Year: 2016

Reframing Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

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The title of this blog is “We Are Not Saved”. I just got done reading a book by Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard professor, which easily could have been titled “We Are Saved”. Obviously reading a book with a conclusion so different from my own required a blog post. Pinker’s book is actually titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But before getting into it, if I’m going to keep my recent resolution to avoid the curse of knowledge, it’s necessary to give a brief summary.

If you’ve heard of the book at all, it’s probably from the standpoint of the decline of war. And most of the criticism of the book has been in that vein. Perhaps the key question on that front is whether the Long Peace, the absence of conflicts between major powers since World War II, is just a random lucky run, like a winning streak in sports, or whether it represents a new and improved era for humanity. On this point Pinker comes down on the side of it being a new era, while Taleb is of the opinion that it’s random, and as we saw in the last post, Taleb knows how easy it is to be fooled by randomness.

That’s the big headline, but the book is much broader than that. Pinker covers the decrease of violence in all forms, the general march of civilization, increases in humanitarian impulses, and the rights revolution. I said that it could easily have been titled “We Are Saved”, and in Pinker’s opinion things are not only getting better but will continue to get better. As an explanation he offers up the march of technology, reason and the values of The Enlightenment. With reason and technology taking a center stage, his view of religion is mixed to say the least. To be fair, even though he’s a self-admitted atheist, he’s not as bad as Richard Dawkins, or the late Christopher Hitchens. But the book is full of shots at religion and he has nothing but disdain for religion in its ancient form, particularly the Old Testament.  

Hopefully that’s enough of an overview get our discussion started. The book is over 800 pages and I’m obviously only going to be able to talk about a small part of it in the few thousand words available to me in a blog post. And further I’m going to use some of those words to introduce the concept of the motte and bailey argument. This idea was popularized by Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex (though not his idea originally) and I can’t really improve on his description, so I’ll just quote it.

[The motte-and-bailey was] a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Instances of this tactic abound, and if you were paying attention there were numerous examples of it during the recent election. As in when Trump starts off by saying he’s going to round up all of the illegal aliens (the bailey), but when pressed, he says he’s only going to deport the criminals (the motte). He whips up his base with the bailey, and then retreats to the motte when closely questioned.

I bring up the motte and bailey tactic because it’s woven all throughout Better Angels, and accordingly makes a good framework for my criticism of the book. With respect to numbers and data, the book is very solid. In every area he covers, he can show a clear trend of things getting less violent. Whether it’s a decrease in deaths due to warfare from prehistory to the present day, a decrease in English homicides since the 1600, or decrease in domestic violence since 1970, things have clearly been getting better. This is his motte. His bailey is to extrapolate that trend forwards in time. But when someone accuses him of that, of claiming the age of war is over, he falls back to the motte and claims that he has made no predictions about the future, he’s just assembling statistics from the past. For example:

I am sometimes asked, “How do you know there won’t be a war tomorrow (or a genocide, or an act of terrorism) that will refute your whole thesis?” The question misses the point of this book. The point is not that we have entered an Age of Aquarius in which every last earthling has been pacified forever. It is that substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them….The goal of this book is to explain the facts of the past and present, not to augur the hypotheticals of the future…The truth is, I don’t know what will happen across the entire world in the coming decades, and neither does anyone else.

As I said the motte is the unassailable part of the argument, and I think largely Pinker has succeeded in this. But even here he uses some slight of hand. As I mentioned above, we can extrapolate warfare deaths back thousands of years, with archeological data all the way back to 10,000 BC in some places. This gives a pretty clear trendline for violent deaths due to war. But it’s a trendline with big gaps in it. We have data stretching back thousands of years, but if you go back more than a few centuries that data is really sparse. What this means is that it’s hard to know if the decrease in deaths from warfare is the trend a thousand years in the making or a only a few hundred. And even if it is a thousand years in the making the sparsity of data means that we don’t know how smooth the trend is. How many giant peaks of violence are there? And how many valleys of peace?

Whether or not it was intentional, by pulling in data going back thousands of years and comparing hunter-gatherer society to modern civilizations Pinker appears to be making the case that the decrease in violence represents a trend that’s thousands of years old, which is much more impressive than if it’s just a few centuries old. And this is the first example of the bailey, the impression that decreasing violence of all types is a trend stretching thousands of years into the past and therefore likely to continue indefinitely into the future. Even though from the perspective of data we can only talk about warfare deaths and even then the data is spotty.

As I said, Better Angels is not just a book about war, Pinker wants to show that the past was more violent on nearly all measurements. In service of his thesis he moves from deaths due to war to deaths from homicides. Here he’s only able to go back to the 13th century (and I think there’s some significant assumptions involved to get back that far.) And again we see a graph that starts high and slopes downward, giving us the impression that we’re dealing with a trend that’s that’s been progressing in the same direction for a hundreds and hundreds of years. The problem once again comes from the data that’s missing. His numbers are largely from Western Europe, this gives him a particularly low endpoint since present day Western Europe is extraordinarily nonviolent by historical standards, and without saying it explicitly, Western Europe ends up as a proxy for the world at large, and by extension the endpoint to which we’re all headed. However once you’re outside of Western Europe the trend is a lot less obvious, for example the current murder rate in Venezuela is as bad as it ever was in Europe even if you go all the way back to the 13th and 14th centuries. I assume Pinker doesn’t think it will take another 700 years for Venezuela to reach the level of Sweden, but since he never mentions Venezuela it’s hard to say. Instead he selects data in a way designed to give the impression that the downward trend in violence is global, and hundreds of years in the making, when, on closer inspection it appears to be both more recent and more localized.

From homicides he moves on to domestic abuse. Once again we see a distinct downward trend, but with each new category of violence his data is restricted to a smaller and smaller time frame. For war deaths he was able to go back thousands of years, for homicides, hundreds of years, for domestic violence he’s only able to go back a few decades to the 1970’s, and nearly all of that data is from the US. A trend that’s thousands or hundreds of years old is impressive, a trend that’s only as old as I am, less so. But the way it’s structured you get the impression that everything from war deaths, to murders, to domestic violence all the way through to spanking is part of a vast arrow of progress carrying us forward to a continually brighter tomorrow.

This is Pinker in his bailey getting rich, it’s this claim of a trend stretching into the future coupled with the triumph of progress that gets people’s attention, it’s this claim that gets Slate to call the book a monumental achievement. Of course, when necessary, Pinker retreats to his motte and claims that he’s not predicting anything, but the whole appeal of the book is what it implies about the future, and the longer he can extend the arrow of progress into the past, the father it appears to extend into the future.

In tying everything together in a single arc, he does two things. First there’s the structure I already mentioned where he anchors your thinking thousands of years in the past by using archaeological data on warfare deaths and then layering the rest on top that base. And then, secondly, he fills in the missing data, particularly in the realm of domestic abuse and rights more broadly, with the use of countless anecdotes. These anecdotes are naturally compelling. As humans we love stories, and Pinker knows that, but he also knows that they’re no substitute for actual data. Still he uses them to construct something that looks like the fortified tower that is the motte, but really isn’t.

Using both of these techniques together Pinker makes it seem like the decrease in violence is a historical juggernaut whose speed is only increasing as both social and technological progress becomes more rapid. He may deny that he’s making any predictions about the future, but once the reader has an unstoppable, accelerating juggernaut in his head, it’s going to be hard for him to imagine it stopping suddenly, let alone going in reverse. I see, and agree with the same data Pinker does, I just don’t see a juggernaut, I see something far more fragile.

In service of his argument Pinker is very committed to painting the past in as violent a light as possible. The first chapter of the book is titled “A Foreign Country” as in the past is a foreign country. Well the future is a foreign country as well, and I see at least six ways in which the decrease in violence is more fragile than Pinker’s book would indicate. Even if we grant a trend in decreasing violence lasting hundreds of years, which, itself, is a shakier thesis than Pinker wants to admit.

First while Pinker offers various explanations for why violence has decreased. One that he comes back to over and over to is the Leviathan, a term coined by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 to describe an all powerful state. In Pinker’s opinion decreases in violence are directly tied to increases in state power. That in fact if you look closely at his data you’ll find that the clearest trendline for a decrease in violence isn’t the length of time which has passed, but the trend from hunter-gatherer to hunter-horticulturalist to full agriculture, with the accompanying increase at each step in the centralization and power of the state. If you have any libertarian leanings, this trend should worry you, but even if you don’t, by tying up everything into a single larger and larger entity we introduce fragility, even if it’s just through the single points of failure we create. You may agree that this is still a great deal, but is it still a great deal if the endpoint of the trend is zero murders, but a 1984 style surveillance state?

Second, and closely related to the last point, it would appear that Pinker’s juggernaut relies on the continued health and stability of the state. As I said his warfare data had a lot of gaps, even though it went back thousands of years. One of the gaps that seemed particularly noteworthy was the period after the fall of the Roman Empire. Pinker gives the impression that violence has decreased on a smooth line since the Sumerians first planted wheat in the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates. But if the Leviathan collapses, I can only assume that violence rockets back up. Pinker doesn’t touch on this point, but the biggest single point of failure in the Leviathan is the Leviathan itself. And this time around if there’s any collapse of the state we’ll get to add nukes to the mix. In other words we are only saved if the state remains healthy, and I think that at present there’s reason for a lot of concern on that count.

Third, even if the Leviathan remains healthy, the modern world in general is more fragile. Pinker can be right about everything and still have a single bioterrorist bring the entire thing down, illustrating that however peaceful we’ve become that one big difference between the future and that past is the amount of damage a single individual can do. Catastrophes caused by more powerful weapons aren’t just limited to bioterrorism, they include the potential threat of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and the grandaddy of threats, nuclear war. Pinker doesn’t spend any time on the first two, but as you might imagine he spends significant time with nuclear weapons. On this count he has some compelling arguments, but I think that he overlooks one big part of the argument. Whether this is purposeful or not I don’t know, but the part he overlooks is the enormous time horizon he’s dealing with. Perhaps it’s true that nuclear weapons won’t be used in the next 50 or the next 100, but what about the next 500? Even if we somehow get rid of them all the technology will still be around.

Fourth, even though I claim that the harvest is past and the summer is ended, I don’t claim that there was no harvest or that there was no summer. There was a harvest and there was a summer, I’m merely saying it can’t last forever, and that it won’t provide permanent salvation. If you look at Pinker’s data, and even his anecdotes, you’ll find that they mostly concern this same summer and this same harvest that I’ve talked about. The period that starts roughly with The Enlightenment and continues to the present day. Where we disagree is how long it can last. As I pointed out in my blogpost about the limits of growth, there are limits to progress, limits we may have already reached. As I said in the last post we may already be out of dragons to slay. The technological progress which has enabled the decrease in violence may be about to hit a wall. Historically the few hundred years of progress we’ve experienced is not in the general scheme of things, all that long, the only difference between this period and previous periods of relative stability is the speed of technology, a speed which is ultimately unsustainable.

Thus far I’ve been focusing on more tangible and quantifiable concerns, but for the last two points I’d like look at a couple of things that are more speculative. Thus far I’ve largely talked about the decrease in violence, but Pinker’s writing reaches out to encompass the entire arc of progress, including what he terms the rights revolution. Under this heading he includes everything from civil rights to gay rights to animal rights and unlike with the other trends, he admits that recognition of most of these rights is a relatively recent phenomenon.

As my fifth point I worry about where it all ends. When speaking of rights I agree with Pinker that there is a trend and the trend is accelerating, but we’re running out of road. We already have rights movements for everything imaginable, from animals, to transgendered individuals, to children (though not fetal rights.) What else is there? It may be too soon to tell but it appears now that the only thing left is to restrict the rights of those who’ve traditionally been privileged, a weird circular progression with strange unknowable consequences (including, possibly, the election of Trump?) It is possible to have too much of a good thing? Antibiotics were a true miracle when discovered, but using them for everything eventually makes them completely ineffective. As bacteria develop resistance. I’ve seen the same argument made about accusations of racism. Initially they were useful and very effective, but we’ve gotten to a point where the accusations have been overused. Once again it may not be a big deal, but there are a lot of times where things work until suddenly they don’t, where violence decreases until suddenly it doesn’t and I wonder if the rights revolution is an early example of that.

Finally, when I have an idea there’s one friend in particular that I always run it by. First off explaining it to him inevitably clarifies my thinking, secondly if this friend sees a hole in my argument he’s going to pounce on it, and most of my discussions with him end up more as low intensity debates. Additionally, in any discussion/debate with this friend he wants to make sure that he understands the core value(s) of the other person. Since it’s hard to have a productive debate if the two people can’t even agree on what’s important. For example a productive debate on whether incarceration rates are too high is going to prove difficult if one person’s core value is maximum liberty, and the other person’s core value is zero crime.

And this takes me to my final point. What is our core value? Pinker’s is the reduction of suffering and violence. This is laudable, and I certainly don’t fault Pinker (or anyone) if that is in fact his core value. But it’s not my core value and it probably shouldn’t be yours. To begin with, if you’re Mormon, you believe we already rejected the plan of zero sin and zero suffering. If you’re not Mormon, but you’re still Christian your core value should be to do God’s will. (A sentiment Pinker finds abhorrent.) But what if you’re an atheist like Pinker? Well then a reduction in violence may be your core value, but I can think of one that’s better. It’s the core value of my friend. His core value is “For Intelligence to Escape This Gravity Well.”

You may not initially agree that this is a better core value. But if this doesn’t happen then we’re definitely not saved. Humanity could end up perfectly peaceful and nonviolent, but if they don’t eventually leave the Earth they’re going to be wiped out anyway, even if it’s several billion years from now when the Earth can no longer support life, but it would probably be a lot sooner than that. Or perhaps you do agree that it’s probably a better core value, but you don’t think there’s any reason we can’t do both. I’m not so sure about that. The countries that are the farthest along the Better Angels path spend vast sums of money on the welfare state which is essentially a nonviolent humanitarian project, and very little on making humanity a two+ planet species. A staggeringly difficult project regardless of what Elon Musk says.

I’m glad that we live in a time of unprecedented peace, and I thoroughly enjoyed Pinker’s book. But despite this I think he falls into the trap common to most defenders of modernity: thinking that the recent summer of progress is an eternal summer and that the harvest of technology will last forever.


The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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At the moment I find myself in the middle of two books by Steven Pinker. The first, Better Angels of Our Nature, has been mentioned a couple of times in this space and I thought it a good idea to read it, if I was going to continue referencing it. I’m nearly done and I expect that next week I’ll post a summary/review/critique. The second Pinker book I’m reading is his book on writing called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. When the time comes you’ll see that my review of Better Angels of Our Nature is full of criticisms, but a criticism of Pinker’s writing will not be among them. Sense of Style is his book of writing advice, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It continues a wealth of quality advice on non-fiction writing.

One piece of advice in particular jumped out at me. Pinker cautions writers to avoid the curse of knowledge. This particular example of bad writing happens because authors are generally so immersed in the topics they write about that they assume everyone must be familiar with the same ideas, terms and abbreviations they are. You see this often in academia and among professionals like doctors and attorneys. They spend so much of their time talking about a common set of ideas and situations that they develop a professional jargon, within which  acronyms and specialized terms proliferate leading to what could almost be classified as a different language, or at a minimum a very difficult to understand dialect. This may be okay, if not ideal, when academics are talking to other academics and doctors are talking to other doctors, but it becomes problematic when you make any attempt to share those ideas with a broader audience.

Pinker illustrates the problems with jargon using the following example:

The slow and integrative nature of conscious perception is confirmed behaviorally by observations such as the “rabbit illusion” and its variants, where the way in which a stimulus is ultimately perceived is influenced by poststimulus events arising several hundreds of milliseconds after the original stimulus.

Pinker points out that the entire paragraph is hard to understand and full of jargon, but that the key problem is that the author assumes that everyone automatically knows what the “rabbit illusion” is, and perhaps within the author’s narrow field of expertise, it is common knowledge, but that’s almost certainly a very tiny community, a community to which most of his readers do not belong. Pinker himself did not belong to this community despite the fact that the quote was taken from a paper written by two neuroscientists and Pinker, himself, specializes in cognitive neuroscience as a professor at Harvard.

As an aside for those who are curious, the rabbit illusion refers to the effect produced when you have someone close their eyes and then you tap their wrist a few times, followed by their elbow and their shoulder. They will feel a series of taps running up the length of their arm, similar to a rabbit hopping. And the point of the paragraph quoted, is to point out that the body interprets a tap on the wrist differently if it’s followed by taps farther up the arm, then if it’s not.

This extended preface is all an effort to say that in the past posts I may have have fallen prey to the curse of knowledge. I may have let my own knowledge (meager and misguided though it may be) blind me to things that are not widely known to the public at large and which I tossed out without sufficient explanation. I feel like I have been particularly guilty of this when it comes to the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, thus this post will be an attempt to rectify that oversight. It is hoped that this, along with a general resolve to do better about avoiding the curse of knowledge in the future will expulcate me from future guilt. (Though apparently not of the desire to use words like “expulcate”.)

In undertaking a survey of Taleb’s thinking in the space of a few thousand words, I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but I’m optimistic that I can at least give you the 10,000 foot view of his ideas.

Conceptually Taleb’s thinking all begins with the idea of understanding randomness. His first book was titled Fooled by Randomness, because frequently what we assume is a trend, or a cause and effect relationship is actually just random noise. Perhaps the best example of this is the Narrative Fallacy, which Taleb explains as follows:

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

Upon initially hearing that explanation you may be thinking of the previous paragraph about the “rabbit illusion”. I think Taleb’s writing is easier to understand, but the paragraph is a little dense, so I’ll try and unpack it. But first, what’s interesting, is that there is connection between the “rabbit illusion” and the narrative fallacy. As I mentioned the “rabbit illusion” comes because the body connects taps on the wrist, elbow and shoulder into a narrative of movement, in this case a rabbit hopping up the arm. In the same way the narrative fallacy comes into play when we try to collect isolated events into a single story that explains everything, even if those isolated events are completely random. This is what Taleb is saying. It’s almost impossible for us to not try and pull events and facts together into a single story that explains everything. But in doing so we may think we understand something when really we don’t.

To illustrate the point I’ll borrow an example from Better Angels, since I just read it. The famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould was touring the Waitomo glowworm caves in New Zealand, and when he looked up he realized that the glowworms made the ceiling look like the night sky, except there were no constellations. Gould realized that this was because the patterns required for constellations only happened in a random distribution (which is how the stars are distributed) but that the glowworms actually weren’t randomly distributed. For reasons of biology (glowworms eat other glowworms) each worm kept a minimum distance. This leads to a distribution that looks random but actually isn’t. And yet, counterintuitively we’re able to find patterns in the randomness of the stars, but not in the less random spacing of the glowworms.

It’s important to understand this way in which our mind builds stories out of unconnected events because it leads us to assume underlying causes and trends when there aren’t any. The explanations going around about election are great examples of this. If 140,000 people had voted differently (125k in Florida and 15k in Michigan) then the current narrative would be completely different. This is, after all, the same country who elected Obama twice, and by much bigger margins. Did the country really change that much or did the narrative change in an attempt match the events of the election? Events which probably had a fair degree of randomness. Every person needs to answer that question for themselves, but I, for one, am confident that the country hasn’t actually moved that much, but how we explain the country and it’s citizens has moved by a lot.

This is why understanding the narrative fallacy is so important. Without that understanding it’s easy to get caught up in the story we’ve constructed and believe that you understand something about the world, or even worse that based on that understanding that you can predict the future. As a final example, I offer up the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of at least 100,000 people (and probably a lot more). And all because of the narrative: Islamic bad-guys caused 9/11, Sadaam is only vaguely Islamic, but definitely a bad guy. Get him! (This is by no means the worst example of deaths caused by the narrative fallacy, see my discussion of the Great Leap Forward.)

Does all of this mean that the world is simply random and any attempts to understand it are futile? No, but it does mean that it’s more important to understand what can happen than to attempt to predict what will happen. And this takes us to the next concept I want to discuss, the difference between the worlds of Mediocristan and Extremistan.

Let’s start with Mediocristan. Mediocristan is the world of natural processes. It includes things like height and weight, intelligence, how much someone can lift, how fast they can run etc. If you’ve ever seen the graph of a bell curve this is a good description of what to expect in Mediocristan. You should expect most things to cluster around the middle, or the top of the bell curve, and expect very few things to be on the tail ends of the bell curve. In particular you don’t expect to see anything way off to the right or left of the curve. To put it in numbers for anything in Mediocristan 68% will be one standard deviation from the average, 95% will be within two standard deviations and 99.6% will be within three standard deviations. For a concrete example of this let’s look at the height of US Males.

68% of males will be between 5’6” and 6” tall (I’m rounding a little). 95% of males will be between 5’3” and 6’3” and only one in a 1.7 million males will be over 7’ or under 4’7”. Some of you may be nodding your heads and some of you may be bored, but it’s important that you understand how the world of Mediocristan works. The key points are the average, and the median are very similar. That is that if you took a classroom full of students and lined them up by height the person standing in the middle of the line would be very close to the average height. The second key point is that there are no extremes, there are no men who are 10 feet tall or 16 inches tall. This is medicrostan. And when I said it’s more important to understand what can happen, than attempting to predict what will happen, in Mediocristan lots of extreme events can not happen. You’ll never see a 50 foot tall woman, and the vast majority of men you meet will be between 5’3” and 6’3”.

If the whole world was Mediocristan, then things would be fairly straightforward, but there is another world in which we live. It takes up the same space and involves the same people as the first world, but the rules are vastly different. This is Extremistan. And Extremistan is primarily the world of man-made systems. A good example is wealth. The average person is 5’4”, the tallest person ever was 8’11” tall. But the average person in the world has a net worth of $26,202 while the richest person in the world (Currently Bill Gates) has a net worth of $75 billion which is 2.8 million times the worth of the average person. Imagine that the tallest person in the world was actually 2,800 miles tall, and you get a sense of the difference between Mediocristan and Extremistan.

The immediate consequence of this disparity is that the exact opposite opposite rules apply in Extremistan as what applies in Mediocristan. The average and the median are not the same. And some examples will be very much on the extreme. In particular you start to understand that in a world with this sorts of extremes in what can happen it becomes very difficult to predict what will happen.

Additionally Extremistan is the world of black swans, which is the next concept I want to cover and the title of Taleb’s second book. Once again this is a term you might be familiar with, but it’s important to understand that they form a key component in understanding what can happen in Extremistan.

In short a Black Swan is something that:

  1. Lies outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. Has an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterword to show how it should have been expected.

You’ll notice that two of those points are about the prediction of black swans. The first point being that they can’t be predicted and the third point being that people will retroactively attempt to show that it should have been possible to predict it. One of the key points I try and make in this blog is that you can’t predict the future. This is terrifying for people and that’s why point 3 is so interesting. Everyone wants to think that they could have predicted the black swan, and that having seen it once they won’t miss it again, but in fact that’s not true, they will still end up being surprised the next time around.

But if we live in Extremistan, which is full of unpredictable black swans what do we do? Knowing what the world is capable of is one thing, but unless we can take some steps to mitigate these black swans what’s the point?

And here we arrive at the last idea I want to cover and the underlying idea behind Taleb’s final book, Antifragility. As I mentioned the concept of Antifragility is important enough that you should probably just read the book, in fact you should probably read all of Taleb’s books. But for the moment we’ll assume that you haven’t (and if you have you why have you even gotten this far?)

Antifragility is how you deal with black swans and how you live in Extremistan. It’s also your lifestyle if you’re not fooled by randomness. This is why Taleb considered Antifragile his mangum opus because it pulls in all of the ideas from his previous books and puts them into a single framework. That’s great, you may be saying, but you’re unclear on what antifragility is.

At it’s core antifragility is straightforward. To be antifragile is to get stronger in response to stress. (Up to a point.) The problem is when people hear that idea it sounds magical, if not impossible. They imagine cars that get stronger the more accidents they’re in or software that becomes more secure when someone attempts to hack it, or a government that gets more stable with every attempt to overthrow it. While none of this is impossible, I agree, that when stated this way the idea of antifragility seems a little bit magical.

If instead you explain antifragility in terms of muscles, which get stronger the more you stress them, then people find it easier to understand, but at the same time they will have a hard time expanding it beyond natural systems. Having established that Extremistan and black swans are mostly present in artificial systems antifragility is not going to be any good if you can’t extend it into that domain. In other words if you explain antifragility to people in isolation their general response will be to call it a nice idea, but they may have difficulty understanding the real world utility of the idea, and it’s possible that my previous discussions on the topic have left you in just this situation. Which is why I felt compelled to write this post.

Hopefully by covering Taleb’s ideas in something of a chronological order the idea of antifragility will be easier to understand. And it comes by flipping much of conventional wisdom on it’s head. Rather than being fooled by randomness, if you’re antifragile you expect randomness. Rather than being surprised by black swans, you prepare for them, knowing that there are both positive and negative black swans. Armed with this knowledge you lessen your exposure to negative black swans while increasing your exposure to positive black swans. All of this allows you to live comfortably in Extremistan.

If this starts to look like we’ve wandered into the realm of magical thinking again, I don’t blame you, but at it’s essence being antifragile is straightforward, for our purposes antifragility is about making sure you have unlimited upside, and limited downside. Does this mean that something which is fragile has limited upside and unlimited downside? Pretty much, and you may wonder if we’re talking about man-made systems why would anyone make something fragile. This is an excellent question. And the answer is that it all depends on the order in which things happen. In artificial systems fragility is marked by the practice of taking short term, limited profits, but having the chance of catastrophic losses. On the opposite side antifragility is marked by incurring short term limited costs, but having the chance of stratospheric profits. Fragility assumes the world is not random, assumes there are no black swans and ekes out small profits in the space between extreme events. (If this sounds like the banking system then you’re starting to get the idea.) Antifragility assumes the world is random and that black swans are on the horizon and pays small manageable costs to protect itself from those black swans (or gain access to them if they’re positive).

In case it’s still unclear here are some examples:

Insurance: If you’re fragile, you save the money you would have spent on insurance every month, a small limited profit, but risk the enormous cost of a black swan in the form of a car crash or a home fire. If you’re antifragile you pay the cost of insurance every month, a small limited cost, but avoid the enormous expense of the negative black swan, should it ever happen.

Investing: If you put away a small amount of money every month you gain access to a system with potential black swans. Trading a small, limited cost for the potential of a big payout. If you don’t invest, you get that money, a small limited profit, but miss out on any big payouts.

Government Debt: By running a deficit governments get the limited advantage of being able to spend more than they take in. But in doing so they create a potentially huge black swan, should an extreme event happen.

Religion: By following religious commandments you have to put up with the cost of not enjoying alcohol, or fornication, or Sunday morning, but in return you avoid the negative black swans of alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies, and not having a community of friends when times get tough. If you don’t follow the commandments you get your Sunday mornings, and I hear whiskey is pretty cool, but you open yourself up to all of the negative swans mentioned above. And of course I haven’t even brought in the idea of an eternal reward (see Pascal’s Wager.)

Hopefully we’ve finally reached the point where you can see why Taleb’s ideas are so integral to the concept of this blog.

The modern world is top heavy with fragility, and the story of progress is the story of taking small limited profits while ignoring potential catastrophes. In contrast, Antifragility requires sacrifice, it requires cost, it requires dedication and effort. And, as I have said again and again in this space, I fear that all of those are currently in short supply


Infrastructure, Trump and the Hoover Dam

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In 1912, over the course of 11 months, the Anderson Memorial Bridge was built over the Charles River in Boston, connecting Boston with Harvard Square. 100 years later, in 2012, the government decided to repair the bridge. Those repairs have so far taken four and a half years and cost $26.5 million at last count, and that is not a final tally, they are still working on the bridge. In other words, repairing this 232 foot long bridge has taken at least five times as long as building it in the first place, and while I couldn’t find the original cost, I’m confident it’s also costing more as well (even if you adjust for inflation). This is not an isolated example. You don’t even have to leave the city of Boston to encounter another legendary example of cost and time overruns, the Big Dig, which took twice as long and was three times as expensive as originally planned. Is Boston just bad at infrastructure, or is this a problem the entire nation is grappling with? There’s certainly reason to to believe that it’s a nationwide problem, not just something unique to New England. On top of that there’s evidence that our infrastructure costs much more than similar infrastructure in similar countries.

But I’m jumping ahead, there is actually another question we should be asking first. You may be wondering what that question is. But more likely you’re wondering why we’re talking about infrastructure at all. Well, sometimes we have to put on our big boy pants and talk about stuff that, while mundane, is actually super important. We can’t spend every blog post talking about cool stuff like nuclear apocalypse, or artificial intelligence. Sometimes we have to look at the boring stuff. Though I’ll do what I can to make it less boring.

But back to the questions. Before we ask whether we’re any good at building infrastructure these days, we should be asking how bad our current infrastructure is. If our current infrastructure is fine, and we don’t need to build much in the way of new infrastructure, and the need for repair is infrequent, then it may not matter how good we are at building and repairing infrastructure. But of course this is a trick question. All right thinking people believe that our infrastructure is horrible and we should spend lots of money on it. In fact, despite not agreeing on nearly anything else, both Trump and Clinton (not to mention Sanders and Rubio) had plans to rehabilitate the American infrastructure. Of course Trump won, so whatever infrastructure improvements that actually happen will be carried out along the Trump model, which has some interesting quirks, but before we get into that, it might be useful to look at how bad the infrastructure really is.

One of the most commonly cited measurements for the quality of our infrastructure is the Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. For some reason the last report is for 2013, but in it the US got a D+. This sounds pretty bad, though to be fair that’s up from the last report which gave the US a D. There’s also the question of what that D+ really means, if it gets down to an F does the country’s infrastructure spontaneously collapse into rubble and dust? I hope not.

The story of how the infrastructure got to this point is one of those fascinating tales where a lot of factors ended up working in combination. I can’t possible cover all the factors, but there are a few that I find particularly interesting.

To begin with, general infrastructure, and in particular infrastructure maintenance, is one of those things that lends itself to being put off. If you’re looking to cut your budget as a municipality or a state then infrastructure maintenance is an easy place to cut. For one, there’s very little immediate impact. As I joked about above there’s not some point where roads start spontaneously disintegrating, though presumably if you go long enough you might have a bridge which spontaneously collapses. (Though thankfully that’s pretty rare.)

It’s not hard to imagine how constantly putting off or lowering the priority of maintenance could lead to poor infrastructure, but it’s also useful to place it into the larger category of things which increase fragility. Fragility being a major interest of this blog. As I have already pointed out in previous posts, fragility comes from taking small, limited profits. In this case the savings you realize from forgoing annual maintenance. The problem is that forgoing or shortchanging annual maintenance, creates the risk that you’re going to end up with a large unbounded loss. In this case a bridge collapse. Further complicating things, maintenance does not have a large built in political base pushing for more spending. Of course that all changes when something catastrophic actually happens. At that point there will be a huge outcry, but it will be too late. The damage has already been done, and most of the people responsible for shortchanging maintenance will have already retired.

Another thing to consider is the fact that most infrastructure is hidden. When you say the word infrastructure, most people think of roads, but that’s only one of the 16 categories the American Society of Civil Engineers tracks. The other 15 categories consist of areas like ports, levees and dams which the average person has very little opportunity to stress test on a day to day basis, unlike roads. One category which is a particularly good example of this is water. We all expect water to come out when we turn the tap, but some water mains are over 100 years old, and I’m sure we all know someone who has a story of a water main breaking at the worst possible time, for example on Thanksgiving. (I know someone who claims this has happened to him twice.) But even in a situation like that, most people are too busy cursing to think about governmental underinvestment in infrastructure.

It takes something like the crisis in Flint Michigan to make people realize how bad the problem is. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of Flint, but to briefly review, Flint switched its water supply, and in the process failed to realize the need to add corrosion inhibitors to the new supply. Without that lead leached into the water leading to the exposure of thousands of people (at least 6000 of them children) to extremely elevated levels of lead. It may have also lead to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease which killed 10 people. In other words it was bad, and there’s plenty of blame to go around, but for our purposes I want to draw attention to the role played in the disaster by 100 year old lead pipes. No lead pipes, no lead exposure. Flint had 100 years to fix this problem and they didn’t. But of course this is a problem that no one fixes. It is not unique to Flint. In fact there are vast numbers of 100 year old lead water mains spread out all over the country.

Of course it’s not just water mains that are old, lots of our infrastructure is showing it’s age. The real infrastructure boom in the US was after World War II, which means that many of the bridges and roads and schools and power lines were built 50-60 years ago. Of course just because something was built 50-60 years ago doesn’t mean anything by itself. To take an extreme example the Pyramids were built 4500 years ago and they’re still standing. But this is where we come across one of the more fascinating stories in this whole saga. The story of reinforced concrete. It’s an interesting sidenote to the entire infrastructure crisis. And if you’ll forgive me this slight diversion, I think it’s worth delving into.

Concrete, by itself, holds up pretty well, the Roman Pantheon is made out of concrete and it’s still around after 1,900 years, so why should we be having problems with our current reinforced concrete after only 50 or 60? Well, perhaps ironically, it’s the reinforcement that’s the problem. Reinforced concrete is reinforced by steel. Steel is mostly iron. Iron rusts. Thus you have a situation where buried in every reinforced concrete structure is a slowly ticking time bomb. And it can blow up in a couple of different ways. It’s easy to see how a structure designed around new steel will bear less weight once some of that steel has been eaten away by rust. But the rust also causes the reinforcement to expand (by up to four times) which breaks away concrete, weakening the structure and letting in more water. Yet another hidden weakness in our infrastructure, and one that’s particularly hard to repair.

You may be getting a pretty good sense of why the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a D+ on infrastructure, but beyond saying things are bad it’s hard to know what to do with a D+ grade, obviously it’s subjective to a certain extent. Fortunately in addition to the letter grade they provided a dollar figure which is hopefully more concrete (get it? Concrete… Infrastructure?). The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the estimate that $3.6 trillion needs to be spent before 2020. To give you a sense of scale the entire federal budget for 2015 was $3.8 trillion. So if we could just have one year where we suspend all Social Security payments, temporarily lay-off the entire military, avoid paying interest on any bonds and route all that money to infrastructure we’ll be okay. But if we don’t? Again this is the part that I’m unclear on, but maybe running some numbers will clear things up.

I mentioned the federal budget, but, of course, much if not most of infrastructure spending takes place at the state and local level. If we add in their budgets we get a figure of somewhere in the $6.6 trillion dollar range for annual spending. So it’s not quite as bad, but if we take the $3.6 trillion recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013 and divide it up over seven years (2014-2020) we get just slightly more than $500 billion per year. This is about 8% of all government spending for a given year, or to put it in different terms it’s about what the Federal Government spends on the military every year. So it’s a lot of money.

The next step in the analysis would be to look at what we actually are spending. If we need to be spending $500, how big is the shortfall? As best I can tell we’re spending somewhat north of $400 billion once state and local spending are included. Which means we’re missing the American Society of Civil Engineers target by about $100 billion per year.

Hmm… I started this section by wondering if running some numbers would clear things up, and I’m not sure that they have. I can see several different arguments. One might argue that a 20% shortfall is not that big of a deal, and our infrastructure is probably mostly fine. It should be mentioned, since I haven’t already that the American Society of Civil Engineers is not necessarily a neutral third party. They definitely have a stake infrastructure spending. In other words it’s not inconceivable that the $3.6 trillion I started with is inflated.

On the other hand I can see making an argument that the $400 billion we are spending puts out all the short term fires and buys enough infrastructure to keep things from completely collapsing, but it’s the extra $100 billion which would help you get out in front of things. An example of this argument might be the LA freeway system, which by all accounts is constantly under construction and constantly expanding, but you never hear someone say that after this last bit of construction that everything moves smoothly. It’s a constant traffic jam and all the new construction ends up being just enough to keep the entire system from collapsing into a parking lot.

At this point I’ve spent so long talking about how bad the infrastructure is that you’ve probably forgotten the original question: Are we any good at it? But if we accept that the US infrastructure is in bad shape, then the next, obvious question is what should be done about it, and if the answer is, as Trump, and all right thinking people agree, throw a lot of money at it, it’s useful to ask how effective that will be. Interestingly Obama was in a similar position when he was elected in 2008. Before he even entered office he had proposed an $800 billion stimulus package targeted at “shovel ready” projects. In other words, when Trump proposes a big round of infrastructure spending, it’s important to remember that we’ve already been in this position and it might be instructive to look at how it turned out the last time it was tried.

After being elected Obama had no problem getting the stimulus package passed, and it was signed into law in February, shortly after his inauguration. Only after it was passed was it discovered that “shovel ready” was something of an exaggeration, a point that Obama himself admitted later in his first term. So the first lesson we should take from this is that just dumping a bunch of money into infrastructure and getting immediate results is harder than it looks.

Another takeaway from the 2009 stimulus is how underwhelming it was. As I’ve said $800 billion was spent (and to be fair, if you look at the bill it was spread out all over the place) and yet what great infrastructure projects can we point to as a result of this $800 billion? In the past spending on infrastructure got us stuff like the Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system, the Erie Canal, the Three Gorges Dam (no, wait that’s China). But what did we get out of the 2009 stimulus? Or perhaps more appropriately what should we have expected to get? I mentioned the interstate highway system as an example of impressive infrastructure from the past. It had a total cost of $119 billion dollars. This was the finally tally in 1996, so I would assume that those are 1996 dollars (which would be $183 billion today) but it’s possible that since the interstate system took decades to build that those are not all 1996 dollars. Regardless it’s clear that the 2009 stimulus should have been able to build something equivalent to the interstate highway system perhaps several times over. Unless I’m overlooking something massive, I presume that it did not do that. I also mentioned the Hoover Dam, which cost $49 million at the time, and $700 million in today’s dollars. As I mentioned above the 2009 stimulus was spread out over a lot of different areas. But it was the equivalent of well over 1,000 Hoover Dams. I assume that as part of Obama’s stimulus we could have squeezed out at least one project of a similar scope, but yet, I’ve seen no evidence of anything which fits the bill.

Again, I ask the question, are we any good at building infrastructure? I think the answer is we aren’t, though perhaps we used to be. Does this mean Trump’s proposals are doomed? Well perhaps not doomed, but I can guarantee that it’s going to be harder and have less eventual payoff than any of the proponents of the plan think.

And here at last we tie this whole subject into the theme of the blog. Is it possible that it’s not just something wrong with infrastructure, but something wrong with us? Have we lost the ability do really impressive things? Is this evidence of a civilization in decline? For the answer to that I’ll turn to a concept I haven’t mentioned since my very first post: catabolic collapse.

Lots of people imagine that there will be some dramatic event which will cause the complete collapse of civilization. Before the event, normality, after the event and in an instant, a cannibal wasteland where only your stockpile of guns and ammo stands between you and a giant stewpot. Other people imagine that things will go on pretty much as they are, only possibly better. My position is that neither of those is very likely, though both are possible. A full scale nuclear exchange could still result in the former, or, on the other hand, maybe we have reached the End of History and things are just going to get better from here on out. My position is that over the next several decades will experience something in between.

As I said the term for this is catabolic collapse. It uses metabolism as an analogy. There are two types of metabolism, anabolic and catabolic. As something of an oversimplification, in an anabolic state you’re building reserves and muscles, in a catabolic state the reverse is happening, you’re spending your reserves and breaking down muscle mass to use it as energy. Applied to infrastructure the analogy is that when we’re in an anabolic state we’re building new infrastructure, but in a catabolic state we have to consume some infrastructure (or more accurately stop maintaining it) to support the critical infrastructure. Just as in a famine your body might consume muscle mass to keep your heart working.

This is all straightforward enough, but how does a society go from an anabolic state to a catabolic state? Imagine that a society has a certain level of productivity. A large chunk of this productivity has to go into maintaining what we already have. It’s easy to see this process at work if you look at the federal budget. In any breakdown of the federal budget you’ll see a giant category labeled mandatory spending. This is money we’ve dedicated to fulfilling promises which have already been made, and to maintaining the status quo. Of course even when we look at the, somewhat inaccurately named, discretionary spending, there’s not a huge amount of wiggle room there either. No one’s just going to decide to one day eliminate the Navy. Which means that as far as new stuff goes we either have to go deeper into debt or raise taxes. Our resources do have a limit and the maintenance budget just keeps growing. Reduced to the level of infrastructure it’s very similar. We have a certain amount of resources to dedicate to infrastructure and a big chunk of that goes to maintaining what we already have and if there’s anything left over we can build new infrastructure. So far so good, but what if the resources available for infrastructure aren’t even sufficient to maintain what we already have? If that happens we enter a catabolic state. And unless the resource limitation is temporary we start down the road to catabolic collapse.

One of the problems with detecting this and doing something about it is that it can sneak up on you. For example, just because you’re building new infrastructure doesn’t mean that catabolic collapse hasn’t started. As I already mentioned, new stuff can be built at the expense of maintaining the old stuff, until of course the old stuff breaks and then you’re faced with having to conduct costly repairs and find money for new stuff as well. It’s only when that pinch occurs that catabolic collapse really becomes apparent, and even then you can expect a lot of denial.

Are we in catabolic collapse? Are the resources available for infrastructure less than the cost of maintaining what we already have? For the answer to that question it’s important to know what we mean by maintenance. And for this I’d like to turn to the story I started with. The story of the Anderson Memorial Bridge. That bridge repair has taken so long and been so costly in large part due to our expanded definition of maintenance, an expanded definition that brings on expanded costs. This expanded definition includes ordering special bricks to preserve the historical character of the bridge, additional permits, the bureaucracy, safety requirements, etc. etc. All of which didn’t exist when the bridge was first built in 1912. And the trend is to add even more “maintenance” of this type in the years to come. Is all this indicative of a robust and growing nation or more indicative of a nation whose best days are behind it? In other words, when all is said and done we’d all like to put on more muscle, but when you’re old and tired sometimes it’s just easier to sit in your recliner and yell at the TV.


The Change Hurricane: Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East German’s in 1988?

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Every so often in history everything changes, and people can find themselves in situations which seemed unthinkable just a few years or even a few months beforehand. Examples of this include the Sack of Baghdad (which I’ve already talked about), Poland during World War II, the Taiping Rebellion, the fall of the Aztecs and of course the recent Syrian Civil War. In all of these cases there was definitely a certain degree of surprise attached, which is not to say that these catastrophes came out of nowhere, or even that no one could have predicted them, just that they generally happened more quickly than expected and when they did happen the consequences were much worse than generally anticipated.

As we look back at these catastrophes they are all strong arguments in favor of preparing for the worst. Of course preparing for the worst is costly, but these are all situations where even large costs would have been worth it if you could be sure of avoiding the one big catastrophe. As just one example if you were a Jew in Poland in 1937, however inconvenient it might have been to take your family to America, it would have been way better than any outcome which involved staying in Poland. Yes you may not have spoken the language. Yes immigration would have been costly and difficult. Yes, you may have left friends and family and your home, but anything is better than what did happen.

Some people will argue that while all of this is obvious in hindsight, could you really expect the Polish Jews to realize all of that was coming in 1937? And this is an excellent point. To put it in more recent terms, no one imagined in January of 2011 that the Syrian Civil War would still be going on in November of 2016, that Assad would still be in power (and likely to remain in power) and that 400,000 people would have died. But in the same vein of things being clear only in hindsight, once things have happened it’s too late to do anything about them. Obviously the ideal solution is to see things before they happen, but that’s impossible. Or is it?

It is impossible to be sure about anything that hasn’t happened. Our hypothetical Jew could have fled Poland in 1937 only to have Hitler assassinated in November of 1939 by Johann Georg Elser, perhaps leading to a situation where death camps never happened. In other words it could have very easily ended up being a bad idea to make huge sacrifices in order to flee Poland. To use an actual example you could have crafted a daring plan to escape from East Berlin to West Berlin in May of 1989, risking death, when all you had to do was wait six months.

This is the question we’re faced with. Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East Germans in 1988? And that’s nearly impossible to know, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to which way the wind is blowing and whether it’s a gentle breeze or hurricane force winds. Lately it appears that it might be the latter and that it might be blowing in the wrong direction.

As I said in my last episode, I’m at least as worried about the reaction to the election of Trump as I am about the actual election. But it’s not just the US where winds seem to be blowing in a worrisome direction and with powerful force. I’m seeing things all over the world that are worrisome and potentially catastrophic. Here’s a quick sample of some areas of concern from around the world:

1- NATO could be disintegrating: First there’s the election of Trump, but on top of that we have the top two candidates in the upcoming French Election both favoring closer ties to Russia, with even the establishment candidate saying “Russia poses no threat to the west.” As I have argued in the past Russia views NATO expansion as a major threat and a major betrayal, there’s no easier way to get on their good side than pulling back from that expansion and no quicker way to get on their bad side than seeking to continue NATO expansion.

2- Italy might be on the verge of collapse. You may or may not have heard about the huge vote recently in Italy, regarding some constitutional reforms. The leader of Italy, Matteo Renzi, said that the reforms were necessary to bring stability to Italy and he consequently resigned when they were not passed. Having a change of governments in Italy is nothing newsworthy, but Italy is in a serious financial crisis and Italian bonds represent the third largest bond market in the world. Italy may be facing a financial Armageddon regardless of what happens.

3- Turkey is getting progressively more autocratic. Turkey is still a democracy, and they still hold elections (also there’s the occasional coup) but those elections are becoming increasingly pointless. Recep Erdogan has a pretty good chokehold on things and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Also as Turkey becomes more autocratic, the ideological split between them and Europe widens. As an example the EU Parliament recently voted to end talks on Turkey’s membership in the EU. Turkey is still part of NATO, but on that issue I refer you back to point number 1.

4- The Middle East and North Africa are still a mess. We’ve already talked about the Syrian Civil War, and of course there’s ISIS. The good news is that ISIS appears to be near defeat, the bad news is that no one knows what happens once the various players in the region no longer have a common enemy. Also, like most people you may have forgotten about Libya, or if you haven’t you may have heard that a peace deal was signed. Well whatever the effects of that deal there’s still a vast civil war taking place, with Obama saying that not being prepared for a post Gaddafi Libya was the biggest mistake of his presidency.

5- Venezuela is suffering from hyperinflation and economic collapse. Of course the economic problems are the result of a huge power struggle between President Nicolás Maduro and his opponents, but just because there’s an explanation doesn’t mean that there’s an easy to fix. And as a side effect of this Venezuela has the highest per capita murder rate in the world.

As it stands, individually, none of these five items seems like that big of a deal or that catastrophic. Just the normal rumblings of the world. But each of them could grow into something huge. Going back through the list:

The end of NATO would mean the end of American hegemony. It has to end eventually, and better it end with a whimper than a bang, but the world that comes after it ends could be very different.

Events in Italy could mean the end of the EU, which is already looking shaky after Brexit. Also we’ve see how financial contagion spreads. The failure of Italian banks or bonds could mean another global financial crisis.

Turkey is the traditional foe of Russia. If both are resurgent and NATO goes away, do hostilities start again? How soon before Turkey and Erdogen decide that they need nukes?

The Middle East and North Africa have never been poster childs for stability, but now the chaos is beginning to spread. Refugees from these two areas are one of the major driving factors behind the EU crisis and a contributing factor to what’s happening in Italy. Syria seems bad enough already but it could get worse.

Venezuela is on it’s way to becoming a failed state. Does having a failed state to our south look the same as Europe having failed states to the south of them? It seems like, best case scenario, we end up in a situation similar to Argentina under Pinochet, and as someone who spent the latter half of the 80’s in high school debate, I can vouch for how much hand-wringing he caused.

But perhaps you remain unconvinced. So I will turn to something which does involve potential global catastrophe, nukes, war, China and shamans… I’m speaking of course about North and South Korea.

We all know that North Korea has nukes, but since the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011, the rate of advancement North Korea has shown both with nuclear weapons and missiles, has been, well, impressive. Just this year they’ve done two nuclear tests and 21 missile tests. There has always been an appalling lack of any concrete options with respect to North Korea, but as their technology gets better all the former bad options just keep getting worse.

When North Korea had just one nuke they mostly used it for leverage to acquire food aid, and as one more deterrent against invasion. Now that they have several nukes and increasingly advanced delivery systems what will they do? I think people kind of assume that things would continue as before, there would be a lot of bluster. Minor cross border incidents involving fatalities, a general despair, but nothing big would happen. But increasingly the winds of change in that region appear to be blowing more strongly. A sense of urgency is growing, and a consensus developing that North Korea is planning to use its weapons to dictate events on the peninsula. Perhaps demanding that the Americans leave.

I’ve talked before, at some length, about how nukes are qualitatively different than any previous weapon. And this illustrates the point. Imagine that North Korea got to the point where they could hit the west coast with an nuke. (Some estimates put this at only five years away.) And they threaten to nuke San Francisco unless we  remove all our forces from the Korean Peninsula. What are our options? We might hope that China would cut off trade, but it’s not like the North Koreans aren’t used to sanctions and hardship. In other words I’m sure there would be all sorts of diplomatic reactions, but there’s a good chance they wouldn’t work. So we’re looking at the threat of a nuke hitting San Francisco, and we’re out of diplomatic options. Now what?

Obviously it would be great if we could shoot the missile down, but as I mentioned in the previous episode on nukes, that’s actually difficult. A lot would depend on whether we had the right ships in place to shoot the missile down when it was launched. But let’s say, optimistically, that we have an 80% chance of shooting it down. Are we willing refuse their demands and accept a 20% chance of SF getting nuked? If we’re not willing to do that (and I suspect we wouldn’t be) what other options do we have? We could, of course, always invade, but that just changes the SF missile from a possibility to a certainty. And adds enormous war deaths on top of it.

In addition to the increased external tension between South and North Korea. South Korea is dealing with a major political crisis of its own. It’s current president Park Geun-hye has an approval rating among 19-39 year olds of 0%. Yes, you read that right, the number of people under 40 who like her is statistically undetectable. This is where the shamans come in. The reason for her unpopularity is that she has engaged in frequent consultation with an old friend who is the leader of a shamanistic cult. (In a fashion similar to Nancy Reagan.) Just the consultation might be a storm that could be weathered, but the president also funneled money to her friend.

Does the weakness and unpopularity of the South Korean president make the North Korean situation worse? That’s hard to say for sure, but it certainly doesn’t make it any better. And it seems safe to assume that for people living in South Korea things must seem pretty chaotic. Thus just like the Polish Jew in 1937 and the East German in 1988. The South Korean of 2016 is faced with a choice. They can do nothing and take their chances. Or they can spend time and money trying to mitigate the downsides of various potential catastrophes. In the latter case they’re still taking their chances they’re just trying to lower the odds of something truly bad happening.

It’s always possible that the North Korean government will collapse (though this isn’t necessarily great for South Korea either) or that some other, positive black swan will emerge, and the 2016 South Korean will be in the situation of the 1988 East German. But it’s also possible that the 2016 South Korean will be much closer in circumstances to the 1937 Polish Jew. As I said you can’t know for sure. And it’s always a balancing act between the admittedly high probability that things will be okay which makes preparing for the worst just wasted time and money, or, on the other hand, the small possibility that things will be awful, and you’ll be grateful for every bit of preparation and upset that you didn’t do more.

One of the reasons I’m recording this episode and indeed one of the reasons for having this podcast in general is that people have a tendency to underestimate the chances of something bad happening. So if you’re on the fence about which course to choose I think you should choose to be prepared. But perhaps even more important I think you need to be aware of the political weather. If you’re a 1937 Polish Jew and you’re not paying attention to Hitler then of course you’re going to make the wrong choice. On the other hand for those East Germans preparing to escape in 1988 Gorbachev had been in power since 1985, so for them the wind was blowing the opposite direction and they just had to wait.

The title of the episode is The Change Hurricane, and thus far all I’ve talked about is some local storms which, while scary, and possibly globally significant (I can only imagine what would happen if North Korea nuked San Francisco) are still fairly local. If we’re talking about hurricane’s one would expect something bigger than just a spat between the two Koreas which has been going on since 1948. I am of the opinion that things are bigger than just the isolated incidents I mentioned above, but this is also where things get more speculative. Also it’s time for another list.

Outside of the storms I’ve mentioned here are some of the longer term weather patterns which I think are blowing in the wrong direction:

1- Declining American Power: We’ve already talked about the end of the American hegemony and as I mentioned it has to end eventually, and when it does I doubt we’re going to transition to another unipolar world, or even a bipolar world. I think there will be lots of countries trying to fill the gap. Certainly China and Russia, but also Turkey, Iran, India and Brazil are all going to want a piece of the pie. And that could play out in interesting and potentially violent ways.

2- Nuclear proliferation: Closely related to the last point. There are a lot of countries who could currently make a nuclear weapon, but have chosen not to because they consider themselves to be under the US nuclear umbrella. Turkey and Japan would certainly fall into this category. Does a declining America and a belligerent Russia and China set off a new round of proliferation? If it does the chances of weapons being used goes way up.

3- Immigration: This is a hot button issue with lots of emotion on both sides, and by classifying it as a negative trend you may feel that I’m already choosing a side, and perhaps I am, But in a sense this is a secondary effect. If things get worse because of wars or famine or global warming, then the number of people willing to risk nearly anything to get to a better country (similar to our 1937 Polish Jew) is going to go way up. And insofar as I am taking a side I think that there is a limit to the rate at which immigrants can be assimilated, and when this limit is exceeded, things can start changing in unexpected ways, as we’re seeing in Europe.

4- Debt: The modern, developed nation state, is able to accumulate debt in amounts never before imagined. I see that as a huge source of fragility. Perhaps it is or perhaps it isn’t, but we could be getting an example of how bad it can be if Italy runs into problems with its bonds. One early indication that makes me worry about Trump is it looks like he might explode the deficit.

5- Social Unrest: I think by historical standards the level of social unrest is still pretty low. But, as a consequence our tolerance for it is not that high either. What happens if Trump is as bad as his worst critics fear, and we have riots every night in most major cities? I can’t even begin to predict what that looks like, but I think, at a minimum, It’s safe to say that the anti-cop/pro-cop division would become much more pronounced.

6- Environmental concerns: I already mentioned this to a certain extent under immigration, but for many people the trend that worries them the most is global warming. One of the chief arguments is that this makes things worse in places where it’s already pretty bad, like Sub-Saharan Africa. But also if the sea level rises by six meters that’s not good either. I think this is more slow moving than the rest, but it could also be the hardest to do anything about.

This entire episode could be written off as nothing more than fear-mongering. We’re probably not the 1937 Polish Jews and I assume most of my readers aren’t even 2016 South Koreans. We could in fact all be like the 1988 East Germans and we’re only a short time away from the dawning of a new age where we never have to worry about another Hitler, or Nuclear Proliferation or Global Warming, and any preparation you do now is just a waste of time. As they say, anything is possible, but that particular scenario seems unlikely, and not just because we’ve completely neglected to mention things like natural disasters. At least with Korea and Syria we have some control.

In other words.Bad things happen, and most people are surprised by them. But you don’t have to be. If you see which way the wind is blowing you can take steps to lower your risk. And it’s possible that those steps will be a waste of time and money, but it’s also possible that in 2019 when President Trump defaults on the debt, and panic grips the world, that you’ll be glad you spent some time preparing for the worst.


Is This Election Different?

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When I started this blog I mentioned politics as one possible subject, but lately it seems to be the dominant subject. With the election of Trump perhaps that’s unavoidable. I have already said that I don’t know if everything will be okay, though I pointed at some early indications and structural factors which I thought looked encouraging. That was a couple of weeks ago, and you wouldn’t think that I’d already be changing my mind, but I am. In fact, I’m starting to get the feeling that everything won’t be okay.

First I should emphasis that this feeling is very nascent. Just a hint that things may be developing in a way I didn’t expect. Which ironically is exactly what you should expect. As I repeatedly emphasis you can’t predict the future, so, to resort to a cliche, you should expect the unexpected. Part of the reason why these developments are unexpected is that they arrive from an unexpected source. Allow me to explain. I, along with most people in America, expect to be surprised by Trump, but the feeling I’m describing has very little to do with Trump’s actions. So far he’s acting about as I figured. He’s appears to still be running his own Twitter account and making remarks that probably strike a majority of people as not being very presidential. He’s put forth some divisive figures for high level appointments (Bannon and Sessions being chief among them). Most of what he talked about on the campaign trail is still out there, though some of it has been softened, at least a little bit. In other words I see no reason, yet, to modify the assessment I made of Trump in my election post. Trump is not the reason I’m starting to think that things might not be okay. But the opposition to Trump is another matter.

Now this may sound like I’m opposed to any opposition to Trump, which I suppose if taken to it’s logical conclusion would mean that I’m a Trump supporter. Neither of these are true. I’m not opposed to opposition, I think having a vigorous debate has all manner of benefits, including better decisions, and clearer thinking in general. And if you have any doubts you can refer back to the two posts I did on freedom of speech. In other words, I think my full-throated support for freedom of speech is unambiguous.  And insofar as the opposition to Trump falls under the category of free speech, I support it. To the additional question of whether I’m a Trump supporter, I would describe my approach to Trump as more zen. There are things which happen that are beyond our ability to change. Who gets elected as president is one of those things. And freaking out about it has as much utility as freaking out about the weather. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t buy an umbrella.

Having come this far you may be confused. I seem to be simultaneously saying that the opposition to Trump worries me, but that also opposition is a healthy expression of freedom of speech. The resolution of this paradox is that I’m not talking about what’s happening right now I’m talking about the direction I fear things are headed. And I’m talking about when opposition moves from speech to something more concrete.

Obviously I considered the possibility that Trump might win, I would have bet against it, but the chances seemed great enough that I tried to model what it might be like. One obvious place to go when you’re attempting to understand something is to draw on past experience. And in this I was in luck. I had already lived through a time with a very unpopular conservative president who was hated by the left. His name was George W. Bush, and when I considered what the Trump presidency would be like, particularly what the liberal reaction to it would be, I figured it would look similar to opposition during the Bush presidency. It would be nasty, it would be everywhere, it would be filled with outrageous claims, and he would be the butt of basically all of the late night jokes, but after taking all of that into account, he would still be acknowledged, even if reluctantly, to be President. I should add, before continuing, that much of the criticism of Bush was completely justified, though sometimes the amount of criticism he drew for any given item appeared inversely proportional to the actual harm.  

Returning to the most recent election, it appears that things may be playing out differently. Now of course in all of this I’m trying to compare the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election with the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. Not only is there the problem of distance, distortion and memory, but also in 2000 there was no Facebook, so what I consider a difference in the message my in fact be a difference in the medium. All that said, I don’t recall anyone urging people not to normalize the Bush presidency. (Of course at this point in 2000 no one was quite sure who would be president.) In 2000 people were mad about things, definitely, and there were certainly calls to get rid of the electoral college or to try and flip an elector or two. The same calls are happening now (though Hillary would need 38 faithless electors as compared to the three that Gore needed) but there is also lots of rhetoric of a kind I don’t recall hearing in 2000. Back then my feeling was that people accepted the result, they weren’t happy about it, given the chance they would have loved to impeach Bush, but they agreed that he was president, and treated him as such. I’m getting a different vibe out of things today. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

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.

I’ve mentioned the word “normalize” now a couple of times and this appears to be the favorite term for describing what we definitely should not be doing now that the election is over. Again, I could be misremembering or overlooking things, but this feels qualitatively different than when Bush was elected. I certainly don’t remember anyone criticizing Gore when he finally conceded for being too nice. And a search around the terms “george bush” and “normalize” brings up hardly anything, while doing the same search on Trump brings up all the articles I already linked to plus thousands more. In other words, in answer to the question posed in the blog title, this election is starting to appear qualitatively different than even the hotly contested 2000 election.

But what are people hoping to achieve when they warn against any attempts to normalize Trump? And how is this different than the derision and hate that Bush was subjected to? This is where we start to get into the realm of speculation, and as I’ve have said, it’s just a feeling, I could easily be wrong, but it also represents a hypothesis, something that should be kept out and occasionally compared against reality to see if the events and facts which have developed in the interim support this theory or are pointing in a different direction.

In any case, as I read it, when people caution against treating either Trump or his presidency as normal they are make a judgement call that he is so bad that extraordinary measures are called for. Extraordinary measures like seceding. I already mentioned the idea of California seceding in my post about the election, but in this context it seems like yet another way that this election is different. Of course, you might retort, that Texas was talking of seceding long before California and mostly in response to Obama (though they did pre-emptively bring up the threat again as a possible response to Clinton winning.) This fact doesn’t make things better, it makes things worse. And opens up the idea that it’s not just the election of Trump that is different but that things are moving in an alarming direction, possibly even in the absence of Trump.

So, yes, I think it’s safe to say that this election is different than the 2000 election. Trump’s presidency will be more divisive and uglier than Bush’s and it’s becoming apparent that the level of push-back and rage is greater than any modern election. Of course the divisiveness and outrage is not greater than in any previous election. Perhaps when I mentioned the potential secession of Texas and California your mind already went in this direction, but if you’re looking for a more divisive election I would direct you to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Indisputably that election was more divisive, but comparing this election to the election of 1860 should not bring any comfort, and in fact this is the situation that has been gnawing away at the edge of my consciousness.  

Libertarians are fond of talking about how every law ever passed is ultimately enforced at the end of a gun barrel. In a similar fashion at some point if two groups just can’t agree, then, ultimately, the issue is going to be decided by force. Oliver Wendell Holmes, perhaps the best known of all the Supreme Court justices, said as much:

Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy but force.

Historically this is how it has been. All important issues have ultimately been decided by the shedding of blood. Recent history is an anomaly, and not even much of an anomaly if you consider what’s currently taking place in Syria. However if we restrict ourselves to just the US, we still only have to go back as far as the Civil War, before we see the roll of bloodshed in deciding between two inconsistent worldviews.

Insofar as things aren’t decided by bloodshed, it’s because we have replaced that idea with the idea of settling issues through the will of the people and the rule of law, but if you decide that this time, with this election, that you’re no longer going to follow the system (and I’m aware that Clinton won the popular vote, but recall that’s not the system) then you’re implicitly opting to decide things by force. Perhaps you disagree, and think that this one time you can ignore the results of the system, achieve the desired outcome of keeping Trump from being President, and that everything will be fine. If this is what you’re thinking I would say that at best this line of thinking is delusional and at worst it’s deadly. Things are decided either by force or by the rule of law, there’s not some hidden third option. If you abandon the rule of law than, you’re choosing force, even if you don’t realize it.  Which is not to say that this automatically means a second Civil War, but you’re definitely entering into uncharted territory, where at a minimum things are going to be decided by the threat of force.

You may counter that civil society is already only maintained by the threat of force. However, by making laws which restrict and codify the use of force, we greatly minimize its use. Which is not to say that force isn’t sometimes, or even often, used in an inconsistent and unfair manner. The rule of law isn’t perfect, but it’s vastly preferable to the alternative methods, particularly when you’re talking methods which have historically been used for deciding who is going to be king (or in our case president).

To return to the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote are we dealing with two groups who both want a different kind of world? Do we have Texas secessionists on one side and California secessionists on the other? Does the election of Trump mark the beginning of a permanent split between those two worlds? These are the thoughts I’ve been having over the last couple of weeks.

You can judge for yourself whether there’s anything to worry about, whether we’re seeing the beginning of a great schism or whether things will eventually normalize over the objections of a vocal minority. In case it’s not clear, my own opinion is that it’s far too early to tell, though some of the trends are worrying.

For the rest of the post I want to focus on what to do if this is in fact what’s happening. What are the current remedies if we’ve finally reached a point past which no compromise is possible? If our current course is leading us to either a giant secession crisis, or worse still a second Civil War, is there some way to avoid that?

As usual I offer the caveat that individually there’s very little we can do about politics or the weather, and probably the best course of action is to make sure you have an adequate stock of umbrellas. That said it’s still a subject worth discussing.

To start let’s examine our options if we decide that our highest value is to keep the country together. This was basically the thinking during the Civil War so there is some precedent for it. If this is what we decide then we have three possible strategies.

The first strategy is that of the status quo. Sure there are currently some disagreements, and some anger. But perhaps rather than looking all the way back to the Civil War, a better example is the Civil Rights Era. And a better analogy for the 2016 election is the 1968 election, the last time a third party candidate won any electoral votes. Times seemed pretty tumultuous then as well. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and the country was convulsed with race riots. It appeared that the gains made by the 1964 Civil Rights Act might be overturned, and yet, even though Nixon was elected President the country stayed together, the wounds eventually healed and we made it through. Under this strategy, perhaps you agree that things look ugly, but you don’t think any major changes need to be made. Everything will eventually work itself out, the rule of law and compromise will eventually win out in the end

But what if you pursue this strategy and it doesn’t work out? The rifts keep widening, things get worse. States vote to secede, and the country starts breaking apart. This brings us to our second strategy, if you can’t keep things together by the normal methods then the only other alternative is to keep things together through force, and just like in 1861 you go to war. In other words this isn’t exactly a different strategy, but an extension of the status quo, let’s-keep-everything-together strategy. Which further means that if the initial, trust-in-the-status-quo strategy doesn’t work out then you might very well find yourself in a situation where bloodshed is the only option. I would hope that there would be no bloodshed, but if you really are intent on keeping the two worlds together, whether your goal is to preserve the union or to dictate a set of laws and policies to an unwilling minority, then eventually it will come to bloodshed.

If you have doubts about the status quo, and if you don’t like the idea of a second Civil War, then you probably aren’t thrilled with either of the first two options, and you may be eager to hear what the third strategy is for keeping the country together. I’ve already said that there are two ways to decide something, you can decide things through the use of force or you can decide them via a system of law. If we reject force then we have to do something about the system. Right now the system is dominated by the federal government. The bulk of the tax burden is determined at the federal level, as is environmental regulation, discrimination laws, the legality of abortion and same-sex marriage, not to mention educational standards, healthcare and entitlements. In that list there’s a lot for California and Texas to disagree about, but what if there wasn’t. It’s interesting and ironic that so much is determined by the “federal” government, because under a truly federal system you would expect most of the aforementioned issues to be decided at the state level, which would allow California and Texas to be different, but that’s not the case.

An argument about whether federalism is actually dead, is beside the point. Whether federalism has died or just evolved, the point is not to argue semantics, but to figure out ways in which Texas and California could both exist in the same nation without Texas seceding if Clinton is elected and California seceding when Trump get’s elected. And more importantly to keep the country together without having to resort to force. I know that for many people the idea of allowing individual states to make their own environmental regulations, their own decision on same sex marriage, and their own labor laws is terrifying, but is it more terrifying than going to war in order to just have one standard for all those things? I personally think that, when the total number of deaths is taken into account, it may have been a mistake to not just let the South secede, but if we were going to have a big war over something at least the elimination of slavery was a cause worth fighting for. Are the issues which divide us today similarly important? I’m personally not willing to have my son’s fight and possible die in a war to keep either California or Texas in the country. And I assume a lot of people feel similarly.

This brings us to the final possible strategy. The strategy to pursue if preserving the USA isn’t your highest goal. This strategy might be most usefully described as the right of exit. If California wants to leave, then let them, same with Texas, same with New Jersey. Obviously this may mean that some people aren’t as happy being in Texas as they once were when the Texas was obligated to follow all the federal regulations. They should have a right of exit as well. I don’t know that the right of exit has a corresponding right of entry (a topic which is already controversial), but I assume that it would work itself out. Of course this would be an experiment on a massive scale, and who knows what would happen, though Europe may provide a preview of this process if things continue to head the way they’ve been.

Of all the strategies I think a return to a greater degree of federalism and state autonomy would work out best in the long run. Not only is this what the founders had in mind, but I think it provides the best trade off between joining the two different kinds of worlds, while avoiding most of the chaos occasioned by a completely break up of the United States. That said of all the possible strategies I’ve described it may be the most difficult to actually implement. Rolling back the trend of a century is unquestionably more difficult than just maintaining the status quo, and probably more difficult than the other two options as well.

This post has engaged in a lot of speculation, and as with many things I write about hopefully none of this will happen. Hopefully, the status quo will work, Trump will be a great president, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns. If I had to guess, I think we’ll survive the Trump presidency without having to worry about a second civil war, or states seceding, or whether we should have been trying to restore federalism this whole time. But even if we do, I don’t like the direction things are headed.


Freedom of Religion in 2016

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As is often the case, over the last few posts you may have lost track of the fact that this is ostensibly a religious blog. Well it is, though it might be one of those, if someone accused you of being a religious blogger would there be enough evidence to convict you? I’m sure one of the points which might be used against me is the fact that, before my last post about the election, I spent two posts talking about the first amendment, without any discussion of freedom of religion. What kind of religious blogger is more interested in freedom of speech than freedom of religion? Well in this post I intend to correct that. I think part of the reason why I tackled speech first is that it’s easier. People may disagree with my argument that it’s the best defense against authoritarianism, but the argument is not unreasonable on its face. Also there is not a group of people who feel that free speech is at best a collection of superstitions which should be gutted, if it’s allowed to survive at all, and at worst the cause of all the bad things that have ever happened. Those arguments have been used with respect to religion, which makes defending freedom of religion an entirely different endeavor. Basically it’s hard to argue that the existence of atheists and to a lesser extent agnostics doesn’t complicate things.  For example you’ll note (speaking of atheists and agnostics) that there are no similar terms for people who don’t believe in free speech, except maybe dictator.

Even for people who aren’t atheists or agnostics, part of the muddiness comes from what people consider freedom of religion, and along with that, what counts as an attack on that freedom. True freedom of religion can include things far more concrete than the right to say what you want without fear of censorship. As the old children’s rhyme goes:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

This is largely true, especially from a legal standpoint, if a group of people surrounds someone and yells at them, you might find that behavior annoying, you might even find it appalling, but you’re unlikely to think that those people should be arrested, and if they are, you would be surprised if they were held for more than a day or two. However, if a group of people surrounds someone and stones them to death (as recommended by at least two religions) you would expect a lot of arrests. Now obviously not all examples of religious freedom involve stones and dying, but even a comparatively mild example like not baking someone a cake involves something more concrete than just words. Putting freedom of religion in a significantly different place than freedom of speech.

I’ve mentioned the negative opinions of atheists and agnostics, and maybe someday they’ll succeed at eliminating religion entirely (similar to the Soviet Union and we all know how well that worked out.) But is freedom of religion currently under attack? Unlike with freedom of speech, where you need look no farther than a college campus to see things that, while technically legal, meet no one’s ideal of free speech, freedom of religion is trickier. One commonly cited example of freedom of religion being under attack is the persecution of Christians. (See the aforementioned reference to cake baking.) But there is disagreement on how prevalent or consequential this persecution actually is. With some people going so far as to declare the entire thing a myth. I don’t think it’s a myth, and this post will largely be an argument in favor of it’s existence.

When considering whether freedom of religion is being restricted, two things should be kept in mind. First, to refer briefly back to the Constitution, what it actually says is that the free exercise of the religion shall not be prohibited. The term “free exercise” strikes me as a higher standard than making sure religions aren’t persecuted. Second, it’s important to clarify that religious persecution can take many forms and operate on many levels. If my examples of persecution just took the form of hard-core atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, saying mean things about Christians, then this wouldn’t be much of a post. Dawkins, in particular, has been so abrasive recently that he has started to alienate even his fans. If I was going to write a post built around outrageous things Dawkins said, I’d be joining a pretty crowded field, and I would have to share whatever sympathy I could muster with thousands of others.

But I think that persecution is broader than just hard-core skeptics and atheists, and I wouldn’t write this post if I didn’t think it existed, in fact I not only think it exists, but I think that it’s a bigger and more widespread problem than most people realize. This is not that uncommon, lots of times big problems aren’t that obvious, or at least their obviousness is frequently not directly correlated to their severity. Some people will claim that lead exposure explains nearly all the social ills that have afflicted America since the time of Columbus (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration). For my part I’d be surprised if lead exposure was quite as consequential as all that, but I would definitely agree that it had an impact far out of proportion to its obviousness. The persecution of religion is in a similar category. A non-obvious problem that’s bigger than people think. Which is not to say that it’s non-obvious to everyone. In the same way that some people have been warning about lead for decades, other people have been warning about religious persecution for just as long.

Maybe you are one of these people, perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, but if you’re not, and religious persecution isn’t apparent, what should you be looking for? How am I going to convince you that it’s as big a problem as I say it is? These are all excellent questions, but before we get to them it would help to establish some background by looking at three theories of religion:

Theory number one: God exists and religion is how we interact with him.

This theory of religion was dominant for most of human history. It hypothesizes that there is a God (or Gods) and that one or more of the religions on the earth reflect some greater or lesser portion of God: his divinity, his unchanging truths, or his eternal plan. Most adherents to this theory also believe in some form of afterlife, of infinite duration and happiness, meaning that whatever we do that doesn’t qualify us for this afterlife is a waste of time. Under this theory we shouldn’t be merely promoting freedom of religion the whole point of man should be religion. Freedom of religion, and by extension giving people the ability to find God, isn’t a nice policy it’s the only policy worth having period. Of course there is an alternative to freedom of religion under this theory, if you’re certain that you have the correct religion, then (if God doesn’t object, which he might) you can just make everyone be that religion. This particular scenario of dictating a single religion will be discussed in more depth later.

Theory number two: Religion is stupid

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the idea that God doesn’t exist, and not only does he not exist, but religion is superstitious garbage created by the brain’s over-active pattern matching and it’s garbage that should have been cleaned up a long time ago. The most visible adherents to this theory are the every-bad-thing-which-ever-happened-can-be-blamed-on-religion people, who feel that religion is similar to drinking, something they probably can’t prohibit (and attempts to do so have turned out badly), but which at best is a necessary evil and if we can get people to not do anything important while under it’s influence (to continue the drinking metaphor) everyone would be a lot better off. But in addition to these people we should also include those people who may even have some belief in God, but believe religion to be a waste of time and an annoying topic of conversation; not actively harmful, but not beneficial either, perhaps in their minds it’s similar to World of Warcraft, potentially an amusing diversion, but otherwise pointless.

Theory number three: Religion is just the accumulated culture and traditions of a given society.

Under theory three religion is neither the primary point of our existence, or a vestigial remnant of a superstitious past, and despite being neither of those things it is nevertheless unavoidable. If you have a society you’re going to have a religion, perhaps many of them, but ideas and traditions, taboos and beliefs don’t exist in isolation. They’re always going to end up bundled into a package of some sort. Some people want to label the packages which have been around for a long time as religions, and more recent packages as science, but not only is that division arbitrary, it gives unfair precedence to the science side of things, when, if anything it should be reversed. Societies don’t accumulate culture and traditions as a hobby, they accumulate them because they work. Science works as well (replication crisis aside) but even the best results in social science (the closest parallel to religion) have been arrived at by testing a few hundred people over the course of a few months. Religion is the distilled results of testing millions of people over thousands of years.

I know there are people who will reject this assertion outright, but if you take a moment to engage in some hard thinking, than this idea makes more sense than saying religion is stupid. If that were the case why isn’t the world dominated by non-religious societies and civilizations? Instead, not only is religion universal, but certain taboos, like the taboo against extramarital sex, turn out to have been present in most religions. I discussed this in far more depth in a previous post. But in short you can either accept that religion is universal and useful, or you can assert that all cultures went slightly mad in a very similar way.

Interestingly accepting theory number three doesn’t necessarily preclude theory number one, religion could exist as an extension of God’s existence, at the same time providing a useful store of accumulated wisdom (in the ideal case this would be God’s wisdom). However theory three is incompatible with theory two. For adherents of theory two their modern ideology is an entirely different thing than an ancient religion like Christianity or Islam. But if you believe theory number three, then modern ideologies are just another religion, one that could be better, but also could be a lot worse than the traditional religions.

Of course outside of these three theories, there are obviously many people who hold no theory of religion. Without being able to access people’s deepest thoughts it’s difficult to know how many people there are who truly have no opinion, but there are almost certainly people who really don’t give it much thought one way or the other, except to be annoyed when the Mormon missionaries show up at their door.

With the three theories of religion in place, let’s look at religious persecution through the lens of each theory. Examining persecution by way of the first theory is fairly straightforward. If there is a God and he’s commanded us to do X, and if we do we’ll receive some manner of infinite reward, anything which keeps us from doing X is essentially infinite harm. Now I personally think things can get screwy once you start tossing around infinities, and also I certainly believe that there is a continuum of acts. Preventing someone from praying in school is obviously less egregious than preventing them from praying period. And destroying all the LDS temples would be of greater harm than just banning the weekly Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast. But still, in essence, any infringement on religious rights under theory number one is pretty bad, and while you may not see same-sex marriage or abortion as an infringement on anyone’s rights, in fact you might view it as a huge expansion in rights. It is certainly conceivable that a religious person might nevertheless view it differently. The same could be said for widespread acceptance of extramarital promiscuity, and the deluge of pornography. The standard argument is that no one is forcing you to engage in same-sex marriage, have an abortion, be promiscuous or view pornography, but all of these things make it much more difficult to for people live their religion and make it particularly difficult for them to raise their children to be religious. Which under theory number one is the whole point of life, meaning that religious persecution is pervasive, ongoing, and unlikely to do anything but get worse if you view things through the lens of the first theory.

To be clear I’m not advocating that this theory should be the dominant theory for interpreting freedom of religion under the first amendment, though it’s arguable that it was the dominant theory for most of the country’s existence. I’m just illustrating how, if this is the theory you’re operating under, persecution and infringement are everywhere.

Under the second theory of religion, the idea that it’s stupid, almost nothing counts as persecution. I mean if you can still meet in your special building once a week and talk about your crazy ideas concerning the existence of a supreme being, for whom no proof exists, then what else is there to complain about? I mean obviously if you do certain ridiculous things like have more than one wife we’re going to smack you down, cause that’s not freedom of religion, that’s insanity. I mean the whole thing is insane, but since we can’t outright prohibit it, we’ll continue to let you meet once a week, and I guess if you want to volunteer at a food kitchen or at a disaster site from time to time that’s cool too, but don’t give us any of this crazy bigoted stuff about same sex marriage being wrong or abortion being murder.

In other words, defining persecution under the first two theories is easy, in the first, persecution is everywhere and in the second persecution is nowhere. Understandably this has made discussion between the two sides difficult. Of course it’s a gross oversimplification to assume that there are just two sides, there are dozens, but hopefully you can see that where you stand on freedom of religion could in large part be determined by what you think the point of religion is.

It’s when we turn to the third theory that things get more difficult and more interesting. If religion is the accumulated cultural wisdom of the ages, there should be significant deference given to those points on which most religions agree (see extramarital sex above). On issues where one religion has something to say and other religions are silent (say the consumption of pork), religions should be given wide latitude since there’s a good chance that there may be wisdom in one religion which could profitably be shared with the society at large. Of course this is not going to eliminate ideological competition, but insofar as we can make it ideological and not violent competition, that would be preferable. In this respect freedom of religion bears a strong resemblance to freedom of speech, which is probably one of the reasons why they’re both in the First Amendment.

Just as speech loses most of it’s value if there is only one viewpoint, religion is subject to all manner of abuses if there is only one religion, particularly if that religion is state-sponsored. The Founding Fathers were very familiar with this potential for abuse, and had seen religion morph from accumulated cultural wisdom into a tool for the powerful to oppress their enemies (the tendency largely responsible for creating adherents to theory two.) Having some guidelines which help society run better is one thing, burning your enemies at the stake is quite another. But the founders could still distinguish between the state acting in the guise of religion and religion free from the influence of the state, and that’s what they tried to encourage.

As you can see theory three leads us to a place that looks very similar to what the founders probably intended, though possibly by a different route. And we end up with two principles for defining religious freedom. The first principle is that freedom of religion should be similar to freedom of speech, with some additional deference for tradition, and the second principle being that we should avoid dominance by a single religion, particularly a state sponsored one.

For most of the country’s history I would argue that these two principles were largely taken for granted. Which is not to say that there weren’t ideological disagreements like anti-catholicism (and that could be viewed as a reaction against domination by a single religion, rather than the opposite) but largely things went pretty smoothly. One of the biggest tests of religious freedom came with polygamy. Which the Supreme Court eventually decided was not covered by the First Amendment. We don’t have the space to jump into that briar patch, but it is important to note that it was prohibited largely because it didn’t match with what people viewed as traditional religion, particularly traditional Christianity. There’s a big debate about whether the recent ruling on same sex marriage will eventually lead to polygamy being legal, but it’s certain that if the issue does come before the Supreme Court that arguments involving what’s “traditional” will play a much smaller role than they did in Reynolds v. United States the original 1878 case which outlawed polygamy for good.

With these two principles in place we can finally consider what religious freedom looks like under theory three. Let’s start with the idea that freedom of religion should look like freedom of speech, with a bias towards traditional religious values. On this count I would have to say that things are not going very well. Regardless of where you stand on the issues I would hope that you could agree that there has never been a time more hostile to expressions of support for traditional religions particularly expressing traditional religious opposition to stuff like extramarital sex, same sex marriage, abortion, etc. Now to be fair this power balance has only recently flipped, and so it may seem like gay individuals still get more grief than people arguing against same sex marriage. In this era of flux it’s possible that both sides are getting a fair amount of censure and hate, ideally neither would.

Turning to the principle that we should be wary of having a single dominant religion, I think we’re doing poorly there as well. It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about the Religion of Progress, but I would argue that it is currently the dominant religion and de facto state-sponsored to boot. Though there would be a lot of people who would deny that it’s a religion. Combined with what I mentioned above the Religion of Progress is crowding out the practice, doctrine and even discussion of traditional religions.

I can certainly imagine that I’m wrong about all of this and all traditional religions need to be supplanted by the Religion of Progress, but even so is it really wise to have all our eggs in one basket? Is it really wise to dismiss everyone who came before us as stupid and superstitious? Are you really so confident that religions have nothing to teach us? That it’s fine if they are pounded down to the point where they barely resemble religions?

I’ve spent over three thousand words illustrating my view of how freedom of religion should be interpreted and whether religious persecution exists. But perhaps in all of the twists and turns the totality of the argument wasn’t clear, so in a somewhat glib summation, which should not take the place to the thousands of words which preceded, here is my argument:

There are three ways of looking at religion. Viewing religion as stupid and valueless (theory two) is, well, stupid. Both of the other viewpoints would strongly suggest that we treat traditional religions and traditional norms with a large degree of respect. In the last few decades we’ve decided against that. This is a mistake.


I Don’t Know If Everything Will Be Okay: My Thoughts On the Election

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You may be familiar with the website Cracked. I spend more time on it than I should, and I definitely have a dysfunctional relationship with it. Sometimes I think it’s the worst clickbait site out there, more information free than even Buzzfeed. Other times, while still annoyed by their tendency to split test their titles until the most sensational, least accurate title wins out, I think they might actually have some interesting articles. This may seem like a strange way to start a post about the election, but it’s going somewhere.

In the wake of the election Cracked had an article, titled Dear White People Stop Saying Everything Will Be Okay (though by the time you get to it it may be titled “Five Reassuring Things White People Say (that are pure B.S.)”). 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 (and certainly that they’re not going to be okay in the absence of God, for my non-religious friends this is the first and last religious reference.) 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. But, once you start talking about things that could happen, then in the end Clinton also could be and do all those things, in fact there are credible arguments that Clinton could have been even more likely to do some of those things.

We just don’t know. We guess; we estimate; we might even create models to predict what will happen, and coincidently 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.

As I said remembering how wrong the polls were can help us have some perspective on how wrong we might be about a Trump presidency (and remember we could be wrong in either direction). I should pause before I discuss the predictions and, in the interest of full disclosure, mention that there is definitely some schadenfreude going on here, not because I really wanted Trump to win, but because as someone who is constantly pointing out the difficulty of predicting the future, when someone smugly does just that and ends up being really wrong, it does give me a certain amount of validation. In any event my favorite example of being really wrong is is Sam Wang from the Princeton Election Consortium, who gave Clinton a 99% chance of winning the election. This is bad enough, but then outlets like Wired and DailyKos decided to double down and not only hail the genius of Sam Wang, but dismiss Nate Silver as an idiot. Now of course Silver was wrong as well, but he was a lot less wrong. To take a more limited example Matt Grossman of Michigan State said that Clinton was ahead by 19 points in Michigan, a state that Trump won. This wasn’t months ago, this was a week before the election. (Perhaps, one clue that it was wrong should have been the fact that in the same poll Gary Johnson was getting 11% of the vote.)

In their defense people like Wang and Silver will argue that the polls were not off by that much. Nate Silver posted an article about how if only 1 person in 100 had switched votes Clinton would have easily won. What this amounts to is that the polls were off by 2%, which is not that much, and the sort of thing that could slip in unnoticed, and be due to any of a 100 different factors operating in isolation or in combination.This is totally fair, but it doesn’t matter if the polls were only off by 0.1% or if Trump’s margin of victory was only 537 votes. (As was the case with Bush, another person who won the election but lost the popular vote.) He still gets 100% of the presidency. Most things are like this, a tiny error in some part of our calculations can still have huge consequences. In this sense it doesn’t matter if the odds of a Clinton presidency were 65.1% or 65.2% the key thing was for them to be right about who would actually win, and everyone (or at least mostly everyone) was wrong about that.

Before leaving our discussion of polling I’d like to point out one final thing. Yes, a tiny switch in the voting and the nation would be having a very different discussion right now, but as Andrew Gelman, a noted statistician, points out there are two ways to view the election. The first way to view it, is as the probability that Trump would be president given what we knew Tuesday morning. The second way is to view it as the probability that Trump would be president given what we knew when the race first started. Under the first view Trump’s victory was not that unlikely, despite what Sam Wang said. Under the second view it was fantastically unlikely. Gelman points out that a lot of the shock people are feeling is based on still being stuck in the second view, the probability of him going all the way.

Being stuck in the second view obviously causes problems, but for the moment I’d like to look at how we got from here to there. How did something which seemed so unlikely when Trump first announced his candidacy (One commentator said he was more likely to play in the NBA finals than win the nomination) end up being our reality on November 9th?

Obviously this is not the first attempt at an explanation, pundits have had essentially no other job since Trump entered the race than explaining and/or dismissing his rise, but I’d like to focus on two explanations which I don’t think got much play, but may be more significant than people realized.

I know a fair number of political junkies and as you can imagine there was a lot of discussion in the aftermath of the election. One comment in particular jumped out at me, from one of my more liberal friends, he mentioned that there is a history in the US, going all the way back to the revolution, of saying “Screw you, I do what I want!” And that’s what this looked like to him. In response I pointed out that in order for that to happen that someone had to be trying to tell them what to do, and in my opinion that was one of the overlooked factors. All the individuals telling people how evil they were for even thinking about voting for Trump. Everyone seems to agree that Clinton lost some voters when called half of Trump’s supporters a basket of deplorables, but what about when the Huffington Post decided to add the following to all of their articles:

Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

Did that hurt or help Trump? And is it possible that the net effect of Joss Whedon getting all his rich friends together to record a video (which I enjoyed by the way) was to create more Trump voters, while convincing no one new to vote for Clinton?

I am not saying that any one of these things was enough to push the election to Trump, but together, to borrow a term from the other side, they created a climate of badgering, smugness and disapproval. Was it enough to swing the election? Hard to say, but as we saw above it was very close, so if this hectoring created any net Trump voters (particularly in the state of Pennsylvania) then it may very well have been what pushed it over the top. I think it certainly created the nucleus of hard-core supporters that got him the nomination and kept him in the race.

I said that this didn’t get much play, and that was true before the election. Now that the election is over lots of people are pointing it out. So far I’ve seen articles about the Unbearable Smugness of the Press, another commentator saying Trump was elected (and the Brexit happened) because people were tired of being labeled as bigots and racists, and finally Reason Magazine saying that Trump won because political correctness inspired a terrifying backlash. Perhaps you feel that Trump, and anyone who voted for him, is racist, and that regardless of whether it’s going to cost Clinton the election, it’s still important to point it out, that’s certainly your right, but in the long run it might be more effective for your candidate to win.

The second explanation I’d like to look at might be called the, “what’s good for the goose” explanation. And this goes beyond the election into the presidency, but let’s start with the election, in particular voting as a racial block. Much has been made of the fact that 53% of white women voted for Trump, despite his apparent misogyny. And some are even saying that because of this obvious racism that white women sold out the world. But at the same time you read about people who are shocked that Latinos didn’t vote in greater numbers and that up to 29% of them may have actually voted for Trump. But then another article comes along and assures us that no, it’s okay, Latinos did vote as a block and only 18% of them voted for Trump. This is not new of course, minorities have been voting as a block for a long time. It’s expected, but it was also expected that whites wouldn’t vote as a block, but why?

I’m not going to get into whether it’s right or wrong to vote as a racial block, it’s one of those intersections of a lot of different principles (charity, justice, equality, etc.) where things get really muddy. But no one should be surprised if after decades of urging blacks and latinos to view the election in terms of race, that at least some whites start viewing it in terms of race as well. And you don’t even have to imagine some grand conspiracy for this to happen. Most people vote based on their perceived self interest, not on what’s best for the world, and it’s not inconceivable that these interests will align in a way that looks racial, even if that race is white.

This gets into the subject of those tactics, which seem great if your side is the only one using them, but aren’t so great when the other side starts using them. And here we move from talking about the election to talking about Trump’s presidency.

Regardless of your opinion on whether Trump will make a good president or a bad president. It is certainly true that recent developments will make him a more consequential president than he might otherwise have been. I already talked about how dangerous the temptation is to restrict free speech because not only is it the best protection against a bad leader, but you can create tools to use while you’re in power which then backfire on you when you’re out of power. There are lots of examples of expanded executive powers which fit this model. Dan Carlin of the Common Sense and Hardcore History podcasts talks a lot about this. He’s particularly worried about surveillance powers and executive orders. I’m more interested in the Supreme Court. There are a lot of things where liberals couldn’t wait for public opinion to catch up and so they relied on the courts to change them, but now that the court has done that, they can reverse it, and they can do it even if, in the interim, public opinion has caught up.

Also, with the Supreme Court acting more and more as the de facto rulers of the whole country, I know that there are a lot of Republicans out there who voted for Trump just because they didn’t want Clinton appointing four justices. That was their single issue, and they ignored or held their nose about everything else.  Combine this with Dan Carlin’s list of concerns, and a federal bureaucracy that’s more powerful than ever, and if Trump is going to be a bad President he’s going to have a lot more tools at his disposal than he otherwise would have. In short, people arguing for limited government weren’t always doing it because they’re jerks. (I mean sometimes they were, but not always.) They may have genuinely recognized the danger and the fragility that comes from too much centralization.

As I’ve said, I don’t know what will happen under a Trump Presidency. He could be good, he could be horrible, he could be worse than horrible, but before ending I’ll run through what I think might happen in a half dozen different areas:

First, let’s start with immigration. This is one area where Trump took a lot of heat and got a lot of support. I have seen some Trump defenders say that he’s going to walk back some of his more extreme comments when he’s President. And if you look at his plan for the first 100 days it does appear that he might be doing that, at least somewhat. There is no mention of deporting everyone who’s here illegally or banning all Muslims (the word Muslim doesn’t appear anywhere in the plan). Combine this with the normal difficulties of getting things done in Washington and  his immigration policy may be less draconian than people feared.

Second, another place where people are scared is LGBT rights. Despite the expansion of executive power I don’t know that there’s a lot he can do here outside of getting the Supreme Court to undo the blanket legalization for same sex marriage. (And remember that all the Supreme Court can do is send it back to the states, where, one could argue, it should have been in the first place.) Also from what I can tell Trump’s social conservative urges are nearly non-existent. Certainly nothing about this appears in his plan for the first 100 days nor was the idea that prominent in his campaign. That said if he manages to appoint four conservative justices there’s no telling what they might do. But of all the Republicans in the primaries I think Trump was the most socially liberal.

Third, people also seem to be worried about whether Trump will keep abortion legal. This is another area where Trump doesn’t seem to have strong feelings, but a court with four Trump justices could still reverse Roe vs. Wade (and once again remember this just moves it back to the states.) For whatever reason this strikes me as more likely. For one, Roe v. Wade is considered a poorly constructed ruling even by some people who support it, plus it appears to have been bubbling to the top more in the last few years. Despite all this I still don’t think it’s going to happen, but I think we’ll actually see a substantial challenge.

Now that we’ve covered the relatively mundane topics, topics where there’s almost certainly going to be some noise made, we can move on to what we might term black swans.

In the fourth position, and our first black swan is something which is definitely going to make some noise, the question is whether it’s going to go anywhere. I’m talking about California seceding.  What was once the cause of a few thousand hardcore supporters is now being seriously considered. The consensus is that to do it cleanly would require a constitutional amendment. But historically it’s far more common for a nation to break apart through bloodshed and war than through a vote, though I doubt the Californians have the stomach for that, but probably neither do the rest of us. When I consider the difficulties I think more likely than either a specifically Californian Constitutional Amendment or war would, be an amendment making it easier for any state to leave. Or alternatively a new Constitutional Convention, which is actually something provided for in the Constitution.

For numbers five and six we’ll finally deal with the two greatest fears cited by opponents of Donald Trump: dictatorship and nuclear war. I’m not sure how to evaluate the possibility of a dictatorship. I mean obviously it is possible, I just don’t immediately see how to get from here to there, but I’ll see what I can come up with. Let’s start with the premise that dictatorship requires some kind of force, and while force can be applied without guns, eventually if you really want to get someone to do something guns are going to enter into the equation at some point. So who has guns? Obviously the military does, also in the US there is a vast stock of guns in private ownership, and then there’s the police. But if it came to it private gun owners (if unified) are a bigger deal than the police, but the military is a bigger deal than them all. Thus, to exercise force you need to control one level and the levels above you need to be sidelined. For example it’s sufficient to control the police if both military and private gun owners are uninvolved, which is, broadly speaking, the situation we have now. But if someone controls the military it doesn’t matter how many cops or private citizens oppose him. And Trump does, sort of, control the military now, but he can’t just immediately declare martial law, the military would tell him to go suck it. He needs an excuse. Perhaps the War on Terror. Perhaps the war against California after they secede. But regardless of the excuse it has to be a big enough excuse to derail the normal process of elections. And that’s where I have a hard time seeing how to get from here to there. But perhaps I just lack imagination on this front.

As far as Trump controlling the nukes. This worries me too. If the worry is just all out nuclear war with Russia, he actually worries me slightly less than Clinton did. The other possibility for all out war is China and here he’s kind of a black box, though it’s widely understood that China prefered Trump, for whatever that’s worth. Where Trump concerns me more is in the area of using tactical nukes, say in the Middle East somewhere. I this front I’m not sure what warnings or consolation to offer. I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

And of course that’s the primary advice I have, wait and see. There should definitely be some red lines even for those people who think Trump is the greatest thing since sliced bread. But these red lines should always be there for every President. And by red lines I mean acts by Trump that should cause us to take to the streets with signs and shouting and if necessary, man the barricades. Red lines like if he starts abusing the power of military, or if he starts censoring people, or if he tries to pack the Supreme Court, or most especially if he tries to start messing with the election. Of course there are a lot of small steps between where we are and General Trump, Dictator for Life, Beloved and Eternal Leader. And it’s important that, unlike the frog, we don’t allow ourselves to be slowly boiled. But based on what I’ve seen on social media and the news since Tuesday I have no doubt that there will always be people willing to call out Trump the minute he tries to raise the temperature.


The Value of Free Speech

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to watch Sesame Street. As I recall it was in black and white, probably because the entire world was still black and white back then. It could also have been because we were poor. In any case, one of the recurring features of Sesame Street was one of these things is not like the other. It even had a song to go with it, which I can easily recall without any effort, such is the power of childhood indoctrination. I would assume that most of my readers are familiar with the segment, but for those who aren’t, the way it worked is they would show four things and three of them would be similar and one would clearly be different. An example might be a chalkboard with three “2”’s and one “W” or an alarm clock next to a knife, fork and spoon. I assume you get the idea or, like me, saw Sesame Street as a child. If not, it’s too late because we are about to play “One of These Things”!

Of course to start with I need to provide you with the “things” (I’m going to cheat somewhat an only provide three things.)

1- Russia

2- United States of America

3- China

And to really get us in the mood here’s the song:

One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn’t belong,

Can you tell which thing is not like the others

By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which thing was not like the others?

Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?

If you guessed this one is not like the others,

Then you’re absolutely right!

Did you guess the USA? If so then, as promised, you’re absolutely right! I know this edition of “One of These Things” was not quite as obvious as the alarm clock and silverware, but also we’re not six anymore either, so hopefully we can expect some deeper thinking. But why is the United States the odd man out? Why is our country the one thing that’s not like the others? On the surface the answer is easy, perhaps even trivial, Russia and China are authoritarian states ruled by a single individual. The USA is a not. (Unless Trump wins and all of the most extreme fears of the anti-trumpers come true.) But why is this? Or more importantly how did it come about?

I think you’ll find that on paper the actual governmental structure of the other two countries is not that different from that of the USA. Russia and China both have elections and they both have legislatures. Russia has the Duma and China has the National People’s Congress. They both have what amounts to a Bill of Rights. Russia has the Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen and the Chinese have their Constitution which has sections on Democracy and Minority Rights. They both claim to have an independent judicial system, charged with impartially interpreting the law. Russia’s is modeled on the German and French system, while China’s contains protections like the right against self incrimination, and the suppression of evidence which was obtained illegally.

If the difference isn’t in how the government is organized perhaps it’s somewhere else. Maybe the US has a better economy? That’s possible, but China has, or shortly will pass the US as the biggest economy. And if you’re more focused on per capita GDP, Saudi Arabia is basically tied with the US on that measure but they’re actually more authoritarian than China and Russia. The US, China and Russia all have a strong militaries and nukes to boot, so that’s not a difference. It also can’t be the size of the country, or the number of people, or the latitude. So what is it?

If you remember the end of my last episode then you already know where this is headed. I would argue that a large part of the difference comes down to the level of free speech (and free expression in general) in each country. If we look at the World Press Freedom Index we find that the USA is 41st out of 180 countries while Russia is 148th and China is 176th! I think 41st is still disappointing, but it’s obviously a lot better than 148th or 176th.

It is not lost on me that this could be a chicken and egg question. Which came first the authoritarianism or the speech restrictions? Or perhaps more accurately I could be confusing correlation with causation. Restrictions on speech could accompany authoritarianism without necessary causing it. We’ve definitely seen it come about even in situations where freedom of expression was relatively unrestrained. As far as I can tell the time between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin assuming power was a time of relatively free expression (unfortunately the index I was using only goes back as far as 2002, at which time Russia ranked 121st out of 139). But even if speech restrictions don’t cause authoritarianism it’s indisputable that they perpetuate it. And that’s what I really want to get into.

As I said, I’m not entirely sure how good freedom of the press and freedom of speech are at stopping bad things from happening. I would argue that they’re a lot better at uncovering bad things once they have happened. Take the current election as an example. I should mention that I try to be objective here at “We Are Not Saved”, but it’s possible I’ve picked on Clinton more than Trump, so we’ll pick on Trump for awhile. At this point there is a large group of people worrying that Trump is going to be bad news if he gets elected. People are using the term fascist and even comparing him to Hitler, and yet as just a few days ago Trump was polling slightly ahead of Clinton in at least one national poll. In other words despite these warnings there are a lot of people who still think he’ll be a better president than Clinton. And you know what, it’s hard to tell what kind of President he’ll be until he actually is President. Campaigning is a lot different than actually being in office and it’s hard to say what kind of president Trump will be (in fact I think it’s particularly hard with Trump.) All the people who are sounding the warning could be right, and he could be terrible, or he could surprise everyone. But if he does become president and he is terrible, we’ll hear about it (oh boy, will we hear about it). But only because we have free speech and freedom of press. In short, you would hope free speech would be some protection from even electing potential dictators, but even if it isn’t, it has a, potentially, still greater role, that of uncovering and deterring the authoritarian impulse after an election has happened.

For the moment let’s assume Trump is the second coming of Hitler. Or that he at least aspires to be. How does he go from wanting to be Hitler to actually being Hitler. The first step is getting elected President. And while it would have been nice if free speech had prevented that, for the purposes of our argument we’re assuming that it didn’t. But just being made President doesn’t make him Hitler, he has to start doing evil things, and if he starts making all the Muslims wear crescent moon armbands, we’ll hear about it, and presumably do something. The best way for him to get away with doing evil stuff is if we don’t hear about it.

It may be overly simplistic to say that free speech is all that prevents Trump (or anyone) from becoming Hitler, but that’s only because speech itself is so complicated. Setting aside the difficulties of keeping people from finding out about Trump’s Hitlerish acts, if it were possible and people actually could be kept in the dark it would be very effective in suppressing dissent. It’s true that in addition to the protection of free speech that we also have Congress and the Supreme Court to protect us. But as I mentioned above Russia and China also have legislatures and courts and it hasn’t prevented Putin or Xi Jinping from being authoritarian. Also, closer to home, we’ve discovered that it’s relatively trivial to gridlock Congress, and with the next President possibly appointing four new justices, I’m not so sure the Supreme Court will be of much help either.

Additionally don’t forget the vast expansion of executive power which has happened over the last century or so, and the President’s unique influence over the military. (Particularly since congress was cut out of the process of declaring war.)  You may be thinking that I am saying that Trump could stage some sort of military coup. While anything’s possible that seems pretty unlikely, but I have much more confidence in the ability of free and open speech to keep him in check than relying on every member of the military to remember their oath to the constitution, or in Trump’s inability to use the military in some other way to boost his popularity. Recall that Putin boosted his approval ratings both by using the military in Chechnya and in his recent annexation of Crimea.

Perhaps the example of the aspiring Hitler has convinced you of the importance of free speech, or perhaps you were convinced already. However, it is almost certain that however important you think speech is that it you don’t believe that it should be entirely unrestricted. Most people, at a minimum, would argue for a ban on child pornography, and I am no exception. But this still leaves us needing to draw a line somewhere between speech that prevents a second Hitler, and child pornography. Where should that line be drawn? A lot depends on the value provided by certain forms of speech and expression. Child pornography provides zero value and causes incalculable harm (to be honest it makes me uncomfortable even typing the words.) While preventing a second Hitler is one of the more valuable things that we can do, as it prevents incalculable harm.

At first glance one straightforward way to approach the problem would just be to figure out at which point the net benefit of speech is negative and draw the line there. Unfortunately while that may appear to be a straightforward solution it is anything but. For one thing, as I already mentioned, logistically it’s very hard to do, particularly in the age of the internet. That said, it’s not impossible. I think censorship by the Chinese government has been more effective than the Information Wants to be Free Crowd would like to admit. Of course that effectiveness has only been possible through a huge degree of centralization, something most Americans would strenuously object to if for no other reason than its potential for abuse (which the Chinese have more than adequately demonstrated.) But for the moment let’s move past the logistical difficulties and just focus on the thorny problem of determining the ultimate value of any given bit of speech

I hear a lot of people arguing that as the internet has increased the quantity of speech that the quality of speech has declined. As the saying goes, on the internet, no one knows that you’re a dog and all opinions seem to carry equal weight. People like to point to the good old days when Walter Cronkite would soberly report the evening news in an objective and dispassionate fashion, with none of the fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, speculation or innuendo of the internet. And yet, this doesn’t seem to have worked all that much better. To put things in context, Walter Cronkite became the evening anchor at CBS in 1962 and yet in 1964 we had the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, one of the more egregious examples of the government misleading people, a cover up with arguably very serious consequences. And yet as far as I’m aware no major news outlets of the day managed to uncover the truth, which was that no attack had occurred and that Secretary McNamara had distorted the evidence in an effort to get Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

I can’t say for certain how the Gulf of Tonkin would have played out in this day and age, but I think it’s safe to say that an accurate assessment of what happened would be out there somewhere. And it might even have been pretty easy to find. On the other hand there would have been a lot of false and misleading speculation as well. And even if an accurate description of events had been out there and easy to find, you still would have to recognize that it was the truth, sifting it out from all the other theories which would have emerged. My sense of the situation, therefore, is that we are more likely to have access to accurate information, but only because we have access to more information, both true and false. Therefore one question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is better to have the truth out there somewhere, but buried in a thousand blogs and a million Facebook posts, or is it better to not have access to the truth at all?

Let’s turn from examining how free speech played out (or didn’t as the case may be) in the age of Cronkite to examining how it played out in the age of the internet, using the example of the Clinton email controversy. You may from this assume that I’m done picking on Trump, but in reality you could use any scandal or controversy as an example. I use the email controversy because it’s the biggest item of news at the moment and it represents a real free speech issue with some people arguing that FBI Director Comey is a hero and other people casting him as a villain.

For the purposes of our thought experiment let’s further assume that the email controversy would not have come out in the age of Cronkite. Obviously I can’t say that for sure (though they didn’t have email, so that’s one argument) certainly Watergate came to light and resulted in the resignation of Nixon, but I think the fact that Johnson and McNamara were able to cover up the Gulf of Tonkin, arguably far more serious that anything people have even imagined Clinton doing, leads me to believe that there is a good chance that Clinton’s email issues would not have come out at all. Plus, once again if you can’t imagine a scenario under which Clinton’s email issues would not have eventually seen the light of day, pick one of the other dozens of controversies and scandals that have come out in this election and surely out of all of them one or more would not have come out in the pre-internet era. In other words if you’re uncomfortable with using Clinton’s emails, then use the scandal of your choice as an example.

This leaves us with four possibilities with respect to Clinton’s email controversy, and more particularly their impact:

1- The accusations will cost her the presidency but they shouldn’t.

2- The accusations will cost her the presidency and they should.

3- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

4- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency but they should have.

When we examine these possibilities it becomes clear that only the first reflects a situation where too much free speech was the problem. Here the accusations should not have kept her from the presidency and yet they did.

The second possibility is a triumph of free speech. This is free speech working as intended, the accusations reflected something bad enough that she shouldn’t have been president. And that’s what happened.

The third possibility would have to be taken as evidence that people can handle all the free speech we have and then some. That despite the enormous coverage given the controversy, people correctly intuited that it shouldn’t keep her from being President.

The fourth possibility is hard to view in any other way than as a failure caused by too little free speech. If the accusations should have cost her the presidency but didn’t, then why didn’t they. Probably because the true extent was never known.

Of course speaking of never knowing, while we will know on November 9th (unless something crazy happens) whether Clinton is President, we may never know if the accusations flowed from something serious enough to disqualify her from the presidency.

Out of all these possibilities only number one is an example of there being too much free speech, but of course that’s also the one that Clinton supporters probably find most alarming. In fact if Trump does win this will almost certainly be the explanation that many people offer. That the email controversy and in particular the latest revelations, cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

For many of these people the true tragedy will not be that Clinton lost, but that Trump won. And given their fear and loathing of Trump it will appear, in retrospect, that restricting his speech and the speech of his supporters would have not only been justified, but patriotic, particularly if they think that too much free speech was the problem. Of course as always we have to ask who would have implemented these restrictions? And how can we be sure that they wouldn’t be abused, either now or later? To return to the subject of my last episode, Facebook and Twitter could have applied speech restrictions and it would have been legal, and it may, if Trump ended up as bad as they feared, have saved the country. Surely this justifies a few restrictions?

But look back to where we started this episode, to the key difference between Russia, China and the USA. Free speech is our best protection against authoritarianism and that includes Trump’s. Any weakening of it, even in service of what appears to be noble goals, makes it that much easier to get rid of free speech entirely when it becomes inconvenient. The fact that censorship and authoritarianism go hand in hand is not some weird coincidence. It’s only by eroding free speech that authoritarianism can flourish. Therefore any erosion, however legal, however justified, can make it that much easier to do away with free speech entirely when the time comes. Also it’s important to remember that whenever one “side” uses a tool they make it that much easier for the other “side” to use that tool when the end up in power.

To phrase it another way do we want to mangle free speech to prevent Trump from becoming President, and risk having him become president anyway? Only now in addition whatever harm he causes as President we’ve given him a precedent of free speech restrictions to use on top of that. Or do we want to keep the principle of free speech as strong as possible knowing that it’s our best defence against whatever shenanigans he might try to pull? Even if in the short term our defence of free speech makes it more likely for him to be elected?

This is an important point to emphasis. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the New York Times and any other newspaper you care to name could pull out all the stops and refuse to give Trump any positive coverage (they may already be doing that) and this could not only fail to stop him from becoming President, but make the situation worse if he does become President. In fact they may already be making the situation worse. Any accurate assessment of Trump’s popularity would have to take into account that a huge amount of his support comes from people who are angry at the censorship they already perceive. As an example, it’s entirely possible that things like shadowbanning Scott Adams help Trump more than they hurt him.

At the end it boils down the ancient trade-off between short-term and long term gains. It’s entirely possible that certain restrictions on speech would be beneficial, as this most crazy of all elections nears its end. (Okay 1860 was probably crazier, but who remembers that.) I certainly don’t claim to be wise enough to know what those restrictions would be or even which side to apply them to. But, I do know, that free speech occupies such an important defensive position that any long term weakening in service of short term goals is a potentially fatal mistake.

We’ve gone so long without any serious censorship (certainly nothing to rival Russia and China) that I think we no longer worry about it. For many people the idea of the United States descending into authoritarianism appears as probable as Elvis being found alive (he would be 81, nearly 82), but I assure you that it’s not. Free speech isn’t free, it’s costly, and yes, with things like child pornography (there’s that phrase again) there should be restrictions, but we should be very careful about those restrictions, even, if not particularly, when it comes to stuff we hate. As expressed so memorably by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.:

…if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.


Scott Adams and What Counts as Censorship?

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You may be familiar with Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. According to Wikipedia, as of 2013 it was syndicated in 2000 newspapers in 65 countries and 25 languages. I say “as of 2013” because he’s been doing some things recently which have made him less popular, or at least have made a segment of people very angry with him (his net popularity may have actually increased.) Most of the evidence for this is self-reported, so there is some chance it’s a fabrication, but based on what he’s written I would be very surprised if it wasn’t in fact true, knowing, as I do, the sorts of things which make people mad. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to know that anytime someone stakes out a strong political opinion, and particularly when that strong political opinion could be viewed as a defense of Trump (Adams is now endorsing Johnson, wait now he’s back to Trump) they’re going to get some backlash.

One of Adam’s claims is that Twitter (and Periscope, which is owned by Twitter) is Shadowbanning him. (With respect to Twitter, shadowbanning consists of not sending your tweets to all or most of your followers. With Periscope, Adams claim is that they artificially lowered the number of followers who were being displayed.) Adams is not the first to make this claim and he won’t be the last and as I said I see no reason to doubt what he says. His posts on the subject provide evidence to support his assertions and he’s quite calm about it. This is not someone with an obvious axe to grind, and he’s even reasonable enough to admit that it might not be happening, but one of the reasons it’s called shadowbanning is that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. The actual mechanism is murky (as you might imagine from the word shadow.)

Obviously if Adams doesn’t know for sure if he’s being shadowbanned I sure don’t, but even people who offer up alternative explanations for shadowbanning acknowledge that it exists. It seems more a question of how widespread it is, though there certainly are lots of people who think they’re being shadowbanned. Regardless of how widespread it is, or whether Adams is affected or whether it’s ideologically motivated it definitely represents a disturbing new weapon in the ongoing war over free speech, which has been heating up over the last few years.

I’m sure you’ve heard of this war, which mostly appears to be raging on America’s campuses. Everyone from The Atlantic to Zerohedge has written about it. (What? You haven’t heard of Zerohedge? Well there goes my clever A-Z construction. How about everyone from The Atlantic to The Economist?) And most of the articles are built around one or more ridiculous examples of someone objecting to something which appears fairly trivial. (a song, the cultural appropriation of a hair style or any of these 13 things.) I could do the same and fill up the article with similar ridiculous examples, but as I said that’s been done already, a lot. Which is to say this is not going to be a post rehashing the issue or another call for college kids to lighten up. What I want to talk about is what counts as censorship because I think that’s a more interesting way of approaching the issue. But before we can talk about censorship i.e. preventing free speech, we need to establish what free speech is in the first place.

The first and most legally consequential definition of free speech is just what it says in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” Under this definition, unless the government is doing something to restrict your speech, you still have it. Which means that only the government can censor people. Even here there are exceptions. The Supreme Court has ruled that obscenity, threatening immediate violence, and false statements can be restricted without violating someone’s free speech. You may have also heard of the shouting fire in a crowded theater standard. Though it should be noted that this particular standard applies to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. If there actually is a fire, basically the opposite standard applies…

The government is generally not considered a battleground in the current war over free speech. Most people seem to think that it does a pretty good job of not censoring people. Though some may argue that they don’t need to since any necessary censorship is already carried out more effectively by the public at large. But I do think the recent scandal over the IRS disproportionately targeting conservative and tea party groups could be framed as a free speech issue, though few people seem to be making that connection. (The Wikipedia article doesn’t make any mention of a free speech angle.)  In any event there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem with the government arresting people for what they say.

And for some people this is exactly the standard they apply, unless the government is actually arresting no censorship is taking place. But the First Amendment doesn’t mention imprisonment, and it doesn’t even mention censorship. What it actually says is that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. I see lots of articles mentioning censorship, and it’s presence or lack, but I don’t see any mention of whether free speech is being abridged, which is what the First Amendment actually prohibits.

As usual with the Constitution the language was chosen very carefully, and abridge is interesting not only because it makes you think of a book, but because it implies a lighter hand than censorship. Obviously the way language is used changes over time, and abridge appears to have had a stronger connotation at the time the Constitution was written than it does now, but’s it not as if the word “censor” didn’t exist. The Framers chose abridge for a reason, and I think the implication we should take, with respect to interpreting the First Amendment, is that it’s not enough to avoid outright banning, but that we should be avoiding any diminishment of speech.

At the opposite end from the “only action by the federal government counts as a restriction of free speech” are people who feel that unless they can say anything they want in any setting without consequence that censorship, in some form, is taking place. But is this actually true? In the way that some people believe that unless the government is arresting you your free speech has not been violated, are there some people who believe the opposite? That unless people are being arrested for preventing speech that they don’t truly have freedom of speech? I don’t think so. I can’t find any calls to cart away network executives in chains if they cancel a TV show, or to lock up Jack Dorsey when someone is banned from Twitter or to round up the Mozilla board of directors when Brendan Eich was forced out.

This is not to say that people don’t get angry about these things, but their anger is not about what people can do, their anger is about what people should do. This may seem like a fine point, but a lot hinges on it. Legally, networks can cancel shows, and they can ban you from posting on Twitter, and they can fire you, and all based on what you said, but should they? As I see it the two sides are arguing past each other. The one side is arguing what censorship is technically, and the other side is arguing what censorship is morally. These are two completely different arguments, and while the former just appears to be looking at what they can get away with the later debate might actually include a discussion of what’s best for the intellectual health of students and citizens and the country as a whole.

To return to Adams and Twitter, the question of whether they can shadowban him is easy. They can, Adams himself admits it. And for many people that’s the end of the story, there is no separation between the ability to do something and the appropriateness of doing something. As you may have already guessed I am arguing that they shouldn’t and I’m going to make the argument that it should be considered censorship from a few different angles.  What I’m not going to be arguing is that free speech is some sort of absolute good, though that’s not far from my true feelings, but for the purposes of the present discussion it will help if I’m more specific.

My first point is made best by drawing a comparison. Imagine if one company ran all the newspapers in the country. It might be legal, it might still produce objective news, but it would definitely be worrying (they might even make a movie about it). The potential for abuse is just too great for people to not be concerned. People would, quite understandably, wonder why the government hadn’t broken it up. In fact, it would be nearly impossible for the government to not have a demonstrated interest in a single nationwide newspaper company, as either a monopoly which should be broken up, a monopoly which had been granted for some reason (like baseball) or at a minimum a monopoly to keep an eye on. And yet very few people are concerned about the effective monopoly of Facebook, or of Twitter (within its niche) but is this a case where technology has outstripped the ability of government to react to it? In other words one argument about whether shadowbanning is censorship hinges on Twitter’s dominant position. It’s not as if CNN has banned Adams, but he can still go on Fox News. There is no real competitor to Twitter, despite their troubles (which is not to say people aren’t trying.) The monopoly is even more apparent with Facebook, which made the news recently when it was revealed that employees within Facebook were suppressing conservative content.

One of the reasons why it’s so important that the government not abridge freedom of speech is that they have a monopoly. In the government’s case it’s a monopoly on the use of force, but it’s really the monopoly part that’s important. Other monopolies, particularly monopolies on modes of speech, have a similar moral responsibility to not censor. Once again, this has nothing to do with what they can do, but what they should do. And because of their effective monopoly, what Facebook and Twitter should do is very similar to what the government, another monopoly, should do.

The second argument concerns the particulars of shadowbanning. I don’t know about you, but I find the practice to be particularly Orwellian. We’ve already granted that Twitter can ban people, and I think that if they’re going to do that they just should, ideally with a reason why. In other words, if Twitter doesn’t want you on their platform they should have the guts to say it to your face. I would think the morality of this should be obvious, but if not perhaps it would help to look at reasons why they might shadowban people rather than outright banning them. The key feature of the shadowban is that there is no notification. Why is that? You would imagine that if they wanted to warn someone about their inappropriate behavior that they would send them a warning, something very clear and unmistakable. But they don’t which leads me to believe that it’s purpose is not to warn people. But if that’s not it’s purpose, what is? It seems specifically designed to restrict speech, but in a way that people won’t notice. This makes it difficult to complain about it, or even to know what’s going on, as we see in the case of Adams.

I said it was Orwellian, and on reflection it may be closer to Brave New World. Where people are distracted by the illusion of agency and control, while actually possessing neither. Also, as long as we’re talking about the First Amendment, there’s another section to it, which might bear on this topic. The First Amendment also grants people the right “peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Imagine if the government allowed a gathering on the National Mall. A typical protest where you can have your signs and you can yell and march, and do do all the normal things you do at a protest. But in reality, rather than letting you protest on the National Mall, the government, without your knowledge, secretly funnels you into the holodeck from Star Trek. As far as you can tell you’re marching towards the Capital waving your sign, with protesters as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t feel pretty good about things, surveying the vast uprising that you’re a part of. But in the end it’s just a holodeck, and you haven’t really done any marching or any protesting. In reality you’re just a guy in a box shouting at himself.

To recap, thus far the arguments are, Facebook and Twitter should be held to a standard nearly as high as the government because of their de facto monopoly in social networks, and micro-blogging respectively. And that shadowbanning is creepy and dystopian. I want to look at free speech from one final perspective. I predict that I may be walking into a minefield, but I think the comparison I’ll be making is not without merit.

In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal, and from that point, though there was fierce resistance in many states, it was the law of the land that the government couldn’t segregate people on the basis of race. However private companies were still allowed to refuse service to blacks, as was the case in one memorable instance in 1957 when the Finance Minister of Ghana stopped at a Howard Johnson’s in Delaware and tried to order orange juice, only to be refused service. (Eisenhower personally apologized.) It wasn’t until the 1964 Civil Rights Act that it was made illegal for businesses to refuse service on the basis of race, under the doctrine of public accommodation.

These days it seems obvious that a hotel shouldn’t be able to refuse to give someone a room on the basis of race, but back then it wasn’t obvious. While it’s been clear since the founding of the republic that the government needed to be under certain restrictions, precisely because of the monopoly on force that I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t clear at all that the same restrictions should be placed on private businesses. The doctrine of public accommodation was their way around that. Not only were these businesses open to the public, but they used government provided roads and utilities. Consequently, while not part of the government they could nevertheless be placed under the same restrictions concerning discrimination.

Perhaps you can already see where I’m going with this, but if not, free speech is in the same situation the Civil Rights movement found itself in after Brown, but before the Civil Rights Act. There’s lots of things we don’t think the government should be able to do, but we’re okay with private businesses doing them. If you think this comparison is valid (and if you don’t think it’s valid I’m interested in hearing why). Then you’re left with one of three options:

1- Free speech is less important than preventing discrimination. And that’s why we allow a different standard to exist.

2- We should extend the same basic restrictions the government operates under to businesses which provide a public accommodation, particularly as it relates to speech.

3- The Civil Rights Act was a mistake and we shouldn’t apply any restrictions to private businesses in terms of racial discrimination just as we don’t with apply any restriction as regards speech.

I have a hard time believing that anyone is going to stake out option three as their position, particularly the kind of people who are offended by Scott Adams and others like him. (Rand Paul tried it and it worked about as well as you would expect.) This leaves either number one or number two. Number two assumes that you think that free speech is at least as important as preventing discrimination (otherwise we’re talking about option 1). And if you do, and you accept the comparison I made, then option two is the only logical choice. I win!

If you don’t want me to win (and, frankly, who could blame you) and you don’t want to get crucified for supporting option three. Your only defensible position, as far as I can tell, is to admit that free speech is less important than preventing discrimination. Perhaps you’re fine with that, perhaps you honestly feel that free speech isn’t especially important, particularly when, in this day and age, it appears to frequently result in threats and harassment. And even if you’re a big believer in free speech, like myself, it’s still appropriate to wonder what value it actually has. Why did the founders consider it so important? Important enough to be the very first amendment? What role does it serve? How does it improve our society, and our country?

These questions are particularly important right now on the eve of the election. If freedom of the press is ever important it has to be especially important when deciding who to vote for. And it can only exercise that importance if free speech is a way of improving the outcome in an election. The most obvious way it could do that is by disseminating truth.

There are some who would argue that in this day and age free speech is doing the exact opposite of that. We see articles lamenting the fact free election, we hear podcasts where the host complains that facts have become irrelevant. But if this is true (and I’m not convinced that it is) how do we decide which speech to allow and which speech to restrict? Certain people want to claim that it’s clear what’s factual and what’s not, and that we just have to impose restrictions based on that. But is it really that clear? I’m not sure that it is. I’ve already written about the questions which have been raised concerning Hillary’s health, and some people will declare it as fact that she’s in perfect health. But these same people were also saying she was in perfect health right up until the moment that she collapsed on September 11th and for several hours afterward. I remind you that I freely admit that I don’t know how healthy Clinton is. Just that people want to declare something like Clinton’s health to be a fact in the same way that it’s a fact that light travels 299,792,458 meters/second, and unfortunately those two are not equivalent.

But even if there was a foolproof way to designate something as a fact and a non-dangerous way to put a single organization in charge of applying that restriction (could we get unicorns farting rainbows while we’re at it?) distributing non-factual information is not why Adams and others like him are being shadowbanned. As far as I can tell Adams is being shadowbanned for expressing unpopular opinions. I am not claiming by this that this is the only reason that people get (shadow)banned, I’m claiming that when we examine all the reasons for someone to get banned saying things which are factually incorrect does not appear very high on the list, if it appears at all. Interestingly, while I was writing this post, the news reported that numerous Facebook employees wanted to remove Trump’s posts because they considered them hate speech. If you search the article I just linked to the words “untrue”, “lies”, “fact” and “false” do not appear.

Now, it might be that Trump did say things that were untrue, but it was just easier to make the hate speech argument. This takes us off into another realm where gallons of ink have been spilled, with arguments about whether people have a right to not be offended, and we’re already basically out of space. I’ll just leave you with two final thoughts:

First, it’s clear from the fact that many of the founders were slave-holders that they did not consider preventing discrimination to be more important than free speech. In fact they didn’t consider to be an issue at all. In this they were certainly incorrect, but are we so sure that it should be flipped to the point where preventing discrimination goes from having zero attention paid to it to being more important than free speech?

Finally, if you question the value of free speech I urge you to take a look at countries where free speech is restricted, and consider that in many ways this restriction represents one of the few differences between those countries and the United States. We’ll continue discussing this in my next post


And There Was Silence in Heaven…

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And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

Revelation 8:1

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

Doctrine and Covenants 87:6

I sometimes worry that I have made it impossible for anyone to read my blog unless they think exactly the same as I do (or are REALLY open-minded). For anyone who’s not religious, there’s too much religion. For anyone who is religious there’s too much science fiction. For anyone who’s a religious science fiction buff, there’s too much that’s specifically Mormon. For Mormon science fiction buffs there’s too much pessimism. If, after all that, you happen to be a pessimistic Mormon science fiction buff, then you may have felt right at home so far. Well we can’t have that, so for this post I’m going to throw in some crazy speculation, and engage in the sort of thing normally restricted to numerologists, apocalyptic prophets, and seminary teachers. Okay, I’m not going to get into as much speculation as the average seminary teacher, but I wanted to err on the side of over-selling things.

I started the post off with a couple of scriptural references. I’ll be contrarian by discussing the second verse first. That verse is from D&C 87, the section of the D&C where in 1832 Joseph Smith predicts that there will be a Civil War and it will start in South Carolina. Which is at least somewhat impressive considering that this was almost 30 years before the actual Civil War, which actually did start in South Carolina. But more important for our purposes he goes from predicting the Civil War in basically a straight line to verse 6, quoted above, which ends by predicting a “full end of all nations.” So what happened? It’s been over 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we certainly haven’t seen the “full end of all nations.” And, frankly, the famines, plagues and vivid lightning have been underwhelming as well.

You might reply that Joseph was wrong, and that he wasn’t a prophet (though I would argue that just being wrong on this point doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t a prophet.) This is certainly one possibility. But this is a Mormon blog, so we’re obviously not going to spend much time on the idea that Joseph was wrong. We’re going to proceed from the assumption that he was right. But of course even if he wasn’t, he is not alone in predicting some sort of apocalypse. Not only do we have the rest of Christianity to add to that, but there’s also a pancultural millennial impulse appearing even in places not know to be bastions of Christianity like India and China. And this was all part of the zeitgeist before we even had nuclear weapons. Surely if it seemed like the apocalypse was inevitable before that, the addition of nukes could only change things from “maybe” to “definitely.”

And yet, since those two terrible days in 1945, when nuclear weapons were actually used in anger things have been fairly calm. Nukes have not been used again (outside of tests). There have been no wars between the great powers. The whole period is unusual enough that people have called it the Long Peace, and other people have written books about the eventual extinction of war in books like The Better Angels of our Nature and The Remnants of War. So if Joseph Smith predicted that the American Civil War would be the beginning of the end, why have we had 70 years of relative peace?

And here we finally turn to the first scripture and the theme of this post, the silence in heaven and here, we begin our speculation. Obviously speculation can’t get anywhere without making some assumptions. Our first assumption will be that the silence spoken of refers to a period of relative calm. No big disasters, no big wars, no worldwide famines or plagues, etc. The second assumption is that the opening of the seventh seal refers to the time immediately preceding the Second Coming (an assumption backed up by McConkie’s chapter heading). The final assumption (at least to start) is that the half hour is based on a day lasting a 1000 years. With all these initial assumptions in place we can begin by speculating that the Long Peace is just the half hour of silence mentioned in Revelation before the action really starts. In other words the Long Peace is part of the plan, and Joseph wasn’t wrong, we just needed to combine his apocalyptic prophecies with the apocalyptic prophecies of John and it all makes sense. Except…

Except that 1000 / 24 = ~42. So one hour in a thousand year day only equals around 42 years, which means that half an hour is only around 21 years, which is way too short to account for the 70 years of peace we’ve had. Of course it does say “about” the space of a half an hour, but you would assume that anything above around 31 years and it would have been more accurate to say “about” the space of an hour. So at this point we’ve realized that it’s a dead end and we end this post and I see you next week, right? No! What kind of rampant speculator would I be if I just called it a day there? The next step is obviously to take our period of 70 years and see if we can find some 21-31 year slice which might fit the bill. In other words we have to take parts of that 70 years and make them, metaphorically, noisy.

As grim as it might be, in this case deaths are a useful proxy for “noise”, thus, not to get too clinical about it, if a lot of people died at the beginning or end of those 70 years we’d start our half hour clock after that or end it before that.

Looking towards the beginning of the period, while it’s commonly believed that World War II wrapped everything up in a tight little bow, Stalin and Mao were still out there. And even if you ignore the Cold War they were killing millions of their own citizens in the years following the war. Presumably Stalin stopped killing people when he died in 1953 (though you never know, killing people beyond the grave is exactly the kind of thing Stalin would do.) But Mao was around much longer, and is thought to have (indirectly) caused the deaths of nearly 45 million during the Great Leap Forward, which didn’t end until 1961. Most of those people died from famine, which is one of the things mentioned in section 87. In the end, regardless of the cause, the premature deaths of 45 million people or more than half of everyone who died during World War II gives us ample justification for moving the start of the half hour of silence to at least 1962.

If the silence begins in 1962, it would have to have ended sometime between 1983 and 1993.  That obviously still doesn’t get us where we want to be, since if anything rather than marking the renewed start of violence and famine and plagues and earthquakes* that period contained the end of the Cold War. But if we’re trying to extend the “noisy” period, what about the Cold War? Would it count? I said already that I was going to use death as a proxy for noise and in this particular case the Cold War was not particularly “noisy”. Of course there was the Korean War and Vietnam. Both of which saw the deaths of a few million people. And while I don’t want to minimize either war, they don’t quite seem to rise to the level of what we’re looking for. But if we abandon the standard of deaths (I know I’m abandoning a standard I proposed, but trust me you do this all the time during rampant speculation.) Could we make a case for the Cold War?

*Speaking of earthquakes there was an earthquake in China in 1976, which you have probably never heard of, which is estimated to have killed a quarter of a million people. Still nothing to compare to the Great Leap Forward. But, in terms of percent of population this would be equivalent to 94,000 people dying in the US, or 50x as bad as Katrina.

The best case to be made would be built around the potential for death and destruction. And while it never came to that (though it came close several times) the potential was there on a scale never before imagined. If we decide to assume that the Cold War fits our criteria for “noise” and that the half hour of silence would have to start after it ended, then that pushes the start all the way from 1945 to 1989. (I’m going with the fall of the Berlin Wall as the beginning of the end). When you combine the unraveling Soviet Union with the Tiananmen Square protests, which also happened in 1989, it really seemed like a long nightmare had just ended. It was earth-shattering enough to lead people like Francis Fukuyama (who we pick on a lot) to declare the end of history. (The essay on which the book as based was also written in 1989.) Frankly, I’m getting a pretty good feeling about 1989. (To cap it all off that’s the year I graduated from high school.)

All of this is of course rampant speculation and of limited (if not nonexistent) utility. So why engage in it? While there is a certain esoteric draw in trying to understand the scriptures in this fashion, I do it more to bring out a larger point. (Though I shouldn’t minimize the pleasure I take in engaging in a little apocalyptic nerdery.) And the larger point is that we shouldn’t mistake the current “silence” for the first day of summer, when it’s actually just a temporary calm as we pass through the eye of the storm. And I believe that it’s safe to say that we’re more likely in the eye of the storm regardless what you believe about Joseph Smith, or the Bible.

There are four reasons why the eye of the storm model is better:

1- It corresponds more closely to reality. People want to talk about the Long Peace, but as I pointed out 45 million people died in a four year period under Mao. This event was unique only in scale. Something similar happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 when 25% of the population died. While this only represents 2 million people, it was still 25%!!! I know this trick is getting old, but if translated to the US that would represent the deaths of 80 million people. Would anyone be making the Long Peace argument if that many people had died in the US regardless of the whether a foreign power had anything to do with it? In other words the Long Peace argument would appear to dismiss entirely or seriously undervalue internal political strife.

2- It is mathematically more robust. I already mentioned this in a previous post, but Taleb has show that the work of Pinker and others on this subject is not statistically valid. You can read his paper for a more detailed analysis, but in short, when you’re talking about the average level of violence in a period, that average is completely dominated by large, rare events. The example Taleb gives is of saying someone is extremely virtuous except for that time he gunned down 30 students. Our own period could be extremely peaceful except for that one nuclear war in 2027.

3- If we assume that the storm is about to start again, and we prepare accordingly, this has very little downside. As I’ve said before. If you’re wrong and it is the start of summer, than having been more cautious carries minimal expense. But if you’re right and it was just the eye of the storm then being more cautious may save your life.

4- Finally, if you are an active member of the Church with a testimony of Joseph Smith it accords better, not only with what he said but with what more recent prophets have been saying

Of course just knowing that you’re in the eye of the storm doesn’t allow you to stop the hurricane. You can only survive it.

There are, of course, people who don’t agree with these points. Certainly 1 could be a matter of opinion. I will leave Taleb to defend point 2, a task he is more than capable of. And of course point 4 is all about faith, which leaves us with point 3.

I see two avenues for attacking point 3. The first is that it pulls resources away from things that are more probable and more important and more beneficial. The second would be that it actually leads to dangerous millennialism where people either stop doing things in expectation of the end of the world, or they try to hasten the end of the world in some fashion reasoning that the perfect world only comes after the tribulations. The two objections are related, with the one being, essentially, just an extreme version of the other. I separate the two because the second case can snowball into something that can only be described as a mass hysteria. Of course examples like Harold Camping’s predictions in 2011 are easy to identify and ridicule, as are early examples like the Millerites. But more disturbing are the secular millennialists, since this is arguably what was going on during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cambodian genocide mentioned earlier. (See how I tie it all together.)

I think in discussing this it’s useful to examine the LDS Church’s stance on the matter. While not incredibly common it’s easy to find General Conference talks about the Second Coming. And you can even find talks about preparing the world for the Second Coming. Yet if you read these talks there is very little beyond exhortations to do more missionary work, and have more faith. Mormons have to no mass project to save the world (or to kill all people with glasses, like the Cambodian genocide) nor have the brethren given any hint of a date. In fact what the brethren constant urge is that we stay out of debt, have a 72 hour kit, and as much food storage as is practical. In other words, even in a religion with the concept of the Second Coming right in it’s name. It’s certainly possible to avoid the more extreme strands of millennialism.

But of course that still leaves us with the idea that by focusing too much on potential bad stuff that we can slow down or prevent the good stuff. Many people will confidently argue that if we spend all of our time fearing worst case scenarios that the best case scenarios will never come about. Well first, there is definitely a difference between taking precautions and being afraid. As the Mormons like to say, if ye are prepared ye shall not fear. And I don’t think that as a society that we spend too much time and money on preparedness for potential disasters. And I think all of the people involved in Hurricane Katrina would probably agree with me. I think if there’s any misallocation of resources it would be that we spend too much on short term band-aids and not enough on preventing long term calamities. That concept deserves it’s own post, but allow me to illustrate how it ties into our current subject.

My argument is that while it looks like the dawning of a new age of peace, prosperity and progress that this is actually just the eye of the hurricane. We want to believe, that with the exception of a few pesky terrorists that we’re still at the end of history, and it’s only a matter of time before peace and democracy and freedom will triumph everywhere. This is why people have no problem expanding NATO and pissing off the Russians (did you notice that a rollback of NATO was part of the demands Russia made when they suspended the arms control deal?) or deciding to risk war with Russia over Syria. Which might be forgivable if it was clear what we expected to accomplish. As far as I can tell we want to save lives and depose Assad and eliminate ISIS and promote a moderate, secular replacement and eventually rebuild the country into a modern democracy. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but it is certain that in trying to contain and manage this regional conflict we have increased tensions with Russia.

Tensions with Russia are bad because they have nukes, which I worry about, a lot. Obviously they’re pretty scary all on their own, but I worry that we have no experience conducting diplomacy in the presence of nukes. Allow me to explain what I mean. The history of the world since the invention of nuclear weapons can be divided up into three periods:

Period one: The US has nukes and no one else does. This lasted basically four years from the end of 1945 till the end of 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first nuke. I don’t know what diplomacy was like then. The war has the effect of overshadowing everything after it. But if we engaged in any diplomacy it should have been designed to prevent proliferation at all costs. Based on everything I know about Stalin it wouldn’t have worked. Churchill’s solution was to keep the war going and immediately pivot to the Soviet Union. I can certainly see where it might be argued that war-weariness kept us from achieving a truly decisive victory. And I see parallels between the two World Wars and between the two Gulf Wars. But I’m inclined to think that Churchill was wrong. Still if World War III had happened, say in the 60’s, if for instance the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone another way, then Churchill would have seemed prescient, but the farther we get from 1945 the less of a good idea it seems. (And as I said I think on balance it’s already a bad idea.)

Period Two: The bipolar cold war of mutual assured destruction. Here our diplomacy was all designed around getting countries into our sphere and keeping the Soviets from getting people into their sphere. And avoiding war through the promise that whatever the Soviets did to us, we’d do back to them. I’m not honestly sure how good we were at this sort of diplomacy or even if we were pursuing the right goals. (The older I get the more impressed I am by Nixon’s trip to China though, I can tell you that.) But regardless we survived, which was by no means a sure thing.

Period Three: A multipolar world where many countries have nukes. With the end of the Cold War it’s no longer just us vs. Russia, there are a lot of players. It’s entirely possible the biggest risk of nuclear war is between India and Pakistan, and however hard diplomacy was in bipolar world, it’s even more difficult in a multipolar world. And yet rather than being aware of that fact we seem to have reverted to some version of pre-1945 diplomacy, only with the addition of Churchill’s idea of imposing our will on the Russians, after they have nukes. While Churchill’s idea was misguided, doing it after the invention of the ICBM is suicidal.

What do we do about all this? You may have noticed that when I finally ended my speculation by concluding that the half hour of silence ended in 1989, that I never took the obvious next step and calculated when that would put the end of the half hour. You may have already done the calculation, but if not, it would put the end sometime between 2010 and 2020. Let’s all hope that I’m wrong.