The Unwinnable Battle Over Abortion

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


Last week one of my friends called me up. This was surprising. The nature of our relationship is such that I normally call him, not the other way around. Accordingly I asked him to what I owed the pleasure, and he said he was calling to yell at me about the Georgia “fetal heartbeat” abortion law. I responded “Oh, joy…” and he proceeded to basically do just that. To be fair there wasn’t much literal yelling, but there were a lot of very strong declarations about how horrible the law was, the horrible things it would bring to pass, and the horrible people who were responsible for it all.

I defended myself as best I could, particularly given the fact that I had never expressed support for that exact law to anyone, let alone this friend. Also I hadn’t really been following the story, so I was largely going off his description of it. A description which had been significantly colored by his biases and the biases of most of the reporting. By this I’m not trying to imply any significant mendacity, rather I’m merely pointing out that he got all of his info from people who are predisposed to be absolute in their defense of a woman’s right to an abortion, and that he is similarly predisposed. Also I’m not trying to imply that his worries were unfounded, or that the bill doesn’t have some significant weaknesses. It does, and since he appointed me, as his token (pseudo) conservative friend to defend it, I figured I might as well give it a shot. If nothing else, there was a significant amount of bafflement on his side, and perhaps I can at least help resolve some of that.


I should probably start by clarifying my own views on abortion. I believe that there’s a moral continuum. On the one end abortion takes the form of a morning after pill, which I am libertarian enough to believe should be entirely legal and easily available. On the other end the closer you get to the moment the baby is ready to be delivered, the closer abortion gets to just being infanticide, and to being indistinguishable from murder. Draw a line between these two points (though it’s probably some kind of curve) and you can visualize the morality of abortion at every point in a pregnancy. Depending on one’s views on the value of female autonomy vs. the value of the unborn at some point the value of the former will outweigh the value of the latter. Before that point abortion is undesirable but allowable, after that point it should indeed be illegal, or at least legal only under certain circumstances.

I think on some level, this continuum applies to most people, though I doubt they think of it with quite this level of detail, and, of course, the current battle isn’t being fought by most people, it’s being fought by the true believers at either end of the spectrum, and for them there’s basically a cliff. On the one side, abortion is wrong from the moment the zygote is implanted in the walls of the uterus and on the other side there’s been a recent push in a couple of states to make abortion allowable basically up to the moment that the baby has left the mother. Now I know that post-viability abortions are very rare, and I’ll be returning to that point, but they do happen, and there has been a push recently to make it even easier for them to happen.

To continue unpacking my personal views, I am also in favor of the typical exceptions that are always listed: rape, incest, and the health of the mother. Though, I can also see where those could be abused and act as a loophole to get an abortion when you might not otherwise be allowed to. Which is more about the nature of what happens with exceptions than the nature of abortion.

Pulling all of this together, if it were entirely up to me (and it’s not, nor should it be) I would make sure that there was plenty of education about birth control, and that all the different forms of it, including morning after pills, were easy to obtain, and then, once all of that was in place I would make the legality of abortion a state-level issue, with the exceptions mentioned above. And where abortion is illegal, I would want the greatest possible mercy shown to women, with all enforcement directed at abortion providers. Even if some of these elements were not present, I would be fine living in a state that decided abortion should be illegal. Which I guess makes me pretty pro-life, albeit with a libertarian slant, and also endowed with the realization that the sexual revolution did happen and, perhaps unfortunately, the genie is already out of the bottle.


Given this essentially pro-life stance, you may wonder why, as I said previously, I hadn’t been following the story of the Georgia abortion law, but this is where we get into the last piece of my stance on abortion. I am on record as predicting that Roe v. Wade will not be overturned, and that specifically Chief Justice Roberts will join with the four liberals in upholding it. (Experts agree with me.) Which means that it doesn’t matter what kind of law Georgia passes, federal judges will put a stay on it (as they already have to a similar law passed by Kentucky). From there, it will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court and they’ll decide that it’s an unreasonable restriction. Meaning that while there is currently a lot of excitement around the bill, that eventually it won’t amount to anything.

And here is where we bring my friend back into the picture, since, at the time of his call, I wasn’t able to speak very knowledgeably to the specifics of the bill I offered this latter argument as justification for why he shouldn’t worry about it. To which he retorted, “Only if Ginsburg doesn’t die!” And yes, if Ginsburg dies, that would definitely throw a wrench into things, and it’s clear that her health isn’t great, but I think it’s equally clear, based on the Kavanaugh hearings, that if she does die, and Trump is still president that the Democrats will do everything in their power to stop Trump from appointing another justice. What those actions might be is beyond the scope of this post, but recall that they have the House, which means they have the power of the purse, and you shouldn’t underestimate what they can do with that. Also at this point the “blood in the streets” option is also probably on the table. And that takes me to my biggest worry about Roe being overturned, not that the legality of abortion will go back to being determined at the state level, but that the insane divisiveness which already exists will get turned up to 11, and whatever the chances of “blood in the street” are if Ginsburg dies, that they’re at least double that if Roe actually gets overturned.

Accordingly, one of my biggest worries is one I’ve mentioned before, that issues like abortion are going to be so divisive that eventually people are going to start resorting to violence, and that once that violence starts, I’m not sure where it ends. But as I’ve already talked about that let’s get into a discussion of the actual Georgia law.


After a high level discussion of the new law, which as I said, is the only level I could engage at, my friend proceeded to list all of the horrible things that were specifically part of the new law. Women thrown into jail for miscarriages, charged with second degree murder. Women being charged with murder for getting an abortion in another state. People who drive the women to get an abortion (in or out of the state) being charged with conspiracy to commit murder, etc.

At the time of the call I was out for a lunchtime walk, so I didn’t have access to the internet (or rather I was talking on my internet connected device.) But when I got home I quickly looked up the actual text of the bill. I should mention at this point that it’s surprising how few of the articles, particularly those that are critical of it, link to the actual law, for example the NYT article I linked to at the beginning includes no link to the actual bill.

Reviewing it I very much expected to see all of the penalties my friend described, and I was surprised to discover that in fact none of what he said was in there. No murder penalties, no mention of conspiracy, none of that. So what was going on? Well, the primary thing the Georgia law did, other than the six week cutoff, was define a fetus/unborn child to be “person” under the 14th Amendment. And then, if an unborn child is a person, there are a whole host of other laws which kick in. If unborn children are people then an abortion is 2nd degree murder. In other words, the opponents of the law are arguing that while the law doesn’t mention any of these penalties that they flow as a natural consequence from declaring that the unborn are people. That under the law all miscarriages are now possible cases of 2nd degree murder.

Given that only 34% of voters can name all three branches of government, what are the chances that the average person upon hearing about the horrible penalties of the law realize that they are not actually written into the law itself? But only a possible consequence of declaring an unborn child to be a “person” under the 14th Amendment. (If you’d like to see someone from the left arguing that these penalties definitely will be applied see here. And if you’d like to see someone on the right arguing that they definitely won’t see here.) All that said, I will admit that it’s reasonable to ask, why did they invoke the 14th Amendment?

I can think of several possibilities:

  1. They did it precisely in order to be able to apply these penalties. They want to charge women who have an abortion with 2nd degree murder, and they want to immediately suspect all women who have miscarriages of the same thing.
  2. Bringing in the 14th Amendment has nothing to do with the mothers or their unborn children. It’s actually about something entirely different. For example, the bill does mention including the unborn in “population based determinations” perhaps what Georgia is really hoping for is another seat in congress.
  3. They actually didn’t think through the consequences. The 14th Amendment has been used to expand rights for lots of different groups, including being used in the recent decision which legalized same-sex marriage, and tossing it in sounded good. But, by doing so, they failed to realize that if they declare fetuses to be people that abortion is 2nd degree murder.
  4. They did think through the consequences, but they were far more focused on the hundreds of thousands of unborn who are aborted every year than they were on the women who might have an abortion. That, basically, they feel like abortion is an enormous crime, and after 46 years of Roe v. Wade, they are desperate to see it overturned, also, similar to what I just said, the 14th Amendment seems like a promising avenue to accomplish this. As far as the penalties, they are either planning to deal with that after they see what the courts say, or they feel that they are already covered by pre-existing laws (which is what the conservatives are arguing.)

Without attempting to put words into the mouth of either my friend, or the bill’s opponents, my sense is that they are both sure that it has to be possibility number one. That the bill is a malicious and premeditated attack on women. That the people who supported and voted for this bill are not trying to “save lives” they are looking for the best way to punish women who have the temerity to violate their puritanical views on morality, and that applying the 14th Amendment to fetuses is the best way to accomplish this objective. This seems unlikely, and in a minute I’ll look at why I think that is.

Number two also seems unlikely. Doing anything with abortion laws is such a messy business that it’s hard to imagine that anyone would think that it’s the best way to accomplish some unrelated goal, regardless of what that goal might be.

Number three would appear to be strictly superior to number one just on the basis of Hanlon’s Razor (Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.) And for that reason alone I wouldn’t discount it as the best explanation for what happened. As I’m sure my friend would/will point out, this explanation doesn’t absolve the lawmakers from the responsibility of considering the possible consequences of declaring an unborn child to be a person, and of being more clear about what sort of punishment (or lack of punishment) they envisioned. And I would have to agree, but I also think it’s more important to look at what they intended to do, rather than what they forgot to do.

Once we honestly try to imagine what they intended then I think it’s clear that their intention was to use the 14th Amendment as part of an overarching strategy for increasing the chances that this law won’t be struck down by the Supreme Court. Maybe they did it without considering all of the potential consequences. Maybe they saw the consequences, but didn’t want to risk diluting the bill, by adding anything extraneous (possibility four). Regardless, I think it’s clear that whatever their reasoning their primary focus was stopping the abortion of unborn children, not punishing the women who had those abortions. Though I expect that assertion to be controversial, given that, in many respects, it represents the crux of the abortion debate.


One common complaint among the vociferously pro-choice is that those who oppose abortion don’t actually care about the unborn, that they are mostly men, entirely motivated by a desire to punish those women they see as being immoral. And even if concern about the unborn is in there somewhere, that it’s still largely driven by animus towards women, and if some abortions are prevented as a side effect of this animus, they’re fine with that, but it’s not their primary goal. I seem to remember my friend making an argument very much along those lines. Given that there is no gender split in the debate over abortion and that the most ardent pro-life activists seem to largely be women, the narrative of a movement entirely driven by misogyny seems false on its face, but beyond that, as is so often the case, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, gave the definitive response to this argument back in 2013, and I would urge you to read his entire post on the subject. But if you don’t have time here are the salient points:

  • Many people make the argument that if pro-life Christians truly cared about stopping abortion they would support much greater access to birth control to prevent pregnancies in the first place. But this assumes that, philosophically, they’re consequentialists. That a lesser evil is okay, if it leads to a greater good. But Alexander points out that Christians aren’t consequentialists, and that only about 10% of all people are consequentialists. As you can imagine this particular distinction gets pretty deep in the theological/philosophical weeds, which is one of the reasons why I recommend the original post.
  • Given that fetuses, particularly the later you get in a pregnancy strongly resemble human beings, except for location, you would be very surprised if abortion didn’t end up being a very fraught moral issue, and you would be even more surprised to find that no one was bothered by it. So if all of the normal pro-lifers just want to oppress women, where are all the people who are bothered by doing something which strongly resembles killing a human being? Or as Alexander says:

In short, in order to believe [this] thesis, we would have to accept both that a hundred million pro-lifers who claim they believe in rights for fetuses are lying, and explain the absence of about a hundred million pro-lifers we would expect to find merely by the difficulty of the moral dilemma alone.

  • Alternatively, one might argue that when pro-life individuals argue against abortion that they’re actually signalling their morals, that deep in their heart of hearts that they don’t really believe that abortion is wrong. This gets into the weeds of what it means to “really want” something. And even if we accept that there might be something disingenuous about their support, what makes the oppression of women less disingenuous? How do we know that they “really want” one thing but not the other?
  • Even if you steelman the argument, as some of the commenters do, into “Pro-lifers just want to force women who have sex to bear the consequences for their supposed misdeeds”. Alexander points out that this still amounts to basically the same thing. Our legal system is based on the idea of forcing people to bear the consequences of their action, particularly if we can’t mitigate those consequences without bringing harm to someone else. Given that pro-life individuals feel that a fetus is a “someone else”, then everything about his point still stands.

Alexander tosses in other things like the genetic fallacy, the principle of charity, and even a study showing that birth control may not reduce the number of abortions, but the key point to take away from all of this is that abortion is an enormously complicated moral issues where a lot of values conflict, and it is entirely understandable and even predictable that someone, probably a large number of someone’s, would end up thinking that abortion is akin to murder. And if that’s the case then it’s also entirely reasonable for them to think that millions of babies being aborted is akin to millions of murders being committed. And once you’re there, you could imagine that for these people the Georgia law doesn’t seem all that bad. And I understand that there are people on the opposite side of this issue, as I said it’s a place where two of our most cherished values, freedom and life collide in a spectacular fashion. And, at the end of the day, there doesn’t appear to be some easy or philosophically obvious way to resolve this collusion, so what are we going to do?


The Georgia bill is one attempt to resolve this collusion, and I understand that there are a LOT of people who think that, as attempts go, it’s horrible. Particularly the part where an innocent women who just had a miscarriage might end up going to jail, so let’s talk about that for a minute.

We have lots of laws where innocent people are occasionally, and unfairly punished. We have lots of stories of bad things happening, that we wish didn’t happen because things are one way rather than another. And I would argue that many of these bad things happen because abortion is legal, even if you assume that society should be reasonably pro-choice. For example there is widespread agreement that abortion after the first 20 weeks is different than abortions before then, and that partial birth abortions are particularly abhorrent. (In fact 65% of people think abortion should be illegal after the first 13 weeks.) And yet they still happen, despite the fact that at 20 weeks you’re very close to the point where the baby can survive on its own outside of the womb and under any reasonable system of morality you’re edging towards infanticide. But, over and over again, you’ll hear the justification that such abortions are rare. Most recently Samantha Bee pointed out that abortions at or after 21 weeks comprise only 1.3% of all abortions. Is the other side allowed to make the same argument? That it’s very rare for a woman to be charged with 2nd degree murder for travelling to another state to have an abortion, or that it’s okay because only 1.3% of all miscarriages result in the woman mistakenly going to jail?

I don’t know what the numbers would end up being, certainly if you look back through history, it does happen. Woman went to jail for miscarriages. And I think that’s awful, and as I already said we should show the greatest amount of mercy to the actual women. But if the Georgia law is not struck down by the Supreme Court how common would this sort of thing actually be? One story can certainly be sensational, and a woman falsely imprisoned for abortion when it was just a miscarriage, makes a heck of a story (much better than the story of a 23 week old fetus). But we can’t make and overturn laws based on one bad story.

The larger point is that of course there are tradeoffs. Of course bad things are going to happen, really no matter what we do. The current system brought us Dr. Gosnell, how many falsely imprisoned women is he worth? 100? 20? 5? 0? I understand where you’re coming from if your answer is zero, though I suspect you might be biased. But, also, you should realize that for a lot of people the answer is definitely not zero.


In the time it’s taken me to write this, other laws restricting abortion have been passed, including the one in Alabama which criminalizes all abortion except where the mother’s health is at risk. And the Alabama law also includes a steep prison sentence for abortion providers of up to 99 years. As I have said, the Georgia law is not the one I would have passed, and that goes double for Alabama’s. But once again the same two points I brought up with respect to Georgia’s law also apply to Alabama’s law. First, both of these laws are moves in a larger game. The people who crafted Georgia’s law thought that referencing the 14th Amendment was a good idea. In Alabama’s case the move was to craft a law the Supreme Court couldn’t ignore. In both cases they want the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade and they want to increase the chances of it being overturned.

Secondly, if anything, the Alabama law even more clearly demonstrates that some people do really view abortion as essentially murder, and if it is, having an exception for rape or incest doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, many individuals on the pro-choice side have used the rape and incest exception as proof that pro-life people don’t care about the unborn they just don’t want women having sex. Alexander had a particularly good answer here:

If some anti-abortion people want to relax their sacred beliefs out of deference to the trauma of people who have been raped, I am totally going to let them do it without attacking them or pillorying them for their kindness or accusing them of secretly hating women (if they do, they are doing a very bad job of it).

But I think most of this is just political compromise anyway. X proposes an anti-abortion bill, Y tries to drum up opposition by saying “But what about rape victims?!” (who are less than one percent of abortions), and X tries to head off the objection and restore support by saying “fine, no abortion for anyone except rape victims”. It’s a good political strategy and it would be surprising if people didn’t use it.

(As a side note, if you’re curious like me, apparently abortions in cases of rape and incest combined only represent 1.5% of all abortions.)


At this point, I assume that many people are wondering, “Why now?” And “What happens next.” The first question is obviously easier to answer than the second. Kavanaugh, and a conservative Supreme Court is why it’s happening now. Though I think there are also reasons beyond that. A columnist in the Washington Post opined that extremism on the other side, in New York and Virginia, paved the way for extremism in Georgia and Alabama. While I think this earlier extremism also has its roots in Kavanaugh’s appointment, I would also not underestimate how big the New York and Virginia laws were for the pro-life crowd. But I think there are some reasons which pre-date Kavanaugh, but which may be more subtle. As with so many things I think technology has played a role.

For example, here’s an article that appeared last year in The Atlantic, Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost. It talks about ultrasounds, fetal pain, neonatal surgery, and premature babies surviving after earlier and earlier births. All of these are things which have gradually and cumulatively made fetuses seem more like babies and less like the sort of thing you can dispose of if they’re inconvenient. And none of these technologies are going to become less impactful as time goes on and many of them will become even more salient in the ongoing debate. Just a few days ago there was the article, We’ll Grow Babies in Artificial Wombs “In a Decade”. What happens when the technology exists to, in place of an abortion, move the fetus to an artificial womb? What does the debate look like then?

Which takes us to the discussion of what happens next. With many progressive issues there has been a clear trend, where even if a state passed a reactionary law, all you had to do was look at the trend line to know that in 5-10 years it wouldn’t matter. Same sex marriage is a great example of that, support went from 37% to 62% in 10 years. But abortion is not like that, the country has essentially been split 50-50 for the last 20 years, and arguably the trend is towards being more pro-life. Also, as I pointed out previously, the support by gender is pretty evenly split as well. This isn’t an issue where there are obviously a class of victims who all feel universally harmed by it. This is an issue, where as I’ve been trying to point out, there are real and difficult questions. There no clear situation where one group is oppressing another. There is no easy answer.

Of course even if support for the two sides has remained relatively constant, the intensity of that support has increased dramatically. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to imagine a situation where both points of view can coexist peacefully. I said earlier that a repeal of Roe v. Wade could be a “blood in the streets” moment, but I wonder how many people actually understand that all it does is move it back to the level of the states? It doesn’t make abortion illegal across the entire US. And I also wonder if, after the initial shock of the repeal, we might end up in a better place. Yes I imagine there might be some sorting with people leaving Georgia and Alabama (and maybe New York and Virginia), but might that not be a good thing? Might it be the only thing that can solve an issue that shows no signs of going away and every sign of getting more and more divisive?

I’m sure there are people who imagine that all they have to do is hope that Ginsburg doesn’t die, weather the next 20 months between now and the election, and that everything will go back to “normal”. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s apparent that the abortion issue is not going away, people aren’t becoming more progressive on this issue and technology isn’t going to help. We have a situation where two groups of people genuinely see the world in two entirely incompatible ways. We can seek either greater understanding or greater separation, but if we don’t do either of those things then we’ll eventually end up with greater violence.

I said a couple of weeks ago that I would have shorter and longer posts, this is definitely an example of a longer post. What did you think? Did it make you want to donate?

Review: Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

I read a fair number of books. Under the old system of posting ~3500 word essays (Posts? Diatribes? Jeremiads?) once a week, very few books made the cut for a discussion of that length. But now that my writing/posting is looser I’m thinking I’ll do more reviews. In fact I think I’m going to try to review all the books I read in this space. It will still be somewhat rare for a single book to get a post all to itself, I’m planning to toss most of them into an end of the month round-up. Also, I should mention that many years ago I came up with a book review format, which I quite liked, so I’ll be dusting it off and using it in this space. And while I just said that most books will not warrant an entry all to themselves, this one does:

Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

By: David Frye
304 pages
Format: Audiobook with physical copy for reference



Who should read this book?

If you like history, particularly sweeping thematic examinations of history which cover thousands of years all at once, you should definitely read this book.

You should also read this book if you want the entire backstory of the current debate over walls and border security. It may not change your mind, but you will end up with the deepest context possible for the issue.

Representative passage:

As Rome went, so went the provinces. For nearly three hundred years, Roman cities had given little thought to protecting their citizens, relying, just as Aristides said, on faraway troops and eventually border walls to hold the frontier against the warlike peoples massed outside. Some cities, mostly the older ones, had outgrown their ancient walls. Others had never had any walls at all.

In the whole of world history there had never been an experiment as grand as that of an empire composed mostly of unwalled cities. By leaving so many towns undefended, the Romans had adopted a comprehensive approach to local security—hundreds of miles of border walls and other barriers designed to create a massive impenetrable shield over all Western civilization. In the aftermath of the third-century invasions, that all changed: the emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) implemented a program to fortify the suddenly insecure cities of the western provinces. It was the last great construction boom of a city-building empire, and it was an act that repudiated every Roman belief in what a city should be.

With due deliberation, the wall builders dismantled those splendid, open cities that their fathers had created in earlier more confident days. Buildings in the paths of the new walls were razed. Some were torn down simply to provide stone. In the rush to fortify the cities, the relentless chisels of the laborers broke apart tombs, temples, columns, baths, theaters, and amphitheaters. They tore friezes, relief sculptures, and capitals from their settings, using the bigger blocks for masonry and crushing the rest for rubble. Many an inscription, once intended to ensure immortal glory, was wrenched from its proper place to rest ingloriously among the bricks, masonry, and concrete of a rampart.


Everywhere I look I see examples of people who have essentially no historical knowledge, and what little they do “know” is worse than the ignorance, because it’s a complete misinterpretation of actual history. The chief value of Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick is that it takes one specific subject where deep historical misinterpretation and ignorance exists and shows conclusively how it was misinterpreted and what the facts actually are. As you might guess from the title that subject is the building of walls.

One of the most common ways for history to be misinterpreted is to give far too much weight to recent history, and far too little to more ancient history. I’m sure that on some level this sort of ignorance has always existed, but I suspect that it’s much worse now than it’s ever been, particularly on the subject of walls. As you might imagine from a history book “Walls” starts with the very oldest wall (built around 2000 BC in Syria; no one knows much about it;) and moves forward to the present day. I’m going to take something of the opposite approach and start out by covering the modern views and misconceptions of walls, before going back to a (brief) discussion of historical walls.

It probably goes without saying that if you bring up the idea of a wall today, people’s minds immediately jump to Trump’s “big beautiful wall”, and given that association, people either hate the idea or love it. And it’s unfortunate that this is as far as most people get when considering the idea of a wall. But for those that do go farther they don’t go much farther. Mostly they journey to 1991 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I think it’s safe to say that the Berlin Wall has a horrible reputation. And for most of the people who do make it this far back in history, that’s enough. The Berlin Wall was bad and therefore all walls are bad. The point that there’s a world of difference between a country building a wall to keep people in and building a wall to keep people out gets brought up again and again, with, as far as I can tell, no discernible impact. Here’s what Frye had to say:

For the time being, however, the Wall…has firmly attached itself to our historical memory. In modern debates on walls, the Berlin Wall figures in almost every utterance. It is the universal example, perpetually at hand, perpetually tossed into discussions of barriers with which it had absolutely nothing in common.

The Wall shed its former role as a symbol of communist oppression and acquired an entirely new image in a foggy-minded popular imagination that remembered the Wall but couldn’t quite recall who’d built it or why.

The Berlin Wall had always had impeccable timing—making its grand appearance at the height of the Cold War and bowing out in spectacular fashion to bring the Cold War to its conclusion. It would now embark on its second career with similar timeliness, returning to the stage as a symbol of all border walls, just as they were about to make a reappearance around the world.

(Emphasis in the original)

As I’ve said the misinterpretation of the Berlin Wall is unfortunate, but if it had never existed, I’m not sure the current (low) opinion of walls would be very much different, because only a few decades before the Berlin Wall there was the Maginot Line. For those who might be unfamiliar with the Line. It was a series of fortified bunkers and gun emplacements (the French called them ouvrages) guarding the border between France and Germany. The Line was finished in 1939. Which would have been excellent timing if the Germans had not merely gone around it. Unfortunately, the French considered the Ardennes Forest to be “impassable” and they didn’t fortify their border with the Low Countries either. The Germans proved that the forest was eminently “passable” and beyond that they’ve never much cared about the sovereignty of the Low Countries.

The fall of France came swiftly, and it was with equal rapidity that the Maginot Line joined the Great Wall in that growing list of symbols that compose our mental shorthand when thinking about walls. For the next fifty years, at least, writers could speak of a “Maginot Line psychology” when dismissing some misplaced faith in the power of sanctuary. Historians applied the term retroactively. The great Persianist Richard Frye spoke of Sasanid Persia’s “Maginot Line mentality” when describing its system of walls. Arthur Waldron compared the Great Wall of China to the Maginot Line.

Perhaps, if the French had been wise enough to extend the Line (it’s possible they would have done just that had they been given more time) it’s story and place in history would be entirely different. As it turns out, when the Germans did decide destroy the Maginot Line, that despite being able to attack it from both sides, and using aerial bombardment and artillery, they were unable to destroy or capture a single ouvrage. The defenders eventually surrendered only when their food started getting low and when ordered to by the French commander in chief.  A World War II where the Germans never made it across the borders of France would have been a very different war from the one we ended up with.

But, as you may have gathered from the quote, no discussion of walls would be complete without considering that zenith of historical wall-building, the Great Wall of China. It’s very fashionable these days to dismiss the Great Wall as a staggeringly expensive and deadly failure. And from there to go on to dismiss all walls, ever, but this may be the greatest misinterpretation of all.

To be clear there were a lot of negatives to the Great Wall of China and historical walls in general. They were deadly for the workers. They were horribly expensive. Unless they stretched the entire length of the border you could go around them. Also they were only as good as the men who guarded them. If a general could be bribed, (as one was in an oft-repeated story about the Great Wall) then it didn’t matter how secure they were. And yet in every region of the world (New and Old) and in every historical era walls kept getting built, despite all of these costs.

I don’t have the space to get into all of the numerous historical examples. To discuss the difference between the wall-less Spartans and the wall-building Athenians. To review all of the many Chinese walls which predate the Great Wall, stretching all the way back to 800 BC. For that you have to read the book. I will only offer up the falling observation. You have a choice between only two conclusions. One, that despite all of their weaknesses, and despite the enormous cost in blood and treasure, that walls provided a significant net benefit to the kingdoms and nations which constructed them. Or, two, that nearly all civilizations, throughout all of history were seized with the same irrational wall-building madness. Pursuing damaging and misguided policies again and again despite the evidence.

This takes us to the current misinterpretations plaguing the debate over walls. Apparently, there are a significant number of people who believe in conclusion two. In fact in the link I gave earlier about how the Great Wall was a staggeringly expensive and deadly failure, the author includes a quote from Arthur Waldron (the person who also compared the Great Wall to the Maginot Line) who suggested, “There was a cheaper solution, as it turns out, which was to simply do some trade with the Mongols.” I’m not sure the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the Sack of Baghdad would agree. In any event, whether they’ve actually adopted conclusion two, or if their historical thinking extends back no further than the Berlin Wall, in the West all the current talk is about building bridges not walls. (This is only in the West by the way, everywhere else a Second Age of Walls has begun. Lead by Saudi Arabia which has already built a wall longer than the one proposed by Trump.)

Frye had this to say on the subject of bridges:

“Good fences make good neighbors” experienced early retirement. In its place came the untested phrase “Build bridges not walls.” If nothing else, the new slogan seemed designed to give military historian fits. Throughout history, bridge building had been recognized as an act of aggression. Since at least the time of Xerxes bridging the Hellespont, Caesar the Rhine, or Trajan the Danube, bridge building had preceded invasions, enabling troop movements across natural barriers, and as late as the twentieth century, military uses had figured prominently in the thinking behind the bridges of Germany’s autobahn and the American interstate highway system. None of this was enough to slow the rise of a hot catchphrase. The slogan showed up on T-shirts, wristbands, and banners. It became a popular hashtag on Twitter. Protestors chanted it. Politicians invoked it. Even Pope Francis paraphrased the sentiment.

The arguments are fierce, and I think all sides could use the benefit of a historical perspective. “Walls” definitely provides it.


As I just mentioned Frye buttresses his argument that walls are still important by talking about all the walls which have recently been built. He points out, that in terms of length, there are more border walls than they have ever been. But what he doesn’t really talk about is how these walls have a significantly different purpose than past walls. They are not designed to keep out invading armies, they are designed to keep out immigrants. This is a big enough difference to have deserved more commentary than he gave it. While I basically agree with the points he made, the possibility certainly exists that modernity has changed things in a way that makes walls less useful. Of course the opposite is also possible, that technology has made them more useful, and while he does spend some time on that side of things, as a whole, the discussion of how modern walls might be different from ancient walls is lacking.

Beyond that my only other criticism is that he has this whole argument that one of the reasons people dislike walls is become of primitivism. That they have an idealized vision of a freer, more primitive state where there are no walls. As he points out this vision is entirely incorrect, but I’m not sure that it plays a very big role in current anti-wall sentiment, and although he didn’t spend that much time on it, the time he did spend could have better been spent elsewhere.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

How important have walls been in the history of civilization? Few civilized peoples have ever lived outside them.

If you enjoyed this review you know what would help me do more of them? More books. Can you guess how I get more books? More donations… And I really do promise I’ll spend it on books.

Are Democrats Trapped by the Immigration Issue?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

In a recent post about the 2020 presidential election I wondered about the fact that Biden hadn’t entered the race. Well he finally did, and in a recent poll he appears to be stomping on the rest of the candidates, with a 30 point lead over his nearest competitor (Sanders, 44 to 14). One can almost imagine a relatively smooth primary process where Biden has things locked up as soon as Super Tuesday rolls around, and from there goes onto easily beat Trump, ending the long national nightmare and restoring peace and prosperity to the land. Of course we arguably already have prosperity, which is one of many reasons why Biden’s path to victory might not be quite that smooth. Another reason is immigration.

Despite being one of the biggest political issues of the day, I’ve spent very little time directly talking about immigration. Which is not to say I’ve spent no time on it. I feel like I did a pretty comprehensive survey of the issue back in February of 2017 and I stand by that post. To recap, my argument always starts with the question, “Can we have completely open borders?” That is, could we accommodate, as immigrants, every person who wants to come here? Given that conservatively, the number of people who want to come here is in the hundreds of millions, realistically the answer to that has to be “No”. And if that’s the case, if we can’t take everyone, then we need to have some rules for who can come and who can’t. And further we should have some standards for deciding what those rules are. I’m fine with different people having different standards, that’s only to be expected, but they should at least be required to articulate what those standards are.

In the race to determine who will face Trump in the 2020 election, the race Biden seems to be winning, all of the various Democratic candidates are going to have the opportunity to do just that. The question is, what will they do with this opportunity? I imagine they’ll have very little difficulty talking about who should be able to come, and perhaps more importantly, stay. It’s when they’re required to articulate who can’t come that things are going get tricky. But of course unless they’re for open borders (which the New York Times assures us is not the case) all of them should have a standard for both.

But, as I said, it’s tricky. Given this, most have chosen to make lots of supportive comments and speeches about immigrants and keeping families together and, most of all, how evil Trump has been about the whole thing, while avoiding any actual policy proposals. As far as I can tell only Julián Castro has put together an actual platform explaining what he would do as far as immigration, but even here, his focus seems to be entirely on “radically restrict[ing] immigration enforcement”. There’s no discussion of anything resembling a standard for determining who can’t immigrate. I guess you could take what remains from the first part, and that might be a standard, if you squint?

It’s possible that most candidates have a strategy of continuing this tactic all the way through to the election, but will that strategy work?

I’ve seen a lot of articles arguing that it probably won’t. And, I should point out, it’s an indication of the issue’s importance that news sites are already talking about it 17 months before the election. Though, it is of course always possible that it will end up not being very important by the time the actual election rolls around, I see no reason to expect that.

These sites offer a lot of different takes on the issue; recommend various strategies; and use different numbers to define the importance of the issue. But they all seem to agree that if they’re not careful, that Democrats may lose the election on precisely this issue. The article which lays this possibility out most starkly appeared in The Nation (a very progressive outlet) titled Trump Is laying a Trap for Democrats on Immigration and it points out the following:

…a majority of Americans—in numbers well beyond Trump’s base—also want immigration laws to be strictly enforced and the border sealed against illegal crossings. A 2018 Harvard/Harris poll reported that 70 percent of voters support more restrictive laws, with 64 percent—including 53 percent of Latinos—in favor of sending back people who cross the border without papers. And although most blamed Trump for the government shutdown, when that skirmish was over, his favorability ratings rose by three points.

On top of all this the immigration crisis appears to only be getting worse. From the same article:

Until recently, Democrats might have counted on the issue
 going away by itself. Unauthorized border crossings fell substantially from their highs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, largely because of a drop-off in migrants from Mexico. But the numbers from Central America—especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—have risen. Some 76,000 undocumented migrants crossed the border in February, an 11-year high. Forecasts are for another 180,000 by May.

The immigration system on our southern border is collapsing. Courts are swamped with a backlog of cases estimated at 850,000. Detention centers are overwhelmed and understaffed. Children are lost, women are abused, and busloads of confused migrants and refugees are dumped on the street and told to come back later for their hearings. Some show up, some don’t.

70 percent and 850,000 are both big numbers, and it illustrates a point I’ve made before. For a long time there has been a disconnect between the politicians and the people on what should be done about immigration. Not merely among the Democrats, but also the Republicans. And I have long argued that Trump won, in spite of all of his negative qualities, because he was the first politician who was able to tap into that disconnect. There were other Republican candidates before Trump who wanted to be tough on immigration, but none of them managed to get any attention or traction. Trump came in with plenty of built in attention, and when you combine that with an issue that has the support of up to 70 percent of the electorate, and a worsening situation on the ground, his election becomes a lot easier to explain.

Trump himself was reportedly indifferent to the idea of a wall, at least initially. But once he started talking about it the response was overwhelming. An indication of how bad the disconnect had been and how much pent up demand there was. By making it a signature issue, in effect

Trump let the genie out of the bottle. I don’t want to exaggerate immigration’s unimportance pre-2015, but neither party paid much attention to it, and while it received some lip service, what action there was always ended going in the direction of loosening standards. People are finally realizing that there is a huge appetite for discussion of tighter controls, but as I have repeatedly said, it’s tricky, and I think we all know why. Not only did Trump let the genie out of the bottle, he also made it an issue so toxic that no one wants to touch it, but is that a viable long term strategy? It’s a huge issue and with 70 percent of people favoring more restrictive laws it’s a little unclear how the Democratic candidates are going to deal with it. If that number was 45% it’d be an entirely different story, but it’s not. Or is it?

As I said each of the articles I’ve seen has offered up different data in support of their arguments. And the data included by the various articles is not easy to compare. For example here’s what Slate says:

In a poll just before last year’s midterms, a Pew study found that 75 percent of Republicans identify illegal immigration as a “very big problem” for the United States… [However] immigration doesn’t seem to be a priority for most American voters. Among the general public, immigration ranks ninth among “public policy priorities” for 2019. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Americans view immigration as an asset for the country. Perhaps more importantly, some polls suggest the number of independents who hold a positive view of immigration and its role in America has continued to grow.

During the same conversation, Daniel Restrepo, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Western Hemisphere adviser to President Obama, told me Democrats should avoid “getting into some sort of argument about how to manage migration into the United States.” According to Restrepo, immigration “is not a frontline issue for a lot of persuadable voters.”

You can see how “70 percent of voters support more restrictive laws” and “immigration ranks ninth among ‘public policy priorities’ for 2019” could both be true. But, for me at least, they give very different impressions about how big the issue is and whether Democratic candidates can afford to ignore it. Slate uses their data to support the idea that they might be able to do just that, but even here, in the most optimistic article I could find, they call it a “huge gamble”.

If candidates aren’t willing to take the gamble of ignoring it entirely, if they feel the need to have a strong stance on the issue of immigration. What are their options?

I’ve already mentioned Julián Castro’s plan to radically restrict immigration enforcement. And yes, at least he’s not ignoring the issue, but it seems unlikely that this plan will do much to placate the 70 percent of people who want more restrictive laws. (Though, perhaps the fact they’re both talking about “restrictions” will help a little bit among the easily confused.) Also I think there’s going to be a lot of competition for this particular territory.

For one possible answer I’ll now turn to the FiveThirtyEight article on the subject. As you can imagine, considering the source, the article has much more data than either the Slate or The Nation article, but despite that I don’t know that I came away with any additional clarity on the mood of the nation, except perhaps on the issue of border security. FiveThirtyEight seemed to think that there was space for Democratic candidates to take a stand there.

Opposing Trump’s unpopular positions on immigration and fighting for legal protections for some undocumented immigrants has proven to be safe political ground for Democrats. Now it might be time for Democratic presidential candidates to expand on this approach and start tackling the issue of border security in a similar way. Simon Rosenberg, president of a liberal think tank called NDN, argues that Democrats should take advantage of the fact that Trump has attached himself to unpopular immigration stances that didn’t pay off in the 2018 midterms. “Democrats just have to be clear on what their positions are on the border and [border] enforcement.” And ignoring concerns about border enforcement could prove unwise for Democrats — for instance, a January survey from ABC News/Washington Post found that 54 percent of Americans thought the country was doing too little to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the country. Rosenberg said he thought Democrats could find a way to craft an immigration strategy that’s both humane and “also takes border enforcement seriously.”

This seems simultaneously wise and incredibly risky, and thus far, to the best of my knowledge, none of the Democratic candidates have even hinted that they might adopt an immigration platform which includes a tightening of border security. This makes a certain amount of sense, as I said Trump has made the whole issue toxic, and this does seem a dangerous tightrope to walk. On the one side the candidate would almost certainly alienate a significant fraction of Democratic primary voters, while on the other side there’s no guarantee you’d pick up any of the more moderate voters who might appreciate tighter security at the borders, to say nothing of picking up enough to be ahead of the game.

As I final potential position there remains the possibility that one of the candidates will not only speak to border security, that he or she will emphasis it. Make it one of the central themes of their campaign, in a fashion similar to Trump, but hopefully with a little more grace. This would seem to be the least likely option of all, but there is reason to imagine that it might be on the table for some of the candidates.

It’s often been said, and I think I may have even said it myself, that the political divide is increasingly not between the conservatives/right on the one side and the liberals/left on the other, but between the nationalists and the globalists. And in no case is that divide clearer than when it comes to immigration. If we look at things from this perspective it’s worth asking if there are any Democratic candidates with nationalist leanings? Is populism on the nationalist side of the fence? I would think so, in which case there might be at least one candidate who fits the bill, Bernie Sanders.

You may think it’s a stretch to suggest that Sanders could end up being a Trump clone, at least on immigration, but no less of an authority on extreme immigration restrictions than Ann Coulter has said that she would support Sanders if he returned to his original immigration position. Beyond Ann Coulter it’s not immediately clear how much support someone like Sanders might pick up from returning to his original position on immigration, but, if nothing else it would certainly set him apart from the rest of the pack.

And here we return to the poll I started with, Sanders is currently 30 points behind Biden. Maybe he’ll start clawing that back. Maybe a significant part of that lead is temporary, an artifact of Biden recently launching his campaign. But on the other hand maybe it will just keep getting bigger, and taking a harder stance on immigration will become more and more appealing, particularly if it’s something that Sanders is already ideologically disposed to. Which based on his populist/nationalist leanings and his past statements he very well might be. And of course if you look past Sanders there are 16 candidates currently polling at less than 3%. Given the numbers I listed above (take your pick) it’s certainly conceivable that one of those candidates will try something of a hail mary with respect to immigration.

Tying all of this together, my central point is that the immigration issue is not going away. And in the current political climate, it’s something which strongly favors Republicans. The 2020 primaries are going to be our first real chance to see how Democrats might handle this new landscape, and I think it’s already apparent that it’s going to cause them problems. Perhaps even more important, is the landscape after the next election. You can certainly imagine Biden easily winning despite ignoring the issue, just because Trump is so unpopular, but what happens in 2024 or 2028? There will definitely be several Republican candidates trying to duplicate Trump’s success by being tough on immigration. And while I think Trump is underestimated as a communicator and a candidate, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that someone else could come along who’s more likable. In that case, if support for more restrictive laws remains as high as it is now (and recall it might actually go up, that’s what happened in Europe) and if the Democrats still haven’t developed an effective counter, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

Fortunately for all of you, this blog has entirely open borders, though to truly be a citizen you should donate. (I’m not sure if that really makes sense, but I’m going to go with it anyway.)

AI Risk Might Be More Subtle Than We Expect

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


There’s a famous experiment among people who study addiction called Rat Park. It was conducted by Bruce K. Alexander of Simon Fraser University to test a hypothesis he had about addiction. At the time there were lots of experiments which showed rats becoming so addicted to drugs like heroin and cocaine that they would ignore food and water in favor of self administering more of the drug. Eventually dying from dehydration. Alexander felt like this had less to do with the drugs and more to do with the experimental conditions, which generally involved caging the rats in small spaces, isolated from all the other rats and, on top of all that, with a big needle permanently stuck in them to administer the drugs. Alexander’s hypothesis was that the rat’s addiction came about as a result of these horrible conditions and if you put rats in an environment that more closely mirrored their natural environment that they wouldn’t get addicted. To test this theory he created Rat Park.

According to Wikipedia, Rat Park was, “a large housing colony, 200 times the floor area of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating.” And, according to Alexander, despite being offered a sweetened morphine solution right next to the water dispenser, the rats did not become addicted to morphine. From this Alexander argued that opiates aren’t actually addictive. It’s rotten conditions which cause the addiction, not the drugs themselves. As you might imagine he extended this to humans arguing that it’s terrible slums and poverty that cause addictions, and that the drugs themselves have no inherent addictiveness.

At this point there are many of you who arrived at this blog from the Slate Star Codex podcast and you remember an article from SSC pointing out that Rat Park is one of those things that didn’t seem to replicate very well, despite all the press it got. (You may in fact remember me reading that very post.) To review some of the arguments.

On the pro-Rat Park side:

  • Only about 10% of people put on opiates for chronic pain become addicted.
  • German soldiers during World War II popped meth like it was candy and yet after the war they mostly had no problems with later addiction. (I understand the same thing happened with Vietnam Vets and heroin.)
  • And of course there are vast numbers of people who drink alcohol without ever becoming alcoholics.

On the anti-Rat Park Side:

  • Plenty of people who seem to “have it all” definitely get addicted. (In the SSC post he mentions Ogedei Khan and celebrities.)
  • There also definitely seems to be a genetic component to drug reactions, particularly as far as alcohol.
  • And, certainly, there are people who have been raised out of poverty and given every possible support who still can’t shake their addiction.

The SSC conclusion is that on top of the study not replicating very well, there are obviously a whole host of factors involved in addiction. That the causes of addiction are complicated. There are obviously environmental and cultural factors as Alexander hypothesized, but saying it’s entirely environmental is naive. Because, on top of the environmental factors it’s clear that genes have a role as well. It’s also equally clear that some drugs are just more addictive. All of this means that treating addiction is hard.


Thus far we’ve mostly talked about rats and heroin, so why did I choose the title “AI Risk Might Be More Subtle Than We Expect”? Well, to begin with we have to talk about what sort of AI risk most people expect. When you talk about AI risk with an average individual they generally end up imagining something along the lines of Skynet from the Terminator movies. Where we’re going along, gradually making computers more and more powerful, and then one day we cross some critical threshold. The computer “wakes up”, and it’s not happy. This is obviously an oversimplification, but it gets at the key point. Most people don’t start worrying about AI risk until we build a computer with human or greater than human level intelligence. When that happens if it has a morality different than our own (or no morality at all) we could be in a lot of trouble.

Given the difficulties attendant to building an AI with human level intelligence, which is to say that it has to not only play chess as well as a human, but do everything as well as a human can, many people will claim that there’s nothing to worry about. And even if there is, such a worry is a long way off. But this whole scenario seems to be imagining that there’s some stark cutoff where right before we reach human level intelligence there’s zero potential harm, and right after that there’s severe potential harm. Now, I’m sure that this is once again an oversimplification, that there are researchers out there who have thought about the potential harm an AI could cause at capabilities below those of full human intelligence. But such discussions are vanishingly rare compared to discussions of risk on the greater than human side of the spectrum. This is unfortunate because by not having them I think we’re overlooking some potential AI risks. So let’s have that discussion now.

It would be useful if AI progressed in a fashion similar to biology. If we could speak of fish-level AI and dog-level AI, and so on. Because we know what kind of damage a fish can cause, and what kind of damage a dog can cause. (My sister’s dog recently got loose and killed six of her neighbor’s chickens, so dog damage is on my mind at the moment.) And knowing this we could have some reasonable expectation of preventing the kind of damage those AIs might cause. But artificial intelligence hasn’t progressed in the same fashion as biological intelligence. Instead, there are some things an AI can do much better than a human, for example playing chess, and other things it still does much worse, for example tying its shoes. The question then becomes, is there any danger attached to the things AIs do really well? With chess, it’s just our pride at stake, but are there areas with more at stake than that?


As I mentioned above we’re still a long ways away from general, human-level AI, but we have made a lot of progress in some specific AI sub-domains. In particular, one of the things that AI has gotten very good at is brute force pattern detection. The example of this which has gotten the most press is image recognition.

As you can probably guess image recognition is a very hard problem. You might think that if you were trying to get a computer to recognize pictures of cats that you could just describe what a cat is. But once you actually attempt to explain the concept of a cat it turns out to be basically impossible. So instead what they do is feed the AI lots of pictures with cats, and lots of pictures without cats, until eventually the AI figures out how to spot the image of a cat. But just as we can’t explain what a cat is to the AI, the same thing is true for the AI, it can’t explain what a cat is to us either, it just knows it when it “sees it”.

Now imagine that instead of maximizing the AIs success rate at identifying cats, you want it to maximize engagement. You want it to pick content that ends up maximizing the time someone spends on your platform. As a more specific example, instead of the AI picking out cats you want it to identify Facebook timeline content that keeps an individual on Facebook for as long as possible. To do this, instead of feeding in cat pictures and pictures without cats, you feed in data about what content they like vs. what content they don’t like. In the first example you get better cat recognition in the second you get more engaging content.

Thus far everyone pretty much agrees that this is what Facebook and similar platforms do. Where opinions start to diverge is on the question of whether this engagement is bad. And here we bring back in the issue of addiction. Is there a level at which engagement is the same as addiction? Or, coming at if from the other direction, would creating addiction be a good way of achieving engagement? If so, is there any reason to doubt that AIs would eventually figure out how to create this addiction as part of their brute-force pattern matching?

How would they go about creating it? Well as I said above, the causes of addiction are complicated, but that’s precisely where AIs excel. Not only that but it seems easier to create addiction than to cure it. Maybe certain kinds of content is more addictive, so the AI will show that more often. (I’m sure you’ve heard the term clickbait.) Maybe it will use variable operant conditioning, or maybe, if Rat Park has any validity, it will do it by making us sad and lonely.

To be clear I agree with SSC that the most extreme claims made by Bruce K. Alexander are probably false, but on the other hand it’s difficult to imagine that being sad and lonely wouldn’t contribute on some level to addictive behavior. Or to put it another way, does being psychologically healthy make someone less likely to engage in addictive behavior or more likely? If less likely, then the AI is incentivized to undermine otherwise healthy individuals. And, as it happens, there is plenty of data to back up the idea that this is precisely the effect social media has on people.

As I said, an AI can’t explain to us how it determines whether there’s a cat in the picture or not. In the same fashion it also can’t explain to us how it achieves greater engagement. If it is making people sad and lonely in order to create addictive engagement, this is not because it’s naturally cruel. It understands neither cruelty nor sadness, it only knows what works.

Lot’s of ink has been spilled on the more flashy side of AI risk. AI overlords with no regard for biological life. Out of control versions of the broom in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Or an AI that simply plays the stock market like it plays Chess and takes all the money. But at the moment I’m far more worried about the dangers I’ve just described. Not only are we experiencing that harm right now, rather than 50 years from now, but if it is happening, the effect is very subtle, so much so that it’s entirely possible that we won’t really recognize it until it’s too late.


I had intended to end on that point about the subtlety of this danger, but then yesterday I came across an article published last week in Wired covering much the same ground, though the argument was broader. The title was: Tristan Harris: Tech Is ‘Downgrading Humans.’ It’s Time to Fight Back. The major thrust of the article is how Harris spent a whole year trying to come up with the perfect phrase to describe what was happening. Given that I’ve only been thinking about it for the last couple of weeks, it’s possible that Harris’ argument is more convincing, as such I thought I’d better include it.

As he struggled with the words, he had a few eureka moments. One was when he realized that the danger for humans isn’t when technology surpasses our strengths, like when machines powered by AI can make creative decisions and write symphonies better than Beethoven. The danger point is when computers can overpower our weaknesses—when algorithms can sense our emotional vulnerabilities and exploit them for profit.

Another breakthrough came in a meeting when he blurted out, “There’s Hurricane Cambridge Analytica, Hurricane Fake News, and there’s Hurricane Tech Addiction. And no one’s asking the question ‘Why are we getting all these hurricanes?’”

He didn’t want to define the problem as one of evil technology companies. Even social media platforms do all sorts of good, and Harris, in fact, uses them all, albeit in grayscale. There are also plenty of technologies that don’t ever hack us, help elect fascists, or drive teens to cut themselves. Think about Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word. He needed a phrase that didn’t make him seem like a Luddite or a crank.

Finally, in February, he got it. He and Raskin had been spending time with someone whom Harris won’t identify, except to note that the mysterious friend consulted on the famous “story of stuff” video. In any case, the three of them were brainstorming, kicking around the concept of downgrading. “It feels like a downgrading of humans, a downgrading of humanity,” he remembers them saying, “a downgrading of our relationships, a downgrading of our attention, a downgrading of democracy, a downgrading of our sense of decency.”

I think Harris is correct, some technological advances have had the effect of downgrading humans, and my point about AI and addiction represents one of many specific examples for how it might be happening.

Harris included something else in his article, a quote which may sum up all of the problems I’ve been talking about. It’s from E. O. Wilson:

Humans have “paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

I guess the point of this post is that I might get more donations if I make you feel sad and lonely. But also that doing so is kind of awful. So I’m just going to hope you donate because you enjoy what I write.

What I Got Wrong in 2016

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

As I may or may not have mentioned (I think it may have only been on the podcast feed) at some point my daughter was curious about what I all this was and so she and I started listening to past We Are Not Saved podcast episodes while I drove her around (school, percussion lessons, etc.) We started at the very beginning and just recently we’ve been listening to those episodes which came out in the few months before and after the 2016 election. It was interesting to hear what I was worried about at the time. While I am on record as making some very specific predictions (in fact that was the episode we just barely finished) I mostly avoided that when I was talking about Trump’s election and people’s reaction to it. Still, as I said, at the time I saw a lot of things that worried me, beyond that, many things that I thought we didn’t need to worry about, and finally a whole host of things I didn’t even consider which have ended up being extremely important. It occured to me that it might be interesting to revisit what I said in light of where things are now and see how prescient or foolish I was. (Confirming this feeling Mark suggested something similar in the comments.)  

Of course, the fact that the Mueller report just dropped is also an excellent reason to revisit what my expectations were for a Trump Presidency.

August 6, 2016

I started things by talking about the difference between having a political view and having a historical view. The former being very short term and focused just on winning the next election, whatever it takes, with the latter being more long term and focused more on avoiding really catastrophic outcomes. My big worry was that things had gotten far too political, that all anyone could think about was beating Trump, if you were a Democrat, or beating Clinton, if you were a Republican. I think I was spot on with this worry, but also that it didn’t demonstrate any particular insight. Things have been getting more short term for a long time now, and it didn’t take a genius to see that. However that doesn’t mean this worry was unimportant, I would argue it’s only gotten more important, and that the candidates are more short-sighted than ever. This is perhaps what’s so appealing to me about Andrew Wang, he’s the only candidate who seems to recognize that we may be at a historical inflection point, and that we could be in for some radical changes regardless of who wins the next election.

One of the things I thought was being overlooked in the short-term political view was the fact that nuclear weapons are still out there, and that if one candidate was more likely than the other to do something which led to them being used, that this would overshadow everything else. At the time I was worried about how aggressive Clinton was being towards Russia and how committed she was to further NATO expansion. Which might have inclined me to support Trump except he was all over the place, as usual. Once again I think I was right, but I don’t think it showed any particular talent. Trump is still all over the place, and the Democrats are still fixated on demonizing Russia.

Though in both cases, it’s clear, I underestimated how bad it would be. Trump is talking to the North Koreans, which is something, I guess, though they clearly seem to be getting the better of those discussions. But then he seems to be going the exact opposite direction with Iran, cancelling that deal, and declaring the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group. It’s hard to imagine some overarching strategy that encompasses both of those tactics. As far as the Democrats go, I assumed that once they lost the election and their influence over foreign policy shrank that Russia would fade into the background. I was definitely wrong about that. It feels like they’ve hardly talked about anything else.

August 13, 2016

I thought the topic of nuclear weapons was important enough that I dedicated the entirety of the next post to discussing them. This didn’t directly concern the election, but one of the points I made was how difficult nuclear weapons are to defend against. At the time I was not aware of the recent push to develop hypersonic missiles which increases that difficulty to the point where we might not even be able to rely on the deterrence of mutually assured destruction, to say nothing of things like lasers and ABMs. Consequently I’m going to say that this was something else I was right about, though I wish I wasn’t.

August 20, 2016

From there I moved on to full-throated defense of voting for third parties. I continue to think I’m right about that, though I guess you could make the argument that if everyone who’d voted libertarian in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin had voted for Clinton instead she would have won. Despite that I would still argue that this mostly goes to show that we need a better system of voting rather than that no one should ever vote for a third party. Also I’m still not clear that Clinton would have been all that better, but I’ll get to that.

October 15, 2016

We’re now only a few weeks before the election, and, as you may recall, at the time Trump was beset on all sides by accusations of sexual harassment, in particular the Access Hollywood Tape where he described grabbing women by there you-know-what. At the time I said, “I think he’s well and truly beaten, if not out-maneuvered at this point.” Though I then went on to say, that I had “repeatedly been wrong about ‘Peak Trump’ so it was possible I was wrong again”. Indeed I was, very wrong. Moving forward two and a half years I am once again inclined to say that he is finally done for. Not that he will be impeached, I still think that’s unlikely, but that he has ruined his chances of re-election.  Again, I could be wrong. I have been every other time.

October 29, 2016

Immediately before the election I was most worried about what I saw as a gathering threat to free speech, mostly occasioned by Trump’s success. In particular I worried about censorship on social media, which was assuming a dominant position as the outlet for speech, while also being able to use their technology to censor in subtle and insidious ways. The example I gave at the time was Scott Adam’s claim that he was being shadowbanned. Certainly, as I pointed out recently worries about tech companies becoming monopolies have only gotten more extreme. But what about censorship, what’s happened there? In short I would say that it’s gotten worse, but that, in addition, fewer people are willing to defend free speech.

This is a big topic and perhaps it deserves it’s own post. But to just point out a couple recent examples of what I’m talking about. First, there’s the recent decision by Facebook to ban white nationalist content, where previously they had only banned white supremacist content. This was almost certainly in part a response to the Christchurch shootings which were livestreamed on Facebook. And, to be clear, I probably would have done the same thing if I was Zuckerberg and responsible for the health of a half a trillion dollar company. Also I’m not necessarily arguing this is a bad thing (examining that would definitely require a full post) but it is an example of a certain form of censorship.

Second, and one of the more insidious examples of censorship is the recent trend of denying payment processing for ideological reasons. For example Paypal has lately been kicking a lot of people off of its platform for precisely this reason. Now of course this isn’t direct censorship, but if you understand anything about how the internet actually works, it creates a significant dampening effect on speech. Once again it would take more space than I have to dissect the morality and consequences of these actions. I mostly bring them up to illustrate both that my concerns in 2016 were valid and that people mostly don’t seem to care very much.

Though… I will finish this subject by pointing out that my views on free speech have also evolved since then, and I now worry, additionally, that an excess of certain kinds of speech can actually be used in a censorious fashion by drowning out “good” speech.

November 12, 2016

We’ve now finally arrived at the election, and the post I wrote in its immediate aftermath. Here I think it’s useful to quote from that post, because in a sense I nailed everything about the Trump presidency:

In the wake of the election Cracked had an article, titled Dear White People Stop Saying Everything Will Be Okay And in case you didn’t know it, I am white. And I’m going to follow this injunction. I’m not going to tell you that everything will be okay. How could I possibly know that? In fact the theme of this blog is that things are not going to be okay. If you want to be told that everything will be okay I would point you at the recent article from Wait but Why. If you’d rather stick with someone who has no illusions about his ability to predict the future you’re in the right place.

To be frank, Trump could end up being a horrible president. He could not only be as bad as people thought, he could be worse. He could be the person most responsible for the eventual destruction of the planet, whether through a full on exchange of nukes with Russia, or something more subtle.

We just don’t know. We guess; we estimate; we might even create models to predict what will happen, and coincidentally enough, we just got a great example of how models and predictions can be wrong, really wrong. So the first thing I want to talk about is the pre-election predictions, because everyone recognizes that they were wrong, and yet now, both people who are enthusiastic about the election and people who are devastated by the election are making pre-presidency predictions, without recognizing that these predictions are even more likely to be wrong than the pre-election ones. At least the predictions about who would win the election were based on lots of data and dealing with a very narrow question. On the other hand, how Trump will be as president is a huge question with very little data. So yeah, I’m not going to say that everything will be okay because I don’t know, and neither does anyone else really.

I know it’s something of a cop out to just say, “We can’t predict the future.” But a lot of people were attempting to do just that at the time, and at least I had the humility to say I don’t know what’s going to happen. Despite all this I did go on to make some vague predictions:

  • On immigration, I predicted that “his immigration policy may be less draconian than people fear”. Given that his proposed wall has turned into a joke, and that he’s deporting fewer people than Obama, I think I can say I was correct about this one.
  • On the subject of LGBT rights, I said I didn’t think he would or really could do anything, but that the justices he appoints might. He did reinstitute a ban on transgender people in the military, so I suppose I was at least a little bit wrong, but considering that he was reinstituting something that had only been eliminated a few months before the election, this mistake seems pretty minor. Beyond that I can’t think of much he’s done on this front.
  • Moving on to abortion and Roe v. Wade, I predicted that it wouldn’t be overturned, but that we would see a significant challenge, which would be enabled by his Supreme Court picks. So far this seems to be exactly the direction we’re headed, but we’re not there yet. I guess we’ll have to check back later to see if Roe v. Wade actually is overturned, but I continue to bet that it won’t be and that Roberts will save it.
  • I went on to discuss some things I thought were long shots. The first one I covered was the possibility of California seceding. Here I will admit that while I always considered such a thing an incredible long shot, I still thought the impulse/movement would be larger than it was and I ended up mentioning it in several different posts. As it was, it fizzled out pretty fast, and while I still think that it’s a potential black swan. I’d be very surprised if it ended up being of any consequence in the next 20 years.
  • There were two other longshots I discussed. To begin with, the possibility that Trump would end up hanging on to power through some vague dictatorial maneuver. Which I thought very unlikely. Specifically, I couldn’t see any viable path for it to happen. Then I discussed whether Trump might use nukes, which I also declared incredibly unlikely, though I did mention that if any president was going to use a tactical nuke that Trump was a good candidate.

November 26, 2016

I’m going to say that I was most wrong in the immediate aftermath of the election. I think it’s clear that while the election was acrimonious. (Maybe the most since 1912? 1876?) That in the end it was just another election. But at the time I started to wonder if it might be different, if we might be in for some real disruption. Now to be clear, even at the time, I was 95% sure that nothing outrageous would happen. Like 38 electors defecting to Clinton, or massive and sustained protests, or California voting to secede (this is another post where I brought that up). But 99% was probably closer to what my confidence level should have been. To be fair though, I did come across some interesting reactions in the wake of the election, to give just one example from my post:

The first thing I came across which offered a hint to this difference was an article in Slate. It wasn’t critical of Trump, it was critical of Clinton, and not of how she ran her campaign, but of how conciliatory her concession speech was. The article didn’t stop there, it moved on to calling the speech dangerous and even went so far as to say that Clinton might mainly be remembered, “more than anything else, for the toxic, dangerous, and deceptive concession speech she delivered on Wednesday.”

Wait, what? Her concession speech is going to be more important than being first lady? Senator from New York? Secretary of State? While I suppose that’s possible I think we may have wandered into the realm of hyperbole. And when you’re getting that level of outrage about Clinton, you can only imagine how the article writer feels about Trump himself.

As a source for this claim the author drew on the opinions of a Russian dissident, author of a previous article titled, Autocracy: Rules for Survival. The basic claim of both articles is that Trump is a tyrant in the making who will dismantle the judiciary, muzzle the press and turn the police into virtual death squads, and that only by continuing to fight him tooth and nail and most of all by refusing normalize him, that is treat him as a normal president winning a typical election, is there any hope.

As I said I was wrong, but perhaps you can see where I got the impression that things were different.


There were a few more posts that were similarly alarmist, again in the 95% rather than 99% category. Which is to say that I was too worried, though, as I keep trying to point out, being too worried is almost always better than not worrying enough. But it is interesting to look back over the last few years to examine the course of anti-Trump sentiment, since it was the extreme levels of hostility to Trump that made me believe the danger was greater than it turned out to be.

To begin with, you would expect feelings to run particularly hot in the immediate aftermath of the election. Especially one where Clinton was expected to win, and who did in fact win the popular vote. The sense of how close they were to victory had to give Clinton supporters and Trump haters room to imagine that it still might be possible to change the outcome, if only they protested vigorously enough or complained loudly enough.

Another factor has to be how relatively unsuccessful (outside of the judiciary) Trump has been as President. The sky did not fall; same sex marriage has not been overturned (yet); and the wall has not even been started, let alone built. To be sure there were still plenty of bad things for Trump haters to latch on to, there was the family separation crisis at the border, the Kavanaugh nomination, and the aforementioned renewal of the military transgender ban. In fact McSweeneys has a list of 546 Trump atrocities. But none of these things are uniquely bad or unique to Trump.

All this said I wonder if the biggest factor of all was the Mueller investigation? He was appointed in May of 2017. Is it possible that once that happened most of the anti-Trump rage got transmuted into pro-Mueller hope? That people, quite rationally, realized that Mueller had a much better chance of holding Trump to account than any protest? And accordingly that’s where all their energy went? I’m not sure how you’d test that theory, but it fits in with what I remember and matches my impressions.

For the moment let’s assume this is correct, then what happens now that the report has been released? Here, once again I’m telling you what my impression is, but my sense is that before the release most Democratic Senators and Representatives were saying that it would be a waste of time to try and impeach Trump, and this seemed to be their opinion even when it wasn’t clear what Mueller would uncover. Now that the report has been released and it was a lot better for Trump than most of his enemies expected, you would expect the representatives to be even less inclined to impeach, but instead impeachment seems more on the table than ever.

I’m sure part of this is that they now have concrete misbehavior that they can move on (though he misbehaved less than they thought he had) but I also get the feeling that some amount of anti-Trump pressure from the population at large was kept at bay by the report, leaving Senators and Representatives the freedom to act pragmatically, but now that the promise of the report is no longer doing that, everyone is once again forced to jump on the anti-Trump express, next stop impeachment town. All of which is to point out that while I may have been overly concerned about anti-Trump sentiment in the immediate wake of the election, that the end of the Mueller investigation could bring us a new round of it. And I’m guessing the upcoming election won’t help.

I’ll close on something of a tangent. I’m a big fan of the Revolutions Podcast and what comes up over and over again in that space is that no one really sees the tipping point into chaos in advance. It always seems like business as usual, albeit a particularly divisive example, until suddenly it’s not. Until suddenly people are dying by their hundreds and thousands. Maybe that’s not the sort of thing that happens anymore (though try telling that to the Syrians).

I will say that one advantage of the French Yellow Vest Movement is that it appears to be evidence that tipping into widespread violence in a modern society is actually pretty hard. I hope that’s the case, I hope that if we can survive Trump we can survive anything. But I’m also reminded of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian author born in 1881 who went on to see both World Wars. He opens his book The World of Yesterday, by saying:

When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-year-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanency…

We seem to be in a similar age of relative security and permanency, I really hope it lasts. Zweig’s didn’t. And I still think there’s a very good chance, that one way or the other, sooner or later, ours won’t either.

I’m going to try changing things and rather than have one post every week of about the same length I’m going to try and post somewhat shorter pieces more frequently. I’m also hoping to do the occasional long and really in depth post as well. This posting will happen whenever they’re done, so for those accustomed to the regularity of Saturday I apologize. It also means that the number of clumsy attempts to cleverly solicit donations will be going up as well. If you want to avoid any additional discomfort consider donating now. This is your chance to get in before the rush.

The Cholesterol of a Healthy Society

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

A couple of months ago I had breakfast with one of my blog readers and frequent commenters, Mark. At the time he mentioned something interesting, which has been percolating in the back of my mind ever since. He said that medicines get approved by the FDA based on claims that they will accomplish some terminal good. Say, for example, lowering the number of deaths due to heart disease. On top of that they will also probably toss in a general reduction of related adverse health events, like heart attacks. But when they provide data to the FDA in support of these claims it won’t be data on deaths or heart attacks it will be data on how the medicine reduces LDL cholesterol levels.

They do this for several reasons. First, cholesterol is easy to measure, and so that data is consequently easy to provide. Second, the pharmaceutical companies are reasonably certain that atherosclerosis contributes to heart disease, and that high LDL cholesterol contributes to atherosclerosis. Meaning that their claim actually has two parts. They claim that their medicine reduces LDL cholesterol, and that lowering your LDL cholesterol reduces your risk of heart disease. They are able to provide data backing up both claims, but what they don’t provide is data that shows “Our medicine reduces heart disease.” This is all fine, and working as intended, and, in fact, it’s the way I would want it to work. But, and this was the key point mentioned by Mark, after the drug is approved, the company should, at some point prove that it does actually reduce heart disease, not just LDL cholesterol. And the problem is that they generally never get around to that.

From the perspective of a patient, say someone with genetically high cholesterol, say me, for instance. The way this plays out is, you go in for your annual check-up (as I did this week) and get your cholesterol tested (ditto). Upon discovering that it’s high, the doctor prescribes a statin, because he knows that if I take a statin every night before bedtime, that my cholesterol will probably go down. Now, he will also ask whether any relatives have had heart problems, and he’ll look at other risk factors, but mostly he’s reacting to the fact that I have high cholesterol.

This all makes a certain amount of sense, and obviously my wife is very much in favor of me taking the medicine my doctor prescribes. But there’s a lot that the doctor doesn’t know. He’s only making an educated guess at my personal risk of heart disease. And he can’t say that if I decline to take statins that I will definitely have a heart attack. But he’s pretty sure there’s no downside to taking them. Of course, I’m being unfair by talking just about how it works with a single person, but even if we make it more broad, we still don’t fully understood how statins effect atherosclerotic plaques, nor is it clear whether statins do much of anything for someone as young as me, with a low risk of a having a heart attack in the next 10 years. For example this paper:

The current internationally recommended thresholds for statin therapy for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease in routine practice may be too low and may lead to overtreatment of younger people and those at low risk.

The general point I’m trying to get at is that all of us, not just doctors, are quick to substitute something easy, for something that’s more difficult. For doctors it’s substituting reducing cholesterol for reducing deaths from heart disease. It’s easy and cheap to measure cholesterol, it’s expensive and difficult to measure long term mortality from heart disease. Also, remember that the drug has already been approved, meaning even if it wasn’t difficult the pharmaceutical companies have very little incentive to conduct such studies.

Now if these substitutions mostly worked, with only a few minor errors here and there, that would be one thing, but in reality the opposite appears to be true. Health advice is constantly being overturned, or reversed. (As very humorously illustrated by this great Funny or Die Video.) And it’s not improbable to assume that 20 years from now we’ll find out that long term statin use causes some previously unsuspected negative outcome. It’s also possible that the dangers will be more subtle. Perhaps because cholesterol is easy to measure, and change, we’ll ignore paying attention to markers which are harder to measure, but ultimately more meaningful?

As I mentioned this idea has been on my mind since Mark introduced me to it. And just recently I realized that we may be doing the same thing when we assess the wellbeing of society. At the highest level, analogous to deaths from heart disease, we want a society that’s healthy. But of course deciding if a society is healthy is even harder than deciding if an individual is healthy. Right off the bat we run into conflicting standards for what constitutes health. As I’ve mentioned in the past my standard is survival. Just like the doctors don’t want their patients to die, I think it’s reasonable for society to also target deaths, and I extend that to targeting births as well. Other people disagree with this, and claim that we should be aiming for happiness instead. Fair enough, we’ll use that standard for the moment. Let’s assert, for now, that a happy society is a healthy society.

But how do you measure happiness? There are lots of studies which claim that Scandinavian countries are the happiest, but it turns out that it depends on what question you ask. An article in Scientific America claims that there are actually four ways to measure happiness:

Most commonly, you ask people to value their lives on a 0 to 10 scale. This is the method which gives us the aforementioned results of Scandinavian countries on top.

Alternatively you can ask how much positive emotion people experience, in which case suddenly Latin American countries are on top.

On the flip side of that perhaps you’re more interested in preventing negative emotions than you are in encouraging positive emotions, so you look for the country with the least depression. In that case Scandinavian countries do very poorly, but under this measure Australia looks pretty good.

Finally, we can look at the number of people who feel like their life has “an important purpose or meaning” in which case you’ll find countries in Africa at the top of the ranking. And it turns out that religion plays a fairly significant role in the creation of meaning.

Even if we assume that a happy society is a healthy society, it’s still difficult to determine what makes a society happy. In the same fashion that it’s hard to determine exactly how statins effect atherosclerotic plaques, but probably harder. However, and this was my recent insight, in the same way that doctors have decided that targeting cholesterol is the best way to mitigate heart disease, lots of people have decided that targeting material well being is the best way to create a happy society. To put it simply (maybe too simply, but close enough): as long as a nation’s per capita gross domestic product is rising the nation is healthy. Furthermore anything that contributes to that rise is good, and anything which detracts from it is bad.

As you can imagine there are lots of problems with this approach. First, as I just pointed out, there are various standards of happiness. Increasing material well-being through the mechanism of increasing the money possessed by the average individual, seems to mostly target the first one, while being only marginally connected with the other three. And even there we’re still assuming a chain of causation, very similar to the one I described for statins and heart disease, only longer.

1- Increasing per capita GDP means everyone has more money (i.e. the increase is evenly distributed.)

2- People will use this money to acquire possessions and experiences, they value.

3- Materially valuable possessions will turn out to have psychological value as well.

4- All of the foregoing will produce happiness.

5- Asking people to rate their life value on a scale from 0-10 will produce an accurate measurement of the happiness produced in step 4.

And if we decide to broaden things beyond the first metric for happiness we end up making two more connections which are even more questionable.

5- The quantifiable measurement of happiness from step 4, really is the best way to measure happiness. (Better than the other three.)

6- Happiness is the best way to measure the well being of a society.

In the same fashion as heart disease you would hope that people would move past focusing on whether someone has more or less money (i.e. cholesterol tests) and follow this chain all the way to the very end. But in a similar fashion I don’t know that they do, at least not in any systematic fashion. It’s always more straightforward to stick with things that are easy to measure than it is to figure out what really contributes to a society’s well being. It’s easy to assume that if we’re trying to ensure the well being of society that ensuring each individual’s material well being is probably close enough, particularly if you’re a materialist. (And I realize philosophical materialism is different than the common definition of materialism.) But there’s more and more evidence that material well being doesn’t produce happiness to say nothing of overall well being. In particular I think the connection between material well being and psychological well being is especially tenuous.

I have spent a lot of time in this space covering my concerns about psychological well being, and you might think there’s not much left to say, but I came across an article recently that speaks quite directly to the issue of psychological well-being, and to a lesser extent the larger issue of societal well being. It was titled The Happiness Recession, and it opens as follows:

In 2018, happiness among young adults in America fell to a record low….

We wondered whether this trend was rooted in distinct shifts in young adults’ social ties — including what The Atlantic has called “the sex recession,”…

Human beings find meaning, direction, and purpose in and through our social relationships with others. We’re happiest when our ties with others are deep and strong. And the research tells us that the ebb and flow of happiness in America is clearly linked to the quality and character of our social ties

So we investigated four indicators of sociability among today’s young adults—marriage, friendship, religious attendance, and sex—in an effort to explain the “happiness recession” among today’s young adults.

I’ll get to what they had to say about each of these four areas, but first notice that material well being doesn’t even come up. Possibly because the situation is analogous to a patient who’s cholesterol is fine, so we’re not worried about that risk factor, but it turns out they smoke. Or possibly the situation is analogous to discovering that we’ve been targeting cholesterol all this time and really we should have been targeting four different things, that cholesterol doesn’t matter at all. In any case regardless of whether the recommendations were wrong or just incomplete, it appears that we need to broaden our treatment regimen, and look into different “medicines”.

The first thing they suggest looking at is marriage. It’s interesting that marriage is not an example of a measurement that’s difficult to make, it’s almost certainly easier to tell if someone is married than it is to determine what their financial situation is. Determining the happiness of their marriage is another matter, and I’m sure it’s a factor, but even without accounting for it The Atlantic reports that:

…married young adults are about 75 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not married, according to our analysis of the GSS, a nationally representative survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. As it turns out, the share of young adults who are married has fallen from 59 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 2018.

As I said, marriage is easy to measure, but perhaps, if there is a problem, it’s less easy to correct. Especially in an age where any suggestion that you’re interfering with someone’s autonomy, particularly in the realm of sex and relationships, is met with violent pushback. As a result it’s one of those things that conservatives talk about all the time, but which gets no attention from the left. (Or perhaps it gets negative attention?)

It can be dangerous to talk too broadly about what a group of people does or doesn’t believe or how they might behave, so in the interest of specificity, at this point I’m going to bring in Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. Which I “reviewed” previously in this space. As you may or may not recall Pinker set out to create the definitive work showing how great things are currently and how they are likely to only get better, and when I talk about an overemphasis on material progress I largely have him and people like him in mind. In support of my assumption I went back to the book to see what he had said about marriage. It was entirely possible that he mentioned its role in wellbeing and had different data showing that it wasn’t decreasing as much as claimed or that the effect of a lower marriage rate was overstated. As it turns out the word marriage doesn’t even appear in the index. (Note that Louis C.K. and Jainism do, lest you think that perhaps it isn’t comprehensive.)

The Atlantic next moves on to religion. Where they say:

Faith was the second factor. Young adults who attend religious services more than once a month are about 40 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not religious at all, according to our analysis of the GSS. (People with very infrequent religious attendance are even less happy than never-attenders; in terms of happiness, a little religion is worse than none.) What’s happening to religious attendance among young adults today? The share of young adults who attend religious services more than monthly has fallen from 38 percent in 1972 to 27 percent in 2018, even as the share who never attend has risen rapidly.

I confess that this decline is less than I expected, but it’s still declining and the trend shows no signs of reversing itself anytime soon. And once again the decline of religion is something conservatives worry about obsessively, but which Pinker and company actively celebrate. (“Decline of religion” does appear in the index of Enlightenment Now, where it points to more than a dozen laudatory references under the heading of secularization.)

Religion is also something which has next to nothing to do with material well-being, and may in fact be the exact opposite. Once again, in our attempts to improve societal well being are we sure we’re measuring and treating the right thing?

From there The Atlantic moves on to friendship. And here the news is actually good:

The third factor was friendship. The effect of seeing friends frequently is less clear than that of marriage or religion, but young adults who see their friends regularly do seem to be about 10 percent more likely to report being very happy than their less-sociable peers. Friendship among young adults, though, is not on the decline; in fact, since 2006, contact with friends is up. Lack of friendship, then, is not likely to play a role in declining levels of happiness. Indeed, it may be that rising social time spent with friends in recent years could be buffering young adults from the declines in institutions such as marriage or religion, as friends stand in place of other relationships or forms of community.

As I said the news is good, but there are a host of caveats here. First as compared to the 40% increase in the number of people reporting they were happy attributable to religious attendance and the 75% increase from marriage, friendship provides a bump of only 10%. Thus whatever the “buffering” effect of friendship it would appear entirely too small to make-up for the other trends. Also even if it was up to the task, it then becomes a single point of failure. Where previously most people had marriage, religion and friendship in their life, and therefore two things to fall back on if any one of these three failed. Now, by relying solely on friendship, which appears unequal to the task in any event, we risk having nothing to fall back on if friendship should happen to fails. If this failure mode was unlikely, then perhaps we wouldn’t worry, but instead, on top of everything else there’s an epidemic of loneliness, with millions of men reportedly having no close friends.

I should also mention that once again that the word “friend” does not appear in the index for Enlightenment Now.

The final element covered by The Atlantic is the sex recession. Of which much has been said both here and elsewhere, probably because it’s so alarming, and this article was no exception. As part of their coverage they built a counterfactual to see if they could tell how much each element contributed to the reduction in happiness, as far as sex they found:

…changes in sexual frequency can account for about one-third of the decline in happiness since 2012 and almost 100 percent of the decline in happiness since 2014.

This is another illustration of how steep the trend is and how recent in origin, which makes me hope that it’s very temporary because if it continues for very long at all the impact will be nothing short of catastrophic. Also, though at this point it probably goes without saying, there is no reference to sexual frequency in Enlightenment Now.

The point I want to leave you with is that there are a lot of people like Steven Pinker, who think society is healthy, and point to material well being (essentially per capita GDP) as the best measure of that healthiness and also the best thing to target if there’s a problem. But it’s worth asking if that’s all there is to it. To ask how solid the links are between the various steps I listed above. If perhaps there’s some other measurement of happiness, like marriage rate, or religion or even frequency of sex which might be a more accurate measure of societal well being? Or at least need to be considered as part of a more holistic assessment. Now I know I’m simplifying Pinker’s argument to a certain extent, but also remember that in over 500 pages on how great things are going he never mentions marriage or sexual frequency, or for that matter loneliness and he only mentions religion in a negative context, despite the apparently powerful influence all of those have on people’s happiness.

To return to comparing societal health to individual health, which is actually easier to understand? I can only assume the answer has to be individual health. And yet how often have doctor’s ended up giving the wrong advice? Should that not make us more humble when it comes to making declarations about what makes a society healthy? Especially when we’re discussing the long term effects of some new, entirely unprecedented norm? Norms which seem to be proliferating at a truly staggering rate?

I not only have high cholesterol, I have high blood pressure, though they both appear to be mostly genetic. Nevertheless they could mean my early demise. If that happens and you haven’t donated, you’ll feel bad. If you want to avoid that click here.

2020 and the Quest to Defeat Trump

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

It’s been nearly five months since I last did a post about the current political landscape. I’m not sure if that represents admirable restraint or if that’s five months when I could have been building my audience by hitching my wagon to the tasty and never-ending Mueller gravy train. But Mueller illustrates a big reason why I didn’t do any posts on current politics. I didn’t have the time or energy to feel satisfied that I truly understand what’s going on, and as things become increasingly polarized it becomes harder and harder to do that in any event, and that’s assuming that I’m satisfied with calling my subjective opinion the truth. It’s basically impossible to get at The Truth.

That said the end of the Mueller Investigation and the delivery of the report was interesting. I got the feeling that there were a lot of Trump haters out there who really felt like it would finally provide the stake they could drive into Trump’s chest which would, at last, kill him for good.  When it didn’t, when the report (or at least Barr’s summary, see what I mean) concluded that there had been no collusion, and when no indictment of Trump was forthcoming, there were a lot of people who were very disappointed. And even more people who refused to give up. Including people like Rachel Maddow, who was actually called out by Slate for her descent into increasingly feverish paranoia:

The Howard Bealeization, or Glenn Beckifaction, of Rachel Maddow is a reminder that partisan paranoia has bipartisan appeal. Maddow is right to question the summarizing of a 300ish-page report into four measly pages, to insist on transparency, to challenge the motives of the Trump-friendly AG—and she’s not alone in doing so. But for Maddow, every piece of information remains a clue that might take down the Trump empire. There is no adjustment for how the report has been widely received, no skepticism about what the report might actually contain, just cockamamie connections, the feverish belief that every single thing we don’t know is the all-important fact, that the smoking gun of collusion is out there, and that, yes, Robert Mueller is still going to swoop in and save us.

I remember when I was much younger I was also entranced by “cockamamie connections” though back then the connections all involved the Clintons. And, as recently as the last election, I was unsure what would come out of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails or whether she was in as good a health as she claimed. Which is to say there’s a lot of unknowns out there, all with some potential to excite wonder and suspicion. And it’s very easy to take those unknowns, run them through you biases and come out the other side with some potential theories, some of which probably sound pretty reasonable. In fact it may be that one of the larger problems of our era is how much easier it is to make and disseminate these theories. But that’s a topic for another time.

While the reaction to the end of the Mueller investigation was interesting and probably worth much further discussion, the true reason for bringing it up is that I think the feverish paranoia it illustrates is going to be a large factor in the run up to the 2020 election, which is the true subject of this post.

As usual, it’s a pretty safe bet that the winner of the 2020 election will be either Trump or whoever ends up with the Democratic nomination. Accordingly I’ll be spending most of my time discussing the current and potential Democratic candidates, but before I get to that I’d like discuss some possible long shot options where the next president isn’t Trump or the Democratic nominee.

First off, it seems highly likely that Trump will end up with a primary challenger. Bill Weld, the former Governor of Massachusetts, and libertarian Vice Presidential candidate in 2016, has formed an exploratory committee (if announcing your candidacy is the wedding, an exploratory committee is the engagement). And several other people, including John Kasich have expressed interest. Though the list of people who have publically declined is far more extensive.

I have long predicted that Trump would face a primary challenger, but that doesn’t mean I think they’ll succeed. At the moment the political prediction markets are giving Trump an 85% chance of getting the nomination, and the next most likely candidate after him is Mike Pence at 6%. Which, I assume, represents people who think Trump will be impeached? (If so it didn’t drop as much as I would have expected after Mueller.) But beyond the prediction markets, though it’s something I’ve never entirely understood, Trump has the Republican base pretty well locked up, or at least locked up enough that it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat him in an election composed entirely (or mostly) of Republicans. Based on all of this I have very little hesitation in predicting that Trump will be the Republican nominee for 2020. In other words a primary challenge to Trump would be very interesting, but I believe ultimately unsuccessful.

Another possibility, once again a long shot, would be a serious third party contender. So far, for example, it looks like Howard Schultz is likely to run, though it’s unclear at this point how successful we should expect him to be, so far his polling numbers are pretty low. But he is a billionaire, which counts for a lot, and has Democrats worried enough that they’re apparently begging him not to run. This is understandable, not only does his money allow him to mount a significant challenge, but perhaps more importantly, some polling (albeit asking about a generic independent vs. a generic democrat) suggests that he could pull away five Democratic votes for every vote he pulls from (presumably) Trump. One might wonder why Shultz, who identifies as a Democrat and mostly has very similar positions, would run for President. Particularly knowing that one very likely outcome would be to throw the election to Trump? That’s a great question and it bears a lot on the discussion of the Democratic field in general, but before we get to that I’d like to example one final longshot possibility.

Potentially the most worrying possibility would be if Trump were able to mess with the election in some fashion. You could imagine a variety of ways for him to use the executive branch to do this, ranging from voter suppression of varying legality all the way up to an emergency declaration which postponed the election. I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of the paranoid left, but my sense is that there’s a fair amount of worry about something like this. If, as Slate claims, Maddow is descending into feverish paranoia, then one can only imagine what’s happening among truly hardcore leftists.

Whatever their fears, I imagine they’re almost certainly overblown. Trump’s use of an emergency declaration to build the wall will be a good preview of what he can and can’t do with the power of the presidency, and so far nothing much seems to be happening. Also it’s instructive to look at what leaders in far more repressive countries can get away with. Which is to say, even in places like Turkey and Russia they still hold elections. No, if Trump is still going to be president in 2021, I don’t think it will be because he manages to rig the system. It might be because of a third party spoiler, but I’ve already predicted that won’t be the case either. No if Trump wins it will be because of who the Democrats nominate. So let’s finally turn our attention to that discussion.

According to Wikipedia there are currently 19 people who have either declared or formed exploratory committees (see above) who have also either held public office, been included in at least five national polls, or who have received substantial media coverage. That seems like a lot, now to be fair, there were 17 Republican candidates in 2016, but we’re still over a year and a half from the election, and there’s still plenty of time for more people to toss their hat into the ring. In fact as I write this a new candidate, Eric Swalwell, announced his bid, just last night. I’m not entirely sure why there are so many candidates, perhaps because there’s no clear front runner? The 2016 Democratic primary offers some proof of that. Back then, Hillary was the presumptive nominee and we only ended up with six candidates. Though one would think that Biden would be the front runner. Speaking of Biden…

I’m guessing that if I asked you to list all 19 candidates or even 12 of the 19 that you’d probably have a hard time (without cheating) but I’m pretty sure you’d come up with Joe Biden. But this is all a trick question, Biden isn’t one of the 19. He hasn’t officially announced his candidacy or formed a committee. He’s listed, along with seven other people, as having expressed interest. (All eight are presumably a big enough deal to be taken seriously.) Meaning we could end up with a field of 27! But you can be forgiven if you thought Biden had already announced his candidacy given the amount of attention he’s getting. Or course most of that attention has been around accusations that he “inappropriate touched” certain women.

Thus far seven women have accused Biden of making them feel uncomfortable. One question which always comes up in these situations is, “Why now?” I imagine that part of the reason is that once the first accusation is made it becomes easier for other women to come forth, because they know they’re not alone. That still leave us with the first accusation. Why did Lucy Flores come forward at this point in time? The incident she described (which as far as I know Biden has not denied) happened in 2014 and even if it took the #MeToo movement to make it acceptable to call out such behavior, that’s been going on since October of 2017.

Given all this, it would only be natural to suspect that it has something to do with the election. It’s always possible that it doesn’t, but that definitely wouldn’t be the way to bet. To be clear, I’m not questioning the truth of the accusation, just it’s timing. But, if derailing BIden’s nomination played any part in Flores’ decision to come forward, she would be part of a large group of people who don’t want Biden to be the nominee. He’s far too moderate.

I spent a long time observing the widening split on the right between centrists, moderates and neo-cons on one side and the tea party, paleocons, nationalists and eventually the alt-right on the other. And just as 2016 was the full realization of that ideological split among the Republicans, it’s really starting to feel like 2020 will see the full realization of a similar split among the Democrats, between centrists and third-wayers on one hand and socialists and progressives on the other. If so perhaps these (true) allegations are part of that.

In the past, on both sides, schisms like this have been put aside in the interests of winning. So why is this different? As far as anyone can tell the Democrats want to defeat Trump more than they’ve wanted anything in their whole lives, and according to the polls Biden is the person best positioned to do that. This may be true, but those polls reveal something else: every democratic candidate beats Trump. While the lack of a clear front-runner goes part of the way to explaining the size of the field I think Trump’s perceived vulnerability is also a major factor. Returning to the 2016 primaries, on the Democratic side of things, back then everyone figured that in order to keep the White House in their hands they were going to have to nominate a well funded moderate. On the Republican side, while Clinton wasn’t necessarily perceived as weak, it was clear firing up the base with a non-moderate was a very viable strategy. Even so all of the early front-runners were also well funded moderates.

Going in to 2020, it appears the Democrats can nominate just about anyone and they’ll beat Trump. Which means there are many, particularly those farther left in their politics, who feel that they don’t need to compromise in order to win. That it’s finally their chance to elect someone with a truly revolutionary vision, someone like Bernie Sanders who coincidentally currently tops betting on the prediction market.

You might dismiss Sanders as an anomaly. Perhaps he’s attracting so much attention because he did well in 2016, but that just moves the question backwards in time. Why is Sanders, who’s been a public figure since 1991 able to drum up all this nationwide support recently? Is it in spite of his radical agenda or because of it? It’s incorrect to say that this split only started in 2016, it’s been around forever, but certainly 2016 was evidence that it was starting to widen in a more consequential way. And once again I see lots of parallels between what happened on the right and what’s happening on the left.

In my first post of the year I predicted that populism was going to an increasingly powerful force in the developed world, and I think it’s fair to say that Sanders is a populist. Further, populism was certainly a factor in the election of Trump. This is the trend that connects them, and as it gets stronger the split between populists and the rest widens in both parties. As we saw in the beginning, speaking of Maddow and feverish paranoia, there are lots of trends which start on the right side of the fence, but most of them don’t stay there. In fact given that populism is naturally more at home on the left than on the right, it’s entirely possible that it will end up being a far greater force when all is said and done. Which takes us back to the Democratic field.

In 2016 there was one Democratic candidate with a truly radical agenda, this time there’s significantly more. Though before we get to the numbers, in the interests of fairness I imagine something similar will happen with the Republican field in 2024. In the same way that the current Democratic field contains lots of individuals with positions very similar to Sanders, the 2024 Republican field will most likely contain lots of individuals with positions similar to Trump. As I said it’s a trend affecting both sides of the aisle.

To quantify that trend: among the Democratic primary candidates at least a dozen support some form of single-payer healthcare. Another 15 support the Green New Deal. Most have not expressed an opinion, but of candidates which have, over 80% support expanding the Supreme Court. Eleven support tuition free public college. Essentially everyone but Biden wants nationwide legalization of marijuana. And finally, there’s the issue of reparations for slavery.

Reparations is something of a microcosm of just about everything that’s going on in politics right now, and is worth examining in more detail. To being with, here again,  Biden is the outlier. He is the only one who is definitely against the idea. Looking at the rest of the field, there are seven listed as unknown, another six who partially support the idea, and finally an additional six who fully support it. In other words a clear majority supports some action on reparations, and while it’s possible that’s as high it will ever go, I’m guessing it will increasingly become an issue where the candidates have to take a stand, and that some of those seven currently in the unknown column will come out in favor of at least partial reparations.

Beyond the striking level of support for the idea there’s the issue of how recent it is. I realize that there were limited reparations during and after the Civil War, and that a bill calling for a committee to study the issue was first introduced in 1989, and has been introduced at every legislative session since. But the idea certainly hasn’t been mainstream. Some people point to a 2014 Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates as reopening the debate, but even Obama didn’t think anything was going to come of it and told Coates, that politically it would be much easier to implement some sort of universal poverty reduction program. But then, starting this year interest skyrocketed.

Much of my worry about new progressive ideas comes from lack of data. When a subject goes from “0 to 60” in the space of 100 days, it’s difficult to know how seriously we should take it an d what kind of legs it will have. It could be a flash in the pan, a slow, but powerful trend, or the dominant issue of our time, surpassing all others. This is important because the range of outcomes is so large. It could end up fizzling out entirely, it could get stuck in a committee, or it could end with actual money being allocated. And here is where it has the potential to get really crazy. Once you’re talking money, estimates can get as high as $60 trillion dollars!

Beyond the newness of the issue and the fervor it has generated, it also promises to be incredibly divisive for the country as a whole. I know that many candidates are just proposing that a committee be formed to study the matter, and on its face that sounds unobjectionable, perhaps even laudable. But what are the chances that this committee, if formed, will end up recommending that no money be paid out? I would say that it’s not zero, but it’s very, very close to that. And once some amount of money has been recommended, then people will start arguing that justice demands that it be paid out. Any predictions on how your stereotypical poor white Trump voter will react to that? That’s where the divisiveness comes in. Now to be clear maybe that shouldn’t matter, maybe paying out reparations would be so empowering that no matter how divisive it is we should push ahead. In the same way that it was worth the death of 600,000 soldiers to end slavery, maybe it’s worth anger and even violence in order to correct this latest injustice. But will it? Would it be the end of racism, and racial preferences?

One of the best arguments I’ve heard for reparations is that it’s essentially just a civil lawsuit. If someone does something bad to you under the law you’re entitled to sue them for damages. This is fairly well-trod territory and it’s a system that actually works adequately if not perfectly. But one key feature of the lawsuit process is once it’s been decided and damages have been awarded, you can’t bring the same complaint before the court again. Is that how reparations would work? That once paid out racism and race relations would be solved? If so I am all for it, but I suspect that’s not what would happen. I think we would end up with a country even more divided by racial identity than it is now, without much to show for it.

I’m basically out of space and I still haven’t covered how you would determine who gets reparations and who doesn’t (a problem Native American tribes are struggling with in determining the distribution of casino profits.) Further afield I haven’t talked about the strange power Ilhan Omar seems to be exercising over the Democrats, or my weird excitement for Andrew Yang. And then there’s parallels which could be drawn between the Democrats and the UK labor party, who made Jeremy Corbyn their leader and who still aren’t in power despite the total debacle that is Brexit.

The key point I wanted to get across is that while there is a good chance that the Democrats will select a moderate who will easily beat Trump, I see lots of early signs that they might not. To repeat, the most visible moderate, Biden, hasn’t even entered the race yet! This is obviously what ended up happening to the Republicans and look where it got us. Yes, Trump won, but that’s precisely what I’m getting at, there are currently individuals in the Democratic Primary who I think would be as bad or worse than Trump. Perhaps you don’t think that’s possible, fair enough, but let me put another way. They might not win. In fact, it’s looking like the only way the Democrats can lose is by nominating someone less electable than Trump, and that may be exactly what they end up doing.

When I did a DNA test it came back with 0.01% Sub-Saharan ancestry, which, if accurate, would almost certainly imply that one of my ancestors was a slave, so if you think reparations is a good idea, you could start with me.

What Is Going On?!?!?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

A couple of weeks ago I ended my post Low Doses of Harm with a quote from a concerned dog owner. The owner was voicing their opposition to a proposed halal butchery by arguing that just walking by it would put their dogs in an unsafe environment. Boonton speculated in the comments that I shouldn’t take this concern at face value. That this individual was just “posing”. Which is to say that the argument they were making for pet safety was just a cover for their real concern which was probably more about not liking slaughterhouses or maybe Muslims.

This is certainly one possible explanation for the statement. As shocking as it might seem, people do lie, and furthermore they use those lies in a cunning fashion to disguise their true motivations. Which in this case may have been something other than making their dogs feel safe. Accordingly, Boonton argued, while it’s true that you would not have heard this argument at a city council meeting 50 years ago, that it’s nevertheless not an example of something new and strange, but rather an example of something which has been going on since humans first developed language, and not a cause for any particular concern.

As I said all this is possible, but even if it’s the case that the concern for their dog’s safety is a cover for something else, it’s interesting that this was the lie they choose to tell. A good lie has to sound plausible, it has to fit the expectations of the people you’re telling the lie to. And apparently the idea of their dogs being in an unsafe environment just from walking past the butchery was either exactly how they felt, or close enough to how people are expected to feel in this day and age that it passed without being obviously ridiculous. As even Boonton admits concerns have changed, and change can be good or bad.

Indeed, I have mentioned the quote from the dog owner, and the story behind it, to many people outside of my blog readership. And all of them found it both believable and extreme. Part of why they found it to be believable was that it was an example of a problem they were already concerned about. Now I know I just described confirmation bias. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that there’s a problem. What’s interesting furthermore is that several of the people I told had no problem with even fairly controversial examples of so-called “political correctness”, but nevertheless viewed this as “going too far”. When I questioned them more closely it seemed to come down a dislike of treating pets in a fashion similar to children. Also a couple of people brought up the problem of fake service animals.

In other words there are several possibilities:

There’s Boonton who argued that it wasn’t a problem at all.

There’s the people I just described who feel like this story does match a real problem they’re seeing, but that it’s a narrow problem. One that could perhaps be solved by a few additional laws, and a slight change in the culture. Or maybe it’s a problem that will continue to get worse, but other than becoming increasingly annoying, there’s no point at which it becomes catastrophic.

And then, there are people like me, who want to see everything as part of a larger trend. A trend like safetyism, or of people declining to have kids and putting all of their energy and affection into their pets, or of increasing selfishness (it doesn’t matter how many people would benefit from the butchery, it would inconvenience me). I freely admit that there is a failure mode in which people attempt to connect too much together, and that seeing the fall of civilization in a complaint over a halal butchery might be the silliest position of all.

Certainly there are people who see vast conspiracies based on small pieces of evidence. Though I would argue that there is a difference between something requiring the conscious coordination of more than about a dozen people. (Say arguing the moon landing was a hoax.) And emergent cultural trends that move society in a negative direction, but, that aside, it is worth asking am I just a low-grade conspiracy theorist?

I have talked to a few conspiracy theorists at some length about the various conspiracies they champion, and without exception they seem especially fixated on a handful of items they just can’t get past. For one 9/11 truther I talked to it was the collapse of WTC 7. Another gentleman, who believes the Moon landing was faked, considered the automated tracking shot of the final capsule liftoff proof positive of shenanigans. It just felt unquestionably fake to him. (I did look into that, it sounds like it wasn’t easy, but nothing about the explanation struck me as implausible either.)

I personally don’t believe in any big conspiracies, which is not to claim that there aren’t conspiracies. I think there are, but to be successful they need to operate at a much smaller scale than the ones that get all the press. That said, despite not sharing any of their beliefs, conspiracy theorists and I do have one thing in common: we see certain things in the world that absolutely convince us there is something deeper going on. These are things I can’t reconcile with a rosy picture of the future. And the point of this post is to examine some of these things. Stories and data I’ve come across recently that convince me that there is something big happening behind the scenes. Things that I can’t get past. Things that make me confident that the narrative that everything is better than it’s ever been is wrong, or if correct, only temporarily so.

As I pointed out in the beginning as I relate these examples you have three options. First, like Boonton in his comment from a couple of weeks ago you can decide that there is nothing especially unusual about the story. That at best it’s a different expression of something which has been happening for a long time (like lying about our true motivation), but definitely nothing to be alarmed about. Alternatively you can decide that the things I’m talking about do point to a real problem, but a minor one. A problem which will either correct itself in time or which is correctable with only small adjustment to customs and/or laws. Finally you may view things in the same light as I do, as strong evidence for a negative trend which seems likely to get worse, and in the process cause severe problems.

I’m going to start with the story that gave me the idea for this post. A couple of months ago I came across an article in Slate about the practice of puppy play. And I’ll put in a warning, if you’re easily offended, you might just want to skip to the paragraph that starts “The next example”.

Here’s how Slate describes puppy play:

When at their leisure, some queer people socialize and sweat it out at LGBTQ badminton games. Others enjoy hearing a reading at the local queer bookstore. And for still others, the best way to spend free time is rolling around on floor mats with each other while wearing puppy masks, collars, and tail-shaped butt plugs, barking and sniffing like real pups. Known as pup play, this is a brand of BDSM role-play where people imitate adolescent canine behavior in order to get off. When done with other pups, it’s considered a “mosh,” and it happens regularly at leather bars all across the country. For some, pup play is just for Saturday nights. But could the fetish lifestyle offer more than just a good time?

As I said, reading this article was the genesis of what eventually became the post you’re reading. Specifically the idea that I could look at something and think, “Well if that isn’t evidence that something is seriously wrong with the world I don’t know what is.” While at the same time not being entirely clear on what made it so alarming. I mean sure it fits into the general category of sexual activities that have nothing to do with procreation. But it’s not like the total fertility rate of homosexual men was all that great to begin with. The angle where they pretend to be dogs is also unusual, but I was already familiar with furries before reading the article, so that wasn’t anything particularly new or shocking either.

I think a big part of it was how matter of fact the article was. You can imagine the same story being written up on Breitbart or some similar culturally right-wing site in a breathless revelatory fashion, with lurid descriptions of:

tail-shaped butt plugs

outfitted in leather puppy masks, which are called “hoods” in the scene

[their] three-page fetish family chart

There are the two alphas…who are the leaders (similar to a drag mother in a drag house…

a handler (a figure who, elsewhere in the scene, typically “owns” and protects his pups).

one omega pup, Pup Arco, a submissive who services the pack in exchange for protection from unwanted attention within the community;

And yet, if you haven’t guessed, those are all quotes from the Slate article. Additionally consider the source. Slate is not some niche LGBT focused publication. It’s basically the internet’s version of Time or Newsweek. I suppose, you could make the argument that it’s a little bit edgier, but it’s still effectively, a general interest magazine.

All that said, I expect that, similar to what happens with conspiracy theorists, that there will be many people who will dismiss the visceral concern I experienced as meaningless, and not see any problem with the activities described in the article. Still others might view it as a minor problem, one which revolves more around cordoning off adult activities from children, than any prohibition of the activity itself. But for me, it is not an exaggeration to say that the article appeared like an Old Testament prophecy come to life and proclaiming that the end was near. It’s safe to say I definitely had a “What is going on?!” reaction.

The next example, which I have mentioned before, is the stunning number of under 30 males who aren’t having sex. (It’s nearly tripled from 10% to 28% in the last decade.) I’m not going to spend as much time on this one because I’ve already covered it, in fact I ended up making a bet the last time I discussed it. But you can once again see the same thing at play. There are certainly people who are going to think that this is no big deal. In particular they may see widespread pornography as a perfectly acceptable substitute for sex. I think this is profoundly misguided, but once again it’s territory I’ve covered in the past. But the point is, there is an argument to be made that there’s no reason to be alarmed by this statistic. Some might even welcome it as a positive step along the lines of defanging the patriarchy. Who knows.

Beyond that there are those who certainly see this as a problem, but not a catastrophic one. My sense, in fact, is that most people would say that the biggest problem is avoiding the radicalization of these involuntary celibates (an issue we’re already struggling with). And if we can avoid that, that there’s very little else about this trend which should cause any concern.

And then of course there’s me (though I assume I’m not entirely alone). I find this increase, particularly over such a short time, to be extremely alarming. But maybe it shouldn’t be. The Japanese have arguably been dealing with a similar situation in the form of what they call Hikikomiri. These are individuals who at some point while growing up decide that they’re going eschew all social contact and seek extreme isolation, even confinement. Which one presumes also includes foregoing sex. As of 2010 the estimate was that there was 700,000 of these individuals, with another 1.55 million on the verge of becoming Hikikomiri. Of course there are ways in which this comparison fails. The Hikikomiri have an average age of 31, and are fairly evenly split between the genders, while we were talking about men under the age of 30. On the other hand whatever is happening with the Hikikomiri appears more severe. But the larger point is that so far Japan hasn’t collapsed, and in fact seems to be doing pretty well.

I guess we’ll see. In the past young men with nothing to do have fueled a lot of social unrest and even revolution, but perhaps all of their energy is being channeled into video games. Which once again would seem to be cause for concern, but maybe I’m making too much out of the vast and precipitous increase in sexless young men. Still, this is another case where I think we should all be asking, “What is going on?”

Part of the problem with the increase in involuntary celibacy, is that men seem to be taking it in the teeth on a lot of fronts. And I know that there are valid cases to be made that women and minorities, etc. have been taking it in the teeth for most of recorded history, but one would hope that progress isn’t a zero sum game where for one group to do better another group has to do worse. But you may be wondering what else I’m talking about, where else is something bad happening to men or at least disproportionately to men? Well, to move on to our next example: drugs. The opioid epidemic seems to hit men much worse than women. For instance, if you look at overdose deaths from opioids it turns out that men are twice as likely as women to die from an overdose. But that fact is alarming only because so many people are dying.

Have you seen a graph showing the spike in deaths from synthetic opioids? It’s genuinely insane. Essentially it went from 3,000 in 2013 to 30,000 in 2017. That’s a 10x increase in four years! If that rate continued basically the entire country would be dead less than 15 years from now. Obviously it’s not going to continue at this rate, but what rate is it going to continue at? Even if it leveled of instantly that’s still pretty bad.

This enormous spike in deaths from synthetic opioids would be bad enough if that’s all we had to worry about, but overdose deaths from heroin and prescription opioids might also still be climbing, or maybe they’ve levelled off at a mere 15,000 deaths a year, each. (And yes I’m being sarcastic.) It’s too early to tell, but on top of the opioid problem, although you can’t overdose on marijuana, the CDC reports that deaths from synthetic cannabinoids tripled in a single year between 2014 and 2015. I couldn’t find more recent numbers, but it does seem like a problem that’s likely to get worse given reports in other sources that synthetic use and associated reports of illness therefrom surged in 2018. Finally it turns out that meth has come roaring back, with overdose deaths from that drug increasing 18-fold in this decade, which is not as bad as the synthetic opioid increase, but it’s not great either. Finally it turns out that there’s been a big spike in overdose deaths from cocaine as well and 15,000 people a year are also dying there as well.

Just as I was putting the final polish on this, I came across a unified chart with overdose deaths from all of the drugs I just mentioned (other than synthetic cannabinoids). Eyeballing the start date in 1999, I’m going to say that there were 10,000 overdose deaths. The number for 2017 is 89,000. That’s a 9 fold increase over less than 20 years, across a broad range of drugs. I ask again, “What is going on?!”

As long as we’re on the subject of drugs, I was actually considering doing a whole post on them, but I have no idea what to do about the problem. Most people agree that the War on Drugs has largely been a failure, though it also feels like it hasn’t been quite as “warlike” since maybe the Obama election? Which corresponds to all the rises I’ve been talking about. So maybe it was working? Sort of? On the other hand there’s the approach of countries like Portugal, which decriminalized possession of drugs, and redirected resources to treatment. Which has long seemed like a good idea to me, but even so that policy has indisputably increased drug usage, and when you’re talking about drugs like fentanyl and meth, my guess is that usage rate and overdose rate are strongly correlated. Also, there are many ways in which the US is not Portugal.

Thus far we have sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Or rather a lack of sex, drug over doses and a weird fetishished version of rolling around like puppies. Perhaps I’m just an alarmed mother from the early 70s, rather than a low-grade conspiracy theorist. Either way, there is a big collection of potential things to be worried about, well beyond the three I just mentioned. But I understand if, looking at any example in isolation, you decide that it’s harmless; or worrisome, but easily dealt with. (Though there is always the chance that something is actually the tip of the iceberg.) All this said, while I do have some deep worries over isolated phenomenon, it’s really things in combination where I think we end up with a potential for catastrophe.

By way of illustration, as scary as fentanyl is, it’s really the fact that overdose deaths are basically up for all drugs, that worries me. And moving beyond that, drug overdose deaths are just one element in the broader “deaths of despair” category. (Another area where men are being hit particularly hard.) And once you start combining things together in this fashion it’s harder, for me at least, to shake the feeling that something big is going on.  

I suppose the point of this post is to be largely confessional. Specifically a confession that there is an element of emotion and visceral alarm to my worries about technology, progress and modern culture. I hope you believe me when I say I really want the future to be as great as Steven Pinker promises it will be. For that matter I want the present to be as great as people tell me it is, but when I look out on the world I see an increasing number of things that make me ask, “What is going on?!?!?”

As you may gather I feel like some things are moving in the opposite direction from what we would hope and expect. On that theme I’m going to go in the opposite direction as well, rather than asking for your donation I’m going to give away two $10 Amazon gift certificates to the first and last people who email me at wearenotsaved AT g mail and reference this message. How will I determine the last person? I guess you’ll find out.

The Overemphasis on Love and Tolerance (Religious)

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

I’m not a huge fan of Paul Krugman, which is to say that I have significant criticisms of him, his politics, and of Keynesians in general. That said he has done something recently that improved my opinion of him. He’s been pointing out all of the many problems with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). I particularly liked the subtitle of one of his recent articles: “Trying to get this debate beyond Calvinball.”

Calvinball is a reference to Calvin and Hobbes, the greatest comic strip ever (this point is not up for debate) and in the strip the rules to Calvinball are made up as you go along, which in Krugman’s opinion is how it feels to debate MMT advocates. But, it was as I was reading Krugman’s MMT articles that I was reminded of something else he does. On blog posts where he gets into economic minutia he’ll put “(Wonkish)” at the end of the title to alert people to the fact that the post might not be for everyone.

All of the preceding has been my way of introducing something similar to my blog a “(Religious)” tag for posts that delve deeply into issues of Christianity, and in particular the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). And to identify posts which may be of less interest to any atheists who happen to be reading. That said, in this particular post, though much of my reasoning will be religious, I hope to touch on non-religious arguments as well.

The subject I want to talk about is: love. See I have a problem with love. One of my employees will often ask me, in an exaggerated fashion, when I decided to “Love hate and hate love.” Particularly when ask him to do something hard. But humor aside, I don’t hate love, however I do think we’ve put far too much emphasis on it, making it the ultimate value, above and beyond all others. In doing this we have stretched its meaning to the point where love, as most people practice it, is a long way away from its Christian ideal or even its humanist ideal. We’ve done this in many different ways, I’m going to start with the most obvious and then work back from there.

A year or so ago I mentioned an observation John Michael Greer had made to the effect that hate is to modern sensibilities what sex was to Victorian sensibilities, i.e. during the Victorian era sex was the root of all evil, today it’s hate. As he points out:

If you want to slap the worst imaginable label on an organization, you call it a hate group. If you want to push a category of discourse straight into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, you call it hate speech. If you’re speaking in public and you want to be sure that everyone in the crowd will beam approval at you, all you have to do is denounce hate.

First, he’s basically saying the same thing I am, if love has become the ultimate value, then hate (as its opposite) must therefore be the ultimate evil. But, beyond that, by tying it back to Victorian sensibilities, he’s making an additional point. The Victorians weren’t against all sex, they were against particular varieties of sex. In the final analysis it was exceptionally class-based. In the same fashion modern sensibilities aren’t against all hate (or in favor of all love.) They’re against certain varieties of hate. And it might be more accurate to speak about it in terms of tolerance vs. intolerance, which is part of what I mean when I talk about stretching the definition of love well beyond whatever Christian foundation it might have once had. Finally while acceptable sex was entirely based on class in Victorian times, now acceptable hate is heavily based on ideology. Even the mildest intolerance of the LGBT community is among the worst things you can be accused of. While flaming hatred of Trump and his supporters is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged.

(You can certainly see, for those who’ve been following along, how this ties back into my last post there is no safe level of intolerance. Particularly certain kinds of intolerance.)

This twisting of love and hate into tolerance and intolerance has been fairly well documented, and detailed at some length by better people than me. But it makes a good jumping off point for, as promised, bringing in religion. As I said people are increasingly making love into the ultimate value, and I think many if not most of these people justify this by bringing in Christ and Christianity. Some of these people are actively involved in an organized Christian church. Some self-identify as Christian, with varying levels of commitment, but with minimal actual church attendance. Others put forth love as the ultimate value with no real reference to Christ except perhaps as one wise person among many. And finally there are people who use their interpretation of Christian ideology as a club to beat up on Christians for being insufficiently tolerate, at least according to their completely subjective interpretation of it.

Given that everyone is referencing Christ and Christianity in some fashion, most of them pretty directly, what did Christ have to say about love? In particular what did he say about it being the ultimate value? Interestingly enough, just last Sunday, as I was sitting in church, the Sunday School teacher asked the members of the class what their core principle was, and someone said love. And in support of that offered up the phrase “God is love”. Perhaps even more interesting this was not the genesis of this post, it was just a happy coincidence, I had already started writing when this happened. But this phrase is a great place to start.

“God is love” seems pretty clear, it’s not even something like God commands us to love, or God values love, it’s God is love. And yet if it’s as important as all that why does this phrase only appear in one place in the Bible, 1 John chapter 4? If this is a critical part of Christianity you’d expect it to actually appear in one of the four Gospels, right? Also the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and are we sure whatever the original word was that it has the same connotation as the English it was translated into? That itself is a whole discussion I don’t have space to get into, but there’s a strong argument to be made that “God is self-sacrifice” would be closer to the original meaning than “God is infinitely tolerant.”

The next best piece of evidence for the importance of love is Matthew 22:36-40:

36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

38 This is the first and great commandment.

39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Once again we’ve got a strong prima facie case for love’s primacy within Christianity. But as far as I can tell most of the people pushing to make love the ultimate value aren’t pushing to make love of God their primary value. They’re skipping the first commandment and moving straight to the second (and given their actual behavior even this interpretation might be generous). But presumably the first commandment is first for a reason. That just as skipping the first step: “Turn on the oven” will be fatal to any attempt to bake, skipping “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind” is almost certainly fatal to exercising Christian love.

All of this is a problem even if people today are using love in the same sense Christ was when he issued the original proclamation in Aramaic. But I don’t think that’s the case either. Not only is there more sacrifice implied in the original, I would also argue there was a greater sense of commitment implied, and far less selfishness as well. Lots of people seem to have added a third commandment, “Love yourself above all else.” And I doubt very much that Jesus would recognize anything in the modern conception of self-love, which might be more properly labeled “self-actualization” as a part of his original injunctions.

If anyone thinks there’s a stronger case for the primacy of love in general Christian theology, I’d be happy to speak to it. But my sense is that most of the New Testament examples are going to be similar to the two I already gave. Outside of the New Testament, I’m probably not qualified to speak for all branches of Christianity, nor everything that has happened since 33 AD (or thereabouts). So, let’s turned to an area where I do feel somewhat qualified to hold forth: LDS theology.

The idea for this post actually came to me quite a while go as I was reading Alma 29. For any non-Mormons who may have made it this far. Alma is one of the major figures in the Book of Mormon (Alma is the longest sub-book within the Book of Mormon) and in Chapter 29, Alma mentions that if he could have “the wish of his heart” he would want to be an angel. What would he do if he were an angel and could travel the world and speak with a “voice to shake the earth”? He would preach repentance, not love.

Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

The word love doesn’t appear in the chapter. In fact if you compare occurrences of “repentance” to appearances of “love” in the Book of Mormon, you’ll find that the word love appears 60 times but the word repentance appears 92 times. Why is this important? Well first off, you would expect that Alma has a pretty good idea of what the world most needs to hear, and in his mind, if he could reach every soul, he would be declaring the need to repent not the need for more love. Now it’s possible that things have changed, and whatever was most important in Alma’s time is not what is most important in our time. That there’s no longer any need for people to repent, but that hardly seems likely…

Another place we might turn is the Articles of Faith. And while they don’t cover every nook and cranny of LDS theology, you would think that anything that’s really important should be included there. Turning to them the closest we get to the word love is “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” On the other hand, though it only appears once, repentance is on the list of “first principles”, right after faith.

We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

This emphasis on repentance is not just an LDS fascination. I think the evidence might be clearer, but even if we restrict ourselves to the New Testament you still have scriptures like Luke 24:46-47:

46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:

47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Similar to Alma, it’s repentance that gets preached among all nations, not love, and certainly not tolerance.

None of this is to say that love isn’t important, or even very important, but when you prioritize it above everything else, then you risk losing losing other important principles, particularly if those principles clash with your expanded and prioritized vision of love’s meaning. If love takes on the meaning of infinite tolerance (and to be clear I also think tolerance has its place) then what place does a principle like repentance have which has intolerance for sin baked right into the definition?

Perhaps I can make the importance of both love and repentance clearer by examining the ultimate goals of existence. In LDS theology the ultimate goal is to become like God, and in the process take on god-like powers and responsibilities. Another word for this is theosis. And while I’m not sure how comfortable I feel speaking about other branches of Christianity, I have it on good authority that Eastern Orthodox Christianity also espouses a doctrine of theosis.

Obviously a doctrine like theosis can take us into some pretty deep theological waters. So it might be helpful to look at how this works out in another area. In the past I have pointed out that once you assume mortal life is all about preparing intelligences to be gods that you end up arriving at a very similar position to people who are concerned with AI Risk. So what purpose would love serve in that context? The big worry behind discussions of AI Risk is that you’re going to end up with an AI who does things we don’t want it to do. But if it loves its creator (us) with all its heart, and with all its soul, and with all its mind. That would pretty much solve that problem. If it skips that step and just focuses on loving its fellow AIs, that’s not nearly as effective, and in fact might actually end up being the exact opposite of what we were hoping for. Beyond that, tolerance has very little value in this scenario. We need the AI to be perfectly moral before we can trust it. Tolerance, almost whatever form it takes, is at best unrelated and at worst the opposite of what we’re looking for.

There is, however, a place for repentance. Given the difficulties involved we might be very interested in allowing the AI to correct for past mistakes. And, in any event, we assume that when we move from considering AIs back to a consideration of human beings that God can afford to be far more charitable than we are. Not only allowing a greater latitude for repentance, but also a greater spirit of tolerance among all the various parties. But to be clear there’s nothing inherent in the scenario which requires infinite or even excessive tolerance in order for it to work.

At this point, in terms of Christianity, I don’t know that there’s much more I can say to sway those who are still undecided, and I may have already lost you with the detour into AI, but what about if we ignore religion? In the beginning I mentioned four foundations for prioritizing love:

  1. Christianity with organized religion.
  2. Christianity sans organized religion.
  3. Other religious or spiritual frameworks.
  4. As a club to beat up on Christians.

I think I’ve covered one and two, though I will add that I think two is objectively inferior to one on every metric, and not just from the standpoint of understanding Christian doctrine on love and tolerance.

As far as three, if someone claims that as their foundation, then I’d be curious which religious tradition they’re drawing on. I confess to not being an expert in all possible traditions, but my sense is that every religion of sufficient antiquity has a whole host of things it doesn’t tolerate. And that while altruism is a significant component of all religions, it is always altruism within a rigidly defined framework. Also I think if you trace most things back they’ll still end up intersecting with Christianity at some point.

As far as four, to begin with I think Christians should largely ignore people who accuse them of hypocrisy, since so much of it is done in bad faith, and also, to reiterate, even if we are engaged in a certain level of hypocrisy that just illustrates precisely why repentance is so important. But let’s say that although you’re an atheist who has nothing but disdain for Christianity, that you’re  still trying to make a good faith effort to live as well as possible. Where should you prioritize love? Insofar as love leads to cooperation, and cooperation makes things easier to accomplish I can still see placing a very high value on it, but whatever the modern definition of love, it doesn’t seem particularly good at fostering greater cooperation. For example, something I just saw on Twitter:

The average Republican and Democrat suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis.

Each side thinks it is driven by benevolence, while the other is evil and motivated by hatred.

This is just one data point, but I think it’s clear that if we’re trying to engender greater cooperation that whatever we’re doing is not working. That a focus on love and tolerance with a corresponding abhorrence of hate has, seemingly, only brought greater division.

I’ve pointed out how the case for a singular prioritization of love and tolerance is not supported by religion, but the case for tolerance is even weaker if you’re expecting salvation through science or human effort. Under a religious framework you could at least imagine that even if we get the balance wrong, say too much tolerance, or too little, that in the end, if there’s a God that he might still very well be merciful. But if you don’t believe there’s a God willing to excuse our mistakes. If you believe we have to succeed or fail entirely on our own merits. That, if we flunk the test, that there’s no great power to appeal to for mercy, then the issue of tolerance becomes very fraught indeed.

In the salvation through our own efforts scenario, there are right answers and there are wrong answers. And if the only right answer is to make it off the planet, then tolerating people who aren’t interested in that becomes a potentially fatal mistake. This is the same whether you think the right answer is a superintelligent AI, or massive carbon capture or a socialist utopia. And of course, this may be the reason why a greater push for tolerance has lead to a society that’s actually far more divided. If there is a God around to show us mercy then we can afford to be charitable to views we disagree with. On the other hand, if there is no God then we can’t afford that charity. We have to be right.

My main point is a religious one, but outside of that, something is clearly going on with love and tolerance, particularly the way in which modern tolerance can be so expansive, while at the same time being so incredibly narrow. To them I would repeat the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Finally, turning back to religion, I end by repeating my contention that self-proclaimed believers are increasingly minimizing the injunction to repent while stretching and distorting the admonition to love. To these people I will only repeat the words of the Gospel, specifically Matthew 4:17

From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

I appreciate your infinite tolerance for these lame donation appeals. But I appreciate your donations even more. I guess I could call those who don’t donate to repentance, but that seems intolerant, right?

Low Doses of Harm

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

Last week we talked about chemotherapy. This week we’re going to talk about radiation, but not metaphorical radiation, actual radiation. And not even the radiation used in radiation therapy for cancer. We’re going to talk about the worst radiation of all, the radiation from nuclear weapons, or at least that’s where we’re going to start.

On August 6, 1945, Tsutomu Yamaguchi had finally reached the end of a three month long business trip to Hiroshima, and was finally ready to leave the city. After having to return to the office to retrieve something he forgot, he was walking near the docks when the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb. The shock wave from the explosion “sucked Yamaguchi from the ground, spun him in the air like a tornado and sent him hurtling into a nearby potato patch.” In addition the explosion “ruptured his eardrums, blinded him temporarily, and left him with serious burns over the left side of the top half of his body.” Afterwards he managed to make his way to an air-raid shelter where he spent the night, and the next day he set out again for his hometown of… Nagasaki, where he received further treatment.

Despite being heavily bandaged, he reported for work on August 9th, and was in the middle of describing the Hiroshima explosion to his supervisor when the Bockscar (I think this is the first time I’ve heard the name of the second plane) dropped another atomic bomb. Both times Yamaguchi was around 3 km from the explosion, but this time, being inside, he was not tossed around or burned, though he suffered from high fever and vomiting for a week afterwards.

Yamaguchi has been called the unluckiest man in the world, and it does sound pretty awful to have been present both times nuclear weapons were used in anger. But what’s interesting is that despite being relatively close to ground zero on both occasions, he survived to the ripe old age of 93. Which is not to say he didn’t have problems related to his exposure in the immediate aftermath, and even later in life, but despite being present at not one, but two nuclear explosions it didn’t shorten his life. Is this just a lot of luck later in life balancing out his initial unluck? Should he have died young, but just beat the odds? According to a paper published last year, no, he wasn’t lucky, the irradiation he was subjected to may have actually lengthened his life.

The paper I’m referring to is titled Low-dose radiation from A-bombs elongated lifespan and reduced cancer mortality relative to un-irradiated individuals. And its central claim is right there in the title, low-dose radiation (technically ionizing radiation, but I’ll be using just ‘radiation’ throughout) didn’t shorten the lifespans of those affected by it, it lengthened them. I imagine for most people this conclusion will be surprising. The reason for this surprise, and the chief villain of the paper is the idea that radiation is the worst thing ever, or what the paper describes as the linear no-threshold hypothesis (LNT). “Linear” meaning that the harm of radiation is always proportional to the dose, and “no-threshold” meaning that there isn’t any point at which it isn’t harmful. According to LNT, radiation, no matter how small the dose, is always harmful. There is no safe level of radiation, and certainly no beneficial level of radiation. As I said LNT is the chief villain of the paper and the authors describe it thusly:

Average solid cancer death ratios of… A-bomb survivors… were lower than the average for Japanese people, which is consistent with the occurrence of radiation adaptive responses (the bases for radiation hormesis), essentially invalidating the LNT model. Nevertheless, LNT has served as the basis of radiation regulation policy. If it were not for LNT, tremendous human, social, and economic losses would not have occurred in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident. For many reasons, LNT must be revised or abolished, with changes based not on policy but on science.

Elsewhere they describe LNT as “spurious”, with a “seriously flawed history”, and “no convincing [supporting] data”. Now I’m not an expert in this field, and it’s always possible that their conclusion is wrong, but I would bet that they’re right. For one thing, though I haven’t audited their data, it clearly shows that A-bomb survivors lived longer, on average, than a control group of Japanese who were nowhere near the bomb. But beyond that their claim rests on the assertion that LNT advocates neglected to consider hormesis, or what amounts, essentially, to biological antifragility. Not only am I a huge believer in hormesis (and antifragility) but as part of that I’ve seen lots of examples of people overlooking it. Which is to say, it’s not just with respect to radiation that people apply a linear no-threshold hypothesis, people apply it to just about everything that can cause harm. Creating the widespread belief that if something has been shown to cause harm at any level, that there is then no level at which it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that an overarching linear no-threshold hypothesis may be one of the defining features of our era.

There are many examples of this, most take us from the realm of biology to the realm of psychology, and I will admit that I’m making that jump somewhat casually, but I will return and shore it up. But first some examples, One is Brené Brown, who I talked about a few posts ago and who, as far as I can tell, takes an LNT stand on shame. That there is no level of shame which isn’t harmful. You also see it in schools where there is, in effect an LNT around bullying, or even unkind words. The #metoo era has brought it to interactions around sex, where there is no safe amount of discomfort for a woman to experience. Now to be clear, maybe there is no safe level in all three of these examples. I freely admit I don’t have any proof that there are safe or beneficial levels of shame, or bullying or discomfort. But there is significant proof in other areas, and here’s where I start to shore up that jump from biological to psychological. To do so I turn to The Coddling of the American Mind.

I have already touched on Coddling in a previous post, but upon reflection, particularly in light of some of my recent posts, I may not have given it the space it deserves. To begin with it’s a great book, and this is not just my opinion, I know several people who’ve read it and enjoyed it. This includes my daughter, who generally only reads Rowling and Green. Coddling has mostly ended up taking a position on the right in the larger culture war, but the authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are pretty liberal, and thus the picture they paint of today’s youth (the subtitle of the book is “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure”) is as objective as anything is likely to be in this day and age. At least in my opinion.

But we were talking about the linear no-threshold hypothesis. You would be surprised if they actually mentioned it, particularly by that name, and they don’t but they end up describing a nearly identical concept, that of “safetyism”.

“Safetyism” refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. “Safety” trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger. When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay “emotionally safe” while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient. The end result may be similar to what happened when we tried to keep kids safe from exposure to peanuts: a widespread backfiring effect in which the “cure” turns out to be the primary cause of the disease.

The emphasis is mine, and that sentence is essentially a restatement of LNT, only applied to all danger, not just the danger of ionizing radiation.

When I crossed over from talking about LNT as it applies to radiation to talking about LNT as a broader psychological and cultural phenomenon in the form of safetyism. I was actually making two assertions: first, that LNT or something nearly identical existed in this additional space, and that it corresponds to what Haidt and Lukianoff call safetyism and second, that safetyism is similarly “spurious”, with a “seriously flawed history”, and “no convincing [supporting] data”. I would hope that the broader existence of LNT/safetyism is more or less self-evident. If not I would ask you to give further consideration to things like microaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and massive public shaming over minor infractions. All things which are premised on there being no minimum acceptable level of discomfort.

This leaves us with showing that safetyism causes harm. I would think that Haidt and Lukianoff’s description of the feedback loop is a very good start. Beyond that, as might be expected, they bring up the hygiene hypothesis, which I discussed just a couple of posts ago, and where I further made the argument that there is probably a psychological version of it. At the time I hadn’t really considered the LNT angle, but you could certainly imagine that if psychological stressors work anything at all like immune system, and further if there is any mental hormesis, then an attempt to eliminate all emotional stress would cause analogous problems.

The key thing to consider, as I’ve been arguing from the very beginning, is that, in general, humans are antifragile. And we should be more suspicious of philosophies which claim that they aren’t than those which claim that they are. Haidt and Lukianoff agree, pointing out that the current push to identify and eliminate things like microaggressions, triggers, etc. represents a “fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and of the dynamics of trauma and recovery.” And that even if you actually are suffering from something like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “avoiding triggers is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment for it.” In support of this they include a quote from Richard McNally, the director of clinical training in Harvard’s Department of Psychology:

Trigger warnings are counter-therapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains PTSD. Severe emotional reactions triggered by course material are a signal that students need to prioritize their mental health and obtain evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies that will help them overcome PTSD. These therapies involve gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories until their capacity to trigger distress diminishes.

All of this is to say that there is a safe and even beneficial level of discomfort and even trauma. And this applies not just to normal individuals, but beyond that to individuals suffering from genuine, clinical, psychological trauma.  That when we deprive people, especially children, of this discomfort under the principle of safetyism that we do real harm. As Haidt and Lukianoff’s summary explains:

Children, like many other complex adaptive systems, are antifragile. Their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environments in order to configure themselves for those environments. Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.

Haidt and Lukianoff spend most of the rest of the book examining the current, unproductive way in which college students engage with ideas which challenge their beliefs, and it’s all very interesting, but I don’t have the space to go into it here. Also I think it’s a problem that’s been very well covered even for people who have never heard of Coddling or Haidt and Lukianoff. What I’m more interested in examining is where to draw the line on things like discomfort or radiation if we’ve decided that it’s a bad idea to draw the line at zero.

This is not the first time I’ve addressed the question, and in fact when I initially brought up “The Coddling of the American Mind” the title of that post was How Do You Determine the Right Level of Suffering? And my thought process then was largely the same as it is now. If some suffering is needed for healthy development how do you determine how much suffering to allow? Even if you just choose to ignore rather than allow, how do you do that? And do you ignore some suffering, but not others? How is that choice made? Would ignoring it be enough or do you end up having to intentionally causing suffering? Would any of this need to be legislated in order to work? If so how on earth would you pull that off? Replace suffering with trauma or even just challenges and the questions largely remain the same.

One big part of the problem is that up until recently we could do everything in our power to reduce suffering and there was still sufficient suffering built into existence for everyone to get their “daily recommended allowance”. Less than 50 years ago young men could still be drafted to go fight and die in a war. 40 years ago my parents could let me wander around in the wilderness for hours doing who knows what and no one thought it was particularly unusual (a story I told in that last post). But technology and progress have changed things. Now kids are always reachable with smartphones, and they generally don’t wander around outside anyway because they’re inside posting on social media or playing video games. And there are no more wars between the great powers, and no more need for a draft. People still fight and die in wars, but on a completely different scale. Interestingly, some people think this reduction is all because of the A-bomb.

Returning to the A-bomb, one of the reasons I started with radiation is that it’s an early example of dealing with rapid technological change, and its associated dangers, and it’s not an encouraging one. According to the paper I mentioned earlier, the linear no-threshold hypothesis traces its origin all the way back to 1927. This is important because it means we’ve had over 90 years to get the science right, and instead, if anything, we’re more frightened of radiation than ever. While at the same time the case for accepting the dangers of radiation is as strong as it’s ever been.  Of course, I’m mostly talking about nuclear power. I have made my case for nuclear power previously, so I won’t rehash it here, but obviously global warming plays into it. (Though perhaps not as much as you might think.)  And despite increasing fears of that from nearly all quarters, nuclear power generation declined, as a percentage of all power generation, from 16.5% to 9.5% between 1993 and 2015.

One might be inclined to blame this mostly on the Fukushima disaster, but that didn’t occur till 2011, and the decline was pretty steep already (which is to say that since global generation is increasing that nuclear generation in absolute terms has been basically flat since 2000.) Speaking of Fukushima, as was already alluded to in the initial quote, the authors of the paper feel that LNT created undue burdens not only in Fukushima, but also at Chernobyl. Claiming:

If it were not for LNT, evacuation would not have been necessary in Chernobyl or Fukushima.

Back in the post where I made my case for nuclear power I mentioned Chernobyl, and it’s worth revisiting that section:

It doesn’t take much searching to find articles talking in excited terms about the amount of wildlife found in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). One article declares that it’s a nature reserve. Another mentions that within the CEZ wildlife is flourishing. This was unexpected, in one article from National Geographic I came across, they quote a biologist who “studies Chernobyl” (one wonders if his studies have included a visit) as predicting that when the author of the article goes to Chernobyl that he won’t “see any roadkill in the exclusion zone—and would be lucky to hear any birds or see any animals.” Instead the author reports:

Walking along sandy firebreaks used as forest highways…we found the tracks of wolf, moose, deer, badger, and horses. I counted scores of birds: ravens, songbirds, three kinds of birds of prey, and dozens of swans paddling in the radioactive cooling pond.

The article goes on to report that in a study of 14 species of mammals one scientist found no evidence that any of those populations were “suppressed” within the CEZ.

I am sure that there are some health impacts on this wildlife and positive that the CEZ is not without its negative effects. I’m sure that if people were allowed to live there, that there would be higher rates of cancer, among other things. But, also recall, that this is the worst of the disasters, combined with the least cost and effort at cleanup.

One of the reasons I wanted to revisit that section is that I think I may have been wrong. I said that I was “positive that the CEZ is not without its negative effects.” I am no longer positive of that. It’s possible that just as low-dose radiation extended the lifespans of the Japanese A-bomb survivors that it has had a positive effect on the wildlife of Chernobyl, above and beyond just the removal of human interference. But because of the widespread belief in LNT, scientists assume that there must be some awful effect. So awful that one even claimed you would be lucky to spot any birds or animals, when the opposite ends up being true.

As I said unfortunately it’s not just with respect to radiation that LNT holds sway, it’s also present nearly everywhere you look in the form of safetyism, and one the reasons I’ve been bouncing back and forth is that both engender a similar level of panic.

Just yesterday I came across what may be, to this point, the most extreme example (though I’m sure in the future I’ll see something even more extreme). It came out of a story about a fight over building a halal butchery. The proposed site was nowhere near anything residential but it was near a lot of pet related businesses. And as a result, people pushed back on behalf of their pets. But really, it’s one comment that perfectly encapsulates what I’m talking about.

Knowing that my dogs may be walked by a business that holds chickens in a windowless room before their throats are slit while fully conscious does not make me feel that my dogs are in a safe environment.

Not only is this, objectively, ridiculous, but it perfectly illustrates the unwillingness to make trade-offs and compromise that Haidt and Lukianoff talked about. Earlier, I said I wanted to do two things. First I wanted to show that we are dealing with a cultural and psychological form of LNT, which has been labeled safetyism. Second I wanted to show that this absolute prioritization of safety is counter productive and harmful. Here, at the end, I think it would be useful to pull together a list from everything I’ve said thus far of the ways it’s harmful:

  1. It makes people unwilling to compromise, and given that compromise is essential for a functioning society, safetyism has contributed to the horrible political fracture we’re currently seeing.
  2. There’s a misallocation of resources. We spend time and money eliminating things which not only aren’t harmful, but which are probably beneficial.
  3. It creates a feedback loop. Safetyism leads to fragility, fragility means that much more attention needs to be paid to safety which in turn produces even more fragility.
  4. A certain level of stress, suffering, trauma, and/or danger is necessary for healthy development. Safetyism deprives us of that.
  5. By denying human antifragility it creates widespread fragility.

As I said, even if you’re entirely onboard with my conclusions, deciding how to increase suffering is a hard problem. But to borrow from that wisest of all sages, G.I. Joe, perhaps knowing that it’s a problem is half the battle.

I worry that referencing something like the G.I. Joe cartoon which only ran for three years in the mid-80s may be both horribly obscure and horribly out of date, but I also figure obscure, curmudgeonly stuff might be the definition of my niche. If you agree, or even if you just also remember G.I. Joe, consider donating.