Sunday, December 31, 2017

On the Dying of the Darkness

In Chicago, on a summer's night, the sky at 2am glows with a dull grey orange. If modernity has a colour, it is this. The orange is the city, reflected back off the night clouds. The colour of streets illuminated to make it safer to walk in. The colour of houses with merriment and offices with productive work, extending the day long past the sun's descent over the horizon. The colour of man beating back nature. The colour of progress, in its old and apolitical sense of sheer advancement, of doing things that were once not possible.

And yet, few things in this universe are truly free. Wrestling with the full implications of opportunity cost, both in terms of battling it where possible and making peace with it as best you can otherwise, is a large part of the human condition. This concept has been studied by poets and economists alike. As I wrote about in the very first entry of this periodical, the best summary of opportunity cost, in my opinion, still comes from Bob Dylan.

The light dispels the darkness. Even reactionaries, no matter how committed, would hesitate mightily before wishing away this development.

But to choose openly does not mean one cannot regret the tradeoff. So what, thereby, is lost?

Chief among the costs is the splendour of the night sky.

In a capital city in Australia, where I grew up, you can still see the stars at night. Not the full panoply of the Milky Way, but enough to sense the enormity of the heavens.

For immediately conveying the sheer punyness of man on a cosmic scale, there is no substitute for the stars on a cloudless night, surrounded by pitch black. It is a scene which requires almost no explanation. Mere scale is enough to make one's own problems, and indeed one's very existence, seem picayune.

And nothing else quite has the same effect. Not the fury of the ocean in a storm, not the solitude of a silent forest, not the desolation of a wilderness far from other people. A wilderness can be traversed, a forest explored, an ocean sailed. Even when they threaten you, they can all be interacted with. But the stars can only be watched, and one's place in the universe pondered.

And increasingly, we don't see them. I suspect that a child growing up in New York City might go months without seeing the stars. Even as adults, the full visual of the Milky Way has mostly become something we see when on holiday in somewhere remote. Exteranally-prompted contemplation of one's place in the universe becomes similarly irregular.

Modernity is the era of light pollution.

Modernity is also the era of atheism, and (though less remarked), the era of narcissism.

I suspect these aspects are not entirely a coincidence.

Without the stars, one only sees the lights of the city. Without the heavenly panorama, one is less drawn to look at the night sky in the first place. And the same light that drowns out the stars attracts our attention downward, towards televisions, phones and computers.

The stars speak the irrefutable message that there are measures greater than man. Take that away, and man has no measure other than himself and his physical surroundings. The latter is atheism. The former is narcissism.

There are no simple causes of social phenomena, and it would be trite to ascribe great social changes to such Rube Goldberg-like developments as streetlights.

And yet, each restraint that gets eroded adds momentum to the changes already underway.

And this was known long before light pollution was even a concept. As Isaac Asimov noted, quoting Emerson:
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?'

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Feminism and Birthrates

As I’ve written about in the past, by my reckoning the direst problem of our time is that the west is not having enough children to replace itself. It is literally dying out. To make matters worse, the distribution of birthrates seems significantly dysgenic. It is the rich and educated who are having the least children. We are not just shrinking, we are getting dumber to boot. If you doubt me, I’ll gladly stake a wager on whether you should expect to see more articles about “The Flynn Effect” or “The Reverse Flynn Effect” over the next 20 years. One does not have to be a HBD fanatic to observe that, if current trends continue, it is hard to see a scenario where this ends well.

And, as far as I can tell, we don’t really know why all this is happening, though of course there are theories. Some parts, as I’ve noted, are purely technological. We have much better birth control technology, which means that those people who are inclined to not have children have a much easier time of arranging this. We’ve short-circuited evolution’s link between having sex and having children, so we do the former, but not the latter.

But there’s another part that missing in the previous analysis. Even among the couples that do want to have kids, there’s an increasing sense that they can’t afford to have as many as they’d want. The cost of raising them has gotten too high, both in terms of money and time. For today, let’s just focus on the money aspect (with the acknowledgement that this almost certainly doesn't explain the whole thing).

While it’s worth taking this complaint seriously, it sounds very odd at a first glance. Society is immensely richer than it was a hundred years ago. We have a lot more labor-saving technology, and ipads and televisions to entertain children. How is it that the cost has not only gone up, but gone up so much that it overwhelms the increase in income, resulting in the budget set allowing for fewer children under current preferences?

Part of this is just a raised set of standards. When people lived in primitive societies, often everyone in a family slept in the same room and the same bed. A hundred years ago, it was entirely normal for children to share bedrooms for years at a time. Now, it’s considered vaguely odd for middle class children to not have their own bedrooms for their whole life. So people acting as if it’s better for the child not to exist in the first place than to have to share a bedroom. Hey, I didn’t say it made sense, but that’s the implication.

If children are expensive, what are the costs that make it that way? By my reckoning, the two biggest costs are schooling and housing. The two are correlated. Part of the cost of schooling is being able to afford a house in a good school district, which makes it harder for people to just buy a bigger house in a cheap area. The alternative is to spring for private school, which is even worse for birthrates, since this adds a fixed per-child cost.

The sheer mendacity of the social discourse about “good schools” makes it hard for people to even explain what it is they’re after. Part of the demand comes from delusion about the idea that schools with good educational outcomes get results solely from good teachers and more resources, as if the quality of the student body had nothing to do with it. Partly it comes from a realistic appreciation about what the student body’s qualities have to do with the chances your kid ends up being friends with drug dealers and gang bangers, or just gets beaten up at school.

But whatever the reason, it’s deemed very important to be in a good school district, so there’s lots of demand for houses in these areas.

And a similar geographic aspect is present in the demand for housing itself we described. If it’s hard to afford a big house with a bedroom for every child, is this because the cost of construction has gone up? Not really – building technologies keep getting cheaper.

No, houses are expensive because of land. You might be able to afford a big house. You just can’t afford one in any place you’d like to live. Schooling is expensive because it is assigned by school district, which is also based on land. If there were more selective, entrance-exam public schools, a lot of this pressure might be alleviated. But disparate impact related hysteria being what it is, land is the currency of our time for schooling.

Land is interesting, because it’s almost the classic example of a positional good. There is a certain amount of beachfront real estate in Los Angeles, Miami and the Hamptons. The ability to make more of it is approximately zero. The best land will end up being held by whoever the richest people in the area are at the time. Whether the society is rich or poor, someone will get to look at the ocean view, and the ocean isn’t much different than it was in 1950. As more money comes in, this will simply drive up the price, because the supply is highly inelastic. In one sense, you can build skyscrapers so lots of people live there. This solves the problem of getting to look at the ocean, but not the school district problem whereby the new entrants will be poorer than those who would live there if it’s only single family dwellings. So for the school district problem, it’s even more of a positional good problem.

And this is where feminism comes in.

Because the patriarchy, even in its relatively mild 1950s form, acted like a fairly strong co-ordinating mechanism whereby we all agreed that only 50% of us were going to work. For positional goods, if we all co-ordinate to do exactly 50% as much work, we end up holding exactly the same land as before – the ordering of who is rich and poor doesn’t change, and neither does the mapping between the richest and the best land.

In theory, you could get a similar effect with a rule that said that only one partner in a marriage was allowed to work (regardless of who it was), and everyone had to be married. In practice, even putting aside the desirability of this in terms of men vs women doing the child raising, and the relative complexity of trying to co-ordinate on this alternative, I don’t know how much difference this would make. Gary Becker famously noted that assortative matching between high income potential women and high income potential men (for any number of reasons, from preferences on down) means that the number of cases where the women would be the optimal choice to be a sole worker would likely be a lot lower than 50%, provided that men enjoy some income advantage. In other words, the “one worker per married couple”, if enforced, would mostly end up as only having the man working.

Either way, the norm that, in general, women don’t work, was a reasonably strong Schelling point around which to co-ordinate. As long as everyone stuck to the deal, you could afford exactly the same house and school district as before, but now there was someone at home to make dinner, keep the house clean, look after the kids when they came home from school.

As the Schelling point collapsed, we got the school district arms race. The first couple to have dual incomes can move up a long way in the school district / land rat race, but it wasn’t stable. Other people joined in, and before you know it, everyone has to have two incomes just to afford the same house that they would have had before under a single income model.

It’s actually worse than that – as well as having to pay more for the same house, the couple now has to pay to contract out all the services that previously would have been done by the woman who stayed at home, from childcare to cooking to cleaning. Feminists, like progressives, are always apt to insist that the problem is simply a lack of more feminism! We just need to have more family-friendly work policies, free childcare etc. It’s true that this will help somewhat – there is probably a J-shape of feminism and birth rates, where a moderately large amount of feminism without any maternity leave or childcare subsidies (a la the American model) is probably about the worst possible scenario. But look at the Scandinavian countries. Even with all the childcare in the world, the total fertility rate for Denmark, Sweden and Norway are 1.69, 1.88 and 1.75 children per woman respectively (without even inquiring how many of those are ethnic Scandinavians as opposed to third world immigrants).

It seems apparent that more feminism is entirely unable to solve the school district problem, because they don’t even understand it, and they don’t think about the extent to which this is driving the birth rate choice. It’s not a surprise then that even going the full retard of feminism doesn’t get you even replacement rates.

And in the cross-section, which people are going to feel this school district / birthrate pinch the most?

Those who are most likely to think that education and school districts are highly valuable. Which is to say, those who are highly educated themselves, since they likely attribute their success to their education. Being unable to bear the possibility of their kids going to “bad schools”, they instead get a small house in a good area and have fewer children. So we end up with not only reduced birth rates, but dysgenic birth rates to boot. Which, as I noted last time, is the biggest puzzle to be explained in the cost story.

And like Scott Alexander’s Moloch, we now don’t know how to stop the process. Some co-ordination mechanisms are easier to break than they are to get started again, even if there were the will to do so.

Of course, the problem will resolve itself one way or another. It’s just that the some of the resolutions sound like “the disappearance of people who care about school districts, and the societies able to sustain such infrastructure”.

As far as I can tell, the only groups of westerners with significantly above-replacement birthrates are Orthodox Jews, Mormons and the Amish. It is no surprise that all of them are considerably more patriarchal than the secular west. On current trends, there will be a lot more of them in the future, and that’s currently the best case scenario.

If you don’t like that, you’d better start figuring out some alternative, because the future is coming one way or another.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bitcoin and the Inscrutability of Wealth

Well, it’s been about 6 months since my last Bitcoin post. I think what I wrote back in May stands up pretty well so far. Certainly the price has gone up like crazy, and my modest wager has so far paid off quite handsomely. The tendency towards the disposition effect beats in most human breasts – it is hard to continue to hold your gains as they keep rising, and psychology will push you towards wanting to cash out.

Of course, in this instance it might actually be wise to cash out now – it’s hard to know. My earlier rationale, in broad terms, was that I felt I had figured out why Bitcoin “worked”, and most people hadn’t yet – but they would in time. Well, the number of people who’ve figured out something certainly has gone up an enormous amount since then. One can disagree wildly on what exactly they’ve learned – I suspect a lot have just learned that Bitcoin will go up forever, which seems unlikely. In any case, the number of people still to figure it out has to be smaller than it was back in May. Even if Bitcoin does turn out to be valuable in the long term, this doesn’t mean it’s not facing a crash in the interim. In other words, Bitcoin might end up being Amazon, but you might also be living in the equivalent of November 1999.

I don’t know how to weight these two assessments. At the moment, the deciding factor for me is the influence of long-term vs short-term capital gains taxes. Not really knowing when to call it quits, I’m currently waiting until May or the price goes back to zero, whichever comes first.

But I have been thinking about the question of what makes things valuable, and what this portends for the future of Bitcoin.

In Patrick Wyman’s excellent “Fall of Rome” podcast series, at some point Wyman notes something very interesting about the Roman economy. In his words, the Roman economy was “monetised". This was something that distinguished it both from all the societies that had come before, and most of those that would come afterwards until at least the middle ages.

One way of thinking about monetisation is that people transacted widely in money, instead of just using a barter system. This is true, and important, but it’s not the psychologically most interesting part.

When money becomes used enough for transactions, a subtle shift takes place in terms of how people think about it.

The first step is that people start using money as a denominator of wealth when trading off economic decisions. Wyman describes how rich Roman aristocrats who owned villas and productive lands would begin to make choices based on what would maximize their amount of money – thinking about labor costs in terms of money, thinking about different crop yields and market prices in terms of money, etc.

This may seem obvious to us now, but again, that’s because we take money for granted. This process assuredly would not be so obvious if you lived in a barter economy. You can exchange a certain number of chickens for a certain number of bags of rice, or a certain number of horseshoes or whatever. To trade off the economic costs and benefits in a production process, you need to first convert everything to a given numeraire good, and then keep track of all the prices of inputs and outputs in terms of that good. But would it occur to you to arbitrarily evaluate everything on your farm in terms of horseshoes, and then keep track of horseshoe-prices for every good at each point to make sure you’re trading off things correctly? You might think it would, but I’m not nearly so sure. Yet when you’re already used to thinking in terms of money, it’s a much more natural step to take.

Once this process of trading off benefits and costs in terms of money has been going on for a while, an even more subtle transformation begins to take place, and one with wide-reaching implications. At a certain point, money stops being merely a unit of measuring wealth, and begins to be thought of as the wealth itself. In Rome, this was a quite radical shift. Because up to that point, land was the only real measure of wealth. Moreover, land was something one didn’t buy and sell, it was something that was held over generations. The idea that land might be a commodity that one bought and sold with money is yet one more idea that we take for granted that most humans in history would have viewed as crazy. Even now you see the legacy of this view, with people who think that housing wealth is somehow "real" and "reliable" in a way that other assets aren't.

And you can see that people’s willingness to hold money is radically different if they think of it as a) tokens that you can use to get stuff, vs b) the actual measure of wealth. In the former, an increase in money makes you nervous – you have to get rid of it to transfer it to the actual store of wealth or consumption. In the latter, it just makes you happy – money can always be reliably exchanged for stuff, so if you get more money, great, just hang on to it until you need to spend it.

This latter process is something that I think operates much more widely than just in money. I think something similar has been at play regarding the role of equities over the centuries. Again, nobody thinks of it now. But these days, equities are also wealth. This is opposed to equities being a series of tokens that you hold for a short period, hoping it will go up and then you can convert it into the real measure of wealth.

And this was not always the case. If you look back to 19th and even early 20th centuries, equities were mostly considered by prudent investment advisors to be “not even an investment”. Rather, they were just gambling and speculation and nonsense. Safe bonds were an investment. Real estate was an investment. Stocks, however, were speculation. And with speculative assets, you don’t want to hold them long term. You want to hold them for a bit, then ditch them. Now, it’s commonplace for people to leave their retirement assets in equities, and just plan to sell them when and if they need the money. This is what you do, when you view an asset as inherently being wealth, rather than just being a means to wealth.

The rise of “equities as wealth” has been mirrored in a massive rise in the number of equity securities. Most people don’t know it, but  the importance of equities was tiny for a lot of the 19th century. In 1815, the number of shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange was… 8. That’s right, 8, total. There were far more shares listed in Amsterdam or London around the time of the South Sea Bubble, and indeed there were more shares listed when the NYSE first got started in 1792 - the number actually declined by 1815. Partly, equities had just gone out of fashion during this whole period, after the collapse of the South Sea bubble around 1720. Bonds were the instrument of choice to trade and hold. Equities just weren’t interesting to people, and weren’t where they stored most of their wealth.

I think this kind of psychology is especially important for impacting price movements. The more people are willing to hold an asset long term, the higher its price will be, and the more stable its price will be. A willingness to hold long-term adds a large amount of permanent demand for the asset that doesn’t budge much with news. This is much more likely to result in sustained high prices than a view that any price rises should be considered as merely a sign that you have more tokens to convert to the “real wealth”, because the tokens themselves are not sufficiently reliable.

And I think something similar is playing out, to an uncertain conclusion, with Bitcoin.

To wit, people’s beliefs about the question I opened this essay with are likely to be very important for what happens next as the price of Bitcoin continues to rise. In other words, is Bitcoin inherently wealth? Or is Bitcoin merely a means to wealth? Put differently, if I hold a decent amount of Bitcoin and the price rises, do I need to convert it to some other asset? Or should I only sell it if I plan to spend the money?

There is always a question of portfolio rebalancing, but that’s not the whole issue. You will find no shortage of people who own huge real estate holdings that they lease out. To them, the real estate is wealth – if it rises in price, they don’t inherently feel the need to sell some of their properties. The question is, will the same psychology hold for Bitcoin?

In some sense, this gets to the question of “if you sold it, and you weren’t planning on spending the money, what other asset would you buy, absent a specific forecast of short term price movements in that asset?”. That other asset is what you think of as wealth. This contrast becomes especially stark if you think that selling bitcoin and putting the money in gold is a potentially sensible idea, since gold is a “safe asset”. As I’ve argued, in terms of fundamentals, Bitcoin is gold. The difference is only jewellery and psychology, with the latter being more important in my opinion. Gold has the considerable advantage that everybody has a relatively fixed idea of what it is and has a general sense that it's valuable, so it's unlikely to revert back to jewellery-only value. In addition, the big holders of it (central banks) are long-term, stable holders, so the price isn't crazily volatile. 

And strangely enough, this question is probably one of the big risks of Bitcoin today. I think the time-series here is very different from equities, where I suspect over the years people got gradually more used to holding the asset, and then viewed it as inherent wealth, which made prices and realized returns high during the latter half of the 20th century.

Instead, I suspect that many of the initial holders of Bitcoin did view it as wealth – they planned to hold it for a very long time, if not indefinitely. But I strongly suspect that most of the people who have been piling into Bitcoin in the past 6 months aren’t thinking of it the same way. They are much more likely to view it as an instrument to wealth, a way to make a quick buck in the short term. And when something is merely an instrument to wealth, add in the disposition effect and suddenly you’ve got a lot of instability baked in. People have a base view that the price will keep going up, but they also have a nervous impulse to sell, and a vague feeling that the price rise can’t last forever. That makes crash risk higher.

In other words, I think that an important metric of whether Bitcoin is ultimately likely to succeed as a long term asset is whether it is viewed as wealth on its own. Whether, in other words, people are comfortable with the idea that a large fraction of their savings is in Bitcoin, and they’ll only sell it when they need the money.

This can happen to assets where it didn’t used to be true – again, look at equities, or before that, gold coins. Will it? Your guess is as good as mine. But as the number of people still to be exposed to the idea of Bitcoin gets smaller and smaller, I suspect this will increasingly become the first-order question as to what happens next.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

On the thorniness of historical counterfactuals

Both the economist and the historian are students of human organisations and behaviour.

The economist (at least in his empiricist manifestation) is usually interested in understanding causation - what causes drive what outcomes. This is at least one way of testing our models. The aim is to understand the structure of the world we live in, with the ultimate aims being prediction and policy improvements.

The historian has a choice to be either an economist or a journalist. The economist version wants to understand why things happened the way they did, and what can be learned about the world as a result. The journalist version scorns the grandiose conceit of trying to pin down causality, and instead sticks to the smaller question of "what happened", telling the stories of the past.

Of course, economists are also historians - they take a series of events that have happened, and assert that they're comparable along the dimensions that matter and thus worthy of being used to understand general principles.

For a genuine historian, especially of world events, the tools needed are different. One must treat historical events as case studies, to be explored in detail, rather than line items in a spreadsheet. If you're understanding World War 2, for instance, for many questions there's pretty much only one line in the spreadsheet. So running a regression isn't exactly on offer, and you probably would do better to crack open a book instead.

Even though it's generally out of fashion among historians, understanding causality and counterfactuals is very important if you want to draw actual lessons from history. The counterfactual says what could have been, if some other choice had been made. It aims to make, in a literary sense, the claim to causally identifying the effect of a single decision.

It goes without saying that this is incredibly hard to do. But for those of us not bound by the standards of academic publishing, it's among the more interesting ways of thinking about history.

Getting the counterfactual right, of course, is largely a matter of judgment and opinion, since we can't actually re-run the past and find out.

But there is one aspect of thinking about counterfactuals that is beyond dispute. If you don't have a clear sense of what the counterfactual is, then you don't have any idea what the actual impact of the decision was.

You might think that nobody could possibly be this stupid, but you'd be wrong. The surest sign is when people complain about some decision that was followed by bad consequences, but never explain exactly what the alternative was and how it was meant to work.

One case where I've come across this is in the role of the British in partitioning India in 1947 into two countries (India and Pakistan) when they left. This is part of the long list of standard recitations given as to how beastly the British were in all matters of administering the British Empire.

As everybody knows, what happened after partition was a total disaster, with widespread violence and population transfers under extreme duress. Estimates of the deaths involved range from several hundred thousand to two million, according to La Wik. The problem is the classic one in the colonial critic's playbook - that the lines drawn on the map didn't correspond to messy demographic reality. When the two came into conflict, the result was maybe a million deaths.

Which sounds pretty bad, no?

But again, bad compared to what? What other choices did they have, and what would the consequences have been?

Here, the dilemma is not so much the "what" as the "consequences". The main alternative was leaving the two places as a single country. The issue, of course, is how that would have actually played out. But for some reason, the people who denounce Britain never seem to spend much time discussing this aspect.

There are, to be fair, arguments that partition was a mistake, because a single country would have done a better job of calming ethnic tensions. To my mind, the strongest of these is the relative levels of antagonism between Indian Hindus and Pakistani Muslims, versus the antagonism between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims. 

People have a tendency to forget that the last-mentioned category of Indian Muslims not only exists, but is enormous, around 172 million (almost as many, in fact, as the 193 million in Pakistan). And while there is violence and conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India, it's not on anything like the scale or seriousness as the tension between India and Pakistan. The latter could actually devolve into a nuclear missile exchange. 

By contrast, I don't even hear about serious pushes for Muslim separatism in India. I'm sure it exists in some form. But it's less prominent than, say Quebec or Belgium. Indeed, India is perhaps the only other exception (along with Switzerland) to the Holmes rule that there are no stable multilingual countries. Somehow, they mostly manage to rub along. The surest sign that the conflict with India's Muslims is probably not an existential threat to the country is that it's possible to go months without reading any newspaper stories on "Indian Muslims". Certainly, you go a lot longer than you do without reading something about the India/Pakistan tensions.

So this reads like a pretty bad indictment of the British, at least ex post. 

But there's another counterfactual which gets discussed even less.

What if Britain left them as a single country, but they had a bloody separatist war afterwards anyway?

The amazing thing about this example is that it's not even a hypothetical. It literally happened.


Bangladesh. It used to be called East Pakistan, and was part of the same country. They were divided by geography, but shared a common religion. Surely, we would reason, they should work well in a single polity!

Except they didn't. Bangladesh fought a bloody war of independence against what was (and I quote La Wik):
An academic consensus prevails that the atrocities committed by the Pakistani military were a genocide.
As coincidence would turn out (it seems in poor taste to call it "luck" in this context), the estimated number of civilian deaths ranges from 300,000 to 3 million, rather close to the deaths during partition. 

Huh! Doesn't seem quite so cut and dried now, does it?

It leaves me actually quite agnostic on the whole question, to be honest. It seems very unclear whether things would have actually turned out better or worse if the British hadn't partitioned India when they left. It may just be that when they left the place, there was a high chance there was going to be widespread ethnic conflict no matter what they did.

And yet, to slightly paraphrase the great Mr Bastiat, people have a tendency to judge actions primarily by what is seen, not what is unseen.

The people that might have died under an alternative political arrangement are not salient at all. The deaths during partition are highly salient. 

Sometimes there are just no good options, at least based on what you can reasonably know at the time. Sometimes, you have to call things as you see them, suspecting that a lot of people might die either way.

It seems depressing, but likely, that the only actual lesson of partition is the one that the Bard wrote centuries ago - uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Imperfect Vision of the Past

As Mencius Moldbug noted, if the past is a foreign country, then a reactionary is a patriot of that country.

But the past being past, the reactionary is necessarily a patriot from afar. No man can live in any time other than his own. He cannot actually love the country of the past because he has never been there, unless his patriotism extends only as far as his own childhood. He must necessarily love an image of it, the brochure formed from (depending on how distant it is ) photos, paintings, texts, or just translations of texts.

There's nothing wrong with this, per se. We have almost unlimited information about our own age, and how many of us can claim to really understand it? But there is always the risk that unless careful attention is paid, one will still end up filling in gaps with assumptions from modernity. The problem, even for an honest and attentive broker, is twofold.

Firstly, old sources mostly wrote about what they considered important in their own society. Some of the weirdest parts to us may be things they would have mostly taken for granted, and hence didn't discuss much.

Secondly, we interpret these sources in the light of the controversies of our own age. These tend to become the focal points on which other societies are analysed. But the areas where our society is mostly in agreement are less likely to be studied, even if our agreement is completely different from their agreement.

For instance, I am a reactionary of death. It is not for nothing that this blog has an entire subject label devoted to 'mortality'.

And yet, despite being a fully grown man, I have seen a corpse only once in my life, in circumstances where it was not made plain that the person was actually dead. This is not an accident. This is how our society operates.

Just ponder that. Death has not gotten any less common, but extraordinary lengths are taken to ensure that when death visits, it is out of the way, hidden from sight. The main times you will witness an actual corpse is if you happen upon the scene of an accident. Otherwise, it takes place in a hospital, leading to the implication that it is simply the result of failed or insufficient medical intervention, which technology will eventually overcome.

This is of course absurd. You can realise this by studying life expectancy tables, or just by contemplating the human condition.

But most people today don't even realise that they hold thoroughly modern views on the subject of death. It's because it's largely just taken for granted. There are only a few controversies that touch on it generally, like euthanasia, but that in practical terms is actually a step even further in the same direction - now we can shuffle off this mortal coil with the best of drugs, in a comfortable setting, in a time and manner that doesn't have to alarm those around us. In this way, the already thoroughly medicalised process can also become artificially predictable.

Once upon a time, mortality was considered an important thing for men to wisely ponder, and consider how they wanted to live their life. Medieval Christianity used to emphasize this through a Memento Mori. That is, they took extra steps to remind themselves of mortality, so as to not miss the importance. And even without that, death was all around them. People died in their homes, and died much sooner. Avoiding it was just not an option.

The main reason my my own thinking diverges from the mainstream on this point, and I ended up a reactionary of mortality, is from the influence of Buddhism. In Buddhism death is viewed as terrible, one of the great destroyers of the world that inevitably leads to suffering. Unlike in Christianity, it offers no chance of the ascent to a permanent heaven, though there are temporary heavens. Death is often paired with old age, among forms of suffering, to emphasise that the impermanence aspect, and that it is the inevitable outcome of the process of decay. And in Buddhism (which, when I use the term, I mean Theravada, which is my background), even rebirth is not a cause of celebration, but another form of the problem of the endless cycle of suffering and unsatisfactoriness. As a result of all this, wisely contemplating impermanence is a central concern:
“What do you think, great king? Suppose a man would come to you from the east, one who is trustworthy and reliable, and would tell you: ‘For sure, great king, you should know this: I am coming from the east, and there I saw a great mountain high as the clouds coming this way, crushing all living beings. Do whatever you think should be done, great king.’ ...
“If, venerable sir, such a great peril should arise, such a terrible destruction of human life, the human state being so difficult to obtain, what else should be done but to live by the truth (Dhamma), to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
“I inform you, great king, I announce to you, great king: aging and death are rolling in on you. When aging and death are rolling in on you, great king, what should be done?”
“As aging and death are rolling in on me, venerable sir, what else should be done but to live by the truth (Dhamma), to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
“Venerable sire, kings intoxicated with the intoxication of sovereignty, obsessed by greed for sensual pleasures, who have attained stable control in their country and rule over a great sphere of territory, conquer by means of elephant battles, cavalry battles, chariot battles, and infantry battles; but there is no hope of victory when aging and death are rolling in. In this royal court, venerable sir, there are counselors who, when the enemies arrive, are capable of dividing them by subterfuge; but there is no hope of victory by subterfuge, no chance of success, when aging and death are rolling in. In this royal court, there exists abundant bullion and gold stored in vaults, and with such wealth we are capable of mollifying the enemies when they come; but there is no hope of victory by wealth, no chance of success, when aging and death are rolling in. As aging and death are rolling in on me, venerable sir, what else should I do but live by the truth (Dhamma), live righteously, and do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
“So it is, great king! So it is, great king! As aging and death are rolling in on you, what else should you do but live by the truth (Dhamma), live righteously, and do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
Of course, nobody thinks like that anymore, if for no other reason than that people do their absolute utmost to avoid even noticing death. If mortality is contemplated at all, it's mostly to advocate for mindless hedonism. Or it's contemplated for a day or two when a relative dies, before being shuffled off into the background and beaten down with awkward insistence that the subject is "morbid" whenever the topic of death even comes up.

If I am out of step with modernity, I am quite sure that it is modernity, not I, who is strange. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

Still, there are plenty of other aspects where older societies are different that aren't so flattering to my conceit.

For instance, I've been reading John Dolan's wonderful prose translation of the Iliad. In many ways, Dolan has undertaken the task of re-telling the Iliad to preserve a set of features almost entirely orthogonal to the standard ones. Which is to say, most translations try to preserve the poetic aspect and the literal word choice, at least as much as both parts can be rendered into modern English (which, for the poetic metre, is not very well). But Dolan ditches this to instead preserve aspects which, he argues quite persuasively, would have been far more salient to listeners at the time (and they were listeners originally, not readers). Which is to say, he preserves the gore, the slapstick comedy, the cruelty, and the enjoyment of military violence.

In this respect, the Greek narrative is actually more understandable than many of us would be comfortable admitting.

But as Dolan notes explicitly, apparently echoing Nietzsche, it is a mistake to view the Greeks as being like us. For instance, take Dolan's observations on how lust was viewed:
Now Zeus has to kill even more of the Greeks. His first thought, a painful wincing one: “Hera’s not going to like this”. His wife and sister, Hera, always knows what he’s up to, and she’s soft on the Greeks. She’s permanently mad at him anyway, because he’s just an old horndog pretending to be in command when he can’t even command his own penis.
These people were very down on lust. That’s one of the ways they weren’t like us. We love lust. They didn’t. It was too dangerous, and it gave women too much power, so lust is a bad thing in this story. To these people, a real man doesn’t get led around by his dick, and if he does, he’s not a man at all. A stud, to their way of thinking, is a sissy, and above all, a sissy stud is dangerous, capable of wiping out an entire city. 
The man who started this whole war was a stud, a Trojan prince named Paris, fitting for a man with the sexual ego of Pepe Le Pew. The only reason he didn’t drive a Porsche or wear Ray Bans is because the infrastructure wasn’t there yet. He’d have defected to Malibu in a second if the airport had been ready. This princeling Paris had the chance to judge a beauty contest of three female gods, and that’s what got Troy besieged.
You've gotta say, the Greeks have a point.

And the modern tendency is also to play up another very un-Greek idea - the importance of romantic love. Amazing as it seems to me, there is a tendency of some to view the Paris and Helen story as some kind of tragically doomed but still beautiful romance, rather than the height of folly, stupidity, selfishness, and effeminate behavior which is how it would have been seen at the time.

But not all of the alienness seems flattering of the Greek world view either. In his discussion of the book in the latest Radio War Nerd, Dolan mentions another aspect that is hard to believe at first:
Above all, they were other, they enjoyed cruelty, they found cruelty hilarious, and if you don't understand that about them, you'll never get them...
The Iliad begins with this captive girl watching as her old father limps down the beach to beg Agamemnon, the vile Greek leader, to release her. And Agamemnon purposely shames him in a really over-the-top way. And that's a bad idea, not because you should be nice to people - there's no such idea in the Iliad - but because he's a priest of Apollo.
The idea that cruelty is generally entertaining, and being nice to people is not an important trait, is something so utterly alien that it's hard to even conceive of it.

Remember this next time you're exalting the glory of the ancient Greeks.

But the weirdest of all to me is something taken even more for granted - the importance of a sense of humor. Robin Hanson had a great post on this. He cites Rod Martin:
Prior to the eighteenth century, laughter was viewed by most authors almost entirely in negative terms. … All laughter was thought to arise from making fun of someone. Most references to laughter in the Bible, for example, are linked with scorn, derision, mockery, or contempt. … Aristotle … believed that [laughter] was always a response to ugliness or deformity in another person. … Thomas Hobbes saw laughter as being based on a feeling of superiority, or “sudden glory”, resulting from some perception of inferiority in another person.
 From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, popular conceptions of laughter underwent a remarkable transformation, shifting from the aggressive antipathy of superiority theory, to the neutrality of incongruity theory, to the view that laughter could sometimes by sympathetic , to the notion that sympathy was a necessary condition for laughter. 
 As recently as the 1860s, it was considered impolite to laugh in public in the United States.
 In the United States, [a sense of humor] came to be seen as a distinctly American virtue, having to do with tolerance and democracy, in contrast to those living in dictatorships, such as the Germans under Nazism, or the Russians during the Communist era, who were thought to be devoid of humor. … By the end of the twentieth century, humor and laughter were … seen as … important factors in mental and physical health  
Which actually casts the earlier Dolan quote in a different light, which I'm not sure that Dolan fully appreciated. If the Greeks found cruelty hilarious, it wasn't just because they had a different attitude to cruelty. They also had a different attitude to hilarity, and what it was meant to represent.

If you want to see what noble character without a sense of humour looks like, read Marcus Aurelius. The seriousness of purpose shines through vividly, but he is not there to entertain you. There are more important traits than a sense of humour.

The sheer range of strange alternative values and thoughts shows, if nothing else, that if there indeed is a psychic unity of mankind, it comprises a far smaller set of traits than you might believe possible.

In the end though, there is no particular virtue in trying to exactly resurrect the past wholesale, even if it were possible. We can only grapple with the world we actually live in, and importing some contemporary assumptions is almost inevitable.

The value in studying how past societies operated, rather, is to illuminate the assumptions that we take for granted, and to inspire a greater imagination as to how things might actually work.

In The Current Year, even getting people to acknowledge that much is a non-trivial victory.

Friday, September 29, 2017

George Lunt and the Tragedy of the Civil War

Apologies, my dear readers (if any of you still exist) for my extended absence. A combination of moving house, work being busy, and life in general contributed to my poor (read: nonexistent) showing of late. I was going to write something brief to this effect, but after long enough away, the only way back on the horse is a proper ride, not a symbolic hop-on-hop-off. So here we are at last.

I’ve been slowly continuing my way through the Moldbug Canon of primary sources. The most recent foray in this regard has been George Lunt's "The Origin of the Late War", the late war in question being the US Civil War.

At least for me, it was profoundly depressing reading. Not just for what it said about the Civil War, but for what it portends about the state of modern America.

Those of us of a reactionary bent are generally inclined to view history through a tragic lens, and to be vaguely attracted to lost causes.

It used to be acceptable to view the South (while regrettably tied to the injustice of the proximate cause of slavery) as nonetheless a lost cause of resistance to the overweening imperial might of Massachusetts, even if this was not the majority view. Then again, it used to be acceptable to have a statue of Robert E. Lee in your town as well. Increasingly, there is only one acceptable narrative of the Civil War, and Cthulu makes a few more strokes leftward.

But to me, the Civil War is still a tragedy even under the modern left's own terms. By these, I mean - that the only relevant issue was slavery, that it was a moral imperative that slavery be removed, and that any measures were sufficient to justify this end.

Discussions of the Civil War take place in a bizarre environment of historical illiteracy. Not about the Civil War itself, or of America's experience with slavery - Americans actually know quite a lot about their own history, even if they've only heard one version of events.

No, the ignorance that is more striking is the ignorance of the slavery experience anywhere else on the planet. Of which there was plenty. And in particular, the ignorance of the other ways that countries went about ending slavery. Because it somehow never occurs to people to ponder whether there might have been other, better ways to end slavery without resulting in 700,000 corpses.

For instance, if you were slightly more patient, you could try the Brazil option. After first outlawing the slave trade, they later passed a law to the effect that while current slaves would continue in slavery, the children of those slaves would no longer themselves be slaves. In this way, there wasn't a radical change in the labor supply overnight, but it meant that slavery had a use-by date, and would eventually become a smaller and smaller part of the economy, until at some point it could be eliminated entirely without being a massive disruption resulting in fierce and violent opposition.

To a lot of progressives, this gradualism is unacceptable because it takes too long. Slavery must not only be ended, but ended immediately, whatever the cost. In that case, you could do what the British did in Jamaica, and pass a law that not only abolished slavery, but provided for compensation to the slave owners, so they weren't getting all their assets (as they viewed it) confiscated with no recompense. Which is something people tend to strongly and violently oppose.

Because if you're serious about "whatever the cost", then it seems pretty likely that you could have simply bought every slave in the US for less than the cost of the Civil War. The 700,000 people who wound up dead might have been willing to contribute a fair bit towards the necessary tax, for instance.

But suppose you're an extremist who thinks that everyone in white America was so tarred by the injustice of slavery that their lives are literally worth nothing, even those of people in the North.

Even then, the Civil War and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of perhaps about a quarter of the slaves. Don't trust me, you can read it in famous reactionary papers like The Guardian:
Downs reconstructed the experiences of one freed slave, Joseph Miller, who had come with his wife and four children to a makeshift freed slave refugee camp within the union stronghold of Camp Nelson in Kentucky. In return for food and shelter for his family Miller joined the army. Yet union soldiers in 1864 still cleared the ex-slaves out of Camp Nelson, effectively abandoning them to scavenge in a war-ravaged and disease-ridden landscape. One of Miller's young sons quickly sickened and died. Three weeks later, his wife and another son died. Ten days after that, his daughter perished too. Finally, his last surviving child also fell terminally ill. By early 1865 Miller himself was dead.
Suppose this were a hostage rescue situation. You had proposed just paying the ransom, partly because in this unusual case it would come with a practical guarantee that this would be the last time you'd ever have to do it. Someone else decided that terrorism can never prosper, so sent in the army, who ended up inadvertently killing 1/4 of the hostages and a large number of their own troops to boot. Even if you hated the terrorists, would you view this as a triumph?

You may not like the idea of slave owners receiving money for freeing their slaves, still profiting one last time from their unjust system. Very well. Do you like the deaths of hundreds of thousands of slaves instead? Life is full of tradeoffs. Shut up and multiply, as Mr Yudkowsky put it.

It is against this background that the Origin of the Late War takes place. But the action of the book is not the war itself. Instead, the war stalks the narrative of the book, as the terrible tragedy just over the horizon.

And the unfortunate message, which Lunt emphasizes over and over again, is the following: if things had gone only slightly differently, all this could have been avoided.

And in Lunt's re-telling, it is amazing just how many places this could have happened. Some of these start long before the Civil War was even on the horizon. For instance, at one point he implies that the Whig Party's decision in 1840 to nominate William Harrison against the unpopular Martin Van Buren was a momentous one. Lunt claims, credibly, that had they nominated either of Daniel Webster (who "worked for compromises to stave off the sectionalism that threatened war between the North and the South") or Henry Clay ("the Great Compromiser"), the Whigs would likely have still won the election, and much of what followed might have been different. Instead, Harrison got elected, then died roughly a month into office.

Another aspect to this is the sense of slowly building antagonism that becomes self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. People in both the North and the South were increasingly outraged by the violence in Bleeding Kansas. So they funneled money and support to their side, which outraged their opponents more. Or equivalently, the South seemed so shocked by John Brown's raid that they felt that there was little hope of reconciling with the North.

And you can see how they would have felt this. But the action is always haunted by the eternal elipses of the war itself. Lunt mostly elides over this, but the end of lots of the chapters dangles the implication: "Of course, this alternative didn't actually happen, and so..."

700,000 corpses are contained in those "..."

Because weighed against this, lots of other alternatives suddenly seem not so bad at all. Including, in Lunt's telling, for the South to just continue to take it. Not that this was the only option, but it certainly would have been a lot better for the South, even under their own preferences at the time, than the eventual outcome. The casualties for the whole Bleeding Kansas conflict amounted to perhaps 180 or so, according to La Wik. It is a horrifying thought to ponder how long it would have taken at Gettysburg to exceed this amount, and whether the time would be measured in minutes or seconds. And from the perspective of the South, the loss of slaves to Northern operatives sneaking them out through raids like those of Harriet Tubman is trivial compared with, for instance, losing all of your slaves everywhere, forever. Which is what happened.

As Lunt puts it, if the South had simply held their ground, the North actually had surprisingly little power to force the issue of emancipation. The vote to free the slaves during the Civil War barely passed as it was, and this was without any of the Confederate representatives in the room. Their presence would have been enough to make it a total non-starter. Lunt quotes Andrew Johnson from after South Carolina had voted to secede:
What is the reason for disunion ? Because one man was not elected ? If Mr. Breckinridge had been elected, nobody would have wanted to break up the Union ; but Mr. Lincoln is elected, and now they say they will break up the Union. He said, No. What was there to fear ? Mr. Lincoln was a minority President. Let South Carolina send her Senators back, and Mr Lincoln cannot even make his Cabinet without the consent of the Senate.
Lunt is no straightforward Southern apologist. While he is sympathetic towards the South's perception that they were suffering injustices at the hands of the North, his overall position is that open rebellion against the Government was both unnecessary and ill-advised. Towards this end, he often notes the ways in which Southern enthusiasm for confrontation led them to their own downfall. For instance, consider the relative glee and amusement with which Preston Brooks' caning of Charles Sumner was greeted in the South (he was, as the story goes, sent many replacement canes, including one inscribed "hit him again!"). But even to the most ardent southern supporter, it doesn't seem quite so funny in hindsight, does it? As Lunt notes:
The unlucky blow afterwards inflicted by Mr. Brooks, of South Carolina, upon Mr. Sumner, in the Senate Chamber, gave him a prominence which there is no reason to suppose that ho could otherwise have acquired. It also enlisted sympathy enough, on his account, to secure an indulgence to his extreme views, from persons to whom they had been hitherto repulsive ; and in this way powerfully seconded the general radical movement. Except for that blow, there is every ground for believing that Mr. Sumner's official course would have ended with his first senatorial term.
Relatedly, it is hard not to see the Democrats' decision to split their party into Northern and Southern candidates in the election of 1860 as a catastrophe for the South. By sticking to principle, they ensured that the Republicans, who lacked anything close to an absolute majority, nonetheless got into power.
Indeed, at this moment, the conservative masses of the country possessed an immense superiority of physical and moral force over their opponents ; and could that have been guided by prudence and patriotism, it must have resulted in the entire and permanent overthrow of the now concentrated elements of radicalism and discord. At the election for President, in the ensuing year, the Republican candidate, Mr. Lincoln, fell short of a majority by nearly a million of votes ; while his plurality, in the free States alone, was considerably less than two hundred thousand.' It needed now, far more than upon the important occasion to which Mr. Benton referred "in a note to the Debates in Congress, already cited in his volume, "the last words of the last great men of that wonderful time." There were many still upon the stage, inspired by as noble sentiments of patriotism as had ever animated the hearts of elder patriots ; but the latter had left few or no successors to the powerful influence which they personally exerted, and which had been found hitherto able to compose the stormy passions by which the country had at times been agitated. But, although the multitude, under the whip applied by a very inferior order of men, was fast getting possession of the bit, to run the sort of helter-skelter race which usually occurs under such circumstances, it needed, after all, but a very little of that true spirit of conciliation, among persons of substantial influence, on both  sides, which should have marked the conduct of fellow-citizens, in an enlightened and Christian age, to avert that terrible impending catastrophe, which, it is not to be supposed, that the great majority, upon either side, could have really desired to bring upon the common country. ...
As Carlyle remarks, somewhere, in reference to a certain period of English history, " The times were great and the men were small." 
Be very wary of giving up the reins of power for symbolic purity alone. There is, it seems, surprising value in being at the head of even a weakened and divided state.

And even up to the very end, the drumbeat of the counterfactual continues.
It is certain, however, that long after secession had begun, by the act of the South Carolina Convention, the breach could have been repaired without much serious difficulty. 
Indeed, Lunt argues that there is strong reason to believe that the Crittenden Compromise, if agreed to, would still have averted the war. He quotes a special reporter from the New York World on December 28th, 1860, eight days after South Carolina voted to secede:
"The Star (Washington paper), of this evening, says: 'Circumstances have come to our knowledge, within the last twenty-four hours, which lead us to hope that Mr. Seward will, ere the close of the current week, counsel a settlement upon the basis proposed by Mr. Crittenden.' 
"One word that way could instantly settle the controversy ; dethroning the disunionists per se at the South, whose power is but the result of the universal belief at the South that the Republican party made up its mind for war to the knife, from the start, upon the constitutional rights of the slaveholding States." ' 
It is very true, that a newspaper reporter may be mistaken both in regard to facts and to the conclusions which he deduces from them. But if an intelligent reporter, and the World at that time, a leading organ of the Republican party, was not likely to employ one who was not of that class, he could hardly make a mistake as to the opinion generally entertained at Washington, and especially among the Republicans themselves, with whom he would probably confer, as to the effect — and an effect how momentous ! — which " one word " from a particular source, and in a particular direction, might have exercised in the prevention of civil war. 
 But the "one word" was never spoken.

And so...

As irony would have it, I finished Lunt's book not long before the Charlottesville debacle. When having recently acquired a hammer, everything becomes a nail, and the temptation is to overfit the parallels.

But it did cement something that I had felt long before. One should be very hesitant before cheering on a rise in political violence, even when your side seems to be winning. Just read the stories of men stumbling blindly into a monstrous, calamitous war, whose consequences were far worse on all sides than the perceived slights over which arms were initially taken up.

Mr Lovecraft cautioned us to not call up that which we cannot put down. Political violence has a tendency to turn into one such aspect.

Compromise is always intellectually unsatisfying, and just continuing to take the abuse is undignified and maddening. More importantly, these are not the only options on the table, so it's not like defeatism is the only option, or the best one.

But be wary of stumbling inadvertently into open conflict. You may yet find out the horror of the elipses in some future narrative.

Monday, August 7, 2017

No True Communism

As the estimable Mr Moldbug famously put it, America is a communist country.

This is one of those statements that, on first glance, strikes you as ludicrous. And then you dig a little more, and it seems funny and has something to it, but still seems over the top and wrong. And then you dig a little more, and suddenly you're not so sure any more.

Then one day, you find that 'communism' is a pretty concise explanation for lots of the crazy stuff you see going on around you. And you try to mention this to people, and they look at you like you've wandered off the deep end.

Which perhaps you have - the internet is a wild place.

Then again, communism itself is partly to blame here. It's not like Marx spelled out exactly how his society was going to work in detail, meaning that the label necessarily has a lot more ambiguity than, say, a mercentilist or a right-to-life supporter.

And yet, when someone declares that America is a communist country, it doesn't prompt a mental response of you trying to haggle over exactly what Marx might have meant, and which of the ambiguities of what policies should be classified where in terms of mapping American political thought to a somewhat-light-on-specifics political system.

Not at all. Rather, trying to swallow "America is a communist country" at the first attempt is like trying to drink a tumbler of whisky all in one go. They do it in the movies and look cool. You try it at home, it burns your throat and you throw up.

But among the various ways I've tried to explain this idea to people, here's a surprisingly powerful one.

Consider the following list of policy proposals and aims. It's long, but bear with me.

We'll call this one, Candidate A

-Work to eliminate national oppression, national chauvinism, discrimination and segregation
-Fight against all racist ideologies and practices
-Fight against all manifestations of male supremacy and discrimination against women
-Fight against homophobia and all manifestations of discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people
-Implement a $15/hour minimum wage for all workers
-Implement national universal health care
-Oppose privatization of Social Security. 
-Increased taxes on the rich and corporations
-Strong regulation of the financial industry
-Regulation and public ownership of utilities
-Increased federal aid to cities and states
-Opposition to the Iraq War and other military interventions
-Opposition to free trade treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement 
-Nuclear disarmament and a reduced military budget
-Campaign finance reform including public financing of campaigns
-Election law reform, including Instant Runoff Voting

Okay, with me so far? Imagining a hypothetical Candidate A?

Now, he's about to square off against his challenger, Candidate B. What policies does he favor?

-Racial justice
-Fight for affordable housing
-Fight for women's rights
-Fight for LGBT equality
-Make college tuition free and debt free
-Get big money out of politics and restore democracy
-Create decent paying jobs
-Implement a $15/hour minimum wage
-Combat climate change to save the planet
-A fair and humane immigration policy
-Work to create an AIDS and HIV-free generation
-Empower tribal nations
-Care for our veterans
-Medicare for all
-Strengthen an expand social security
-Fight to lower prescription drug prices
-Fight for disability rights
-Support historically black colleges and universities
-Reform Wall Street
-War should be the last option
-Real family values
-Improving the rural economy
-Make the wealthy, Wall Street and large corporations pay their fair share

So John Q. Normie looks at that list, and thinks: well, look, the first guy seems to push things a bit further on nationalising healthcare, but then again the second guy wants medicare for all, which seems like basically the same thing. The second guy talks a little more about veterans and the family, but it's hard to know what exactly that means. In terms of policies where they differ, the first guy wants nuclear disarmament and the second guy wants free college, but is this because they sound like they'd vehemently disagree with each other over this, or just that they didn't think of the other one's talking point first? The first guy somehow sounds more angry than the second, even though they both talk a lot about fighting. Perhaps it's just the spin doctoring that the second guy is fighting for stuff, and the first is fighting against stuff. Do I want the friendly guy, or the passionately fired up guy? Geez, I don't know who to pull the lever for. Does it really make a difference?

Enough suspense. Let me reveal the identities of our two candidates.

Candidate B is Bernie Sanders, taken from his issues page

Candidate A is the Communist Party of the USA, taken from Wikipedia's summary of their ideology. If you don't trust them, you can get it straight from the source too.

Actually, I cheated ever so slightly, by leaving out the one aim in the opening sentence from the wikipedia entry that does sound like classical communism
Struggle for the unity of the working class 
That might have set off your radar. But the rest of the stuff is how they plan to struggle for the unity of the working class.

The obvious point here is that it is pretty damn hard to distinguish the two lists. You could use this to simply say "Ah ha! QED, Bernie Sanders is a communist!".

While true, that's not the interesting part here.

The first interesting part here is that the vast majority of Americans, and the vast majority of Bernie Sanders supporters, do not consider Sanders' policies to be examples of communism. They just consider them as examples of slightly left of center Democratic Party politics. In fact, if you accused the average Bernie Sanders supporter of being a communist, they would likely either scoff, or get offended, or both.

And yet here we are. The Communist Party of the USA is claiming pretty much the same list as their policies.

If you're someone who thinks America is not a communist country, this is quite a conundrum.

The answer which I suspect most of the aforementioned group will instinctively choose, is to say that the CPUSA is wrong. We've learned about communism, it's only about central control of the means of production. The rest of it shouldn't be there.

To which I respond: be careful before you go down that path. Are you really saying that the Communist Party of the USA is insufficiently communist? Are you saying you know better than the Communist Party of the USA what actually constitutes communism? These guys have a pretty long and storied history going back to 1919. They walked the walk when it comes to supporting the Soviet Union when it was still in business. Hell, they're still shilling for Madura in Venezuela right now, even as the whole country is starving to death. They seem pretty darn serious to me.

And they say that communism looks a lot like Bernie Sanders. They too support democracy. They too call themselves socialist.

But there's a second thing to note.

The CPUSA is not exactly looking to take over the mainstream, remember. That's why they insist on calling themselves not just communist, but Communist. They're aiming at the fringe left. Even Wikipedia, hardly a bastion of reactionary thought, labels them as "Far Left".

The point is, presumably they'd like to distinguish themselves from the leftist wing of the Democratic Party, otherwise why bother? Why go to all the hassle of getting ridiculed as a Communist and then just end up agreeing with the Democrats?

There are two leading hypotheses here.

The standard one is that this is all subterfuge. They really do care entirely about the single issue they're not trumpeting, namely seizing the means of production, and the rest is entirely bogus and a hook to get people in the door.

Perhaps. In that case, you'd probably conclude they're rather dense, if their "hook" is that if you join you'll agree with the Democrats on everything but face widespread mockery from your friends and family.

The alternative one is that they genuinely have difficulty distinguishing themselves from the Democrats. They've just done what Moldbug joking referred to in his post: for "workers and peasants", read "Blacks and Hispanics". As I wrote about a while back, the story of the latter half of the 20th century is that cultural marxism beat out economic marxism. They've just moved slightly with the times, but other than that don't see a big contradiction.

Not that they couldn't emphasize more the seizing the means of production. Admittedly they're already seizing the utilities, but they could talk about other stuff too.

No, the problem is that when you want them to flesh out the rest of their program, after the means of production are seized, that's when it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish them from the Democratic Party. The means of production are seized! We control the commanding heights of the economy! What else would we like to get done?

The answer, apparently, is Bernie Sanders.

And why is that?

At the bottom of the rabbit hole lies one answer: because America is a communist country.

The pill is large though, and your gag reflex is strong. It can't be. There must be some other answer.

Read on, or read it again, and ponder.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The fastest way in

"Nature," as Mr Emerson once noted, "has made up her mind that what cannot defend itself shall not be defended."

A similar principle operates with public policies.

To wit, policies that the average person is not willing to openly and publicly defend, under their own name, will eventually be dismantled.

This may sound like a tautology, until you realize that there are lots of policies that exist partially out of inertia. But when you try to explain why they exist, suddenly the explanations sound awkward.

And the awkwardness comes because the mind instinctively feels that they jar with a broader principle that has been enunciated, but not yet everywhere applied. They are, in other words, Larry Auster’s famous unprincipled exceptions. And they are strong candidates when guessing where the liberal zeitgeist might head next, as I’ve written about before.

Auster seems to mostly have had in mind exceptions that get made deliberately, out of a sense by those in power that being consistent would lead to bad practical consequences. While this is true, there are other instances where it seems that inertia explains a lot. Steve Sailer’s quip that the Eye of Soros is powerful, but can’t be everywhere at once, seems quite apt. Sometimes the discussion almost has the flavor of gradually pushing the boundaries of the Overton window leftward until the mainstream feels instinctively that the boundary is catching up to them, and move accordingly.

The most glaring instances of these apply to immigration.

Modern liberalism, if taken at face value, deems it the height of evil and injustice to grant people special privileges and status based on:

-Their skin color when they were born

-Their genitalia when they were born

-Their sexual preference, (according to current fashion, also decided when they were born, though it doesn’t matter much if it happens later).

But so far, it is still acceptable to grant people special privileges based on where their mother was standing when they were born.

Why is this the case?

More importantly, suppose you were asked to justify why this is the case, in an essay that would be printed under your name around your workplace.

How many people would be comfortable doing so? I suspect not very many.

Because there are approximately two defenses

i) F*** you, it’s ours, and we don’t owe anybody anything.

ii) As a practical matter, we can’t let in everyone.

Version i) has a variety of flavors, most of which hinge upon variations of the definition of “us”, ranging from a particular ethnic/religious group (e.g.: Israel), to the current citizens (however they got here), to the current citizens plus whoever we choose to invite at our sole discretion (though this mostly punts the question to that of who we should invite).

I suspect however, that the vast majority of public defenses would be made along version ii).
But version ii) inexorably leads to the current situation – the west absorbs the third world, but at a slightly slower rate. Everyone who is let in, stays in. The ratchet moves gradually, but never moves back.

There are, however, a variety of ways to chip away at the current immigration policies.
You can make the frontal assault on the idea itself – denounce the very idea of citizenship as racist. We may yet end up there, but the frontal assault runs into too many problems of seeming to go against things that normal people love, like the American flag and national anthem.

You can make the bait and switch – citizenship is so important and beneficial, that we must make the important act of generosity and grant it to anyone who wants it. In other words, citizenship changes from something based on lineage (where your parents must be American) to something merely based on assenting to American propositions, with those whose parents are American merely being presumed to assent to them automatically. At that point, it seems like mere mean-spiritedness to not let anyone who wants to assent to the ideas and become American to do so, provided they’re not a criminal. Because, after all, people are all the same, so there could be no differences in anything to consider, none whatsoever, no siree.

Or you can make a circuitous attack. Maintain the idea of citizenship, but find another reason to let people in anyway.

This seems to be the most likely outcome to me. And the vector that seems the most potent here is the expansion of refugee programs.

The notion of refugees circumvents people’s ideas of how immigration should normally work. Sure, we normally screen immigrants carefully and don’t let just anybody move here, but these people are refugees! To send them back to where they came from would be to return them to certain death.

And this association has been built up so strongly that mostly people don’t seem to scrutinize any of the policies being snuck in as a consequence. The clearest sign of this is the fact that the major war being used to justify large migration flows into Europe is the conflict in Syria. However, a cursory glance at either a) immigration statistics, or b) photos of the refugees themselves reveals that a large quantity of them are coming from Africa (or, more recently, Bangladesh!), from regions where there is either no war at all, or conflict at a sufficiently low level that what they are fleeing from is simply everyday life in these places. Suddenly, the definition of a potential refugee has expanded to anyone in a sufficiently crappy country. Which, at last count, is most of the people of the world.

Not only that, but a second bait-and-switch has taken place, also without much discussion. Refugees went from being people that were taken in temporarily for the duration of a conflict, to people who were settled permanently. This process is left quite mysterious to the general public, which appears by design. It’s good if it happens by a court. It’s better if it happens by a permanent civil servant, or a whole lot of them. It’s best if the average person who is annoyed at the idea doesn’t even know whose decision it was.

I write the above sentence with snark, but then honest humility forces me to admit that I also have no idea exactly whose decision it was to have the vast shifts in immigration for most of the west.

Even if asylum is not immediately granted on a permanent basis, the refugee can always claim the risk of violence if he goes back. Like all of these claims, they are incredibly difficult to evaluate from thousands of kilometres away with little, if any, documentary evidence available. One either has to accept most of the claims, or reject most of the claims. The idea that one will be able through careful scrutiny determine the facts of each case seems fanciful. Of course, now that they’ve arrived *we* would be killing them by sending them back, and you don’t want that on your hands, do you, prole?

The other great benefit, to the progressive, is that part of the process happens through bodies like the UN (certainly in the case of places like Australia). Phrases like ‘international treaty obligations’ get thrown around, which are another way of telling the rubes that they have no say in the matter.

Refugees have become the ideal motte and bailey  of the immigration world. The motte is the idea that we're temporarily helping people who would literally die without our help. The bailey is large scale, permanent immigration of people from some of the most dysfunctional parts of the planet, via a mechanism mostly shielded from the political process.

You may wonder why this is a bailey, but that's probably just because you're insufficiently educated in the benefits of diversity, comrade. A little time in reeducation camp will sort you out. Or more practically, knowing how holiness spirals work.

I expect that mass immigration will most be legitimized by a systematic expansion of the practical, though not necessarily the formal, definition of refugee. In the world where policy is determined by feelz, it will come to mean "anyone who might plausibly be portrayed as an object of sympathy".

Which in practice means that anyone is allowed to come, as long as they're some kind of approved minority. In theory, there's probably an additional requirement that they haven't yet been proven to have committed a crime, though the process for evaluating that clause becomes essentially nugatory.

And so the ultimate aim gets accomplished. The others might have got there too, but I suspect this one will effectively dismantle immigration systems with less resistance. The unprincipled exception becomes semi-principled consistency.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

On the time-series, the cross-section, and epistemic humility

One of the advantages of the economist's training is just the ability to instinctively think in terms of empirical tests. There's a reason that economists have tended to colonise other fields like sociology, law and politics - as much as anything, it comes from knowing about how to design proper empirical tests, and what good identification is.

Perhaps more importantly, it comes from knowing what poor identification is, including basic issues of endogeneity, reverse causality and omitted variables. For instance, knowing that you cannot infer almost anything about the relationship between prisons and crime just by looking at the variation over time in the total number of prisoners and the total number of criminals in a society.

The gold standard for identification, of course, is pure randomisation. When that isn't available, as it usually isn't outside a laboratory, you go for natural experiments - where something almost exogenous occurred. This gets used as an instrument - in the prisons and crime case, for instance, Steve Levitt used ACLU prison overcrowding litigation as a quasi-random shock to the prison population.

Of course, the pendulum swings back and forth. If the initial identification push corrected the free-for-all of 1980's empirical work (regressing the number of left shoes on the number of right socks!), the subsequent view seems to have gone towards 'identification uber alles'. In other words, the only question of interest is whether you've really truly identified totally exogenous variation, not the importance of the underlying topic. Plus, oddly, very few people seem willing to learn from an imperfect instrument. It seems to me that if there are 100 potential explanations, and an imperfect instrument rules out 90 of them, then we've learned something quite valuable - the answer is either the main hypothesis, or one of the remaining 10. But making the perfect the enemy of the good seems to be the way of things these days.

These questions end up being most important when you actually run empirical tests. Me, I'm lazy - there is a large hurdle for me to actually download a dataset and start fiddling with it. I'm always impressed by people like Audacious Epigone and Random C. Analysis who do this stuff all the time.

But there is another aspect of empirical training that ends up being even more useful for the computationally lazy - helping you sort through hypotheses just by knowing the panel nature of the dataset.

In particular, a lot of questions that purport to be about a time-series are really about a panel. That is, it's not really about a single variable over time (the time-series), it's about a group of different individuals over time. And thinking of the cross-section simultaneously with the time series greatly clarifies a lot of things. That is, instead of just coming up with hypotheses about why the average of some variable as changed over time, think about whether this hypothesis would also be able to explain which individuals would change more or less, or would be higher or lower on average.

One of my favorite examples is birthrates. The classic question is about the time-series : why have birthrates, on average, declined over time?

But there is also a cross-section - whose birthrates? This could be of individuals, or countries, or characteristics. Moreover, the cross-section exists both today, and in the past. If you're too lazy to run a regression and just wanted to sort through hypotheses about the time series with help from your friend William of Occam, one rule of thumb might be as follows: A good variable explains both the time series and the cross section. A mediocre variable explains the time series, but not the cross-section. A bad variable explains the time-series, but predicts the cross-section in the wrong direction.

For instance, suppose I wanted to know why birthrates in the west had declined overall. Here's the US Total Fertility Rate over time

You might look at that graph, and notice a big decline starting in the early 1960s. Certain hypotheses start suggesting themselves. What was going on in the 60's? Feminism? The Pill, approved by the FDA in 1960?

Quite possibly. But what hypotheses would come to mind if instead I showed you this graph:

The US is now in green. But we've also plotted New Zealand, in purple, Sweden, in light blue, and Japan in pink.

I personally would be astonished if your reaction isn't at least partly like mine, thinking that the world is actually quite a lot more complicated than you'd bargained for. Sweden was actually rising in the early 1960s, and New Zealand was higher than the US for a long time. Japan, meanwhile, has a completely different picture altogether.

You can add any number of these together at the excellent World Bank website to test whatever theory you have.

But there are other cross-sections within countries which can be used to test theories further.

Suppose I were primarily interested in the west, and my theory was about a rising cost of having children. It's a lot more expensive to raise children than it was in the past, as you have to pay for daycare, and "good schools", and all this other stuff, because societal expectations are higher.

I certainly hear people with kids complaining about cost all the time, which tells me that maybe there's something to it.

In the first place, I don't think this hypothesis stands up well to an actual examination of the data above. It turns out there's nothing quite like downloading the bloody data and plotting it to explode a lot of preconceptions. This probably actually is the most basic economist's tool of all, to be honest. Because the US graph above shows that not only did birth rates in general go down, but they went down precipitously starting in the 1960s, hit their low point around 1975, and have been slightly rising since then. Of course, since the graph only starts in the 1960s, you have to be wary of giving prominence to this date alone for the initial decline. But still, does this look like a graph of what you expect the cost of raising a child was?

I'd guess not, but with something hard to measure like "the cost of raising a child", who knows, maybe it is. After all, the aggregate time series is always hard. We only have one run of history, and lots of things are changing at once. But the cross-section has a lot more data.

For instance, consider the cross-section of rich and poor. At least in 2000, here's how they looked:

In other words, the poor have more children than the rich.

This immediately doesn't sound like a cost story. Even if the cost has gone up for everyone, why are the rich less able to bear it than the poor? Even if you think that the poor are on welfare so they don't care about the cost, as long as the rich have more money, they still are better placed to be able to deal with it. Are children some sort of inferior good, getting substituted for jetskis as income rises?

And there's another aspect - there's a historical cross-section as well. I suspect, though it turns out to be harder than I thought to find an easy citation for this, that this disgenic pattern in birthrates with respect to income is a relatively recent phenomenon. Certainly in pre-history or in polygamous societies, only the rich could afford to have large large families (or multiple wives, in the polygamy case). When the Malthusian limit binds, access to resources matters, and the rich outbreed the poor.

I've written before about how I think improved birth control is a big part of the story. But doubt it not, this does not much better at explaining the current cross section as a cost story. That is, it approximately fails to predict it at all (making it mediocre by my rule of thumb), rather than predicting it in the wrong direction like costs do. To get birth control to explain the cross-section of income as well, you'd need to believe that the poor are unable to afford birth control, but are able to afford the resulting children. Seems hard to square to me.

Cost, incidentally, also has similar cross-sectional problems when it comes to the increase in obesity. Leftists love the 'food desert' explanation, whereby the poor are forced to become obese because the stores in their area don't have enough fresh fruits and vegetables, and hence the only options to them are potato chips and coke.

Again, from a cross-sectional point of view, this is possible. But it's a disaster from the time-series point of view. As society in general has gotten richer, we've also gotten fatter. How is it that the poor today "can't afford to eat healthily", but the poor in the 1930's could?

So explanations have to get more complicated. There's no rule of nature that everything has a single explanation. I've picked fertility and obesity because they are two of the most stubborn problems facing the west today, which suggests, but does not guarantee, that they may not be amenable to a single simple explanation.

I think there's something quite humbling about looking at the totality of the data, because it rarely looks like any one neat explanation of anything. It reminds you that your models of the world are just that - models. You include what you think are the most important parts, but you leave out lots of other stuff too. Even if you're right on what's important (a big if), the world is a large and complicated place.