Friday, May 26, 2017

The economist's case for at least agnosticism about Bitcoin

As far as I can tell, the primary problem with Bitcoin is that after you've bought it, you become medically incapable of shutting the @#$% up about Bitcoin. So it goes.

It took me a long time to buy any bitcoin, but I should have done it about three years ago. This isn't cheap talk, by the way. I know exactly why I should have bought it back then, based on the knowledge I had at the time (which is the only criterion by which you ought to regret any decision). To wit: I considered myself a Bitcoin agnostic. This made me more optimistic than perhaps 99% of finance people I spoke to. But then again, 99% of finance people I spoke to also couldn't easily explain why Bitcoin existed in the first place. 3 years later, all of the above is still true, but I finally got off my butt and did something about it, albeit after an enormously costly delay.

The standard economics textbook description of money says that it tends to arise because it helps facilitate exchange. If we need to barter goods with each other, it's hard for me as a blacksmith to obtain wheat unless I can find a wheat farmer who also coincidentally needs blacksmithing services. But if I can exchange my blacksmithing services for some asset money (as yet undefined as to what that is) and then turn the money into wheat down the line, this greatly allows us to trade more and grow the economy. So far so good. But what exactly makes something money?

The standard economics textbook definition of money says that it has to fulfill 3 purposes, namely
#1. It has to be a unit of account - a way of measuring how much of something you have
#2. It has to be a medium of exchange - a means for people to transact amongst each other and exchange goods and services indirectly, rather than directly through barter
#3. It has to be a store of value - that is, have some worth derived from an alternative use other than the monetary aspect itself, to ensure that people will be willing to hold it.

Under this standard narrative, bitcoin fails. #1 is fairly easy to meet, but bitcoin's big strength is in #2, which it passes with flying colours. Importantly, however, it fails badly on #3. Digital bits have no inherent value, and no external use to make them a store of value. Ergo, it should have no value above zero, and anything else is a bubble about to collapse. So goes the standard story.

Gold originally fulfilled all three purposes. You could weigh it, and trade accordingly. Turning gold into gold coins helped with 1 and 2, so drove out raw gold. It was easier to transact and measure in coins. Of course, the problem with coins is that they could get filed away at the edges to steal some of the gold, but still be worth approximately one coin. So eventually the coins got replaced with pieces of paper that were claims on gold in a government vault. At the start, you could actually make the conversion. Then conversion became increasingly a fiction, before FDR decided to do away with the pretense of convertibility, suspending the conversion and limiting the ability of private individuals to hold gold.

 At this point, you may be wondering how US dollars continue to meet the 3 definitions above. After all, they kept being used as money, and economists didn't all seem in a raging hurry to update their definitions. So the standard answer is that the 'store of value' aspect is that the government, who has guns, will accept USD as a means of paying taxes (and indeed demands that form). Because they have a guaranteed value for that, they have a guaranteed value for everything else.

To me, this seems to have a definite flavour of ex-post rationalisation. My hunch is that if you asked people 100 years ago whether they would still be equally willing to hold dollars if they were backed by nothing at all, they would have answered strongly in the negative. In the end, they were prohibited from switching into gold at the time, so it was a moot point. But what about now, when they could switch? I highly doubt that many people today would explicitly state that they're willing to hold dollars because they can pay their taxes in them. 100 years ago, they probably would have laughed you out of the room.

The economists are right in a narrow sense, of course (as they often are). Bitcoin does indeed fail as a store of value, and, technically, the dollar does not.

And yet, here is some evidence that ought give you pause, assuming you're not an economist in the midst of full-blown cognitive-dissonance-induced denial:



This is Bitcoin today, stubbornly refusing to prove economists right by ceasing to exist. As a matter of fact, since the coinbase time series starts in January 2013, it's up some 19,000% or so.

Don't look at the graph and ask if you think it's about to drop. Look at the graph and ask how much it would have to drop to get to where it was in 2013 (let alone 2009).

At a certain point, it seems prudent to at least consider the possibility that there might be something going on here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones? Or at a minimum, ask the following question - what level of future growth would you need to see to change your mind? Another 100%? Another 1000%? Can we agree on it now, so that if it eventually happens, you might reconsider the question?

The null hypothesis here is not in much doubt. Bitcoin is a bubble, and will eventually collapse.

Actually, the true null hypothesis is a little more specific, at least if you believe standard economics. Bitcoin should have a price of zero. It has no value except as a currency, and it is worthless as a currency.

So what is the alternative hypothesis?

The alternative hypothesis is that Bitcoin is likely to stay at a non-zero value for quite a long time, if not indefinitely, and moreover may end up being worth a lot. That may sound woolly and hand-wavy, so let me explain.

First off, how many things can you name that truly have a value of zero?

It's surprisingly hard. If you don't believe me, here's a photo of cans of air from the top of Mount Fuji selling for ¥500

Image

And things like rubbish or nuclear waste have definitively negative prices - you have to pay to get rid of them. They're still not exactly zero.

The point is that "fundamental value" is a concept that, in my opinion, creates at least as much confusion as it dispels.

The primary value of an asset today is what you think someone will pay for it tomorrow. If they can use the asset for some external purpose, and you have a guide to what that external purpose is likely to be worth to them, you have a guide to what it will be trading at tomorrow. But that's all it is. If you have some other way of estimating what people will pay for the asset tomorrow, then you don't need the intermediate heuristic of fundamental value. (This is especially true for assets which don't directly produce cash flows - for ones that do, there's a better case that you should just value the cash flows, but even then, you still need to know tomorrow's willingness to pay unless you're able to hold the asset to infinity to collect all the future cash flows).

So in that case, what should Bitcoin be worth? Whatever people are willing to buy it for tomorrow. And what number is that? Well, that's the rub. But at least we know the right question to ask now.

As a consequence, we can begin to formulate an alternative definition of requirement #3 for money that we started with. Specifically:
#3A - If you accept the asset today in exchange for giving up valuable goods or services, you have to have a very strong belief that you will be able to exchange said asset tomorrow for someone else's goods and services, and receive approximately the same value as what you exchanged today.
Viewed from this angle, we can see that requirement #3A is at heart a co-ordination problem. Once we all agree on something being money, it becomes money. More importantly, we can see why people mistakenly viewed #3 as being the requirement. In essence, being a store of value is one way of solving the co-ordination problem. If it's common knowledge that some people will be willing to accept gold because it's useful for jewellery, most people who don't value it for jewellery are nonetheless willing to hold it.

But this isn't a strict requirement. Once the belief is established, it becomes self-fulfilling. When you accept US dollars, you aren't doing the iterations and thinking that it will eventually be exchangeable for taxes. You're just accepting it because you can buy your groceries with it tomorrow. Now, in the long run, it's true that if the US government collapses, you don't want to be holding US dollars, so in that sense the economists are right. But this is a long way from most people's actual calculation.

In the case of Bitcoin, a belief that Bitcoin will retain some value tomorrow can justifiably be sustained as long as I know that there's a decent number of drug dealers and corrupt Chinese officials who want to hold Bitcoin because it's (sort-of) anonymous and can be easily taken out of the country when the porridge hits the propeller. But in the short run, I hold Bitcoin because I think that people tomorrow will hold Bitcoin.

In fact, it's stronger than that. Like a classic bubble, people actually believe that more people will want to purchase bitcoin tomorrow, and at higher prices. In other words, the supply is fixed, and the more the price goes up, the more people begin to think "Huh, maybe I should hold at least a few grand worth of Bitcoin, just in case." If more people begin to think that, the price will indeed keep rising. Of course it can't rise like that forever.

But even if you think of Bitcoin as a bubble, it behooves you to notice something rather different about it from most bubbles, like the tech boom. In the case of Bitcoin, it seems to me from anecdotal experience that many, if not most, of the people buying bitcoin today are planning to hold it for a long time, if not forever. And this is definitively not true for most bubbles. People generally ride bubbles planning to get out once it's gone up enough, then go back to holding cash, or houses, or whatever. If that's what most people are thinking, the belief structure becomes very unstable, as any dip in price suddenly might cause a lot of people to switch to selling. Even if Bitcoin is a bubble, if most of its adherents plan to hold onto it for a long time, regardless of current price levels, then this reduces the likelihood of a complete collapse when everyone rushes for the exits.

In other words, even if this is a bubble, it may be a surprisingly durable one.

And the reason that "bubble" here is not necessarily a pejorative term is a point made by Moldbug - that money is the bubble that doesn't have to pop. In other words, there will be at least one good that is held in excess of its demand for other uses, because of its use for transactional purposes.

It may seem strange to reference Moldbug, since he comes out as a skeptic, based on his guess that the government will outlaw it.

But there is a counter-argument to that - the Uber problem. Namely, the government has a limited amount of time in which it can easily ban Bitcoin. The reason is that as the price gets high enough, enough people have enough to lose that it becomes politically costly to ban it. And so at some point, you get a compromise answer, like Coinbase seems to have done - you have to submit ID, it's linked to your bank account, and you have to give a social security number. The US Government levels capital gains taxes, everyone is happy. Why ban something if you can make more money by taxing it instead?

Because there is one rhetorical claim about Bitcoin made by its proponents that I think has caused more confusion than any other. It was this realisation that made me change my mind and invest in it. (Which, to emphasise, I'm not encouraging you to do. I'm some stranger talking smack on the internet, and this is not financial advice. But still)

It is this:

Bitcoin is not going to be a substitute for the dollar.

Bitcoin is going to be a substitute for gold.

Which is to say, the reserve asset that you hold in some amount as a hedge against the @#$% hitting the fan. This is of course, mid-level @#% hitting the fan, such as large-scale financial instability - if things really get hairy, the only worthwhile assets will be guns, ammunition, antibiotics, water purification tablets, and that kind of thing. But again, the same holds true for gold. If you honestly think that in a post apocalyptic New York there's going to be a vibrant demand for gold for jewellery purposes, perhaps you would do better investing your savings in shares in the Brooklyn Bridge.

Put another way, the case for Bitcoin in concise terms is that Bitcoin is to gold what neocameralism is to monarchy.

That is to say, it's what you get if you took an old but existing arrangement, and instead of trying to mimic it exactly, you thought about how you would design a modern version of it that a) retained the essential strengths while b) utilising technological innovation since the early form to overcome its weaknesses. (Some thoughts of mine on the neocameralism vs monarchy comparison are here).

In the view of Bitcoin, the essential aspect of gold is its relatively fixed supply. So let's go one better, and make a mathematically fixed supply. Rather than gold coins, let's create highly divisible bitcoins that can be traded across borders costlessly. Rather than measure purity over and over, let's create a blockchain to solve the problem of double-spending and transactions between mutually suspicious parties. Meanwhile, the fact that it can be mined by anyone easily at first, but only with more difficulty later, encouraged people to get in on the action early.

If you thought an essential aspect of gold was its value in jewellery, then you'd be a skeptic.

Rather, the other essential aspect of bitcoin was its first-mover advantage. Sure, someone else might invent other coins (and they have), but because Bitcoin was the first to market, it already has the advantage of incumbency. And in a co-ordination game, that's a huge deal.

And I think phrasing the question this way to economists helps to clarify the issue. In other words, if you're a Bitcoin skeptic and think its a bubble that's inevitably going to burst, I would ask you: is gold a bubble? This is harder to prove than in the case of Bitcoin, because it does have a fundamental value from other uses, so its value shouldn't go to zero. As a consequence, evaluating whether it's a bubble is much more thorny and more subjective. But it seems pretty clear to me that central banks aren't holding gold because they're about to turn their bullion into wedding rings. As Moldbug points out, in 2011 gold reserves were 50 times annual production. For silver, they were twice annual production. Assuredly there is something unusual about people's desire to invest in gold. So if you think that this is creating excess demand, surely this is pushing up the price, no? Supply is pretty fixed in at least the short term, if not the medium term too. And isn't excess demand pushing up prices the definition of a bubble? The point, of course, is that with gold this state of affairs has persisted for an extraordinarily long time. Is there any particular reason to assume that gold is about to disappear as a hedge asset? Not to me.

But I know my economist friends well, and I know their objection to the above reasoning, which makes Bitcoin different from gold. Which is to say, without a fundamental source of value other than as a money-like good, isn't the whole thing liable to unravel really quickly? Put differently, you and I might be willing to hold Bitcoin because we assume that there's reserve demand from Chinese officials and drug dealers, but why are the Chinese officials and drug dealers themselves willing to hold it?

This is another way of saying, why don't we all iterate backwards and realise that without an ultimate holder of the good from some other source, the value to everyone should be zero? Suppose we have a game where if we co-ordinate on a good being money, it gives value to both of us, but in the final round whoever is holding it ends up with a worthless asset.

If the game is finitely repeated, the economists are absolutely right. If everyone correctly performs backward induction, you'd predict a) Bitcoin should never have a positive value to begin with, and b) even if it does, this should be rather fragile. If it's an infinitely repeated game, then the Nash Equilibrium has more possibilities, as it usually does. In this case, if there is no final period, then it seems more like a straight one-shot co-ordination game where if we both agree, we both benefit. But let's take the finitely repeated version with a penalty for holding in the last round, as the logic is stricter there. And the logic dictates that since no-one is willing to hold in the last round, they don't want to hold in the second last either, and so on.

But here is the trillion dollar question - how much do people actually perform backward induction? And if they don't, how should you act in response?

The classic version of this is the iterated Prisoner's dilemma. Suppose two people are playing against each other 100 times in a row. The economist's answer is that if we're only playing a finite number of times, there's only one Nash Equilibrium to this game. We both defect in the last round. Knowing this, we both defect in the second last round, and the third last round, and thus in all rounds.

And yet... people don't. They routinely co-operate, and only begin defecting towards the end. This is why tit-for-tat works so well in practice. Because most people don't actually do backwards induction for more than a few iterations. This is why they don't start defecting until close to the end.

And bear in mind that, unlike Prisoner's Dilemma, Bitcoin is a co-ordination game, meaning it actually is a Nash Equilibrium for us all to believe in Bitcoin, at least in the one shot version. In the case of Prisoner's Dilemma, you can mathematically prove that people aren't acting rationally, and yet they still do it just the same. Here, it at least can be rational.

Now, bear in mind, the economists aren't wrong on the bigger picture - it still might collapse, for all the reasons they say. But that's not the same as saying that it has to collapse. I would guess, rather, that the opposite is likely to be true. The longer it goes without collapsing, the stronger the self-fulfilling aspect of the belief becomes, and the more stable it becomes.

Mainstream economists and finance types are looking at Bitcoin continuing to rise in price, yelling that this is a stupid and unstable equilibrium and that people should all start defecting immediately.

This is just like the economist watching two people play prisoner's dilemma and continue to co-operate round after round. You can laugh and call them morons, but a betting market just opened up. It's round 43 of 100. They both co-operated last round. Rubber to the road, what would you bet they're going to do this time?

After eight years of people continuing to not defect in Bitcoin, perhaps, dear economist, it's time to re-examine your assumptions.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The metres lost, the metres gained

What is gone, but still remembered, is quite vivid and easy to see. What is yet to come is often only perceived dimly, if at all.

For a reactionary, taking a walk through the Basilique de Saint Denis in Paris is a singular and sobering experience.

Inside the church are the remains of 34 of the 37 Kings of France. This is a glorious history spanning from 481 A.D. to (depending on how you want to mark it) either 1792 or 1848. Just ponder how long that really is, and how many nations and empires rose and fell in that time.

It all was brutally cut down in the French revolution, though it recurred in fits and starts during the general chaos that was France in the 19th century.

But the tragedy is made all the more poignant by the fact that the glory of the institution is so utterly forgotten as to be almost irrelevant in modern France.

If you turn up in Saint Denis, dear reader, you will probably have the place almost to yourself. As indeed I did when I was there. Just me, Charles Martel, Louis XIV, and Clovis I.

I remember once asking a French friend of mine, "How exactly is the French Revolution portrayed in French schools? Is it an unalloyed good? Mostly good? Mostly bad? A mixture of good and bad? Opinions differ between good and bad?"

"Oh, it's a good thing", he replied. "You know, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - those things hadn't been tried before."

Deciding to elide over his odd narrative of the history of freedom, I instead opted for the more specific:
"But what about the Terror? And the 90-odd years of political instability that followed?"

His reply, "Oh yeah, I guess we don't talk about that stuff so much."

To the French, the only French history worth studying begins with the Revolution. Everything before that seems to just be lazily lumped in under the heading of "tyranny".

As ahistorical and contemptible as this is, the surest sign that nobody gives a damn about learning any of this is that the Church at Saint Denis remains relatively unruffled despite being located in what is now a heavily Muslim area of Paris. The last I heard of it being in the news was back in 2015 when the terrorists in the 2015 attack  on Paris were killed by police in Saint Denis in a massive shootout. But as far as I know, there is little evidence of vandalism of the tombs in modern times (unlike the looting of all the valuables in the French revolution). The simple truth is that even among the Muslims in the area nobody even knows or cares enough to attack it as a symbol. They attack the real symbols of France - theatres, football stadiums, cafes and restaurants.

Charles Martel weeps.

So we have a glorious and storied history of the French monarchy, dating all the way back to Clovis I, assigned to the dustbin.

We can see what is lost alright. I admit that I, unlike my French friend, am far less optimistic about what has been gained.

But somewhere in the back of one's mind while wandering around the Church, an odd niggling question pokes its way to the surface, to disturb one's reverie and melancholy. A question which, indeed, I've wondered about before.

What does it even mean to be the first King of France? Who was this Clovis I fellow? And what on earth happened before that?

Even relatively educated people often have large swathes of gaping ignorance about history, myself included. At the time I was walking around there, I didn't know at all.

The first thing to clarify is that Clovis I wasn't exactly the first King of France. Rather, he was the first King of the Franks. France is an area and a country - that came later. The Franks are a people, or a tribe.

And who were the Franks?

To give you the shortest and pithiest answer, you probably have heard of them and their exploits, but mostly under a different name.

They were the barbarians, destroying and preying on the last vestiges of the Western Roman Empire.

I've been learning about this in Patrick Wyman's excellent podcast series, The Fall of Rome.

They may not have been the Visigoths, sacking Rome under Alaric in 410, or the even more destructive Vandals, sacking it again in 455.

But make no mistake, if you were a supporter of the existing civilisational order at the time, you would have experienced the rise of Clovis I mostly in terms of his turning on and eventually defeating the few remaining serious Roman forces, such as at the Battle of Soissons in 486, and in his consolidating power over the other barbarian tribes.

In other words, Clovis became King of the Franks because he killed all the other Frankish chieftains and leaders, eventually uniting the various barbarian armies and tribes under his rule. That was how you became the first King of the Franks. What this replaced was the prior status of being one warlord of many, among a loose confederation of ethnically related tribes.

As Wyman points out in a number of places, during this period there wasn't actually a sharp distinction between concepts such as
i) 'an invading barbarian army',
ii) 'a barbarian people on the move' (since armies in those days often traveled with soldiers' wives and children, who lived with them), and
iii) 'a Roman army lead by a barbarian general with mixed Roman and barbarian troops' (since barbarians had fought on behalf of Rome, in one form or another, for a long time before this, and many of the leaders of this period were either allied with Rome or nominally Roman subordinates at some point, Clovis included) ,

Moreover, in the general disarray of this period, it's also hard to know how much to view the increasing power of these armies as the cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, or just the symptom of other groups rising to fill the increasing power vacuum left in the wake of the collapsing state. The distinction is not a clear one, and it doesn't much change what it would have been like to be on the receiving end of it.

If you were a Roman, living through the destruction of the society and structures that had ruled for 800 years, it would be extraordinarily difficult to look at savages like the Franks and see the possibility for a glorious future monarchy lasting 1300-odd years.

You would only see chaos, slaughter, and despair.

And for a long time, you would be right. There are not many fun stories out of Europe in the 6th Century, or the 7th or 8th for that matter.

But out of the chaos and carnage eventually rose the 37 Kings of France.

I confess, in my darker moments it is indeed quite difficult to look around at this fallen world of ours and see anything but societal decay, warded off only temporarily by technology.

Perhaps right now, that's all there is. But whether this is true or not, your perceptions are apt to make it likely to seem that way. You would have an easier time guessing who will be seen as the Valentinian III of our era than who might ultimately be seen as our Clovis I.

What is being lost is easy to see.

It takes much more judgment to look at the chaos and see the potential in what is yet to come.

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, May 1, 2017

On the Pathology of Low Birthrates

One of the important axioms of organisational development is that if you want an organisation to be successful and sustainable, you should make sure it's profitable.

For organizations like businesses, whose whole raison d'ĂȘtre is profit, this doesn't need much explanation. But what about for causes where the organisers don't care much about profit - a renaissance fair, a church, a literary magazine?

There was a great Social Matter article talking about this a month or so ago in the context of the Gulenist movement in Turkey - why would a religious cult also operate a test prep centre?

The reason is that a profitable organization is self-sustaining. Every organisation needs resources, and profit ensures you won't run out of them. Even if the resources you really need aren't money, profit ensures that a) you don't fail for lack of money, and b) you've got a good shot of acquiring the non-monetary resources you need anyway. Suppose you want supporters - well, would better marketing help? Would free food? Would a great place to hold meetings?

When you forget this lesson, you end up like jwz (whose writing I enjoy, even if I don't agree with all of it) with DNA Lounge (a nightclub I've been to, and very much like) - he made a ton of money in tech, wanted to run a cool nightclub, and didn't care about the money. Then $5 million later, he ran out of money. It sounds both mean and trite at this stage, but if he really cared about the mission of having creative musical venues available, he should have worked damn hard to make it profitable as soon as humanly possible.

But even people who think about this when it comes to profit and organisations often don't think about the equivalent for ideas and cultural practices.

To wit: if you want a culture or idea to survive, the people who practice it must have high birth rates.

Because while organisations propagate themselves by resources, ideas and cultures are carried by people. It doesn't matter how much you love your particular idea - feminism, classical music, the constitution, whatever. If the people who support that idea have below replacement birth rates, and the people who are opposed to that idea have above replacement birth rates, then the prevalence of that idea is being whittled away, slowly but surely. Ideas don't breed directly, but they can still be bred out.

Because ideas, like most things in this world, are heritable. Both genetics and culture mean that parents in general pass their values on to their children. Take away the children, and you take away the people likely to hold the idea tomorrow.

Of course, people are apt to forget this, because it's a slow-moving effect. The faster way ideas spread is through communication across a given population.

Which is all well and good. The more you spread the idea, the more people who hold it right now, and, ceteris paribus, the more people will hold it next generation.

Where things get complicated, however, is if the idea itself reduces birthrates directly. This is especially true for ideas like feminism or progressivism in general. In this sense, they are parasitic and pathological. I mean this as a metaphor, but only in the barest biological sense. They reduce the reproductive fitness of their host, simply by reducing the number of offspring it has that survive to adulthood to themselves reproduce. As a consequence, these ideas are like a deadly virus that can only survive by spreading and infecting other hosts. Is reducing the reproductive fitness of your host not the very essence of parasitism?

Ideas that increase procreation are symbiotic in that sense - the idea spreads by increasing the fitness of its host. But as in nature, parasites and diseases can spread and survive, although there is a tradeoff between the mortality rate and the transmission rate. The faster you kill off the host, the faster the disease must also spread, or it kills off itself with the host. In this sense, the fact that progressivism has spread throughout the west with increasing speed, and the fact that it is catastrophic for birth rates, are not a coincidence. The former is a requirement for the latter.

It is an unassailable fact that the ideas, beliefs and circumstances of the modern west are extraordinarily pathological in terms of birth rates. The exact cause of this is hard to pin down, but in some sense it doesn't specifically matter - not only the directly pathological ideas, but those that tend to co-locate with it, are similarly being selected out. So a taste for classical music rose with the growth of Europe and was able to last for a long time, but now is associated only with low birth rate groups. If you disagree with my assessment that progressivism is considerably to blame for low birth rates, that's fine, because they're all going down together. If you think the answer is just 'wealth' as the cause of low birth rates, then we are ineluctably being selected for poverty.

(The problem with wealth as an explanation, incidentally, is that while it could explain the time series and the current cross-section, it fails entirely with the historical cross-section. Which is to say, for most of history, the rich had more children. For them at least, wealth didn't seem to produce the same pathologically low birth rates that it does for us).

But no matter where exactly it is coming from, the west simply cannot survive long term in its present form. And this is a purely mathematical prediction, not a sociological one. Any set of values that creates below replacement birth rates is pathological, and is actively being bred out.

Of course, the other complicating factor is that the west keeps taking in new immigrants. When they arrive, they have high birth rates, before they too end up declining. In the mean time, they acquire at best only a fraction (if any) of the traits that made the west what it was.

Which, if you like the west as it is, or as it was, is a big problem.

But if you're the blind idiot god of social evolution, this is the pathology solving itself. The modern west is pathological, and the dismantling of the circumstances that created it is evolution's revenge.

The ultimate irony of social Darwinism is that while it was pilloried for its racism in predicting the decline of third world populations, on current birthrates it was ultimately the west itself, the very progenitor of the idea, that was the unfit one. Evolution does not work the way most people seem to think, just making stuff awesome according to your particular preference for what that involves.

The biggest question isn't whether the current situation can go on forever. It's only what will replace it. The replacement will be made up of individuals holding ideas that are resistant to whatever set of pressures create low birth rates. In this sense, we are like a population in the midst of a great plague, knowing that eventually society will only be made up of people with an immune system able to defend against it.

If you want to know who that might be, just look at who is currently having children. The sincerely religious, such as Mormons and Muslims, for one. And those with a very high time preference and few outside options.

There are many forms of non-pathological social structures and ideas that could replace the current one.

One is Victorian England.

Another is Africa 40,000 years ago.

You may care which of these we end up in, but evolution doesn't.

Most likely, it will be neither, but some new combination of traits and ideas. When the dinosaurs get wiped out, the new species don't evolve back into the same old dinosaurs.

The good news, however, is that ideas are not DNA - people can change their ideas much faster than their genes. And whatever pathology is producing our current predicament must be relatively recent in origin, suggesting that fixing it does not necessarily involve going back to the dark ages. I have suggested the birth control basilisk as one possible cause, but the problem is a hard one to pin down.

The bad news is that we seem to be making almost no progress in actually fixing the problem, or even identifying it.

But the big picture lesson stands - there are, and can be, no healthy low-birthrate societies. It is a contradiction in terms.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Puritan Hypothesis Personified

We live in a period where Whig history is the only history that most people know. The west conquered the evils of Nazism and racism, and is moving towards a progressive utopia. People don't know the term 'Whig history', but they know the idea alright.

To me, the best summary of Whig history comes from our modern secular saint, Martin Luther King, who summed it up thus:
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
The history of this quote is a fascinating one.

The MLK quote is actually a paraphrasing of a longer quote by Theodore Parker, who said:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
I'd never heard of this guy before. I actually came across this while looking up the MLK quote as part of writing a different post, but ended up down this rabbit-hole instead.

The reason is that the story of Theodore Parker seems almost shockingly tailor-made to support Moldbug's puritan hypothesis of leftism - that it is primarily an offshoot of mainline American Protestantism that came out of New England Puritans, and over time gradually morphed to replace God with Social Justice.

First off, where would you guess that Theodore Parker was born? Where else, but Massachusetts! Lexington, MA, to be precise.

And for some reason, it wasn't a big surprise to find out that the rest of his life story fits almost eerily into place.

He was an ardent abolitionist, living from 1810 to 1860.

If I told those facts alone, what might you guess about his education and profession?

Would you guess, perhaps, a Unitarian Universalist preacher who had both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University?

Ding ding ding, we have a winner!

Even his ancestry is exactly on point:
His paternal grandfather was John Parker, the leader of the Lexington militia at the Battle of Lexington. 
Remember this the next time conservatives are revering the founding fathers. Their descendants, both literal and intellectual, are leftists. Skip the standard Jefferson and Washington hagiographies and read some Thomas Hutchinson instead.
Among his colonial Yankee ancestors were Thomas Hastings, who came from the East Anglia region of England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, and Deacon Thomas Parker, who came from England in 1635 and was one of the founders of Reading.
East Anglia, East Anglia, where have I heard that name before?

That's right, it's from David Hackett Fisher's book 'Albion's Seed'. It's where the English Puritans came from before they moved to Massachussetts.

But so what, a skeptic may say. Who cares about his background if he was able to perfectly capture the importance of aiming towards what is just and right?

Well, perhaps it might do to know exactly what the "justice" was that he thought the universe was bending towards. Because it looks an awful lot like "leftism".

First up, feminism! From Parker himself
"The domestic function of the woman does not exhaust her powers... To make one half of the human race consume its energies in the functions of housekeeper, wife and mother is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made"
and from the mouths of others
Stanton called his sermons "soul-satisfying" when beginning her career, and she credited him with introducing her to the idea of a Heavenly Mother in the Trinity.
I'm no Christian, let alone a biblical scholar, but I apparently missed the Heavenly Mother part of the Trinity.

But don't strain yourself too hard trying to reconcile it, as Parker was pretty upfront about his perversions of Christianity. Next up, trying to bowdlerize the Bible to take out anything he perceived as inconvenient, leaving a mush of vague sentimental spiritualism:
  “I preach abundant heresies,” he wrote to a friend, “and they all go down—for the listeners do not know how heretical they are.” For years he had wrestled with the factuality of the Hebrew Scriptures, and by 1837 he was wishing “some wise man would now write a book…and show up the absurdity of…the Old Testament miracles, prophecies, dreams, miraculous births, etc.’”
In 1841, Parker laid bare his radical theological position in a sermon titled A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity, in which he espoused his belief that the scriptures of historic Christianity did not reflect the truth. In so doing, he made an open break with orthodox theology. He instead argued for a type of Christian belief and worship in which the essence of Jesus’s teachings remained permanent but the words, traditions, and other forms of their conveyance did not. He stressed the immediacy of God and saw the Church as a communion, looking upon Christ as the supreme expression of God. Ultimately, he rejected all miracles and revelation and saw the Bible as full of contradictions and mistakes. He retained his faith in God but suggested that people experience God intuitively and personally, and that they should center their religious beliefs on individual experience.
The Bible is all a metaphor filled with mistakes and superstitions, just go with what you feel, man. But I'm still Christian, don't you know.

It will not come as a shock to find out that Parker's successors felt less bound to utter the last part. But Parker himself was definitely ahead of the curve, as you have to be when you're deemed heretical by the Unitarian Church (of all organisations).

By contrast, if you want to find out what someone thinks who actually does take the bible literally and cares what it says about slavery, read Robert Dabney's 'A Defense of Virginia'. In it, you will find over 100 pages of exhaustive yet fascinating discourse on what exactly the Bible has to say on the slavery question, and it's probably not what you'd think. Dabney was well acquainted with men like Parker, and skewered them wonderfully:
The Socinian and skeptical type of all the evasions of our Scriptural argument has been already intimated. If the most profane and reckless wresting of God's word will not serve their turn to make it speak abolitionism then they not seldom repudiate its authority. One of their leaders, long a professed minister of the Gospel, declares at the close of a train of tortuous sophisms that if he were compelled to believe the Bible countenances slavery he should be compelled to give up the Bible, thereby virtually confessing that he had never been convinced of the infallibility of that which for thirty years he had been pretending to preach to men as infallible. Others more blatant and blasphemous when compelled to admit that both the Bible and the American constitution recognized slavery exclaimed "Give me then an anti slavery constitution, an anti slavery Bible, and an anti slavery God!" 
This is almost exactly what Parker did.

And even outside slavery, the list of causes Parker supported is almost straight out of modern leftist orthodoxy
As Parker's early biographer John White Chadwick wrote, Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: "peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor" though none became "a dominant factor in his experience" with the exception of his antislavery views. He "denounced the Mexican War and called on his fellow Bostonians in 1847 'to protest against this most infamous war.'"
Let's just count up how many modern leftist causes this guy managed to hit - blacks, hispanics, pacifism (of a sort), education, feminism, criminals, poverty, hating the rich. Parker loses points, however, for not having the foresight to also agitate about homosexuality and the environment. Had he been slightly more visionary on these fronts, he'd be a shoo-in for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination.

But still, justice! Who can forget that famous arc of justice, to which the moral universe is inevitably tending?

Well, it might not hurt to examine how exactly Parker advocated pushing that moral universe on its way, because he certainly wasn't interested in letting the universe work things out in its own due course. Parker was unusually far-sighted in terms of how he applied leftist aims too. Behold a life full of civil disobedience, incitement to violence, funding of guerrilla violence, and general Alinsky-style agitation:
He wrote the scathing To a Southern Slaveholder in 1848, as the abolition crisis was heating up and took a strong stance against slavery and advocated violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 which required the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Parker worked with many fugitive slaves, some of whom were among his congregation. As in the case of William and Ellen Craft, he hid them in his home. Although he was indicted for his actions, he was never convicted.
Guilty as Sin, Free as a Bird. He's the Bill Ayers of 1850.
During the undeclared war in Kansas (see Bleeding Kansas and Origins of the American Civil War) prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Parker supplied money for weapons for free state militias. As a member of the Secret Six, he supported the abolitionist John Brown, whom many considered a terrorist. After Brown's arrest, Parker wrote a public letter, "John Brown's Expedition Reviewed," arguing for the right of slaves to kill their masters and defending Brown’s actions.
Obviously, the South were the untrammeled instigators of the Civil War through their reckless secession. They should have just stuck around to deal with guys like Parker who advocated for terrorism and slaves murdering their masters. Be reasonable, Southern slave owners!

Of course, you may think this is all just incidental to the original quote with which we started - the guy liked justice, even if in other arenas of his life he was a bit extreme.

But it turns out these ideas aren't incidental to the main point. They are in fact the essence of the idea. Here's the full context of the quote, from quote investigator
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
In the context of everything he did and said, it is hard to read the last line as anything but a threat.

This was in 1853.

12 years and 620,000-odd corpses later, America had done a lot of trembling alright.

This is the context of the famous MLK quote with which we began. You will find a version of this quote on the MLK memorial in Washington D.C., which tells you how much the idea has become a source of bipartisan inspiration.

And this, incidentally, is the second Parker quote lightly paraphrased by a modern secular saint, and memorialised in Washington D.C. The other is even more famous. Parker, as well as agitating for violent overthrow of slavery, was a big fan of democracy:
A democracy — of all the people, by all the people, for all the people
And so at last, we see an odd correspondence between the old and the new.

For in fact,
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
in practice means
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward leftism. 
Which could be ever-so-slightly rephrased as:
Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left.
Indeed.

When stripped of the marketing, Parker, MLK and Moldbug can all agree on the trend, even if they disagree on how they feel about it.

It's not for nothing that they carve it in marble in Washington D.C.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

On Self-Control and Eating Disorders

Years ago, I had a friend who once described herself in a moment of honesty as having gone through a period where she was, as she put it, an exercise bulimic. She would exercise obsessively, going on runs every day and working out all the time. The label itself was perhaps the most interesting part, and seemed to be her own creation. We have mental categories for eating disorders. Most of us, however, do not have categories for exercise disorders.

Eating disorders, at least in the popular telling, are usually associated with looking excessively emaciated and thin. But instead of just not eating, she ate a more or less regular (albeit modest and vegan) diet and exercised like crazy. The result was looking thin but toned, not the stick figure arms that I always associated with anorexia or bulimia.

And this proved almost the perfect disguise, because someone who just likes to exercise a lot fits the aspirational ideal of our society. We envision them as ourselves but with more willpower, doing all the gym classes that we always meant to do but never got around to doing.

By contrast, someone who simply refuses to eat meaningful quantities of food, certainly in public, strikes many more people as inherently suspicious. Having willpower being channeled into straight self-denial of something so basic like food, rather than hard work on something "virtuous" (in the modern telling) like exercise, raises far more alarm bells about sanity. These alarm bells themselves are quite telling, of course. They arise because we live in an inherently self-indulgent society dedicated to consumption and self-centredness, where self-denial seems like a bizarre refutation of what we hold dear. But nonetheless, the perception was what it was.

I have known a number of girls over the years who claimed to have eating disorders at some point or other.

Parenthetically, I even knew one girl who claimed this was a very useful cold reading technique on women. Say to them "I'm guessing that you possibly had an eating disorder at some point, though you may not have ever told anyone about it." The reason it worked, she claimed, is that this described a sufficiently sizable majority of women in the population, so was a safe bet to make regardless of who you were talking to, especially given the ambiguity in understanding of the term 'eating disorder'.

But among those few who claimed to have an eating disorder, there were some things that stuck out.

Firstly, the claim was always in the past tense. I had an eating disorder some time ago, not I have an eating disorder. But the story somehow never made it clear that the underlying mindset had changed that much. The circumstances had changed, sure, but the stories tended to lack a defining end which stated "and that's when I figured out that I had to change my way of thinking, and so I did." Instead, the descriptions of past eating disorders always had a distinctly confessional aspect about them. I suspect my cold-reading friend knew of what she spoke when she added the clause about maybe not telling anyone about it. One does not lightly confess to things which sound like mental health problems.

People nearly always tell you the unflattering things about themselves in oblique ways, and you need to know how to listen. One way is the one above, and the rarer case, where introspection and honesty have gotten to the point of identifying flaws, but they are phrased in the past tense. When you hear "I was [this unflattering thing]", you should understand it to mean "I fear I still am [this unflattering thing], but I struggle and work to try to change it, with varying degrees of success"

The other way people reveal themselves is by generalization to the population at large, particularly when it comes to mental processes. Whenever you hear someone say "people generally think in manner X", pay close attention, especially if the characterisation strikes you as wrong. They are nearly always describing themselves.

My cold-reading friend, for instance, was not among those who had said they'd had an eating disorder themselves. But it would be a very good bet to make.

The second notable aspect of the eating disorder confessions I've heard is the rationale. And they all said the same thing: it wasn't really about being thin. It was about exerting control over one small aspect of their lives. And the need to do this became strong when the rest of their life seemed to be sliding out of control. The message in multiple cases was the same - "At least I can control this part".

Which fits in with the characterisation of the mindset above. What seemed to have changed to make the eating disorder go from present tense to past tense, if you read between the lines, was that the problems making their life uncertain had gradually subsided. That, more than anything else, was what caused them to no longer obsess about their weight and eating. Everyone wants to look thin, pretty and be in good shape. But what was being felt internally, and what sometimes but less frequently gets observed from the outside, is the excessive control. This was the underlying need - the food was merely the one part they could solve in a life that had gotten chaotic and frightening. In one case it was going to boarding school at age 13. In another it was being in a foreign country and suddenly knowing nobody.

I have a suspicion, though I'm sure many psychiatrists will disagree, that a decent amount of what we classify as mental disorders really represent points on a continuum of character traits, rather than binary instances of a disease. At some point, we have a general view that the threshold has been crossed into the pathological territory, but this is nearly always a judgment call on which people will often disagree. The distinction between being a clinical narcissist, a sub-clinical narcissist, and just a general selfish asshole, is not an easy one to pin down.

So it seems to be here.

The underlying tendency here is far more common in its less pathological form - that when you can't manage the large things in your life, you at least manage the small. You may not know where your relationship is heading, or how you're going to find a job, but you can at least get the laundry done and make sure the dish cloths aren't too dirty. At some point, I suspect a lot of us have done this, busying ourselves with the musical score of day-to-day activities while the deckchairs of our life slowly slide down the deck of the Titanic.

What we are really observing with something like anorexia, then, is that the need for control has gotten so great that the person can't even see how they appear to the outside world. Keeping yourself 10kg underweight is very hard work. The pathology is that the need to do something extremely hard and controlled outweighs even the need (or ability) to see that others will perceive you as being mentally ill.

And to be honest, this is a pretty good diagnostic of at least some instances when things have tipped over into pathology - when you can no longer even see how you appear to the outside world. But if one focuses only on this aspect, one tends to treat the symptom of the excess, but not think about the underlying cause, especially in the sub-clinical cases.

For instance, one of the girls I knew said that the lesson she had learned was not that she shouldn't obsessively control her weight, but rather that she needed to obsessively control her weight and weigh a few kilograms more so that people wouldn't think that she looked too thin.

It seems, shall we say, optimistic to think that this has fixed the underlying problem, unless you think that eating disorders are merely a problem of low BMI.

For those of us who are not psychiatrists and not dealing frequently with people who are genuinely mentally ill, the interesting thing about understanding pathological behavior is for what it reveals about how to fix our own, non-pathological versions of the same basic trait.

And I suspect the broader lesson is that you should be wary of dealing with the uncertainty and chaos of your life by focusing on the small problems in lieu of the large. Willpower is a finite resource. Spend it on the most important use.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

How to Improve the Discourse on Education Policy

Is there a subject of policy debate in modern society more deranged than education? When it comes to primary and secondary education, the sheer sentimentality, mendacity and surreality of most policy proposals borders on incredible. We just need to Fix The Schools™, then everything will be alright with our wayward youth.

Education, curiously, is one of those subjects on which the divide between the reactionary mindset and the mainstream conservative mindset is starkest.

As far as I can tell, there seem to be three main explanations for why some schools perform poorly.

The leftist mindset is that the problem with "bad schools" (where this is usually taken to mean "schools with poor measures of student academic achievement) is a lack of resources. School funding is tied to property taxes, so rich schools get more money than poor ones, and that's why they perform better. More money will let them buy textbooks, and ipads, and hire better teachers, and have art programs which will distract kids from joining violent gangs, etc.

Of course, this runs up against the problem that we've been throwing money into education, hand over fist, for decades, with literally nothing to show for it. As Scott Alexander discussed a few weeks ago in his post on cost disease:



Maybe another 50% increase and we'll finally Fix The Schools™!

And then there's the mainstream conservative answer: the problem with bad schools is bad teachers and bad incentives. The teachers unions are powerful, and the Democrats are beholden to them, which means that there's no competition across schools, no ability to fire underperforming teachers, no incentives for better performance etc.

This of course runs into the problem that if this were the main driver of educational differences, then states where the Democrats have strong political power should do worse. Do they?

No. If you take, say 2015 NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores (available here) and correlate them with 2016 Democratic Presidential Vote Shares (available here), you get a whopping correlation of  -0.0595. If you're a regression guy, if you regress mathematics test scores on vote percentage, the t-stat is a paltry -0.417, with an R-squared of 0.0035. 

But even this overstates the case, because DC is a huge outlier in vote share at 90.48%, and an absolute sinkhole in terms of test scores. If you take DC out, the correlation is actually positive, at 0.183 (though the t-stat on the regression is still insignificant, at 1.29). If you use 2012 vote shares, which were perhaps more usual, the correlation increases to 0.214 excluding DC, and the t-stat is 1.52. That is to say, more Democratic states do, if anything, slightly better, though the effect isn't particularly strong. You can see this just by ranking the states:

State NAEP Math Dem. Vote Share
Massachusetts 297 60.01%
Minnesota 294 46.44%
New Hampshire 294 46.98%
New Jersey 293 54.99%
Vermont 290 55.72%
Wisconsin 289 46.45%
North Dakota 288 27.23%
Virginia 288 49.75%
Indiana 287 37.91%
Montana 287 35.75%
Washington 287 54.30%
Wyoming 287 21.63%
Colorado 286 48.16%
Iowa 286 41.74%
Nebraska 286 33.70%
Utah 286 27.46%
Maine 285 47.83%
Ohio 285 43.56%
South Dakota 285 31.74%
Connecticut 284 54.57%
Idaho 284 27.49%
Kansas 284 36.05%
Pennsylvania 284 47.85%
Texas 284 43.24%
Arizona 283 45.13%
Maryland 283 60.33%
Oregon 283 50.07%
Illinois 282 55.83%
Missouri 281 38.14%
North Carolina 281 46.17%
Rhode Island 281 54.41%
Alaska 280 36.55%
Delaware 280 53.18%
New York 280 58.40%
Georgia 279 45.64%
Hawaii 279 62.22%
Kentucky 278 32.68%
Michigan 278 47.27%
Tennessee 278 34.72%
South Carolina 276 40.67%
Arkansas 275 33.65%
California 275 61.73%
Florida 275 47.82%
Nevada 275 47.92%
Oklahoma 275 28.93%
Mississippi 271 40.11%
New Mexico 271 48.26%
West Virginia 271 26.48%
Louisiana 268 38.45%
Alabama 267 34.36%
District of Columbia 263 90.48%

Admittedly there's a lot more variables you'd want to throw into the regression, but still, the univariate big picture doesn't look like the Republican story either.

So what's the reactionary position on why there are bad schools? 

Bad schools are primarily due to bad students. Some students are dumb, unruly, lazy, dysfunctional brats. They can't learn, won't learn, and don't learn. You don't even need to take a strong stance on why these differences arise, but just assume that by the time the kids arrive at school, some of them are just a drain and a menace on everyone around them.

And for some reason, this explanation is considered anathema to most right-thinking people. How can you say anything so mean? All students have the potential to succeed, if only they're given the right circumstances!

If the reactionary position strikes you as excessively unkind (especially if its unkindness makes you flinch from accepting its possible truth), I want you to try the following thought experiment.

When you think of "schools", what mental picture comes to mind?

I suspect you are thinking of an idealised brochure, a smiling child at a desk, something that would fit easily as an advertisement for a charity on the side of a bus. The kid is also likely to be young, probably around 5-8 years old, bright-eyed at the world.

Stop thinking of that. Schools aren't like that.

Okay, so what are schools like? 

You don't need me to tell you. You've been to one. 

To borrow an idea from the War Nerd (when he was explaining why it was easy to get young men to fight and die in wars): if you want to think of schools, think of your 9th grade PE class.

Who was in that class? There were some good students, some of your friends that you think fondly of. If you're reading this blog, chances are both you and your friends were pretty high achieving.

Then there were some middle of the road kids, who were nice enough, and filled out the fat part of the bell curve.

Then there was almost certainly a solid rump of kids best described as complete dickheads. Dumb, mean, idiots. That bully who liked to pick on the young kids. That big punk who stole your friend's bike tire. That guy who was thick as two planks, and boasted about taking a crap on some stranger's car while drunk one Saturday night.

Now, think of just those scumbags, because these are almost certainly the underperforming students we're trying to fix. Imagine that you're designing education policy. How can you improve the educational outcomes of those students? Are they suddenly going to apply themselves more if higher property taxes provide them with a free iPad? Are they about to dive into calculus if only they can find some inspiring young teacher with hip and fresh real world examples of differential equations?

Of course they're not. They're just idiots who will make life miserable for whoever is around them. 

If your school has too many such students, it is probably going to be a "bad school". Now, at this stage of argumentation, it is still a matter of conjecture that the scumbag kids of the world are not spread exactly uniformly across every single school district. But is the idea so outlandish? Do you think the adult scumbags are spread precisely uniformly across every neighbourhood and state? Perhaps this matches your experience of traveling around your city or country, but somehow I doubt it. If it were true, you should feel approximately equally happy moving to any neighbourhood in your city, or any state in the country, since everyone is basically the same! Yeah right. And if the annoying adults aren't distributed uniformly, why should the kids be? The first law of behavioral genetics doesn't go away just because you're feeling sentimental about all kids being nice at heart. And given the capacity of nasty kids to have enormous disruptive negative spillovers on the kids around them, it's not clear how much of a difference in distribution you would need to affect the aggregate outcomes. 

But even if you think of the whole distribution of students (rather than just the left tail), did that distribution seem like something pretty fixed over your schooling, or something with a lot of year-to-year variation? Did the students in the bottom third of the class in one year ever suddenly jump to the top third the next year as a result of a really good teacher? Or would you say that the personal traits, and relative test scores, of the students in your class were approximately stable in rank order over your whole school career? How confident are you that your treatment could upset last year's rank order by very much?

If your education policy doesn't seem like it will work on the ne'er-do-well kids in your 9th grade PE class, it's probably not going to work at all.

And thinking about those kids is an incredibly grounding reality check to cure multi-billion dollar sentimental nonsense that every kid is just wanting to get the best possible education in life. Some are. Some aren't. It's not that every child who does badly at school is also mean and of poor character. But thinking about the ones that are is the best cure for hazy, rose-tinted thinking on the subject. It makes it easier to focus on the sheer stubbornness of the problem at hand.

None of this means that the reactionary position is the only difference across schools, or that there isn't any role for other factors. But let's just say that it's a hypothesis that seems like it might be worth considering more than currently is done, at least in the public discourse.

It is self-evident that the world has a substantial fraction of dickheads in it.

All of those dickheads were 10 years old once. 

Most of them were probably dickheads back then too.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

On the Folly of Romanticising Dreams

I finally got around to seeing La La Land, apparently making me about the last person in America to do so. It was quite good, after all. But one thing that stuck out was the ever present Hollywood obsession with the idea of fulfilling one's dreams.

This is a theme that never seems to get tired - don't give up on one's dreams, keep working and eventually you'll achieve your dreams, don't sell out your dreams to mundane practical considerations, et predictable cetera.

There is, in other words, an ongoing preoccupation with the plight of how to disembarrass dreamers of their temporary obstacles.

Let us assume, charitably, that this is meeting a real need in society, for those with concrete ambitions and goals. In the world of cinema, everyone has a purpose that they have aspired to from a young age - opening a successful jazz club, becoming a famous actress.

But every time I see these messages, I always wonder: what fraction of the audience actually has dreams in the first place, at least in the way that Hollywood depicts them?

If the average person were asked, "Quick, what's your dream?" and forced to answer in two seconds, I would guess that a lot of answers would begin with "I don't know,…”, and the honest ones would probably end there as well.

What the average person has instead of fixed childhood dreams, I suspect, is a gnawing sense of ennui that they don’t really know what they want to do with their life, but whatever they’re currently doing isn’t quite it. They’d change, but they’re not sure to what, and even if they had a concrete aim they’re not sure they’d be able to achieve it.

That their hobbies and interests have more of the flavour of enjoyable diversions to pass the time in a rapidly vanishing life, rather than genuine passions.

That their hobbies and interests, when they are honest about it, are nearly all just forms of consumption – sex, movies, gadgets, food, alcohol, porn, weed. And like all consumption, the pleasure is relatively fleeting, and sense of purpose is minimal.

That the only hobby that doesn’t quite fit the previous list is hanging out with their friends, which at least has a social aspect to it. But if they’re older than 25, their most common thoughts regarding their friends are either that i) they don’t manage to see them as often as they’d like, and/or ii) they no longer live in the same city as the people they consider their best friends.

You may note that Hollywood has relatively little to say about how to find dreams if you don’t have them. The very concept almost sounds absurd, since dreams presuppose a fixed and concrete aim, which is the very thing lacking most of the time. And if you tried to push people to come up with some kind of dream, they're going to resort to retrieving some mentally cached entry for "what are the kinds of things people claim to dream of doing?". These usually have one of several predictable forms:

-Mindless Adventurism: I want to travel around the world!
-Fame: I want to be in a rock band or a movie star!
-Getting Paid for My Hobbies: I want to be a gossip columnist (because I like reading social media nonsense), a porn star (because I like banging), own a restaurant (because I like eating) etc.

I ask you, dear reader – do you think that the ennui that so characterises our modern existence is likely to be solved by more trips to Europe, aspiring actors, or failed restauranteurs?

What people are genuinely missing, rather, is a sense of purpose in their lives. And purpose is different from dreams in subtle but important ways.

You can find purpose in religion – in aims higher than egotism, and in understanding the human condition. You can find purpose in family – in raising children, in looking after your elderly parents, in loving and supporting your siblings. You can find purpose in community – in bonds with those around you, in brightening the day of neighbours or strangers. For a talented few, you can find purpose in art – in creating things of great beauty which may outlast you.

With the possible exception of art, the purposes listed above are within the reach of the average person, though finding them is far from straightforward. Religion and community have both been declining a lot in the west over the last few decades. Still, as the Last Psychiatrist puts it, you can always fake it until it becomes real - if your parents are still alive, you can call them, right now, and brighten up their day. 

But no one dreams of finding religion, or having children, or volunteering in their neighourhood. Because dreams are at heart about achievement, about individual ambition, about achieving success at the highest levels. And this is almost by definition not a possibility for the average person. Even where the subject matter coincides, like in employment, the emphasis is radically different. You can find purpose in an honest day’s work, and providing for your family, but you can only find success by being a CEO or an astronaut.

There is an extent to which human ambition makes for better stories, which is probably why Hollywood likes the idea.

But eventually, the subtext of the message gets internalized – to be worthy, you must have ambition, and succeed in it.

The left likes this idea, because the left believes in egalitarianism. We are all as good as each other, therefore we all have the same innate ability to achieve anything, if we just set our minds to it. Set our minds to what, exactly? Um, derp... never mind, let's just go with astronaut. How many of those are there again?

The negative consequences of this message never seem to get much contemplated. It does the left half the distribution no favours whatsoever to tell them that they can do things that they are incapable of, and that they are failures if they don’t aim at something incredibly difficult and succeed

What are they likely to conclude?

Well, if they are part of a designated victim group, they will latch on to another social message floating in the ether – that their lack of success is due to the malign influence of the interfering forces of -isms and -phobias. I am not a failure, you see. I have talent and skill, which a bigoted and hateful world has prevented from being realized! Is it any wonder that people to whom these messages apply find them seductive as a psychological balm for wounded pride and failed ambition?

Or if they’re just some white trash loser, for whom this excuse isn’t available, they drink and drug themselves into an anesthetized stupor and premature death.

Setting people up for inevitable failure is no kindness at all. And the reality is that even having concrete dreams is only feasible for those in the right half of the distribution of ambition and talent.

There is no right half of a distribution without a corresponding left half. Egalitarianism has destroyed most people's ability to think seriously about how to improve the lives of the left half through any mechanisms other than charity. The state of the art thinking is to keep reinforcing the message to the left half that they, too, can be the right half.

How much needless human misery do we create by pretending that the left half doesn’t exist?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Carlyle Considered

After a shameful delay, at last I have joined the Froude Society! Previous installments covered Froude's "The Bow of Ulysses: The English in the West Indies" and Maine's "Popular Government". Today's subject is Thomas Carlyle, the grand old man of reaction, and his "Latter-day Pamphlets".

Reading Carlyle is often quite surprising, because while he is indubitably reactionary, it's not always in ways that one might expect. For instance, Carlyle places a lot of emphasis on the great men theory of both history and government.
Indisputably enough the meaning of all reform-movement, electing and electioneering, of popular agitation, parliamentary eloquence, and all political effort whatsoever, is that you may get the ten Ablest Men in England put to preside over your ten principal departments of affairs.
This emphasis means that there is relatively less discussion of detailed policy positions on particular issues of the day. Good government, to Carlyle, is a long way from a set of conservative talking points. It arises by appointing the most competent men to power, and giving them the authority to actually rule.

Carlyle wants, in other words, an aristocracy. But this is an aristocracy of talent and character, not one of inherited class. Men of low birth but noble character are singled out for praise, Robert Burns being a prominent example.
Choose well your Governor;—not from this or that poor section of the Aristocracy, military, naval, or redtapist; wherever there are born kings of men, you had better seek them out, and breed them to this work. All sections of the British Population will be open to you.
To the modern mind, one is more apt to evaluate governments by whether they their preferences accord with our own (and hence whether we want the same things implemented as the leaders do ) and whether they have the competence to actually carry the plans out. In this reckoning, a competent leader carrying out plans we hate is considerably worse than an incompetent leader trying and failing to carry out plans we hate.

But to Carlyle, competence involves the ability to understand the decrees of Nature or Nature's God, and thus know what will cause justice to be done. As a result, the distinction between competent government and just government is not of primary significance:
To prosper in this world, to gain felicity, victory and improvement, either for a man or a nation, there is but one thing requisite, That the man or nation can discern what the true regulations of the Universe are in regard to him and his pursuit, and can faithfully and steadfastly follow these. These will lead him to victory; whoever it may be that sets him in the way of these, —were it Russian Autocrat, Chartist Parliament, Grand Lama, Force of Public Opinion, Archbishop of Canterbury, M'Croudy the Seraphic Doctor with his Last-evangel of Political Economy,—sets him in the sure way to please the Author of this Universe, and is his friend of friends. And again, whoever does the contrary is, for a like reason, his enemy of enemies. This may be taken as fixed.
Perhaps the reason that we no longer talk this way is that most of us no longer believe in God (or anything else), and hence don't think of the aim of politics as being to implement his justice on earth. As a result, there's just preferences.

The above quote also illustrates that the focus on competent leaders making competent decisions takes precedence over designing mechanical schemes to implement decisions. As I noted in the discussion of Maine, early Moldbug (in the form of ideas like neocameralism) is a scientist of government, seeking the truth of optimal arrangements. Maine is an engineer of government, grappling with the messy practicalities of what produces generally stable outcomes. But in this taxonomy, Carlyle is an artist of government. Governing is a skill to be learned by able men, appropriately apprenticed to their trade. The only interest in systems and mechanisms is in the extent to which they correctly select the right men, and elevate them to power.

For this reason, Carlyle is generally scathing about the modern implementation of democracy, but not because it is impossible to implement well. The main problem is the fact that the world is full of fools, most of whom know nothing about either government policy or selecting able men. The Laws of the Universe are not easily given up to every Tom, Dick and Harry, so averaging out their opinion with those of the wise is a recipe for disaster:
Your ship cannot double Cape Horn by its excellent plans of voting. The ship may vote this and that, above decks and below, in the most harmonious exquisitely constitutional manner: the ship, to get round Cape Horn, will find a set of conditions already voted for, and fixed with adamantine rigour by the ancient Elemental Powers, who are entirely careless how you vote. If you can, by voting or without voting, ascertain these conditions, and valiantly conform to them, you will get round the Cape: if you cannot,—the ruffian Winds will blow you ever back again; the inexorable Icebergs, dumb privy-councillors from Chaos, will nudge you with most chaotic 'admonition'; you will be flung half-frozen on the Patagonian cliffs, or admonished into shivers by your iceberg councillors, and sent sheer down to Davy Jones, and will never get round Cape Horn at all!
...
Ships accordingly do not use the ballot-box at all; and they reject the Phantasm species of Captains: one wishes much some other Entities,—since all entities lie under the same rigorous set of laws,—could be brought to show as much wisdom, and sense at least of self-preservation, the first command of Nature.
For democracy skeptics like me, there is much to enjoy. But Carlyle is not easily reduced to slogans, and gives a quite nuanced view on when voting will work better or worse. Latter Day Pamphlets is not wedded to a particular governing system.

For instance, the biggest surprise of the book was that Carlyle is relatively positive about Oliver Cromwell. To me, I had always thought of Cromwell as a disaster, the beginning of where things went badly wrong in English history, and the destruction of genuine monarchy in England. But this isn't how Carlyle portrays it. Cromwell's strong Christian belief is implicitly praised, as is competence in leadership. Remember, the key is greatness of leadership, not forms of government! In this respect, I part company with Carlyle in the importance of institutions and norms. Even if Cromwell were more competent than Charles I, the successor to Charles I would have been a much better bet than the successor to Cromwell. Institutions are not an idea that has much prominence in Latter-day Pamphlets, and the subject of Cromwell and Charles I is not covered in enough detail for me to fully understand the appeal or the implied argument, But the overarching point is still correct - having a crown does not make one a real king, and fake kings are a source of particular disgust to Carlyle. While he does not elaborate much on Charles I, he accurately predicts that constitutional monarchs will not be stable arrangement, nor should we wish them to be:
Imposture, be it known then,—known it must and shall be,—is hateful, unendurable to God and man. Let it understand this everywhere; and swiftly make ready for departure, wherever it yet lingers; and let it learn never to return, if possible!
...
The Kings were Sham-Kings, playacting as at Drury Lane;—and what were the people withal that took them for real? It is probably the hugest disclosure of falsity in human things that was ever at one time made.
...[The Common Englishman] has been used to decent forms long since fallen empty of meaning, to plausible modes, solemnities grown ceremonial,—what you in your iconoclast humour call shams,—all his life long; never heard that there was any harm in them, that there was any getting-on without them. Did not cotton spin itself, beef grow, and groceries and spiceries come in from the East and the West, quite comfortably by the side of shams? Kings reigned, what they were pleased to call reigning; lawyers pleaded, bishops preached, and honourable members perorated; and to crown the whole, as if it were all real and no sham there, did not scrip continue saleable, and the banker pay in bullion, or paper with a metallic basis ?"
Carlyle predicts, in other words, what I have mentioned before - that political arrangements which are no longer actively defended, which persist out of institutional habit and inertia, will not survive. The unprincipled exceptions, if not actively insisted on, will be made into principled disasters. My guess as to the big elephant in the room on this front is citizenship. With Politics as with life -  nature has made up her mind that what cannot defend itself shall not be defended, as Mr Emerson put it.

By contrast, Oliver Cromwell and the members of the Long Parliament were deadly serious. And Carlyle gives an outstanding Chesterton's Fence justification of what role Parliament actually used to fill (much better than my own poor efforts)

Reading in Eadmerus and the dim old Books, one finds gradually that the Parliament was at first a most simple Assemblage, quite cognate to the situation; that Red William, or whoever had taken on him the terrible task of being King in England, was wont to invite, oftenest about Christmas time, his subordinate Kinglets, Barons as he called them, to give him the pleasure of their company for a week or two: there, in earnest conference all morning, in freer talk over Christmas cheer all evening, in some big royal Hall of Westminster, Winchester, or wherever it might be, with log-fires, huge rounds of roast and boiled, not lacking malmsey and other generous liquor, they took counsel concerning the arduous matters of the kingdom.
...So likewise in the time of the Edwards, when Parliament gradually split itself into Two Houses; and Borough Members and Knights of the Shire were summoned up to answer, Whether they could stand such and such an impost? and took upon them to answer, "Yes, your Majesty; but we have such and such grievances greatly in need of redress first,"—nothing could be more natural and human than such a Parliament still was.
...For, in fine, the tragic experience is dimly but irrepressibly forcing itself on all the world, that our British Parliament does not shine as Sovereign Ruler of the British Nation; that it was excellent only as Adviser of the Sovereign Ruler; and has not, somehow or other, the art of getting work done
In the Carlyle telling, the Parliament worked for two reasons. Firstly, it was composed of men who were themselves Nobles and Rulers, and thus competent to advise on such matters. And secondly, it filled the role of discussing policy choices when there were few avenues available for this. As Carlyle notes, this task is much more competently carried out in modern times (both his and ours) in the press. But the presence of the press makes Parliament not only superfluous, but contemptible, as it turns Parliamentary speeches into performances marketed to the rubes, not serious policy debates. Parliaments, at best, make good advisers but bad sovereigns. Modern parliaments are bad at both. 

There are some parts of Latter Day Pamphlets, especially those that describe the actual workings of government, that read as eerily prophetic. One is forced to do a double-take when one reads the descriptions of how government in England actually worked at the time. For instance:

[I]t is felt that 'reform' in that Downing-Street department of affairs is precisely the reform which were worth all others; that those administrative establishments in Downing Street are really the Government of this huge ungoverned Empire
Much has been done in the way of reforming Parliament in late years; but that of itself seems to avail nothing, or almost less. The men that sit in Downing Street, governing us, are not abler men since the Reform Bill than were those before it.
The civil service, in the form of the Home Office, Foreign Office and Colonial Office was already thoroughly in charge of governing...in 1850. Not only that, but the civil service was also fast turning into a sclerotic mess of incompetent bureaucrats badly doing work that didn't really need to be done in the first place. Pause and let that sink in when you hear conservatives talking about how we need to scale back the size of bureaucracy. 

As a consequence, it doesn't matter much who is the Prime Minister, since the civil service makes all the important decisions anyway, and the election and political process is so chaotic and time-consuming that there isn't scope for much else for a leader to do. This is a point that Moldbug emphasises a lot, but the average democracy adherent simply cannot believe. The memorable description of being Prime Minister is that of trying to stay atop a wild bucking horse, with the effort towards not being thrown off crowding out any hope of controlling the direction:
[T]he Right Honourable Zero is to be the man. That we firmly settle; Zero, all shivering with rapture and with terror, mounts into the high saddle; cramps himself on, with knees, heels, hands and feet; and the horse gallops—whither it lists. That the Right Honourable Zero should attempt controlling the horse—Alas, alas, he, sticking on with beak and claws, is too happy if the horse will only gallop anywhither, and not throw him. ... This is what we call a Government in England, for nearly two centuries now.
...Really it is unimportant which of them ride it. Going upon past experience long continued now, I should say with brevity, "Either of them—Neither of them." If our Government is to be a No-Government, what is the matter who administers it? Fling an orange-skin into St. James's Street; let the man it hits be your man.
This has been the government ... for nearly two centuries before 1850.  If you think Carlyle might be right, rolling things back to the 1950's isn't going to cut it.

Yet despite these similarities in description of some parts of the world, one sees that Moldbug's description of Carlyle as a reactionary is entirely correct:
A reactionary is not a Republican, a Democrat, or even a libertarian. It is not even a communist, a fascist, or a monarchist. It is something much older, stranger, and more powerful. But if you can describe it as anything, you can describe it as the pure opposite of progressivism. True reaction is long since extinct in the wild, but it lives in Carlyle.
Indeed, reading through Latter Day Pamphlets, one continues to be struck by statements that defy description on the standard modern political spectrum. Authority is not only necessary, but wise and just:
I say, it is the everlasting privilege of the foolish to be governed by the wise
Carve it in stone. This is so far outside the Overton Window that we barely have words to describe it.

But if you were hoping for a defense of mainstream capitalist economics, you will not find it here. Carlyle is shocked and appalled by the level of poverty evident in Ireland. But unlike the left, he is appalled not only because of the suffering, but mostly because the indigence and misery is a sign of a catastrophic failure of governance. The problem with poverty is not ultimately the money, but the wasted lives.
The Idle Workhouse, now about to burst of overfilling, what is it but the scandalous poison-tank of drainage from the universal Stygian quagmire of our affairs? Workhouse Paupers; immortal sons of Adam rotted into that scandalous condition, subter-slavish, demanding that you would make slaves of them as an unattainable blessing! My friends, I perceive the quagmire must be drained, or we cannot live.
...
If our Chancellor of the Exchequer had a Fortunatus' purse, and miraculous sacks of Indian meal that would stand scooping from forever,—I say, even on these terms Pauperism could not be endured; and it would vitally concern all British Citizens to abate Pauperism, and never rest till they had ended it again. Pauperism is the general leakage through every joint of the ship that is rotten. 
Carlyle is decidedly cool on the ability of markets, not only to solve these problems, but also to generate wise decisions in general. His scathing essay on the possibility of making a statue of railway baron George Hudson, who is presented as a seller of worthless scrip and dubious economic schemes, makes clear why. A democracy of dollars is not much more likely to recognise genuine human worth than a democracy of votes, for much the same reasons. This is not a matter Carlyle takes lightly:
If the world were not properly anarchic, this question 'Who shall have a Statue?' would be one of the greatest and most solemn for it. Who is to have a Statue? means, Whom shall we consecrate and set apart as one of our sacred men?
And he walked the walk too, founding the National Portrait Gallery to make sure that great men were properly commemorated too. 

One is also reminded in odd ways that the world itself was very different in 1850, and not just in the ways that get frequently remarked on. For instance, in an essay discussing the enormous prominence given to people who had the gift of good speech, Carlyle states the following:
Our English careers to born genius are twofold. There is the silent or unlearned career of the Industrialisms, which are very many among us ; and there is the articulate or learned career of the three professions, Medicine, Law (under which we may include Politics), and the Church. Your born genius, therefore, will first have to ask himself, Whether he can hold his tongue or cannot ?
Two questions arise, both linked. Firstly, what criteria do we now use to evaluate truth, apart from rhetoric, which gets little discussion in the essay? And secondly, what is the large class of learned careers not discussed in the above list?

The answer to both is: science. One can see that the intellectual impact of the scientific method had not yet permeated much of society, and that science itself was practiced by a small number of mostly independently wealthy people like Lord Kelvin. The rest of innovation was merely lumped in with industrialism, and not at all considered to be an important or primary method of understanding the universe. If you were actually transported back to the world of 1850, it would almost certainly strike you as utterly alien in far more ways than you imagine. As Moldbug said of Larry Auster, it is equally true of Carlyle - he is gone, and so is the country he was born in. To complain of either would be as superfluous.

But the underlying truth of his words still remains. To those of us skeptical about modernity, Carlyle speaks across the ages, addressing our misgivings and pointing a way forward through the morass:
My friends, across these fogs of murky twaddle and philanthropism, in spite of sad decadent 'world-trees,' with their rookeries of foul creatures,—the silent stars, and all the eternal luminaries of the world, shine even now to him that has an eye. In this day as in all days, around and in every man, are voices from the gods, imperative to all, if obeyed by even none, which say audibly, "Arise, thou son of Adam, son of Time; make this thing more divine, and that thing,—and thyself, of all things; and work, and sleep not; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work!" He that has an ear may still hear.
Just so.