Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Other Great Geographic Discontinuity

Discontinuities are interesting things. When small differences in inputs result in large differences in outputs, it can sometimes give hints as to what exactly is causing what.

For instance, Douglas Almond's great paper on the in-utero effects of the Spanish Flu gets you mostly convinced just by a single picture

The ideal case observes a sharp discontinuity in a single input variable and examines the effect on the output. Economists search for these perfectly clean cases like financial traders search for arbitrage. They find them about as often, too.

But sometimes you get a second best instance - a case where a good fraction of the inputs stay smooth and continuous, and yet you observe a discontinuous shift in the output. This suggests that one of the remaining variables is having a large effect.

This is especially true in the case of development. The classic problem, concisely stated, is that goods go together and bads go together. In other words, countries tend to have good governance, good rule of law, a free press, low corruption, etc. or they have none of these things.

Boosters of the polite consensus wisdom occasionally enjoy pointing out the difference in light patterns between North and South Korea.

It is indeed a striking one. Scott Alexander cited it in his Anti-Reactionary FAQ as supporting the proposition that the quasi-monarchy of North Korea seems to result in much worse outcomes than the capitalist social democracy of South Korea.

Fair enough. So it does. Though of course what we're really seeing is the sum of all the differences between the North and South since the Korean War. The main quibble is the extent to which Kim Jong-Un is a good representation of monarchy as a system of government, but I take Alexander's point.

But if you're going to play that game, you have to take the comparisons that are not flattering to your world view, as well as the ones that are.

One such equally stark comparison is between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

No, they didn't draw the border at some magically discontinuous shift in micro-climate. This is all one island of Hispaniola, split into two parts. It's just that the Haitians deforested their part of the island, leaving the land looking like it was denuded by a plague of locusts. The Dominicans, however, didn't.

And this is the start of a series of differences that are not quite as stark as North and South Korea, but they're pretty darn stark nonetheless. Haiti is supremely screwed, as bad as anywhere in the Third World. We're talking GDP per capita of $661 and life expectancy of 63 screwed. The Dominican Republic, by contrast is at $5442 and 74. Not exactly first world standards, but functional enough that westerners want to go there on holidays. To slightly modify the Hilltop Hoods - like a free trip to Port-Au-Prince, you don't want it.

And there basically is no polite explanation for why this is. The standard banalities about the causes of poverty don't get you very far. If Haiti's problem is that it was colonialized, so was the Dominican Republic. Admittedly the Haitian part was run by the French for more of its history, versus the Dominican Republic being run by the Spanish. But people don't usually clamor to attribute strong economic success to Spanish colonialism. In fact, the Dominican Republic was run as a colony for considerably longer, as recently as 1865 (compared with Haiti, which kicked out the French for the last time in 1804). Indeed, Haiti actually invaded and ran the Dominican Republic from 1821-1844, and got to implement some of its disastrous policies then.

The other sob stories don't get you much further either. Both areas had a lot of slaves. Both were administered by the US during the 20th century. And while the Dominican Republic produced a lot more sugar during the 20th century, this seems better understood as effect rather than just cause, as Haiti produced lots of sugar during the 18th century, and climate-wise could have done so again.

So since the countries were united for most of their history, one must expect that the causes might seem to be differences that were more pronounced after 1844.

First off, Haiti had killed most of its white population in a genocide, and added to its constitution in 1804 a clause that whites could not own property. Another country imposed this recently in the wake of similar genocidal behavior. You might almost conclude that this is a disastrous policy. It was imposed in the Dominican Republic too in 1821 when Haiti took over, but they hadn't gone for the full genocidal answer of killing all the whites. So even though lots of the Spanish left after their stuff was confiscated, enough of them stuck around, and eventually managed to successfully gain independence from Haiti in 1844. The Dominican Republic tended to be mostly governed by its richer and better-educated Spanish elite for much of its history, whereas Haiti mostly was governed by the descendants of slaves (either black or mulatto). Just look at the pictures of some of the presidents of the Dominican Republic. No matter how you cut it or interpret it, the difference is striking.

PedroSantana.jpgIgnacio María González.pngUlises espaillat.jpgHereaux2.gifJuan Isidro Jimenez.jpgTrujillo 1952.jpgRafael F.Bonnelly.jpgJuan Bosch (1963).jpg


Now look at some of the corresponding presidents of Haiti

File:Toussaint L'Ouverture.jpgJean Jacques Dessalines.jpgCharles Rivière-Hérard.jpgSoulouque-mossell-361.jpgFabre Geffrard.gifSylvain Salnave.jpgNissage Saget.jpgMichel Domingue.jpgSalomon 200.jpgVilbrun Guillaume Sam portrait.jpg

Of course, a closer examination makes all this a bit murkier. Even after most of the leaders above, both countries were sufficiently dysfunctional that the US chose to invade, in 1915 and 1916. Equally dysfunctional? It's hard to say, since this was the era before great GDP figures. In terms of long-serving leaders during the 20th century, they had different paths. Rafael Trujillo seems to have looked somewhat like Pinochet, brutal but effective. Papa Doc Duvalier seems like a cross between Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe, repulsive in every possible way. It turns out that being a black nationalist intent on driving out the mulatto elite tends to just produce a mass emigration of the educated parts of the populace. We've heard about that one before too. It's not for nothing that I compared him to Mugabe. Maybe this is the main difference, these two men. It's hard to say.

So we get to the end and don't get the neat schadenfreude of Scott Alexander's simple narrative. In the end, we observe a discontinuous outcome, not a discontinuous input, and identification still eludes us. I am not nearly enough of an expert to compile anything like an exhaustive list of the differences between the countries to say for sure what is driving it. And yet, the aerial photographs remain. Something is producing enormously discontinuous outcomes across small geographical differences. And if you dislike the things I've raised, does that not just deepen the puzzle? Admit it, my progressive friend - you don't have a satisfactory explanation for the difference, do you?

By any measure, Haiti has been profoundly misgoverned. The Dominican Republic serves as Banquo's Ghost, reminding us awkwardly that it didn't have to end up this way. It is not a happy tale, and the lessons, if there are any, don't seem to support the standard leftist narratives of why the third world is poor. No wonder you never hear about it.

Actually, that's not quite right.

You do occasionally hear about it, in the form of editorials in lefty western newspapers excoriating the Dominican Republic for its racism in deporting Haitian illegal immigrants, notwithstanding the fact that, by US definitions of race, the Dominican Republic itself is 80% black.

Yep, racism. That's the key to understanding all this, according to our intellectually bankrupt intellectuals. The overwhelmingly black Dominican Republic must be cast in the role of racist oppressor, because that's the only way by which the left can understand Haitian poverty, or indeed any poverty at all.

With such brilliant insights among our elites, I have no doubt that Haiti will soon be returned to the days when it produced leaders like Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Alexandre Dumas.

I wouldn't hold your breath. Haiti has been collectively holding its breath for 200 years.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

"Hamilton" as American Propaganda

I recently saw the musical 'Hamilton', which was an enjoyable depiction of American nostalgia for its own myths. That much isn't new. What's new is that this is being successfully marketed to the current generation of narcissistic millennials. Getting them to take any interest in history beyond their own short life span, let alone past the 20th century, is quite a feat, even if what they end up learning ends up having a healthy dose of nonsense.

As both a foreigner and a reactionary, it's interesting to see the American founding myths in all their peculiar detail. Identifying the nonsense stories other people accept uncritically about their own history is much easier than identifying one's own. The US ones are particularly interesting to me - I have a strong fondness for this country, but I still view it as as an outsider, as a) I came across this stuff much later in life, and b) my summary of the American Revolution in one sentence is "the bad guys won". Incidentally, this would make a great tagline for a future reactionary version of the play, 'Hutchinson: The Musical".

Of course, if you want to get the record set straight, Moldbug is of course the best source. And with a little of the alternative perspective on the matter, the most interesting thing about the play is what gets left out.

The second most neglected perspective in the history of American Revolution is the Loyalists. For the most part, they simply don't exist. "America" was fighting King George. The fact that there were substantial numbers of native-born Americans who were philosophically and practically opposed to the War of Independence gets mostly elided. How many, exactly? Hard to say. I've seen numbers floated around as being 20%, but this doesn't mean that 80% were Patriots, as a large number were on the fence. I'd take all these numbers with a grain of salt.

The musical actually does better than I expected - there's one scene where a Loyalist is giving a speech in opposition to the Congress (unpersuasively, of course) , and he then gets mocked by Hamilton. That they don't present a good case for the opposition is not surprising - that they acknowledge the opposition existed, and was American, was frankly a pleasant surprise.

So the Loyalists, uncharacteristically, weren't the Elephant in the Room being ignored here. What was, then? What is the faction you almost never hear about in the re-telling of the American Revolution?

The answer is simple: British Parliament.

Britain in the musical, like in nearly all popular retellings, is represented by King George III. He is depicted as being in charge of the whole affair, pulling all the strings from across the sea. It's like the whole musical, like the country itself, lives in a bizarre alternative universe where the Cavaliers somehow won the English Civil War. In reality, the issue had been decided twice, first with King Charles being separated from his head, and then in case the message hadn't been received, again with the Glorious Revolution chasing King James II out of England, all the way to France in fact. By the time of the American Revolution, the verdict had been in for over a century - when push came to shove, Parliament was in charge.

But you can see clearly why this very quickly becomes awkward for the standard narrative. The American revolution was about establishing democracy (praise be upon it) for the first time ever! Except that the government being overthrown was in fact democratic, in various different forms, from at least 1215 onwards. Quite a pickle, no?

Aha, the apologists respond, but there was no democratic representation among the Americans. No taxation without representation, and all that. What an injustice! I'll let Mr Hutchinson field this one:
The Assembly of Massachusetts Bay, therefore, was the first that took any publick of the Act, and the first which ever took exception to the right of Parliament to impose Duties or Taxes on the Colonies, whilst they had no representatives in the House of Commons. This they did in a letter to their Agent in the summer of 1764, which they took care to print and publish before it was possible for him to receive it. And in this letter they recommend to him a pamphlet, wrote by one of their [6] members, in which there are proposals for admitting representatives from the Colonies to fit in the House of Commons.
I have this special reason, my Lord, for taking notice of this Act of the Massachusetts Assembly; that though an American representation is thrown out as an expedient which might obviate the objections to Taxes upon the Colonies, yet it was only intended to amuse the authority in England; and as soon as it was known to have its advocates here, it was renounced by the colonies, and even by the Assembly of the Colony which first proposed it, as utterly impracticable. 
In other words:

Massachusetts: No Taxation without Representation!

Britain: Hmm. Would you like some representation then?

Massachusetts: No, absolutely not, it would never work!

Comedy gold.

So if the big injustice that Alexander Hamilton was fighting against wasn't really a lack of democratic representation, what exactly was it?

Beats me. Beats Hutchinson too.

And this is the odd sense that comes after all the great songs are over. It's the same feeling I had years ago watching Michael Moore documentaries. In the moment, the strange web of narrative seems oddly compelling, until you leave the theatre and try to distill it into a sentence. And lo and behold, the main thesis is that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot up a school because Lockheed Martin had a factory somewhere nearby making parts for satellites. Phrased thus, you realise that this is an insane argument, and you can't believe you fell for it in the first place.

That's where I get to on Hamilton. Once you leave the theatre, odd reactionary thoughts come back in. You mean he was a hardworking immigrant who loved his newfound country so much that he... immediately worked to overthrow its government? Hmm, that doesn't sound so good. Wait, no, he was a poor penniless orphan who wanted to rise up the ranks, and so he realised that helping foment a war and rising up the command would be a great way to do this? Wait, that even worse. Much worse, actually.

The final thought, however, that the honest foreigner must admit to himself, is this: I wonder what equivalent stupidity I've believed about my own history?

Truthfully, I don't quite know. But if I figure it out, I'll let you know.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Micro-snapshots of personal agency

One of my minor hobbies is noticing small correlations in how people speak that reveal things about them. Some examples herehere and here.

I was reminded of one from a conversation I overheard in an elevator today:
Girl: I forgot to bring a pen. 
Guy: Oh well, we can go back up and get one. 
Girl: I used to have a nice one that I'd carry with me. 
Guy: For some reason, the crummy pens stick around, while the good pens always disappear.
Girl: Yeah, that's because people always end up taking them.

Which reminded me of something I noticed way back in the third grade.

Like all small children, our pencils would often go missing. And when they did, people immediately fell into one of two narratives

a) I lost it.

b) Someone stole it.

I was always in the first category. I assume that I'm just forgetful and careless, which I am.

But some kids were always certain, without any proof, that the world was full of malicious people out to get them, stealing all their pens and pencils.

And if the girl's conversation is anything to go by, I suspect this difference persists later in life.

I may simply be naive about this, and extrapolating from my own mental state. But I can't quite believe that there's that many pen thieves out there in the offices and classrooms of the world. Who are all these people apparently swiping pens? Even the guy's point, which is the better one, seems more obviously explained by the fact that you only notice when a good pen goes missing, and the crummy pens go missing too, but you didn't pay attention because you didn't care.

The first sign that there isn't a pen conspiracy is that pens seem to go missing at approximately the same rate as individual socks go missing in the washing process. And I don't think anyone actually believes that the underpants gnomes are taking them. Things get dropped randomly, or forgotten, or misplaced. That's just life.

But when these kinds of annoying things happen, do you accept that as just part of the random bad luck of life? Do you blame yourself? Or do you blame a conspiracy of others?

I would wager that people who think pens frequently go missing because they get stolen are less likely to accept responsibility for their own screwups in life. I would wager they these people are probably somewhat less self-aware.

That seems like a strong conclusion to draw. It's only a hunch, presented as such. But it's how I'd bet.

Off such small pieces of information are efficient estimates of personality made.

Given enough enough data about the world, nobody is really a mystery.