Friday, July 19, 2019

On the Divided Nature of the Civil Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 8, 2019

These are the good times, people

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Reconsidering English Mercantilism

One of the great things about reading old books is that they transport you away from the zeitgeist of the modern era. At any point in time, there are lots of ideas floating around in people's heads that are largely taken for granted, and not seriously examined as to their likely truth content. When you read writings from someone steeped in a totally different tradition, it forces you to reconsider your perspectives on things. 

On matters of how society ought to be organised, those of us of a reactionary bent are likely to find much to agree with in the books of old. Yet in some sense, the best issues on which to read old writings are those where you are genuinely agnostic  where there is a real prospect of genuine progress in understanding, but also significant gaps in our knowledge.

To me, that field is macroeconomics. I consider myself a macro agnostic, with sympathies towards monetarism in some forms. But it's hard not to see enormous shifts in fashions in macro that don't seem to coincide with great increases in understanding. A century ago, everyone with a brain believed that governments needed to maintain a gold standard. Now we all believe that the optimal system is to have pieces of paper not backed by anything, managed by a central bank trying to target 2% inflation, even though most of the real money is electronic and sits on a computer. Also, the existence of the paper tends to cause us problems when a crisis hits, because we can't lower interest rates below zero. I tend to think that monetary policy is useful, if done right (though even on that I'm not certain). Still, let's just say I'm not entirely convinced we've reached the optimal set of institutions.

Then again, there has been enormous and genuine advancement in economic understanding. Trade theory, specialisation and division of labour, the marginal revolution, modern finance, behavioral economics  these things just didn't really exist 250 years ago. So while there may be wisdom in the ancients, it's also likely there was a lot that they didn't understand.

This came up recently in a discussion with some friends about the 16th through 18th century English policy of mercantilism. This is described quite well in Ernst Graf Zu Reventlow's "Vampire of the Continent", which I discuss here. Essentially, England wanted to monopolise trade, not only between itself and its colonies, but also in foreign ports. Reventlow cites an English desire to basically make Antwerp a de facto English port, for instance. In addition, when it came to dealing with foreign powers, it favoured one-way trade deals. You have to be open to free trade, but we get to have complete restrictions on trade. You can see this in the Siege of Havana. The English destroyed the Spanish Navy at Havana, and then conquered the city. But then, two years later, in the Treaty of Paris, they just gave it back. They did, however, extract concessions that they would be able to trade with the port, which they previously were denied. It's possible they just traded the city back because they thought they couldn't hold it, or to avoid endless war. But still, it's a strange move. And it's not just Spain. The Opium Wars were similar, except in this case fought not over the right to trade in general, but specifically the right to sell opium to the Chinese. Which looks pretty damn predatory, with the benefit of hindsight, but that's mostly because it was opium. They wanted to sell stuff to you, and their gun boats were going to turn up if you didn't like it. 

In other words, their ideal situation was that they would sell their goods to you, but you couldn't sell your goods to them. And often they would be willing to go to war over this principle.

Now, from the perspective of modern economics, this is quite weird on a number of levels.

First, these days we don't want to crush the economies of other countries. There's a pretty strong agreement that if a major country enters recession, even if it's a country you don't really like, that's bad news for your economy. Believe me, even the most ardent China skeptics wouldn't be celebrating a major Chinese depression, as soon as they looked at their 401k portfolio and the rising US unemployment rate. The reason is trade theory  there really are gains from trade, and the economy isn't zero sum. Because of this, trying to crush one's enemies may make sense politically or militarily, but it's likely to be counterproductive economically.

Second, not only is trade generally good, but at some point you actually want to consume things. Another name for mercantilism is running a trade surplus  we sell to you more stuff than you sell to us. But what this means is that the other country gets to consume a lot more stuff, while the things you produce end up being consumed by the Spanish. Maybe the wealth England receives is transformed into more productive assets so their economy grows more, but this is not obvious. The standard view of worthless consumption goods versus valuable investment goods is a large part of the reason that the otherwise brilliant Paul Samuelson kept incorrectly predicting decade after decade that the Soviet economy was about to grow like crazy and soon overtake the US. Because they didn't give a damn about consumption for the peasants, all their production was going into valuable investment goods, which would expand out their production possibility frontier. And yet somehow, the US with their frivolous consumption kept outpacing them. This is probably related to the fact that when US consumers stop purchasing their worthless hamburgers and flat screen TVs, that's called a recession, and it's usually considered a disaster. Maybe they could switch to being happy purchasing machine tools instead, but it's not obvious. Same thing with the English centuries earlier. In other words, they thought they were getting rich by their policy, but it's not at all obvious that they were right. Another reading is that they were just financing Spanish consumption, and consuming less themselves. 

A related aspect to all this is that there was a very different idea of what wealth was. These days, we understand it mostly in terms of GDP  the total productive output of the economy. When it grows, you become richer. Money is just the means by which we denominate the value of goods. If you own a factory, or a large corporation, you are rich. You don't need to actually hold the dollar bills. The productive output is the real wealth anyway, and the dollar bills are just the means of transforming your output into someone else's output.

But at the time, I think these guys thought that the wealth was actually the gold and silver they were accumulating. They weren't in the business of measuring economic output. GDP didn't even really exist as a concept. So instead they just maximised a number they called wealth, without wondering if this was the thing they really should be targeting.

So far, mercantilism looks pretty stupid. But is there some way to resurrect it, at least partially? Even if the practitioners didn't understand it at the time?

I think there actually is. 

The reason is that you can't understand mercantilism without understanding the gold-based currency. This is not gold-backed currency, where you hold a piece of paper that can be redeemed for gold, and which can be devalued (though at a large reputational cost). Rather the coins themselves really were made of precious metals, like the Spanish Escudo or the Spanish Dollar. And from my limited understanding, essentially all European countries were using some kind of precious metal as currency.

This has two effects. Firstly, as is commonly understood, countries don't have control over their money supply, inasmuch as the supply of gold and silver is very inelastic. So if you have less money floating around, you're pretty much just stuck. This has its modern equivalents, like Hong Kong having its dollar pegged to the US dollar  you end up with essentially whatever monetary policy the US happens to be implementing at the time, regardless of whether it's appropriate for the state of your economy.

But more strangely, another effect occurs when everyone is on the same currency. Everyone is linked in the same global money supply (except for the minor variant that some places used more silver, and others used more gold). Which means that if the amount of gold (and hence gold coins) is essentially fixed in the short run, then countries really have a zero sum competition over the money supply.

As a consequence, in a world where everyone uses gold coins, you can't separate trade policy from monetary policy. Mercantilism doesn't mean that you're richer in terms of GDP, at least in the short term. But it does mean you end up holding a larger fraction of the money supply.

And if you think, like me, that monetary policy matters, this can end up being important. If the Spanish colonies keep buying off the English, eventually they may face a sufficiently large contraction in the local money supply that it ends up harming local economic output. Of course, if you're not tracking GDP, you won't necessarily know this. You'll just find that it becomes harder to get tax revenue out of the local population, and they start complaining about a lack of coin. 

We can't imagine this complaint, because we've been so thoroughly used to fiat money, whose supply is endless. We can imagine a surplus of money, like in a banana republic going through hyperinflation. But a deficit? What would that even look like? As it turns out, it's people not being able to engage in useful trades, because they have to revert to barter, which is notoriously inefficient. You want to imagine a real recession? Imagine that in order to get bread, the baker has to want your accounting services that day, or be willing to take an IOU.

You actually see this in the story of one of the early experiments in fiat money, in New France. After initially having a beaver pelt based economy (yes, really), they started using coin. But at some point coin become so scarce that they couldn't pay the soldiers, which threatens the whole enterprise. So the governor switched to a currency of playing cards. Which, if you read between the lines of the article, worked pretty damn well.

Without this though, a persistent trade deficit would be experienced as a persistent contraction in the money supply, probably leading to local recession. Meanwhile, England would have a continually expanding money supply. It's not like this immediately leads to economic booms, otherwise everyone would just set interest rates at zero and print money like crazy (hmm, maybe they largely do...). But expansionary monetary policy generally does grow the economy, usually at the cost of inflation. Though since in those days deflation was approximately as common as inflation, this doesn't seem to be a first order concern. So to that extent, I can imagine that mercantilism ended up having some positive effects on the English economy, and negative effects on the Spanish economy, primarily through money supply channels. 

Which was assuredly not the justification that was being used at the time. But if Chesterton's Fence means anything, it's that people often can end up implementing reasonable policies without really understanding why. 

All of this raises a fascinating hypothetical. What if the Spanish (or the French, or whoever) had just decided to respond to English mercantilism by... switching to fiat currency? Fiat currency gets a bad name in this period because its introduction tends to occur by bankrupt governments who can't or won't close a persistent budget deficit, and thus they introduce fiat in order to print like crazy and inevitably end up with a worthless currency. 

But modernity indicates that this doesn't have to be the case. We could imagine a Spanish King who had a stable budget situation switching to pesos. What would happen?

Well, the first thing to note is that they'd have the freedom to implement monetary policy. To the extent that this is economically beneficial if done well, it would be a big help for getting the economy out of recession. Then again, since they didn't understand monetarism, it's not clear this would actually happen. Before you get to this point, you'd need a coherent understanding of "recession", and a way to measure it, neither of which they had.

Still, there would be other benefits. Notably, it would immediately neutralise the effects of English mercantilism. Havana is now operating in pesos. Which means you can let the place trade with the English as much as you like! Why? Because just like in a modern economy, currency movements will act to counteract a trade deficit. Suppose, as seems likely, English merchants keep demanding payment in gold coins. Well, there's going to be some exchange rate between pesos and gold. If Spain as a whole keeps buying foreign goods and supplying pesos in exchange for gold, its currency will depreciate. This will make English imports expensive, until the local population stops buying them all on their own. Gun boats or not, they simply won't have the money, and the population in Havana will find it much cheaper to buy domestic goods. Meanwhile, the same currency movement will make Spanish exports extremely competitive. The mercenary English merchants and smugglers will start buying Spanish goods to sell to England, government policy be damned, because it's suddenly extremely profitable. Spanish exporters don't mind being paid in cheaper pesos, since they work just fine in their local currency. Meanwhile, the extra demand helps to boost the local economy. 

And more importantly, you don't need to fight to keep the English out of your ports! An entire casus belli can be given up at a stroke, at almost no cost. Plus, since the English don't really understand economics at the time either, they'll probably view it as a great victory. Let them. Moving to positive sum trade would be useful in general, but neutralising the English weapon of contracting your money supply would be even better. They only have the weapon because you gave it to them, by using the same currency as them, and one which you don't control the supply of.

This wouldn't solve all of Spain's problems. Because Spain did in fact have a lot of silver coming in from mines in the New World, so a shortage of money wasn't its main issue. In part, it didn't invest the silver into anything other than consumption, cathedrals, and other things. Samuelson may have gotten the Soviet Union wrong, but that doesn't mean the point is wholly incorrect. You really do need to buy investment goods and not just consumption, especially imported consumption.

This is all a hypothetical, of course, and one we don't have great historical analogies to guide us on. When countries abandoned the gold standard, they mostly did so all at once, such as with the collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971. Which means there isn't a clear example of a functional, budget-neutral major power adopting fiat money while all other major countries, including their trading partners, stayed on gold or silver. The Swedes did it in the 1700s, but they ran a huge budget deficit and drove themselves into a ditch. But I don't think this is particularly strong evidence. It's like trying to evaluate whether credit cards are a good idea when the only evidence available is for chronic gamblers and alcoholics. It's not necessarily a good guide to what will happen when John the accountant gets one.

Without that evidence though, I don't really blame the monarchs of the time for not wanting to roll the dice. The whole idea seems weird, and to the extent it's been tried, it's mostly associated with fraudulent, bankrupt governments and terrible outcomes. And they just didn't understand the economics well enough. Maybe we still don't understand it fully. But at least we know something they didn't know. It's possible to have fiat currency without immediately leading to hyperinflation and national ruin. 

We also have a fair idea, thanks to Milton Friedman, that monetary policy is actually important, even when a country is using gold or a gold standard as currency. They didn't know that, but you can't blame them. 

Sometimes, like Bitcoin, you've got to just run the experiment and see what happens, because there is no clear precedent for what's going to happen. All you've got is theory, and the hope that your understanding is correct.

It's enough to make you wonder what economists in 100 years time will marvel at us for doing today.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Lower Bound on Viable and Efficient Parenting Reductions

It's been a running theme of mine for a while that prospective parents should invest less in each child, and have more children instead. This is what the twin studies tell you. This is what most of the education random controlled trials tell you. Parental investment just doesn't matter that much. But having more children does matter.

Investment is a loaded word though. The immediate connotation is expensive monetary investments, like college and private school. It's true that you should cut back on these. But in some sense, these can only be the binding constraint if you're very forward looking. By the time you're in a position to actually decide whether to pay for your child's first year of college or just let them have some student debt, it's highly likely that you're long past the point of deciding whether to have more children.

No, the insidious aspects of investment are those in the very early years of a child's life - waking up every two hours to feed them, dealing with crying and tantrums and poopy diapers. And the reason they bite the most is that by the time you're thinking about having another child, many of the worst bits have just passed. The child is now two or three, and you have just started to get the feeling of having gotten over the top of the hill. If you simply stop now, you never have to deal with that phase ever again.

Look, I sympathise with this feeling. I think everyone does, including parents who had lots of children. 

But the mystery is still the time series. Your great grandmother had 7 children, and managed to rub along just fine. Not only that, she did so while washing every dish by hand, washing every shirt by hand, cooking every meal that the household ate, and on a budget a fraction as large in real terms as you have.

Hence the mystery - how did it all apparently get so much harder? What is it your great grandmother knew, but you don't know?

I suspect that one largely unremarked upon aspect is that your great grandmother started much earlier, in her early 20s. All that energy you put into partying into the wee hours and running on a treadmill? She put it into getting up in the night to feed children, and chasing after them by day. 

My guess for the biggest factor is social support structures. Both sets of grandparents living nearby, for instance. Trying to make up for that with hourly babysitters is like running a one man lesson in Ronald Coase's theory of the firm, where you find out that a lot of things are considerably harder to contract on than you thought. Friends and neighbours with lots of children, whom you could turn to when things were tight. Now nobody knows their neighbours. 

So, to the extent you can do this stuff, it's totally worthwhile. Fly in your parents for a while, if they don't live nearby. Try and do like the Mormons do, and make good enough friends with people nearby that you can do shared babysitting things.

These things are hard, though. If your parents live on the other side of the country, or the planet for that matter, rearranging your life or theirs to remedy this distance is probably not practical advice.

But there's another aspect to it. Culturally, a hundred years ago everyone was just far more comfortable with radically increased autonomy for children, and far less moment-to-moment supervision of what they were doing. I remember the Daily Mail depicting this visually in a quite arresting manner, showing how far different generations of Brits were allowed to walk.



Rotherham, Rotherham... where have I heard that name before? Hmm, maybe it's not just cultural norms.

But at a very young age, when children require full time care, was it always this hard? Is it possible to just...do less? Let the kid cry? Let the kid walk around on their own more, at a younger age, without being supervised, even if they sometimes cut themselves or bump their head? Let the kid figure out how to put themselves back to sleep? Let the kid play with the toys on their own, rather than expecting to have one or other parents joining them all times?

Parenting plans, like Mike Tyson's quip about boxing plans, last until you metaphorically get punched in the mouth. It's easy to say in the abstract that you'll just be a little bit more distant when the kid starts demanding attention, but another thing altogether when the kid is screaming their head off. And for someone like me, who has zero kids, there's an inevitable aspect of cheap talk to all this. If someone else has a troublesome child, maybe it's just genetics, or nutrition, or something else hard to fix in the short term. Maybe if you had their child, you'd act the same way.

Still, there is one metric that I think shows that reductions are possible. Namely, the inevitable decline in attention that occurs in nearly all parents between their first child, and their subsequent children. 

For the first child, you're worried about everything going wrong. You're taking endless baby photos, and reading to them all the time. You're doing all sorts of stuff. By child number 4, you just don't have time for that any more. The child is crying? Is this a problem? Depends. Are they fed recently? Is their diaper clean? Are they sick? If the answers are "Yes, Yes and No" respectively, then no, it isn't fundamentally a problem. It's unfortunate, but it's okay to just close the door and let them figure it out. They'll work out just fine.

Hence the minimum viable Holmes advice for new parents:

Aim to bring a fourth child attitude to your first child.

Ask older parents - do they think their fourth child turned out much worse because of the lesser attention paid? Or do the younger children mostly tend to appreciate the more laid back attitude that parents took, and which older siblings are often jealous of?

Not only is it doable, for many aspects of parental involvement it's not even clear what the sign is for the effect of the extra effort.

Of course, there's one caveat here. There is non-trivial evidence of birth order effects, whereby first-born children tend to outperform in life (I trust Scott Alexander probably as much or more than the social science literature on this stuff).  At least some of this effect is probably the extra efforts their parents are putting in.

That said, there's two responses. First all all, this just says that there's something on the revenues side of the ledger. This doesn't mean that the whole project of the extra effort for the first child is actually NPV positive for anyone involved. Indeed, given the extent of the extra effort, finding zero birth order effects would be evidence of a massive failure in rational parental investment.

Secondly, it's not clear how much of the effect of birth order is due to extra parental investment, versus just having more confidence by virtue of being bigger and stronger than one's siblings. It's probably both, of course. But any part of it that's coming from just sibling size doesn't require any investment, and is unbudgeable by your efforts in any case. I think the jury is still out on this one.

More importantly, suppose you believe that there might be an investment and/or confidence channel. If you're worried about this, just load up on the related investment/confidence effect - birth month. It's also true that the oldest children in a kindergarten class tend to outperform in life, for a similar mix of reasons. They're bigger and more confident than their peers, and they get greater investment because teachers and coaches perceive them as more talented when they're young, when they're simply more mature. 

So if you're a big believer in birth order effects signalling something important, just aim to have all your kids be born at the start of the school year. It costs you nothing other than delaying slightly when you start trying to conceive. It'll probably also go a decent way towards offsetting any effects of reduced parenting for the first child (and will be a likely benefit to later children, for no obvious cost). 

And remember, the second you're tempted to feel guilty about this advice and plan, just bear in mind - you're thinking of the wrong counterfactual. The whole point of doing all these reductions in wasteful effort is so that you can easily and cheerfully bring one more child into the world, with a full complement of life's joys, sorrows and experiences. That is something to be proud of, not embarrassed. 

Fourth children turn out just fine.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Great moments in trend-setting

It's rare that I'm ahead of the curve in very much. But the latest Steve Sailer column had the following puzzling claim:
Nobody can deny Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose one historic accomplishment: They’ve permanently affixed the name Grievance Studies to their targets.
Before last fall, there were a variety of self-designations that only their smartest critics could keep track of. For example, Steven Pinker tweeted,
Is there any idea so outlandish that it won’t be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/‘Theory’ journal?
But if you aren’t quite up to Pinker’s level of brainpower, it’s hard to remember that “Critical/PoMo/Identity/‘Theory’” are all more or less the same moonshine.
But now we don’t need to. They are all just Grievance Studies.
Google searches show that the term “grievance studies” appeared only 85 times in the history of the internet before they announced their hoax last October, but 89,700 times since then.

To which my first thought was: huh? Hasn't everyone been using this term for ages?

No, it just turns out, I've been using it for ages. I couldn't get Sailer's "85 results" number easily. But this post of mine from May 2013 features the phrase. Though, hilariously, it doesn't seem to show up on my google search, and since I'm John Q. Nobody, read by nobody, I contributed almost zero to the currency of the phrase.

I have no idea if I just picked it up from someone else, or it independently seemed like a good description. To slightly paraphrase Moldbug, the great thing about the truth is that, being true, anybody is free to notice it at any time.

Come to Chateau Holmes for fresh social commentary, or be one of the herd reading about it at Sailer's blog six years later!

(I kid - Steve Sailer is a national treasure, and the best journalist of his generation. The fact that he writes for donations at the Unz Review, instead of having major newspapers fight to hire him, tells you everything you need to know about the clown world we live in).

Sunday, February 3, 2019

On the eloquence of the ancients

One of the frequent complaints about modernity that both reactionaries and conservatives agree upon is the lamentable decline in the standards of public discourse. This is pretty clearly true, and you can show it in various different ways.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and could also read Spanish and Greek. The highly educated Barack Obama spoke... just English.

If you want a non-political example, consider Paul Fussell's observation about World War I poetry. Wilfred Owen, when writing his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est", could write as the ending lines to his famous poem, an untranslated Latin phrase from Horace, with confidence that his audience, which included privates in the army, would know what he meant.

Or, if you think I'm cherry-picking this, price-onomics computed the reading grade-level of the State of the Union address over time. If you plot it versus the starting year of the president's term, this is what you get:




Which, I will readily acknowledge, looks a lot like a slow descent into idiocracy.

And, to be fair, this is my depressing first order assessment of how the matter stands.

But, if I were to put a small positive spin on this, it would be the following.

Suppose that the level of reading education has declined precipitously. Conceptually, this could be because
i) The total amount of education has declined. 
ii) The efficiency per hour of education has declined. 
iii) The fraction of education devoted to reading has declined

Out of these, I'm pretty sure #1 isn't the case. We spend more time in school and college than ever. Not only that, but the biggest increase is probably among the least educated, who once upon a time would have gone straight into agricultural jobs, etc.

The second part I'd be willing to believe. We spend endless time on pozz and diversity propaganda, whereas back in the past they were probably drilled on the important stuff and didn't screw around.

But I think the biggest underappreciated factor is #3.

In particular, it's easy to forget just how enormous the increase in education was in quantitative disciplines. I suspect, but can't prove, that the fraction of people that are learning calculus, chemistry, and physics is a lot higher. In particular, without a calculator, a lot of these disciplines become much more labor intensive in terms of how many calculation examples you can give to illustrate a principle. 

There's an even more concrete example.

The field of statistics as we know it didn't really exist until Sir Francis Galton invented it in the mid-19th century. Don't believe me? He came up with standard deviation, correlation, regression, and regression to the mean. Try, if you will, to imagine what your statistics class would have been like before that. There's the mean, and...um... the mean?

And without these tools, think how many other discussions become impoverished.

Economics doesn't have any data without computers. But without regression and correlation, it doesn't have any meaningful way to discuss causation, or to resolve arguments with data (even if you were willing to do it by hand). Hence the whole discipline becomes only theory. And theory back then was largely essays. Economics didn't become mathematical until Von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern and Paul Samuelson, all of whom did their major work after World War 2. Finance as a serious academic discipline didn't exist before Harry Markowitz, around the same time. And this is without discussing the disciplines that trivially didn't exist, like computer science, and those that only became formalised later, like psychology.

Take out all of the high school and college education devoted to these subjects, and ask yourself - what's left to do other than read the classics and learn languages? Not only this, if you could erase all your knowledge of the above subjects and replace it with more eloquence and knowledge of the classics...would you? Would the bargain seem worth it?

To me, it's not obvious at all.  

As I wrote about a while ago - expressions of a desire to do some self-improvement task are pretty much like a politician's unfunded campaign promises. That is, unless you specify exactly what in your week it is you're willing to give up in order to make it happen, it's not actually a serious plan. And just like in politics, the two standard answers are both bad. I'll get rid of waste and duplication! In your life, like in politics, there is assuredly waste and duplication, but it's similarly assured that you probably won't get rid of it. Or you'll just run a budget deficit by sleeping less. Which works in the long run about as well as you'd expect.

So it is with the importance of a classical education. It doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It just means that simply cutting out the modern leftist propaganda from the curriculum won't turn you into Jefferson. You've got to cut much closer to the bone, into subjects that actually do matter.

The other lesson, of course, is that Sir Francis Galton was a god damn genius, and is criminally underappreciated. It's hard to imagine the social sciences existing without him.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Project Jacob

In the financial world, it is a reliable rule of thumb that the largest and most lucrative forms of arbitrage will be those that don't strike the average investor as being an arbitrage. If they did, they'd have been traded away already. So how would they be seen by the average person? Probably as just weird. The kind of thing that nobody thinks about very much, because it's too obscure. If they do turn their mind to it, they assume there must be some big reason that nobody else is doing this, even if they can't quite articulate what it might be.

So it is, I suspect, with society more broadly.

So with this in mind, before I get to the punch line, I want to start with a few assumptions, and see where we end up. If these sound like things you already know and agree with, please bear with me and keep reading – this is exactly the point. My aim is to show what possibilities flow from things we mostly agree on, because the conclusion might strike you as rather surprising if I started with it.

1. Genes matter a lot for individual traits, and individual traits define the society to a large degree

The first of Turkheimer's laws of behavioral genetics is that nearly everything is heritable to a significant degree. Overall political ideology has a significant genetic component – approaching 60%, by some estimates. The impact of WEIRDO political culture and the Hajnal line are just some of the many indications to this effect. A society is determined to a considerable degree by the distribution of who is living there. If reactionaries have more children, on average the future looks more reactionary.

2. Parenting, like all shared environment terms, matters much less than people think.

This is kind of a mish-mash of Turkheimer's second and third laws. Related to #1, people tend to significantly overestimate the effect of environment on outcomes, because they fail to control for genetics. I suspect that most readers of this august periodical are conversant in the findings of HBD, and one set of the most important is the twin studies. The general finding of most of them is that genetics matter a lot, and idiosyncratic environment matters a lot, but shared environment doesn’t matter very much for adult behavior. Once children can select their own environment upon reaching adulthood, the impact of shared environment drops a lot, often to almost zero. The environment that does matter is mostly idiosyncratic, which, frankly, we don’t really know what it is. Some combination of school peers, parasites, measurement error, etc. But most of what’s included in parenting is shared environment (school district, general attitude of parents), or gene-environment interactions. What matters most is who your parents are. How they parent seems to matter less than nearly everybody thinks. In most contexts, reactionaries are willing to embrace this idea.

3. Having more children is valuable, but very difficult to scale within the context of marriage

The injunction we are often told on the right is to marry and have children, as a means of propagating ourselves and our values. This is a very worthy enterprise, but one that is almost impossible to scale at an individual level. Unless your wife is young, there is a hard limit on how many children you can have. Unless you’re young yourself, finding a wife young enough to have many children is likely to be hard. Finding one willing and eager to do so is harder still. All of this is magnified if one lives in cities, where the cost of having many children is much higher. Bottom line – having more children yourself is important, but the impact that each of us can have in this respect is likely to be a drop in the ocean. The problem is simply one of scale. You and I could try to convince everyone in the west to have more kids, and that’s definitely worthwhile. But if we could convince everyone of whatever we wanted, we’d already be able to solve lots of problems. The issue is that convincing the populace of anything when one lacks power is very hard.

4. Even outside the context of marriage, having lots of children with lots of women is financially impossible for anyone with means, and generally promotes degeneracy.

The Bronze Age Pervert mindset, frequently joked about, is to take a group of elite Chads and send them out to impregnate thousands of hot teens. The problem, of course, is that if you do this, you end up with endless single mums and degeneracy, because you can’t marry more than one of the women you are impregnating. To make matters worse, the modern court system with ruinous child support makes this strategy catastrophically costly to anyone with any financial prospects whatsoever. The only people who can afford this strategy are those who are, as the lawyers say, “judgment proof” – they live on welfare and crime, so can’t be held to account for any child support payments, which makes them much more willing to impregnate lots of women. Because everything is heritable (see point 1), we end up with a significant expansion of the worst traits of criminality, low impulse control, and violent tendencies. This is dysgenics exemplified.

5. Subverting valuable but unguarded institutions is an important aim.

One of the genius moves of the left during the 20th century was to find resources that were important, but relatively unguarded, and take them over. Academia or the media, for instance. These were always decent jobs, but weren’t perceived as being quite as influential in the past as they later became. Fighting over things which everyone knows are important (e.g. Supreme Court nominations) is extraordinarily difficult. Subverting and taking over institutions which are important, but not yet realized to be important, is a much more promising strategy.

So far, so good.

So based on the above, the question is: as reactionaries, if we want to increase the number of children we have so as to propagate reactionary ideals, is there any way to do it that doesn’t involve getting crushed by the court system or increasing the amount of degeneracy in society? Is there an institution that we can subvert that will help us achieve this aim?

The answer is yes.

And the answer is shockingly simple.

Go to a sperm bank, and donate.

In evolutionary sperms, the unpopularity of sperm donation is simply mind-boggling. It is a colossal unguarded resource – the wombs of thousands of women, openly seeking to bear your children while you are legally shielded from any costs whatsoever of raising them. If humans were fitness maximizers, men should all be beating down the doors of these places to fight each other off. But we aren’t. We’re adaption executors instead, spending all our resources and energy into banging women (which evolutionarily would have produced lots of children) while simultaneously trying not to actually get those same women pregnant. Meanwhile sperm banks are just considered weird. The main people who go are idiot college students not really thinking about the consequences and just treating it like it’s an easy source of beer money. If reactionaries started going there en masse, we’d probably be a large component of the potential pool.

And it goes without saying that this project is enormously scalable. As the marketing goes, you can make a difference in the life of a family! What they don’t say, because it weirds people out, is that you’ll probably make a difference in the lives of dozens, if not hundreds of families. This becomes an enormous force multiplier to any group with small numbers.

Not only that, but this project is compatible even with a world view that thinks single motherhood is undesirable. The effect is not to increase the number of single mums in the world. Anyone going to the sperm bank has already made up their mind to have a child, whether it's a good idea or not. Unless the sperm banks get shut down, the change is entirely one in composition, not in number. The only question is whose children these women will be having, and what traits will these children have. Since everything is heritable (see law 1!), it's better if the children have reactionary fathers, than soy-boy loser fathers.

Moreover, this can be done alongside a traditional lifestyle oneself. Donate while young and single, or if your wife/girlfriend is okay with it. Doing it while single is probably easier – future wives may be uncomfortable with the idea, but if it is presented as a fait accompli, they’ll probably find a way to make peace with it, especially because it likely doesn’t impact very much in one’s day-to-day life. Then after that, get married and have your own children with your wife and raise them yourself, just as you were planning to before. Most young men masturbate for free. Instead, they could get paid to impregnate hundreds of women with almost no negative consequences to themselves. And yet almost nobody does. Go figure.

There are, however, at least two caveats worth mentioning (and probably more – these are the ones that came to my mind). First, in the age of genetic testing, it is increasingly unlikely that you will be able to maintain true anonymity to your donor children or their parents forever. Some places actually put any recipient adult in touch (anonymously) if they want to. Truthfully, this is probably better, as it’s preferable to have people email you than turn up at your office. There’s too many ways to track people down, from genetic tests to compiling scraps of information into endless google searches. If you go down this path, it’s worth trying to preserve anonymity with sensible steps (turn your 23andme to private, obviously). But you should assume that you may get some contact from the recipient mothers or their children, at least to some extent. Probably not a lot, and probably not most of them. But it’s worth assuming the worst. If this prospect is too uncomfortable to you, then it may not be a good idea. To me, the idea doesn’t seem that troubling, once I actually thought about it. Still, your mileage may vary.

Second, I imagine that some of you (maybe most of you, maybe all of you) will have ethical issues with the idea of having children that one doesn’t have contact with. This is a totally fair viewpoint. If one feels this way, particularly from a religious basis, then definitely don’t do it. But if one is less troubled by this aspect, then perhaps it’s not an insurmountable objection. There is certainly a strong qualified defense of the idea in the pragmatic angle – even if sperm banks should be shut down altogether as an abomination, in the world we live in, they’re not going to be. The main change we make is at the margin of what kind of children result. You might be tempted to wonder if your children will turn out badly because they won't have you there to raise them. But remember point 2! Parenting doesn't matter that much. Genetics do. Still, if one feels strongly that there is an ethical objection to the whole enterprise, then one might feel that this would be lending some kind of implicit support to it. Again, I don’t tend to feel as strongly on this point, but I imagine some of you probably will.

If you're thinking that this whole idea sounds really weird, it struck me as weird too when I first considered it, but it grew on me more and more as I thought about it. And the more it went on, it began to seem like it actually meets a large number of reactionary goals. The fact that it seems weird is exactly why it’s unguarded. Paul Graham once wrote a great essay about this in the context of startups. He said that the best startup ideas were the ones that sound bad, but were actually good. You don’t want the ones that sound good and are good – everyone is trying to do those ones, so you’ll have stacks of competition. But the ones that sound weird at first (turn your car into a gypsy cab! Let strangers stay in your house when you’re not there) but are actually really good are the absolute best prospects of all. I think this has the potential to be one of those. In the scheme of the trichotomy, this is much more techno-futurism than traditionalism – in family terms, it’s more neocameralism and less throne and altar. So be it. I think the ability to recognize these possibilities is one of the big advantages of neoreactionaries over paleoreactionaries.

More importantly, this might be the golden age in which to undertake this project. In another 5 or 10 years, we might get to the point where recipients get to select traits based on the full genome of the donor. To the extent that single women seeking donor sperm likely skew progressive, if they understood HBD, they might screen us out themselves. Right now, they can’t.

Even turning up for the initial tests is valuable – if it turns out your sperm count or motility is low and you can’t donate, this is almost certainly knowledge that you’d like to have so you can start trying to have children sooner.

I'm open to being convinced that I'm wrong on this. But so far, it makes a disturbing amount of sense to me.