entire wall devoted to a gaudy painting of LL Cool J, of all people. He shared this room with other prominent Americans such as Chuck D from Public Enemy, Henry Louis Gates (famous for getting arrested while trying to forcibly enter his own home, and presumably something else before that), some black female opera singer I hand't heard of, some black scientist I hadn't heard of who invented something or other in World War 2. Nobodies, in other words, but nobodies from the right demographics.

You may think I'm just being mean-spirited here, but the far more damning criticism was the list of people whose pictures weren't displayed in order to make room for the above-mentioned notables. Some of the absent included:

-Neil Armstrong
-T. S. Eliot
-Ernest Hemingway
-Robert Frost
-Milton Friedman
-James Watson
-Elvis Presley

et cetera, et depressing cetera.

As it turns out, they have paintings of these people - you can check this for yourself using their search function. They just aren't on display. Presumably, they rotate people in and out of the sections, but always with an eye to keeping the demographic representation in the right proportions. So they'll put in F Scott Fitzgerald, for the moment, but he fills the white author quota, so bad luck for the rest.

There is one ameliorating circumstance, however, that partially lessens the shame. It is this - the sheer scope of the US 20th Century achievement makes it extraordinarily hard to do full justice to it in terms of selecting the most worthy citizens in any reasonably-sized museum.

For instance, the US list of Nobel Prize winners alone comprises 356 names. That is a large museum just on its own, without even starting on the other categories of achievement. Realistically, one will be forced to cull from among the set of Nobel Prize winners. Think about that for a while - you won a Nobel Prize, huh? Join the crowd, buddy - that doesn't get you a painting.

So the scope of the task is daunting. And yet it's hard not to feel that the current attempt falls amazingly short of what could have been. Modern society is simply not willing to celebrate greatness. It celebrates diversity instead. Greatness, indeed, is a slap in the face to the lazy egalitarianism of our age. Hence heroism must be devalued to include doing a fun run to support a cancer charity.

A National Portrait Gallery that includes LL Cool J but not Neil Armstrong is a joke and a disgrace.

In more sensible times...

So in France in 1789, they were well on the way to upending centuries of glorious tradition in favour of terror, slaughter, and anarchy. But when designing the electoral rolls for the upcoming farce, even the French knew better than to let everyone have a say. So who did they exclude? From J.F. Bosher's excellent "The French Revolution":
“[E]very Frenchman on the tax rolls twenty-five years of age or older who was not an actor, a domestic servant or a bankrupt was to have a voice in the election.”
Look, we're willing to let the lowliest illiterate peasant have a say in the running of the country, but actors? Come on man, even we've got limits!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The surprisingly inconvenient implications of hereditary politicians

So Canada elects another Trudeau, the son of the last one. Meanwhile America ponders electing either its third Bush in 30 years or its second Clinton in 16 years.

Honestly, what is the polite acceptable explanation for all this nonsense?

Because I can only think of possibilities that are all in one way or another deeply hostile to beliefs that polite progressives hold. Either:

a) These are in fact the most qualified candidates in their respective countries, because ability to lead a country is extremely highly heritable, presumably due to an overwhelmingly strong genetic component (though Hillary Clinton doesn't fit this, being a spouse, not a blood relative)

b) These are not the most qualified candidates, and these are not even the candidates that the electorate really most wants, but they win anyway due to some combination of :
b. i) the fact that we are ruled by an iron oligarchy of powerful families and interests who perpetuate themselves, and/or
b. ii) the electorate is comprised of complete morons.

c) These are not the most qualified candidates, but these are the candidates that the electorate really wants, because the electorate really has a deep-seated desire to return either to a hereditary monarchy, or a system of alternating rule by powerful ruling families, a la medieval and renaissance Florence. 

I don't think these are mutually exclusive possibilities, and all have something of a ring of truth about them.

But seriously, is there some other answer I've missed that would be more acceptable to the way the world is portrayed in a high school civics class?

Don't hold your breath waiting for the media to discuss the implications of any of these hypotheses.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Geography and Perspective

How strange it is, the extent to which one’s thoughts depend on geography and circumstance.

In theory, one could pause and take stock of one’s life anywhere – while sitting in traffic, while waiting in line to buy lunch, while bored at one’s desk in the afternoon.

But it never seems to work out that way. Most of the time, the small obscures the large.

For me, it only happens when I’m on my own, without a phone or internet connection - with the autumn sunshine streaming down, walking in silence through grassy fields and trees with green leaves starting to dapple to yellow and red, somewhere with only my own thoughts for conversation.

Then I think about my life.

Monday, October 5, 2015

No Exit, Part 1: Secession

The two broad political ways that reactionaries talk about changing one's circumstances are voice (influencing the political environment where you are) and exit (leaving for a different political environment).

As far as I can tell, one of the main distinctions between conservatives and reactionaries is that the latter believe that voice is mostly a dead end under current political arrangements. There is little to hope for from the democratic process, except perhaps as a longshot mechanism for abolishing the democratic process itself. As a result, politics quickly becomes uninteresting, except as a sideshow and a freakshow. When one abandons the conceit that one's voice matters, why in the name of all that is holy would you voluntarily watch three hours of Republican candidates' debates? Have you read all the great books already? Is there really nothing else better on Netflix?

Okay, so what of exit?

Well, this can take several forms, none of them particularly likely.

At the mild end is moving to another, more acceptable, state. Though this presupposes you can find one to your taste (maybe Texas) that will stay that way (whoops, cancel Texas - with current immigration patterns, anyone want to wager on it still being a red state in 20 years?). The slightly more interesting version of this is the Free State Project - get enough like-minded people to move to one small state (in this case, New Hampshire) and vote to change it. You're still under the Federal Government, but it's a start.

But what else? Move to a more reactionary-minded country? That seems an even harder mission than moving to a liberty-minded US state. Singapore, perhaps? Maybe. But if there's one thing that the Arab Spring taught us, it's that the State Department takes a very fickle attitude to allies that don't quite toe the liberal democratic line. At the moment, they tolerate Singapore. I would be less confident that this will continue to be the case for the next 50 years.

The more interesting options involve a combination of voice and exit - find some existing piece of land to make into a new country, and run it as you like.

At a first glance, this seems hard, but more promising than the alternatives. There are a range of ways to find a piece of land to govern and turn into a sovereign entity. They vary considerably in practicality. At one end, one can create new land with a bunch of rafts in the middle of the ocean, like the seasteading guys. I think this shows how eager people are to build a new sovereign land - they're willing to fudge the whole 'land' bit to make it happen. The relatively small number of people who choose to live on boats in the ordinary course of events shows you that this ain't exactly plan A, except under very dire circumstances.

More likely you're down to two options. You can take an existing functional part of America and try to secede. Or you could take over an existing crappy country by a coup.

The $64,000 question, of course, is whether Washington would let either of these things happen.

Since both are a long way from happening, it's hard to get a definite answer. You need to dig around to see the reaction to fringe possibilities and try to extrapolate.

One that caught my eye was the following from February this year:
Feds raid Texas secessionist meeting
...Minutes into the meeting a man among the onlookers stood and moved to open the hall door, letting in an armed and armored force of the Bryan Police Department, the Brazos County Sheriff's Office, the Kerr County Sheriff's Office, Agents of the Texas District Attorney, the Texas Rangers and the FBI.
...In the end, at least 20 officers corralled, searched and fingerprinted all 60 meeting attendees, before seizing all cellphones and recording equipment in a Valentine's Day 2015 raid on the Texas separatist group.
...He acknowledged he used a "show of force," grouping officers from city, county state and federal law enforcement to serve a search warrant for suspicions of a misdemeanor crime. He said he had worries that some extremists in the group could become violent, citing a 1997 incident when 300 state troopers surrounded an armed Republic leader for a weeklong standoff.
This is very revealing. There is absolutely no logistical need to involve 5 separate law enforcement agencies to process a non-violent meeting of 60 people on the suspicion that they committed a misdemeanor offense. But they wanted to display the full power of the government, at all levels, to those who were under the impression that Their Voice Matters - you will have no support from existing power structures, even in Texas. They absolutely did not want to just send in the FBI to stoke possible paranoia about the Feds.

Of course, the separatists' actions seemed tailor-made to produce exactly this outcome:
The raid was a response to legal summons sent by Republic of Texas members to a Kerr County judge and bank employee, demanding they appear in the Republic's court at the Veterans and Foreign Wars building in Bryan the day the officers stormed in.
Jesus Christ, talk about stupid. With allies like these...

The current secessionist group made themselves obvious targets by threatening government officials. This is a fast way to not only tar yourselves as possibly criminal, but also to eliminate any sympathy among local law enforcement, some of whom might otherwise support the 'Texas Pride' angle of secession. You threaten judges, and don't expect blowback from every single cop in the country?

The motto should be 'we just want a vote on the issue'. That is much harder to argue against.

If Washington has one possible Achilles Heel, it is the following: they are not fully immune from their own propaganda about the nobility of the democratic process. Hence, if you actually get a vote to pass, resisting it becomes considerably harder.

Suppose, in other words, that the separatists actually manage to get Texas to hold a referendum on seceding, and it passes. With what language will Washington condemn the decision? How will they justify their desire to squelch the voice of the people? Do they not believe in Democracy, source of all that is good and right in the world?

The EU, while not strong enough to force countries to stay in against their will, is at least willing to display open contempt for the democratic process. The US, so far, is only willing to do so using the Supreme Court.

In 1860, the answer was straightforward - "F*** you, you don't get to leave".

Do you think they still have the stones to say that, and back it up? I truly don't know.

I think they would worry where the next move in the chess game went - should the State of Texas attempt to engage in forced secession, would the Feds be willing to send in the army to shoot the place up with the TV cameras rolling, firing on US citizens?

For obvious reasons, they prefer to fight this preemptively as a law enforcement action, not as a military action. We're not invading, old chap, just sending in the police to arrest some crazies who broke the law. In 1860, there wasn't an FBI to send in to arrest Jefferson Davis, hence you needed to send in the army.

By contrast, it is much easier today to co-ordinate with the police to squelch secessionist movements early on, but much harder to us the military to stop them once they get going.

When events get to a certain level of seriousness, even the police become very apprehensive about shooting. See: Cliven Bundy

It's not just the US military that is shy about civilian casualties. If you're from the Federal Bureau of Bureaucratic Bureacracy, do you really want to be the guy who gave the order to shoot a man on horseback waving a US flag in front of TV cameras? That absolutely will not end well for your career.

But the Cliven Bundy supporters had one big advantage that a secessionist movement lacks - they only had to defend the status quo. In other words, show up with guns, call the news crew, and dare the Feds to make the first move.

(The other advantage they had is that, extremely mercifully, they had the good sense and collective discipline to not shoot or explicitly threaten any government officials. You'd think this would go without saying, but apparently not. These guys were at least decently media-savvy - the numerous US flags were a very nice touch to make the Feds look like the bad guys).

The secessionist movement, by contrast, has to actually convince people to implement a big change. Hence, anyone opposing a secessionist movement has the easier task of delegitimising the movement before it gets going to just cement the status quo. And the fastest way to do this is to transform it into a question of legality before the vote takes place.

In other words, find some Texas federal judge to declare the purported referendum illegal and unconstitutional before the vote actually happens. This will give any sympathetic law enforcement agencies free reign to arrest those who continue to take steps towards holding the referendum at all. And now, the secessionists, even if armed, have to defend their right to have an illegal vote that the Constitution (peace be upon it, even if it's living) forbids, without even knowing whether they'd win the vote, should it actually occur.

This achieves two things. First, it reduces the number of people still willing to push for (now illegal) secession. And secondly, it gives a strong propaganda angle to convince people who are on the fence about the whole thing - you can bet your bottom dollar that the New York Times would be pulling out all the stops to convince the marginal rube voter that these are just a bunch of crazy armed criminals. Don't you know they're willing to do stuff that's illegal? (Forget that it was the American War of Independence, not the American Court Case of Independence). But convince enough people of their crazy illegal status, and the best case scenario is mass arrests. The worst case scenario is Waco #2 on a much bigger scale if someone pulls the trigger first and events spiral out of control.

If the Achilles heel of Washington is that they struggle to challenge the righteousness of a democratic election, the Achilles heel of secessionists is that they struggle to abandon their allegiance to the Constitution, even just Anthony Kennedy's interpretation thereof.

The problem for secessionists, I fear, is that in any likely secession timeline, the second question will necessarily get resolved before the first one.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Drain Approaches

So, we're about at the halfway point since I made the following prediction, half in jest, as my version of the Julian Simon bet:
Shorting the rand against a trade-weighted basket of currencies will earn positive abnormal returns over the next ten years.
This was based on nothing more than my hunch that South Africa is a country circling the drain.

How are we doing so far? Well, ignoring the trade-weighted bask bit, here's a partial answer:

The saddest incorrect prediction in geopolitical terms is that it can't possibly get any worse. The Zimbabwe lesson is that it can always, always get worse.

It gives me no pleasure to say that I told you so.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Of the Personal and Statistical

The current Syrian refugee crisis in Europe is a tragedy.

Should that sentence strike regular readers as a little trite, bear with me. I mean it in the classical sense that the Greeks thought of tragedy.

It is calamitous, deplorable, cathartic. It is a sorrowful tale of human misery stemming from root causes of human folly and flaws. It is a tale whose outcome the audience knows in advance, as they have seen the story many times before. It could have been prevented, perhaps, but we all knew it wasn't going to be.

The modern bastardisation of the concept of tragedy is that of a simple morality play, where good and evil are clearly delineated ahead of time. In the Disney-fied version, the upshot of all the sorrow is the lesson that Something Must Be Done.

I feel much has been lost by the Disney-fication of drama. We can no longer see the sadness of tradeoffs, of characters who are simultaneously victims and authors of their own misfortune, of the inevitability of human suffering.

So what, then, is the ultimate tragedy on display in this case?

It is this:

Individually, any one person is the undeserving and unfortunate victim of their broken society.

Collectively, all the people in a society are the reason that the society is broken in the first place.

Now, my instincts regarding public policy lean strongly towards emphasising the general, statistical formulation over the particular, personal formulation. The formulation as written may seem to suggest the primacy of the second statement over the first.

But do not misunderstand me here. It would not be a tragedy if it had such a simple resolution as that. Both parts are true. Try just reversing the order of the two statements to get a different feeling. The most common statement about the general and the specific has a very different connotation about which should be preferred. It is attributed, perhaps apocryphally but understandably, to the great monster - one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

The specific of the Syrian refugee exodus you have almost certainly seen by now. It is heartbreaking, and does not need any particular explanation:

Oof. The sheer sorrow hits you like a punch in the guts.

People's second thoughts after seeing this photo will vary wildly. You may be furious at the policies that let this happen. You may be suspicious of your emotions being manipulated here. You may wonder about what should be done in response. This is the intellectual question - what you make of it all.

But before that, I am almost certain your first thoughts, like mine, were of sadness and despair. Imagine if that were your child.

Humans are endowed with two great traits - empathy and reasoning. Those without empathy are sociopaths and monsters. Those without reasoning are dangerous imbeciles and fools.

Empathy yearns to try to end this senseless suffering by those in the middle of this war by granting them refuge. This is attempting to ward off the Scylla of heartless cynicism, and the gleeful egg-breaking-in-the-pursuit-of-omelettes that characterised the worst tyrants of the 20th century.

But what, then is the Charybdis? What gets ignored if we do not think about the general proposition?

Reasoning wants to know why Syria is the way it is, and what consequences will flow from possible responses to the current war.

What tends to get seldom emphasised in the face of such grief above is the heuristic I always associate with John Derbyshire (though I can't remember exactly where he wrote it) - that the more migrants you bring in from country X, the more your own country will resemble country X.

Several things are notable about this proposition.

One, it is extremely straightforward.

Two, it does not depend on one particular theory of development, and holds for many socially acceptable theories. If you think that poverty is driven by childhood nutrition, the result still holds, as long as the current adults are already impacted by malnutrition from years past. If you think that current ethnic conflict has its roots in colonial history, the result still holds, as long as the hatreds do not disappear upon touching foreign soil. As long as the trait is observable in citizens and fixed in the short term, then the Derbyshire result holds at least in the short term.

Third, it is completely outside the Overton Window of acceptable opinion.

But is it true? You will have to decide that for yourself. The general result is always uncertain and contingent in a way that the emotional result is not. You have to dig a little deeper to find out. Why is Syria the way it is? And how much of that will be replicated if there is extensive Syrian immigration to a western country, such as from a refugee resettlement program? Hard to say, precisely. But here's something to ponder, from Australia in 2012:

A forum discussion on SBS TV's Insight program looking at the uprising in Syria further exposed the divide amongst Syrian Australians over the conflict....
The main sectarian divide in Australia's Syrian community, though, is between the two main Islamic sects, Shi'a and Sunni....
In February, a group of men stormed the Syrian embassy in Canberra, smashing up the ground floor.
Three staff members were there at the time but no one was hurt.
Just days later, there was a shooting in Sydney apparently linked to the Syrian conflict.
The injured man, Ali Ibrahim, was an Alawi, like Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
After expressing pro-Assad views on Facebook, he was shot three times in the legs on the doorstep of his home.
His father, Jamel el-Ali, believed it was a warning from the anti-Assad camp.

It doesn't punch you in the guts in quite the same manner, does it?

But to the thinking person, rather than the feeling person, alarm bells are ringing. Australia did not used to be a country where embassies were stormed and people were shot for expressing political views in public forums. At the moment, this is at a small scale. But how many Syrians can one admit before this is no longer the case? If you bring all of Syria into your country, will you not have simply replicated Syria somewhere else?

This is all well and good, the particularist responds, but how many dead children are you willing to see washed up on a beach in order to forestall this speculative possibility?

It's a good question.

To get a flavor for the generalist argument, it is sometimes necessary to examine it in contexts that do not raise immediate emotional responses. Such as, for instance, the late Roman Empire's decision to allow in hundreds of thousands of Goths. Steve Sailer has a great summary of Edward Gibbon's take on the consequences of that here.

I suspect that the particularist temptation is to wave this away as a largely abstract and irrelevant example. It doesn't resonate emotionally, that's for sure.

But the human catastrophe that resulted from the destruction of the Western Roman Empire was a tragedy that affected Europe for the next thousand years.

If you're waving that away, which one of us is sounding like Stalin now?

The Charybdis, in other words, is that you become so focused on the emotional response to a single death that you forget to think about the long-term consequences of your actions, and end up causing many more deaths.

To my mind, the starting point of the answer, is to shut up and multiply.
This isn't about your feelings. A human life, with all its joys and all its pains, adding up over the course of decades, is worth far more than your brain's feelings of comfort or discomfort with a plan. Does computing the expected utility feel too cold-blooded for your taste? Well, that feeling isn't even a feather in the scales, when a life is at stake. Just shut up and multiply.
Whether a policy makes you feel good is less important than its ultimate consequences. Of course, this then comes back to your view of why the third world is the third world. This is why 'shut up and multiply' is only the start of the answer, not the end of it.

It would be ideal if the policy formulation that saved the most lives in the long run also made you feel emotionally good in the short run.

But what if the two aims are at odds? Are you willing to look clear-eyed on the photos of dead children and still see the lives that you think you're saving by not doing anything? Will you waver? Should you waver?

Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.

Monday, August 24, 2015

On Self-Centredness

Sometimes people are surprised when I say that I consider my biggest personality fault to be that I'm too self-centred.*

Okay, not everyone is surprised. Many just agree that I'm a piece of $#!7, and find this formulation to to be yet one more variation on expressing the same widely-agreed-on sentiment.

When people describe their own faults or characteristics in a way that surprises others, sometimes this comes from the fact that the traits they are remarking on are things they have observed in themselves for a long time, and worked on in some form for a long time too. This tends to happen when I tell people I consider myself introverted. I was only moderately introverted to start with, and I've worked on becoming more sociable with strangers for quite some time. If you saw 5 year old Shylock, or 12 year old Shylock, the description would not seem nearly as discordant.

Small talk with strangers may take effort, but it is not conceptually a particularly hard problem. Any problem that can be routinely solved by people of average intelligence simply cannot be that cognitively difficult - the obstacles must lie elsewhere, probably in the implementation and the psychology. But if one isn't born with the instinct for the talent, one has to work on it, just like everything else. The gratifying sign that one's work has been successful is if the extent of one's innate tendency in the other direction is not easy to spot by new acquaintances.

But I don't think that's what's going on with self-centredness.

I think the first mistake people make is that they mentally substitute the phrase 'selfishness', a concept which is generally is better understood. They then often substitute related terms like 'greedy' or 'stingy', which sneaks in the wrong connotation, namely that the metric of evaluation over which greediness is measured is money or material possessions.

I'm not particularly greedy for money. While I don't have a huge amount of it, at the risk of sounding extraordinarily presumptuous, I always just assumed that absent some big catastrophe, money would mostly take care of itself in my life. I suspect this attitude comes from the good fortune of growing up in an upper-middle class family and being of reasonable talents. It also helps that I don't have particularly extravagant tastes.

At least for me, the biggest benefit of having some money is not having to worry about it. The next benefit is buying one's way out of inconvenience and hardship. The next biggest is getting to do nice things for friends, family, and causes one supports. Add all that up, and I don't fit the classic stereotype of Scrooge McDuck.

Of course, attachment can be for plenty of things other than money. One of the things that's appealing about Buddhism is the much broader conception of the attachment to be uprooted. "My beautiful body". "My clever thoughts". You can probably guess from this august periodical which of those two I score badly on, and why I do worse on attachment, broadly defined, than greed, narrowly defined. These parts of attachment don't tend to get lumped in with greediness, which seems more concerned with the social aspects of morality. Thinking oneself clever seems to have a more indirect route to social harm (e.g. mocking others as stupid) than attachment to money (e.g. outright theft). That distinction matters less to Buddhism, which isn't primarily interested in social harm, but rather with one's own mental development.

But even this broader conception of attachment doesn't quite cover self-centredness.

I remember once reading that a self-centred person always thinks of themselves as the protagonist in their own play, and everyone else as the supporting cast. They never stop to consider that everyone else is the protagonist in his own play, too.

In other words, it comes from only thinking of things from one's own point of view.

A selfish person will hurt someone deliberately in order to get what they want. They will probably also construct a narrative that the other person deserved it (or indeed was being selfish themselves, for refusing to yield to their demands). A selfish person is just reluctant to give others things, especially if they impose some personal cost. They will still give things to people, especially loved ones. But the gifts will only be things that make both people happy. They will rarely be gifts that cause the giver to have to renounce something important.

A self-centred person, by contrast, will hurt people accidently, carelessly. Often they won't realise that their actions were going to upset people, and may not even know afterwards unless it's made quite plain to them. A self-centred person is not opposed to giving. They just tend to get presents that they themselves would like to get, not necessarily what the other person would actually want.

While I was growing up, when I would do some inconsiderate thing that upset someone in my family, I would often protest to Mama Holmes that 'I didn't think it would upset them.' 'That's the point', she would reply. 'You didn't actually think about it.'

So how does a self-centred person think of other people?

Other people's pain and suffering is viewed mostly as an emotion one experiences empathetically, but usually only when it is actually presented.

Self-centredness is not the same as being on the spectrum of autism, where one is simply unable to judge responses and thought processes in other people.

It's also not the same as sociopathy, where one feels no empathy when one witnesses others who are in pain.

Seeing other people in pain brings a self-centred person pain too. And so he tried to avoid that pain. Often this comes by lessening that other person's pain, which is a good thing. But sometimes it just comes by avoiding having to see the pain - not wanting to visit an elderly relative in a decrepit state, because you 'don't want to remember them like that', for instance. A truly empathetic person (which is the opposite of self-centredness) is likely to reflect on the other person's pain even when not in their presence.

I suspect that this is perhaps part of the test - how often do you think about the wellbeing of others in your life when the question is not specifically presented by direct circumstances? How often does the thought occur to you to randomly get someone a small present? Okay, now how often does it occur to you when the person isn't in front of you? Okay, now how often does it occur when not also prompted by seeing something that you know they like? In other words, how often does the bare thought 'I should do something nice for that person' occur in advance of you deciding what to get or seeing that person?

How often do you think to wonder about how a friend is doing that you haven't heard from for a while? Or do they mostly just drop out of mind?

A self-centred person is liable to assume that if they've done something a particular way and nobody has complained about it up to now, it must be fine. They very rarely stop and think explicitly, 'Gee, I wonder how this would make the person feel? I wonder if this action that benefits me might not be nice, even if they haven't complained about it'. In other words, because they don't think much about other people's feelings, unless prompted by the immediate impact they have one one's own feelings, they are relatively poor at judging the emotional impact of situations in which they haven't had the consequences made plain to them before.

When I first moved away to this great country, I would return home to Oz for holidays and have lots of people I wanted to see. I also needed to see my family too, partly just because I wanted to, partly out of a sense of familial duty (in the good sense of the term), partly out of a desire to not make them upset by my absence since they presumably would want to spend time with me too. So I made sure to schedule time with them.

But because there were so many friends to try to catch up with too, I was always trying to squeeze them in here and there where they were available, and where it was most convenient. To me. As you can imagine, this meant that I was forever trying to schedule an hour or two of "quality time" with Mum and Dad before racing out to meet my friends. At some point, Mama Holmes pointed out that I was always doing this chiseling. Once she'd pointed it out, it became obvious that it wasn't a very nice thing to do - the person always feels like they're on the clock, and being slotted into your busy schedule, which is the opposite of what you were trying to do. But of course, the fact that my actions might cause people to feel like this hadn't occurred to me.

The limited action in response, which is still useful, is to take the specific lesson - don't be stingy with one's time, especially with family. Don't schedule zillions of back to back appointments unless you're okay with people knowing that you're slotting them in. One more lesson in the rule of polite behaviour. Add them all up, work at it long enough, and you'll end up approaching the behaviour of a genuinely considerate person by the application of a lot of rules of thumb and general advice.

But the ultimate goal is the harder training - to explicitly think, in advance, 'I wonder how my choices are impacting the people around me.'

That's the only way to come across the nice things you could be doing for other people that you simply hadn't thought of.

And I don't think there's any shortcut to this, other than just getting in the habit of contemplating the welfare of people around you, especially those for whom it wouldn't occur to you naturally. You probably will naturally think of your parents. You may not naturally think of your secretary, or your janitor, or the guy you sit next to on the bus.

Writing or thinking about the necessity of it won't do. As the Last Psychiatrist put it :
<doing awesome>
is better than
<feeling terrible about yourself>
is better than
<the mental work of change>
You should memorize this, it is running your life. 
God, I miss that guy's blog.

I think that's enough writing as a substitute for the hard work for today.


*Postscript. I recognise the irony of writing about self-centredness in an article filled mostly with personal examples and self-indulgent self-criticism. Unfortunately, the examples I know best here and can speak of are my own.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Great Ways to Troll Progressives About Colonialism

Colonialism, in the eyes of the great and the good, is responsible for all of the third world's ills.

This hypothesis is obviously absurd, but if you've ever tried to argue this with a progressive, it turns into a game of whack-a-mole. You point out that social indicators were better under colonialism, they claim that the fact that it got worse afterwards was actually due to the colonialism (how, we are never told - something about borders being too straight or something.).

This is, of course, an enormous game of shifting the goalposts. The only way to win is to pin them down about what the goalposts are ahead of time. Naturally, they will pick goalposts that they think are so narrow that you couldn't possible sneak in. Fortunately, as long as you know more about the history of a couple of what we economists call 'natural experiments', they probably won't pick small enough goalposts even under the most self-serving of definitions.

For instance:

Shylock: Let's assume that colonialism might have some negative effects that survive after it leaves. Presumably these effects don't last forever. How long is it reasonable to use that as an excuse before you have to admit that colonialism can't be the real problem? In other words, if you have a third world country that was colonised by a European power and then gets independence, how long should it be before they're able to become a functional country?

Progressive Foil: (thinking quickly about time frame of African independence, trying to come up with a number greater than the maximum period of independence). Hmm, maybe 100 years. (Thinks again, adds a margin of error). Maybe 200.

SH: Haiti has been independent for almost 225 years, and it's one of the worst places on the planet. How does that work?

PF: (if uninformed) Um...derp...
(if a bit more informed): That's different! They were slaves brought in from all sorts of places with no cultural or linguistic links.

SH: I thought diversity was our strength.

PF: Plus the US Marines occupied it for 19 years in 1914.

SH: That's fair, it's possible that the place was just about to turn the corner after a mere 125 years of dysfunctional independence, I guess we'll never know. Odd that the US occupation was surprisingly functional compared with the rest of its history.

PF: It was not! It was horribly brutal and racist.

SH: I take it you haven't read much about the administration of Papa Doc Duvalier.

PF: (flicks through Wikipedia page) Hmm. Yeah, that's not ideal. But still, you can't make the comparison.

SH: Okay, okay, fair point. Haiti isn't a perfect example. Let's try a different thought experiment. African countries are inevitably marred by their colonial occupation. If we could see what Africa would look like today if it hadn't ever been colonised, it would be a lot more peaceful, rich and stable.

PF: Absolutely.

SH: Ethiopia was never colonised.

PF: Really?

SH: Yes, and you may notice that it's not Switzerland.

PF: Okay, but it's going a lot better than its neighbours.

SH: See, at this point, I know you're just guessing. You know how I know that? Because I researched this in advance. Let's compare Ethiopia with two nearby neighbours that were colonised - Djibouti, which was colonised by the French, and Kenya, which was colonised by the British. Here's a few numbers.

Ethiopia: GDP Per Capita (Nominal) $575. Homicide Rate: 12.0 per 100,000. Life Expectancy: 64
Djibouti: GDP Per Capita (Nominal) $1692. Homicide Rate: 10.1 per 100,000. Life Expectancy: 61
Kenya: GDP Per Capita (Nominal) $1416. Homicide Rate: 6.4 per 100,000. Life Expectancy: 61.

PF: Ah ha! Their life expectancy is 3 years higher!

SH: Yes, I took a fair sampling of statistics, not just ones that support my case. But compared with its neighbours there's more murders, and they're literally one third as rich. You were the one claiming that Africa would be functional except for colonialism. A life expectancy of 64 puts it up there with paragons of civil society such as Yemen and Senegal. I'm even willing to grant you that it's broadly similar to its neighbours, but this doesn't exactly prove your case.

PF: Hmm, this is a puzzle. I'm sure I'm still right, but I need to research this more.

As Mencius Moldbug once said, I will win because I know all of his arguments and he knows none of mine.

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.