Year: <span>2018</span>

Age of Em: Races and Rain

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This last Saturday I was hanging out with a friend of mine that I don’t see very often. This friend has a profound technical interest in AI and has spent many years working on it, though not in any formal capacity. That said he’s very smart, and my assumption would be that his knowledge runs at least as deep as mine if not much deeper. (Though I don’t think he’s spent much time on the philosophy of AI, in particular AI risk.) In short, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to call AI a long-term obsession of his.

Part of the reason for this is that he thinks that general AI, a single AI that can do everything a human can do, is only about 10 years away and if he wants to make his mark he has to do it now. This prediction of 10 years is about as optimistic as it gets (and indeed it’d be hard to compress the task into much less time than that.) If you conduct a broader survey of experts and aggregate their answers Human Level Machine Intelligence is more likely than not to be developed by 2060. Though there are certainly AI experts at least as optimistic as my friend and, on the other hand, some who basically think it will never happen. In fact, this might be a good description of the situation given that some of the data indicates there’s a bimodal distribution in attitudes, with lots of people thinking it’s just around the corner, and a lot thinking it’s going to take a very long time, if it ever happens, with few people in the middle.

(Interestingly there are significant cultural differences in predictions with the Chinese average coming in at 2044 and the American average coming in at 2092.)

Just recently, and as promised, I finished Robin Hanson’s book The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth and this whole discussion of AI probability is an important preface to any discussion of Hanson’s book because Hanson belongs to that category of people who think that human level machine intelligence is a long ways off. And that well before we figure out how to turn a machine into a brain, we’ll figure out how to turn a brain into a machine. Which is to say, he thinks we’ll be able to scan a brain and emulate it on a computer long before we can make a computer brain from scratch.

This idea is often referred to as brain uploading, and it’s been a transhumanist dream for as long as the concept has been around, though normally it sits together with AI in the big-bucket-of-science-fiction-awesomeness we’ll have in the future without much thought being given to how the two ideas might interact or, more likely, be in competition. One of Hanson’s more important contributions is to point out this competition, and pick brain emulation, or “ems”, for short, as the winner. Once you’ve picked a winner, the space of possible futures greatly narrows to the point where you can make some very interesting and specific predictions. And this is precisely what the Age of Em does. (Though perhaps with a level of precision some might find excessive.)

Having considering Hanson’s position and my friend’s position and the generic transhumanist position we are left with four broad views of the future (the fourth of which is essentially my position.)

First, the position of the AI optimists, who believe that human level machine intelligence is just a matter of time, that computers keep getting faster, algorithms keep getting better, and the domain of things which humans can do better than computers keeps narrowing. I would say that these optimists are less focused on exactly when the human intelligence finish line will be crossed and more focused on the inevitability of crossing that line.

Second, there’s the position of Hanson (and I assume a few others) who mostly agree with the above, but go on to point out (correctly) that there are two races being run. One for creating machine intelligence and one for successfully emulating the human brain. Both are singularities, and they’re betting that the brain emulation finish line is closer than the AI finish line, and accordingly that’s the future we should be preparing for.

Third, there’s the generic transhumanist position which holds that some kind of singularity is going to happen soon, and when it does it’s going to be awesome. But who have no strong opinion on whether it will be AI, brain emulation or some third thing (extensive cybernetic enhancement? Unlimited free energy from fusion power? Aliens?)

Finally there are those people, myself included, who think something catastrophic will happen which will derail all of these efforts. Perhaps, to extend the analogy, clouds are gathering over the race track, and if it starts to rain all the races will be canceled even if none of the finish lines have been reached. As I said this is my position, though it has more to do with the difficulties involved in these efforts, than in thinking catastrophe is imminent. Though I think all three of the other camps underestimate the chance of catastrophe as well.

The Age of Em is written to explain and defend the second case. Let’s start our discussion of it by examining Hanson’s argument that we will master brain emulation before we master machine intelligence. I was already familiar with this argument having encountered it in the Age of Em review on Slate Star Codex, which was also the first time I heard about the book. And then later, I heard the argument, in a more extended form when Robin Hanson was the keynote speaker at the 2017 Mormon Transhumanist Association Conference.

Both times I felt like Hanson downplayed the difficulty of brain emulation, and after hearing him speak I got up and asked him about the OpenWorm Project where they’re trying to model the brain of the C. elegans roundworm, which has a brain of only 302 neurons, so far without much success. Didn’t this indicate, I asked, that modelling the human brain, with it’s 100 billion neurons, was going to be nearly impossible? I don’t recall exactly what his answer was, but I definitely recall being unsatisfied by it.

Accordingly, one of the things I hoped to get out of reading the book was a more detailed explanation of this assumption, and in particular why he felt brain emulation was closer than machine intelligence. In this I was somewhat disappointed. I wouldn’t say that the book went into much more detail than Hanson did in his presentation. I didn’t come across any arguments about emulation in the book which Hanson left out of his presentation. That said, the book did make a much stronger case for the difficulties involved in machine intelligence, and I got a much clearer sense that Hanson isn’t so much an emulation optimist as he is an AI pessimist.

Since I started with the story of my friend, the AI optimist, it’s worth examining why Hanson is so pessimistic. I’ll allow him to explain:

It turns out that AI experts tend to be much less optimistic when asked about the topic they should know best: the past rate of progress in the AI subfield where they have the most expertise. When I meet other experienced AI experts informally, I am in the habit of asking them how much progress they have seen in their specific AI research subfield in the last 20 years. A median answer is about 5-10% of the progress required to reach human level AI.

He then argues that taking the past rate of progress and extending it forward is a better way of making estimations than having people make wild guesses about the future. And, that using this tactic, we should expect it to take two to four centuries before we have human level machine intelligence. Perhaps more, since getting to human level in one discipline does not mean that we can easily combine all those disciplines into fully general AI.

Though I am similarly pessimistic, in my friend’s defense I should point out that Age of Em was published in 2016, and thus almost certainly written before the stunning accomplishments of AlphaGo and some of the more recent excitement around image processing, both of which may now be said to be “human level”. It may be that after several eras of AI excitement which were inevitably followed by AI winters, that spring has finally arrived. Only time will tell. But my personal opinion is that there is still one more winter in our future.

I am on record as predicting that brain emulation will not happen in the next 100 years, but Hanson isn’t much more optimistic than I am and predicts it might take up to 100 years, and that the only reason he expects it before AI is that he expects AI to take 200-400 years. Meaning that in the end my actual disagreement with Hanson is pretty minor. Also I think that the skies are unlikely to remain dry for another 100 years, which means neither race will reach the finish line…  

I should also mention that in between seeing Hanson’s presentation at the MTA conference and now that my appreciation for his thinking has greatly increased, and I was glad to find that on the issue of emulation difficulty that we were more in agreement then I initially thought. Which is not to say that I don’t have my problems with Hanson or with the book.

I think I’ll take a short detour into those criticisms before returning to a discussion of potential futures. The biggest criticism I have concerns the length and detail of the book. Early on he says:

The chance that the exact particular scenario I describe in this book will actually happen just as I describe it is much less than one in a thousand. But scenarios that are similar to true scenarios, even if not exactly the same can still be a relevant guide to action and inference. I expect my analysis to be relevant for a large cloud of different but similar scenarios. In particular, conditional on my key assumptions, I expect at least 30% of the future situations to be usefully informed by my analysis. Unconditionally I expect at least 10%.

To begin with, I think the probabilities he gives suffer from being too confident, and he may be, ironically, doing something similar to AI researchers, whose guesses about the future are more optimistic than a review of past performance would indicate. I think if you looked back through history you’d be hard pressed to name a set of predictions made a hundred years in advance which would meet his 10% standard, let alone his 30% standard. And while I admire him for saying “much less than one in a thousand”. He then goes on to spend a huge amount of time and space getting very detailed about this “much less than one in a thousand” prediction. An example:

Em stories predictably differ from ours in many ways. For example, engaging em stories still tell morality tales, but the moral lessons slant toward those favored by the em world. As the death of any one copy is less of a threat to ems, the fear of imminent personal death less often motivates characters in em stories. Instead such characters more fear mind theft and other economic threats that can force the retirement of entire subclans. Death may perhaps be a more sensible fear for the poorest retirees whose last copy could be erased. While slow retirees might also fear an unstable em civilization, they can usually do little about it.

This was taken from the section on what stories will be like in the Age of Em, from the larger chapter on em society. And hopefully it gives you a taste of the level of detail Hanson goes into in describing this future society, and the number of different subjects he covers while doing so. As a setting bible for an epic series of science fiction novels, this book would be fantastic. But as just a normal non-fiction book one might sit down to read for enlightenment and enjoyment, it got a little tedious.

That’s really basically the end of my criticisms, and actually there is a hidden benefit to this enormous amount of detail. It not only describes a potential em society with amazing depth. It also sheds significant light on the third position I mentioned at the beginning, the vague, everything’s going to be cool transhumanist future. Hanson’s level of detail provides a stark contrast to the ideology of most transhumanists who have a big-bucket-of-science- fiction-awesomeness that might happen in the future but little in the way of a coherent vision for how they all fit together, or whether, as Hanson points out in the case of ems vs. AIs, they even can fit together

Speaking of big-bucket-of-science-fiction-awesomeness, and transhumanists, I already mentioned Hanson’s keynote at the MTA Conference, and while I hesitate to speculate too strongly, I suspect most MTA members did not think Hanson’s vision of the future was quite as wonderful or as “cool” as the future they imagine. (For myself, as you may have guessed, I came away convinced that this wasn’t a scenario I could ignore, and resolved to read the book.) But of course it could hardly be otherwise. Most historical periods (including our own) seem pretty amazing if you just focus on the high points, it’s when you get into the details and the drudgery of the day to day existence that they lose their shine. And for all that I wish that Hanson had spent more time in other areas (a point I’ll get back to) he does a superlative job of extrapolating even the most quotidian details of em existence.

In further support of my speculation that the average MTA member was not very excited about Hanson’s vision of the future, at their next conference, a year later, the first speaker mentioned Age of Em as an example of technology going too far in the direction of instrumentality. You may be wondering, what he meant by that, and thus far, other than a few hints here and there, I haven’t gone into too much detail about what the Age of Em future actually looks like. And I’ll only be able to give the briefest of overviews here, but as it turns out much of what we imagine about an AI future applies equally well in an em future. Both AIs and ems share the following broad features:

  1. They can be sped up: Once you’re able to emulate a human brain on a computer you can always turn the speed up. Presumably this would make the “person” being emulated experience time at that new speed. By speeding up the most productive ems, you could get years of work done every day. Hanson suggests the most common speed setting might be 1000 to 1, meaning that for every year of time which passes for normal humans, a thousand subjective years would pass for the most productive ems.
  2. They can be slowed down: You can do the reverse and slow down the rate at which time is experienced by an em. Meaning that rather than ever shutting down an em, you could put them into a very cheap “low resource state”. Perhaps they only experience a day for every month that passes for a normal human. Given how cheap this would be to maintain you could presumably keep these ems “alive” for a very long time.
  3. They can be copied: Because you can copy a virtual brain as many times as you want, not only can you have thousands if not millions of copies of the same individual, you’re also going to only choose the very “best” individual to copy. This means that the vast majority of brain emulations may be copies of only a thousand or so of the most suitable and talented humans.
  4. Other crazy things: You could create a copy each day to go to “work” and then delete that copy at the end of the day, meaning that the “main” em would experience no actual work. You could take a short break, but by turning up the speed make that short break into a subjective week long vacation. You could make a copy to hear sensitive information, allow that copy to make a decision based on that information, then destroy the copy after it had passed the decision along. And on and on.

Presumably at this point you have a pretty good idea of what the MTA speaker meant by going too far in the direction of instrumentality. Also since culture and progress are going to reside almost exclusively in the domain of the speediest ems, chosen from only a handful of individuals, it’s almost certain that no matter how solid your transhumanist cred, you’re going to be watching this future from the sidelines. (And actually even that analogy is far too optimistic, it will be more like reading a history book, and every morning there’s a new history book.)

The point of all of this is that there is significant risk associated with AI (position 1). Hanson points out that the benefits of widespread brain emulation will be very unequally distributed (position 2). Meaning that the two major hopes of transhumanists both promise futures significantly less utopian than initially expected. We still have the vague big-bucket-of-science fiction-awesomeness hope (position 3). But I think Hanson has shown that if you subject any individual cool thing to enough scrutiny it will end up having significant drawbacks. The future is probably not going to go how we expect even if the transhumanists are right about the singularity, and even if we manage to avoid all the catastrophes lying in wait for us (position 4).

The problem with optimistic views of the future (which would include not only the transhumanists, but people like Steven Pinker) is that they’re all based on picking an inflection point somewhere in the not too distant past. The point where everything changed. They then ignore all the things which happened before that inflection point and extrapolate what the future will be like based only on what has happened since. But as I mentioned in a previous post, Hanson is of the opinion that current conditions are anomalous, and that extrapolating from them is exactly the wrong thing to do because they can’t continue. They’re the exception, not the rule. He calls the current period we’re living in “dreamtime” because, for a short time we’re free from the immediate constraints of survival.

Age of Em covers this idea as well, and at slightly greater length than the blogpost where he initially introduced the idea. And when I complain about the book’s length and the time it spends discussing every nook and cranny of em society, I’m mostly complaining about the fact that he could have spent some of that going into more detail on this idea, the idea of “dreamtime”. Also his discussion of larger trends is fascinating as well. And, in the end, I would have preferred for Hanson to have spent most of his time discussing broad scenarios, rather than spending so much on this one, very specific, scenario. Because, as you’ll recall, I’m a believer in the fourth position, that something will derail us in the next 100 years before Hanson’s em predictions are able to come to fruition, and largely because of the things he points out in his more salient (in my opinion) observations about the current “dreamtime”.  

We have also, I will argue, become increasingly maladaptive. Our age is a “dreamtime” of behavior that is unprecedentedly maladaptive, both biologically and culturally. Farming environments changed faster than genetic selection could adapt, and the industrial world now changes faster than even cultural selection can adapt. Today, our increased wealth buffers us more from our mistakes, and we have only weak defenses against the super-stimuli of modern food, drugs, music, television, video games and propaganda. The most dramatic demonstration of our maladaptation is the low fertility rate in rich nations today.

This is what I would have liked to hear more about. This is a list of problems that is relevant now. And which, in my opinion at least, seem likely to keep us from ever getting either AI or ems or even just the big-bucket-of-science-fiction-awesomeness. Because in essence what he’s describing are problems of survival, and as I have said over and over again, if you don’t survive you can’t do much of anything else. And brain emulation and AI and science fiction awesomeness are all on the difficult end of the “stuff you can do” continuum on top of this. I understand that some exciting races are being run, and that the finish line seems close, but I still think we should pay at least some attention to the gathering storm.


If the phrase “big-bucket-of-science-fiction-awesomeness” made you smile, even a little bit, consider donating. Wordsmithing of that level isn’t cheap. (Okay maybe it is, but still…)


Modern Monetary Theory: It’s the Inflation, Stupid

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One of the things lacking in modern political discourse are good-faith attempts to truly understand the other side. Anyone who doubts this need merely look at any of the many political fights over the last few years, including the Kavanaugh nomination I talked about last week. As an antidote to this, several solutions have been offered. The first, is what’s called an Ideological Turing Test, and it was proposed several years ago by Bryan Caplan, a noted libertarian economist. His idea was that someone could demonstrate that they truly understood their opponent’s position if they could explain it well enough to be indistinguishable from an actual supporter of the position. Much in the way that a computer could be said to have passed the original Turing Test by being indistinguishable from a human.

Another proposed solution was offered up by Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex, who urged people to engage in steelmanning. On the internet it’s common to see people strawman their opponents argument, which is to offer up the weakest and most ridiculous version of it, and attack that. To steelman their argument is the opposite, it’s to offer up the very best version of their argument.

Both of these are very similar ideas, and both are things I should do more often. It could be argued that last week’s post might have benefited from a little more steelman. Though I really think last week there were actually three sides. The two sides that are sure that they know what happened, (and what should happen now) and a third side which is sure that no one knows what really happened, and that the first two sides are just displaying their built in political biases, and then attempting to make what little evidence there is seem ironclad. But while I have no desire to go back and revisit last week’s post (okay I have some desire to do that, but I’m also kind of sick of the topic) I can do better this week. And fortunately this week’s post is more amenable to steelmanning or an Ideological Turing Test as well, because this week, unlike last week, my certainty level is high, but there are people who are are just as certain I’m wrong. Accordingly, this week, it’s my intent to discuss one of the opposing arguments, hopefully in a manner which is indistinguishable from an actual supporter.

I suspect I will not do as well as either Caplan or Alexander would hope. Also, if I’m being honest much of the post will be devoted to showing how, even with this new, updated understanding I still think they’re wrong, but I hope, at least, to have moved the debate closer to their actual position. Actually “wrong” is not the word I’m looking for. I actually think they may be right in the abstract, but foolish in the implementation. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I haven’t even said what the subject is. This week we’re going to return to talking about the national debt and the federal budget deficit.

I’m not sure where the national debt would rank on my list of “issues I’m interested in” but it would probably be pretty high, I’ve mentioned it quite a few times, perhaps most notably in my post The National Debt in Three Lists of Six Items. Looking back, the first of those six item lists was a list of reasons why people say we shouldn’t worry about the debt, so it’s not as if I’ve entirely ignored opposing arguments on this subject in the past, but it could certainly be argued that I treated them too flippantly. Perhaps this post will fix that, perhaps not.

To start with, let’s just, ever so briefly, review my position: The national debt is over $20 trillion dollars. This is probably the largest accumulation of money into a single bucket in the history of the world. Insofar as money acts as a proxy for nearly everything, we’ve put, as they say, a lot of our eggs into a single basket. And if this basket/bucket fails in some fashion it would be catastrophic. I’m not sure exactly how it will “fail” but there is significant historical precedent for things failing even if no one could see in advance exactly how it was going to happen, until it did. And that’s being charitable. Currently there are numerous people with equally numerous theories who feel very confident they can see how it will fail. Maybe one of them will turn out to be right, or maybe it will be something no one saw coming. Or maybe nothing will ever go wrong with the debt, but my position is that this is not the way to bet.

If you take a look at the comments on my “Three Lists” post (which unfortunately didn’t make it over to the new site, so you’ll have to go here.) You’ll see that Boonton disagrees with me on this, and I’m grateful to him for pushing me on it, because otherwise I might still think those on the other side of this issue are being hopelessly ahistorical, when in reality they’re probably just too optimistic. So what is their position? What are people really saying when they say that the debt and by extension the deficit doesn’t matter? Let’s start with the six reasons not to worry I mentioned in that last post. To briefly review:

  1. The government does not have an ironbound debt contract. The size of the debt and the payments change as the economy changes.
  2. The national debt is not money we owe to other people it’s money we owe to ourselves.
  3. Our debt to GDP ratio is not that bad when compared to other countries
  4. Borrowing money is currently a very good deal. Interest rates are near historic lows.
  5. Our debt is in dollars, and we can print dollars. Making it literally impossible to default.
  6. Our assets greatly exceed our liabilities.

To be clear all of these are pretty good reasons to not be worried about the debt. However, as I said then, I don’t think they’re sufficient. (If you want to know why you should go back and look at the original post.) Still they are all essentially true and it’s important not to dismiss them, in particular reason number five. The idea that we can print money. Obviously, if you can print money, then you’ll never run out of it, but the problem with that is that if you do too much of it, you’ll get inflation, and too much inflation is bad.

I don’t think there’s any serious disagreement with the assertion that too much inflation is bad (though there might be some quibbling over how much is “too much”.) High inflation is bad because it wipes out savings, and any benefits which aren’t pegged (or are insufficiently pegged) to inflation. It makes the currency going through inflation less desirable. And, in the most extreme cases, such as in the Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe (and currently Venezuela) you can end up in the positive feedback loop of hyperinflation. But for me it all comes down to the fact that too much inflation makes planning for the future hard. It makes doing something today vastly different from doing something later. If you’ll recall my definition of civilization consists merely of having a low time preference, That civilization means there’s very little difference between doing something today and doing something in a year. This makes inflation something which eats away at civilization.

All of the forgoing is to say that inflation is something I am particularly worried about. It is true that inflation does not currently seem to be much of a problem, and if anything we may have too little inflation. But this does not mean that this condition will hold forever, inflation will eventually be a problem, a problem which I felt the “other side” was dismissing far too hastily. (At least as far as I could tell.)

Such was my understanding of the argument until just recently when I heard a podcast from Planet Money, which completely flipped my understanding. They were interviewing Stephanie Kelton who is a big proponent of the view that deficits don’t matter and she made the exact opposite argument: rather than saying that inflation doesn’t matter she basically said that it was the only thing that mattered. Now I know that this is a weird place to mention this given that I’m nearly half way through things, but it was this podcast that made me decide to write a post. (In addition to doing more Ideological Turing Tests/steelmanning in the future I should probably also have shorter intros.) I finally felt I had heard a credible argument for the idea that we shouldn’t worry about the deficit or the national debt, as long as we are worried about inflation.

Kelton was Bernie Sanders economic advisor during his presidential run, and is a major player in the Modern Monetary Theory space. Which is the best known framework on the other side of the debt/deficit argument from me (and many, many others).  Now I already know that I am unlikely to do the field of MMT justice in only a thousand or so words, so I would urge you to not only listen to the Planet Money podcast (it’s short, only 22 minutes) but to also pay attention if you come across other mentions of MMT. (I’ve seen several just recently, including this one from The Nation.) But for me, the key aha moment came during the podcast when they were talking about taxes:

[The government] taxes because it wants to remove some of the money that it spent into the economy so that it can guard against the risk of inflation.

This is one of the big ideas of Modern Monetary Theory. Taxes are not for spending. Taxes are for fighting inflation. And spending – that isn’t just to buy stuff the government needs, but the power of the keyboard – the spending from that – can be put to use for doing all kinds of good things – to put money into the economy to give it a boost or to help get to full employment.

So, on the one hand, you have the traditional way of thinking about things, which says that government spending is limited by government revenue which mostly takes the form of taxes, and that if government spending goes above government revenue for too long or by too much some kind of catastrophe will occur.

On the other hand you have the MMT school of thought which says that government spending is limited only by the amount of inflation it causes, and that taxes only correlate to spending insofar as more taxes can reduce the inflation caused by higher spending. From this it follows, as they say, budget deficits and the accumulating debt that results, don’t matter, because they don’t affect the rate of inflation, and that’s all we care about.

There is one other, critical piece of the MMT approach. You not only have to be able to increase the amount of money at will, you also can’t have any debts which are denominated in a currency other than the one you can create. As long as this is the case, they reject, as both unrealistic and unserious, any potential fears of MMT policy leading to hyperinflation like the classic examples of Weimar, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.  Because in each of the cases mentioned, the countries had debts to other countries that were denominated in currencies other than their own. (Weimar owed France money for war reparations and Zimbabwe and Venezuela both had/have debts that are denominated in dollars.)

If things still seem a little nebulous, they offer another way of looking at it in the podcast which may be more concrete. Imagine that the economy has a certain ability to absorb money and turn it into goods and services. The MMT economists compare this to a speed-limit. Returning to the podcast:

The speed limit has to do with what economists call real resources. An economy is not just money… If you want to build a hospital, you can’t build it out of money. You need… those IV bags that hang on those sort of rolling coat-rack things…

So say the factory that makes those wheeling coat-rack things is running at, like, half the capacity that it could. Then, if the government decides to place a big order for those coat-rack things, nothing bad really happens. They just buy them at the normal price, put them in the hospital – great.

But what if the factory is at full capacity? Then, the government has to say, hey, sell to our new hospital instead of to your other customers. And to get them to do it, they’ll have to pay more. That is inflation. Prices just went up.

[Kelton] says that’s what the government should think about – not whether they have enough money, but whether there are enough resources in the economy to soak up that money.

There is more to MMT than the elements just mentioned, but before I move on I should say that the core idea makes sense. Which is to say I don’t see any mistakes from a theoretical standpoint. And the appeal of having more money to do the kinds of things we want to do like fund schools, care for the poor, maintain global military hegemony and rescue the states from their pension crises, is obviously appealing. Probably too appealing, and here’s where we get to my criticism of MMT. (I realize this wasn’t the most comprehensive steel-manning, and if anyone thinks I left anything out, I’m looking at you Boonton, please let me know in the comments.)

The first criticism is brought up in the Planet Money podcast itself, and comes from another left-leaning economist, Tom Palley. Palley also feels that mainstream economics is flawed, particularly its obsession with having a balanced budget, and thus there are some elements of MMT he really likes, but he doesn’t think it’s practical to use taxes to fight inflation:

Politics doesn’t work like that. Taxes are very, very contested. No one wants their taxes raised. It’s very hard for politicians to raise taxes. They’re very slow to do it because guess what? They don’t get re-elected if they do.

Kelton has an answer for that, build in automatic changes to taxation as the economy changes, so that you’re not counting on congress to raise taxes when inflation starts going up, it happens automatically. It’s a clever idea, but it’s not necessarily any more politically feasible to pass a law that automatically raises taxes, than to pass a law which just raises taxes at the time, and it might, in fact, be a lot more difficult, given that congress doesn’t generally like to give away their power.  Also there’s the principle of legislative entrenchment which means they can’t bind a future congress to do anything even if they want to.

The problem, of course, is that any form of tax increase is difficult, even if it’s in the future, and any form of spending is easy. And if MMT’s only contribution is to make it easier to increase spending and harder to increase taxes, then it will almost certainly end up being viewed as a net negative when the full history of this age is finally written.

For the sake of argument let’s assume that we can effortless raise taxes in response to inflation, as effortlessly as the Federal Reserve changes the short-term interest rate. How do we know what level to raise the taxes too? Are we sure we understand inflation and the enormously complicated chain of incentives and behaviors and chaos that comprise the modern economy well enough to not dramatically undershoot or overshoot the mark? Let’s just start with inflation how well do we even understand that? Well interestingly enough, in the podcast I’ve been referencing they quote Kelton as saying:

..nobody has a good model of inflation right now. And she thinks the government could spend a lot more money right now, and we’d still probably be fine.

(Am I the only one who thinks that first “and” should be a “but” and that the word “probably” is worrisome?)

Maybe this is understood better than I think. Maybe there’s some great way for determining exactly what taxes should be implemented which accounts for tax evasion, and the health of the economy, and all potential black swan events whether positive or negative. But even if we master taxes we would still have the question of what happens to the concept of debt, deficit, government bonds and interest rates? Do we just junk all of it? This hardly seems possible, not without catastrophic consequences. Perhaps if we start by considering something smaller. One big worry that deficit hawks have is that there will be a loss of confidence and the interest rate the government has to pay on outstanding debt will start rising. This would mean a greater portion of the budget would go to servicing the debt, leaving less available for everything else. (As a point of reference we currently spend 6% of the budget on interest payments.)

What happens if interest rates start rising under MMT? Do interest payments continue as normal? Do we stop borrowing altogether? What happens to the $21+ trillion we’ve already borrowed? Do we pay it all off in a vast orgy of money creation? I assume not, surely even if nothing else is, that would have to be inflationary. If we keep everything the same with bonds, but switch to MMT with respect spending and taxes, does that cause interest rates to rise through a loss of confidence? (I mean we have just kind of repudiated the whole concept of debt.) But I guess under MMT as long as inflation is in check we don’t care how much we’re spending on interest? But does that make rates go up even more in some kind of positive feedback loop?

Maybe I’m missing something obvious, and maybe they have some straightforward plan for all of this, maybe I’ll eventually have an aha moment similar to the one I had with inflation. A quick Google search came up with an explanation that bonds are used under MMT as a way of setting the short term interest rate, but I’m still not sure how that applies to the behavior of the already outstanding debt. If anyone wants to point me at something on this topic, I’d be grateful.

If they do manage to clear all the hurdles I’ve mentioned thus far, there’s still one final hurdle, which doesn’t need to be cleared now, but will have to be cleared eventually. I mentioned above that the one big caveat of MMT was that all your debts had to be in the same currency as the one you can create. For the moment the dollar is still the world’s reserve currency, which basically means that all debts are denominated in a currency we can create. (This makes us singularly positioned as an MMT candidate.) Now, imagine that we switched over to using MMT as the guiding ideology for federal spending and taxation, and that it works great. What happens to this system when (not if) the dollar loses its place as the world’s reserve currency? Is there some smooth transition back to the old way of doing things? Or does the entire thing explode in a fiery disaster where the living envy the dead? I suspect neither, but this is not something we have any way of knowing, since we’re deep into speculative territory even talking about switching to MMT, let alone a discussion of how we might switch back.

Additionally, one other interesting thing occurs to me. Does switching to MMT hasten the end of the dollar’s status as reserve currency? Are people going to be more hesitant to enter into contracts denominated in dollars if the US government is on record as saying they’re going to create as many dollars as they feel like? It’s hard to see how it wouldn’t, given the already substantial inclination of people to switch to things like bitcoin. An inclination which would only be enhanced by any movement in the direction of MMT.

It should be noted, here at the end, that there is a lot of space between the modern monetary theorists and the people who absolutely insist on a balanced budget. And I’ve only covered a small slice of it. But in many ways people who are “MMT friendly” without directly advocating for it are actually harder for me to understand. These people seem to be saying that the debt will matter at some point, but despite being over $21 trillion dollars and over 100% of GDP that point is not yet. The MMTers at least have a theory for why it will never matter, and it’s definitely theoretically interesting. But practically, I think it’s a horrible idea.

Perhaps the biggest problem is one I keep coming back to. For a system to work it has to, on some level, make sense to the average person (or the average congressperson which might be an even lower bar.) Particularly in light of the fact that we’ve given that “average person” the power to vote. It’s possible that the understanding of the masses won’t matter in our post-democratic futures when the AI overlords realize that debt and deficit are silly, biological fallacies, but until that time comes, no matter how much you try, you’re never going to convince the average person that $21 trillion dollars of debt doesn’t matter, and on this point, I think they’re right.


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Objectivity: Ford and Kavanaugh

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I have a friend who teaches Gender Studies at a university back east. As you can imagine we have very different ways of looking at things. So different that when I tried to share a few posts with him, he claimed he couldn’t even talk to me about them without understanding my frame of reference and audience. (Also, he may have been trying to figure out how to call me a Nazi without using the word “Nazi”.) Given these difficulties (and the other various frustrations) after several awkward emails back and forth I decided that we should probably not try to talk about it. I suppose he felt similarly. Though, as it turns out, unlike me, he did manage to get some benefit out of the exchange. I found out last month that he was using some of my posts as examples in the classes he teaches. At the time he didn’t get into the details (and based on my previous resolve I didn’t press him on it) but it was clear that my posts were presented as an example of what not to do. Sort of, “Can you believe how clueless this guy is!” Though when I imagine it, I see him standing in front of his class shaking a printout of my writings and yelling, “This is what the patriarchy looks like!”

Of course, he could be entirely correct, it’s possible I’m just as clueless as he claims. As I have said repeatedly, I could be wrong, about everything. And if there was an area I was going to be wrong about it could definitely be everything I say with respect to the current social justice movement. Certainly there are an awful lot of people who think anyone who’s even remotely conservative is not only wrong about most things but hateful to boot, and I think it’s fair to say I’m at least “remotely conservative”. That said, no one is forcing anyone to read my stuff. (The same cannot be said for the millions of students who are daily forced to read whatever passes for the current progressive manifesto.) And much of what I write is just me thinking out loud, and I guess let he who has never had a bad thought cast the first stone?

As you can imagine all of this is leading up to another post which (if my friend reads it) will probably make it into his next class on feminism, as yet another example of my cluelessness, or my privilege, or something similar. But, if I have done poorly in the past, I am going to attempt to do better, or at least do a better job of considering as many viewpoints as possible. And on that note, I’m going to dive into the current political crisis: the Kavanaugh confirmation and the allegations of sexual assault by Ford and Rodriguez. Though before we begin I need to take a slight detour through my process. I work on my weekly post every morning for a couple of hours. Which means that what I’m writing right now was written on Monday the 24th, and so, by the time I publish this on Saturday the 29th, any number of things might have happened. In particular while Ford will have presumably testified by the time this is published, she hasn’t at the time of this writing. Also at this point the Rodriguez accusations are still pretty fresh, and I guess (now it’s the morning of the 25th) last night Stormy Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti has announced that there’s a third accuser? All of which is to say that some of the things I say may be out of date by the time I get around to actually publishing this.

With all that out of the way let’s talk about Kavanaugh, though I guess yet one more preface is in order before I do. It should be stated that I write from the standpoint of someone with absolutely zero influence on whether he’s confirmed or not. This is enormously comforting. Also, as much as I might try to imagine my mindset if I did have an impact, it’s not the same, which means I will probably be too flippant and too confident. There are obviously things going on in the Senate which I am only dimly aware of. Whatever I say has no power to change the course of this confirmation hearing. I can’t delay it until the FBI investigates, nor can I push it through despite the evidence, but, all those caveats aside, it is my intention to approach things from the standpoint of someone who does have some impact in that matter and needs to decide what to do.

Join with me in imagining that you’re a member of the Judiciary Committee or just a Senator, period, and you’re trying to decide whether to confirm Kavanaugh. Let’s further assume that you were going to confirm him up until the Ford revelations, and you’re now trying to decide whether to change your vote based on those revelations. Ideally it would be nice to just know, with 100% certainty whether they’re true or not, in which case your decision is easy. But 100% certainty is not going to be possible in this case. You’ve got to make an absolute decision one way or the other despite the lack of any absolutes in the evidence. Needless to say, you’re operating under serious uncertainty.

For those who may not have been following it closely here are some things which might incline someone to favor one side or the other. All the things which appear to preclude absolute certainty, particularly for someone with an initial inclination to confirm Kavanaugh. Also, it should be mentioned, there are definitely people following this more closely than I, so I may miss something big. To be clear, these lists are not meant to be exhaustive.

Pro-Kavanaugh

  1. The events involved in the accusations happened a long time ago: It would be nice if everyone had a photographic memory of everything that ever happened to them but we don’t. Memory is fallible, and as much as we would like to believe Ford, you do have to take into account that it was 36 years ago. Also if he was a true predator you would expect more recent accusations.
  2. There are no contemporaneous witnesses: As far as I know there is no one (with either of the accusations) who is willing to come forward and say, I remember Ford telling me about it at the time. Yes, if it happened, not telling anyone at the time is totally forgivable on Ford’s part, but it makes things less certain now.
  3. The 65 women who signed a statement in defense of Kavanaugh: You certainly can’t imagine something similar happening with Weinstein, so I’d be inclined to give it some weight, though I’m not sure how much. (A statement which really applies to all these points.)
  4. The stakes of the whole thing: I’ve talked in the past about how the Supreme Court might be considered the true power in the United States, and given that Kavanaugh is likely to be more conservative than Kennedy, this hearing may be as consequential as a presidential election. And if Roe v. Wade is overturned (I don’t think it will be.) Then it would be more consequential. Lying about sexual assault is a rare and extraordinary act, but this is a rare and extraordinary situation.

Anti-Kavanaugh

  1. The vast majority of sexual assault allegations are true: It’s estimated that false rape allegations make up only 2% to 10% of all allegations. Now that’s rape, not sexual assault, but I assume the numbers (which in any case aren’t incredibly precise) are similar.
  2. Ford has sworn statements from people who say she told them about Kavanaugh’s assault before the nomination: three women and Ford’s husband have signed sworn statements saying they remember her mentioning the assault. The first instance of this was in 2012.
  3. The enormous cost of coming forward: Ford has suffered numerous death threats and had to go into hiding. I imagine (particularly if Kavanaugh is not confirmed) that this vitriol will continue for many years.
  4. Circumstantial evidence: Alcohol and partying seemed to be a big part of Kavanaugh’s life. Lots of people have in particular pointed at his statement in his high school yearbook with all sorts of references to drinking and sex. This apparently continued into college. Finally he was a clerk for Kozinski who was embroiled in his own scandal recently and ended up resigning.

Beyond what I’ve said above there are currently thousands of pages of commentary on each item. To say nothing of the motivations of the various secondary actors. (I haven’t mentioned Judge, or any of the senators.) But this should at least give you a taste of the muddy waters of uncertainty we’re jumping into. And here, approximately halfway through things, we’re finally ready to look at the various ways for approaching this uncertainty.

I’d like to start with a method I hope my friend the gender studies professor would appreciate, though it could just as easily fill him with rage. We’ll call it:

The Folded Paper System: Imagine that you take a piece of paper and you fold it. Now imagine that after it’s been folded for a long time you decide that folding it was bad idea and now you want the paper to lie flat. If you just unfold it and set it down the paper will still bend in the direction it was originally folded. It’s only if you fold it aggressively in the other direction that it will actually lie flat. This can be viewed as a metaphor for past injustice. It’s indisputable that in the past men got away with a lot more sexual harassment than they should have. Or to put it another way, in situations of he said-she said, the “he” was believed a lot more often than the “she”. Or to put it yet another way, the standard of evidence for accusations was tilted against women. All of this is the original fold.

Now we want the paper to lie flat. We want everyone to be believed equally, all evidence weighed equally, and a gender-blind justice to prevail. But in order to get to that point we have to instead fold the paper the other way. We have to give women the benefit of the doubt, in cases of he said/she said we have to believe the “she” more often than the “he”, we have to tilt the standard of evidence in favor of women. That in areas of massive uncertainty, like with the Kavanaugh nomination, we should believe the woman.

I’m sympathetic to this system, and the folded paper metaphor is arresting, but I think it only takes you so far. Culture is not a piece of paper, and when you bend stuff back the other way, you’re implicitly saying that unfairness in one direction is going to make up for unfairness in the other direction when in reality you have just compounded the injustice.

The “What’s going to get me re-elected” System: On the one hand you would hope that this isn’t the system any of the Senators are using and on the other hand it’s probably the system they’re most likely to use. For Republicans my guess is that they’re getting a lot of feedback from their base along the lines of, “Ford is lying and if you’re too stupid to see it or to spineless to push ahead regardless then you won’t be getting my vote in the next election.”  (Possibly with several additional profanities thrown in.) And on the Democratic side of things I assume they’re getting something similar, but in the opposite direction.

As I said I hope this isn’t the primary consideration of any of the Senators, but I’m not naive enough to assume that’s actually the case. And even if, by some extraordinary exercise of ethics it’s not the primary consideration it has to be among the considerations. And unfortunately this is not a bug in our system, this is a feature. A feature that may have unfortunate effects in situations of high emotion and polarization, but we also definitely don’t want the reverse, where our representatives never take our opinions into account.

The Wisdom of the Crowds System: Closely related to the above, we could take a broader sample of things. There are various polls and prediction markets with their own take on the accusations. And insofar as these represent a broader snapshot of public opinion than just listening to the most vocal members of the two parties, it could be argued that they’re preferable. On this count we have the favorability of Kavanaugh on steady decline and places like fivethirtyeight.com advising Republicans that the least bad option is for Kavanaugh to withdraw as soon as possible. On the prediction market side of things I don’t see anyone actually predicting whether Ford is telling the truth, but we do have one for whether Kavanaugh will be confirmed which after surging to over 50% on Tuesday dropped to 40% after the latest accusations (The Avenatti/Swetnick accusations, I’ll get to those, before the end.)

Robin Hanson (who coincidentally) invented prediction markets, went a step beyond that and posted a poll on his twitter account. The question was:

What fraction of women assaulted by a nominee for Supreme Court in high school would wait to publicly accuse him not just 30 yrs, but after Congress hearings & just before Congress vote?

He gave people the options of:

  1. < 1%
  2. 1-5%
  3. 5-20%
  4. >20%

The most popular response, with 62% of the vote was “<1%”. Of course he also got many responses claiming that he was “pro-rape” for even asking that question. Though being fairly familiar with Robin Hanson (I just finished Age of Em which I’ll talk about sometime in the next few posts, also I we did meet once, briefly) I don’t think that’s what was going on. He claims he genuinely didn’t know what the response would be. And was surprised to see such a huge percentage in the less than 1% category. I believe him on this point, and I also think that something like this should be a valid question.

We all have an opinion on whether something is likely, but perhaps we’re horribly biased on that question in ways we don’t even realize. And being able to ask a large group of people whether it’s just you or if X seems unusual, should be perfectly acceptable, particularly when it’s consequential. Now the appropriateness of asking the question is separate from the utility of the answers. I totally agree that it was appropriate to ask the question, but I also don’t think twitter polls should carry a huge amount of weight, though if I was a Senator and I came across it, I probably wouldn’t give it zero weight either.

A System of Strict Utilitarianism: While all of the systems I already covered have some degree of utilitarianism to them, this system imagines a Senator making his decision entirely based on long term machiavellian calculus that has nothing to do with the actual accusation. Perhaps it’s a Republican senator who feels so strongly that abortion is wrong, that despite believing Ford and her accusations, votes to confirm Kavanaugh anyway based on the chance that he could be instrumental in overturning Roe v. Wade.

On the other hand you might also have a Senator that firmly believes Kavanaugh, but thinks that elevating him to the Supreme Court would fatally undermine the court and by extension the entire nation leading to some future catastrophe. Or that it would create an immediate catastrophe in the form of widespread civil strife.

I either case the utilitarian calculus could move them to vote against their present best guess of the facts in the favor of some greater payoff later.

Antifragility: I talk a lot about antifragility in this space. Which may appear to be another form of long term machiavellian calculus, though with more focus on embracing short term pain and less focus on any kind of future knowledge, than the previous options. Also with a greater focus on long-term norms. So how would an antifragilist vote? What criteria would they use?

Frankly I’m not sure, the whole situation is a giant mess. It’s kind of hard not to feel that things are definitely off the rails, and it’s far too late and there’s far too much momentum for the actions of any one Senator or group of Senators to avoid a large negative outcome. (Speaking of any one Senator, it’s now Friday morning and I just saw where Flake has agreed to vote for Kavanaugh at least at the committee level.)

I do think there have been a lot of decisions which seemed great in the short term but which had long term costs which are only now becoming apparent. The list of things which contributed to the current debacle include, but are not limited to:

  • Merrick Garland
  • Bill Clinton’s various sex scandals and the lack of any consequences
  • Bush v. Gore
  • The Bork Nomination
  • Roe v. Wade

At this point, I think the best we could hope for is a backroom deal where the Republicans agree to withdraw Kavanaugh in exchange for the Democrats agreeing to confirm Amy Coney Barrett even if the Senate changes hands in November. I can’t see such a deal being made at this point, and maybe even this idea would be just another short term bandaid with long term costs.

Beyond what I’ve just discussed, there are, of course, many other systems you might use. And some might in theory be based on the evidence. Perhaps you’re convinced, after listening to Ford and Kavanaugh, that it’s obvious that one of them is lying and the other is telling the truth. Perhaps you think the evidence shows that women never lie about these sorts of things (I don’t think it does, which makes this more of a folded paper system, but that’s just me.) But I think most such, supposedly evidence-based systems, are just covers for one of the systems I mentioned above, and most likely a cover for the “What’s going to get me re-elected” System. You may have noticed that there was really no new evidence of any substance during Thursday’s hearing and yet everyone seemed more convinced of whichever position they had before the hearing started. Meaning whatever system they were using it wasn’t based on the accumulation of evidence.

In conclusion I’d like to offer up a few miscellaneous observations:

Observation 1- As an example of people following their biases rather than the evidence. We’ve reached the point where how you feel about the credibility of an accusation is entirely based on the party of the accused. From the American Conservative:

According to a recent YouGov poll, 53 percent of Democrats consider Ford’s allegations credible, compared to only 4 percent of Republicans. Ah! Yes! Down with the evil, misogynistic GOP—the “party of rape,” as I’ve seen them called on Twitter.

But wait. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison is currently favored to be elected as the state’s next attorney general despite ex-girlfriend Karen Monahan’s allegations of sustained “emotional and physical abuse.” One poll shows that, while 42 percent of Republicans believe Monahan, only 5 percent of Democrats do.

Observation 2- For a long time people have been complaining that worthwhile candidates for high government office are being discouraged from accepting nominations because of the media circus which immediately ensues. This is certainly not limited to just one side or the other, and it’s hard to see how the Kavanaugh hearing won’t make this problem (whatever it’s actual impact) worse.

Observation 3- There has been a push recently to extend or entirely eliminate the statute of limitation on things like rape, sexual assault, attempted rape, etc. I know that sounds like a good idea, and I totally understand why people want to do it that way. But you can apply the same logic to essentially any crime. Why should any criminal be able to get away with it just because enough time has passed. This is one of those long-term norms I’m talking about. Statutes of limitation date back to Roman Times, Now of course the Senate wouldn’t care about the statute of limitation even if there was one, I’m just making a related but not directly applicable observation.

Observation 4- I’m sorry, I’m calling BS on the Avenatti/Swetnick accusation. It just sounds too much like what people imagine happens at a drunken high school party with evil dudebros. Also Avenatti does not have the best track record on this sort of thing. Finally, I would expect this to be the kind of thing that is so outrageous that it should be easy to verify. And given that this is the first we’re hearing of it despite all the attention, I’m declaring, that this, at least, didn’t happen.

As I end, Kavanaugh has made it out of committee, and Flake has called for an FBI investigation before the full vote. I suspect that means we’ll get one. I think that’s a good thing. Certainly not sufficient to calm anyone down, but I think that’s what I probably would have done as well. Though as I said in the beginning, the biggest takeaway here is that I’m glad I’m not the one deciding.


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The Founders, Civility, and Godzilla

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Last Friday (the 20th) I went to the 2018 Moral & Ethical Leadership Conference, put on by the BYU Management Society. They had a pretty impressive lineup of speakers, including Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, or as he liked to joke, the “other senator” from Arizona, given that he has been overshadowed by John McCain the entire time he’s been in the Senate. And as it turns out, this is unlikely to change since Senator Flake has decided not to run for re-election (also McCain died recently.) He didn’t get into his reasons during his speech, but most people agree the biggest was that he was unlikely to win the Republican primary. And why was that? Well despite both of them, in theory, being Republicans, Flake and Trump do not get along, at all. And for good or bad (probably bad) these days it’s difficult to win a Republican primary if you’re anti-Trump. Which Flake definitely is, and, unlike most Republicans, has not been shy about expressing, going so far as to write a book, Conscience of a Conservative, where he declares Trump to be a domestic and international menace.

I picked up a copy of Flake’s book while I was at the conference, though I haven’t a chance to read it yet, so I can only speak to what I heard him say, and his primary theme seemed to boil down to a call for greater civility. In fact I would hazard to say that the need for greater civility was the unofficial theme for the conference as a whole. Given the nation’s current political climate and leadership, this is not exactly surprising. Of course, if Flake’s call for civility was entirely unobjectionable he wouldn’t need to give a speech defending it, let alone write a whole book on the subject. But lately, even this principal is controversial, and under attack. I thought that looking into why might make a good topic for a post.

To start, let’s look at the area Senator Flake presumably knows the most about, congress. What does civility look like in congress? Is it just people saying things like, “I graciously yield my time to the Honorable Senator from Kentucky”? I suppose that this sort of etiquette is a small part of it, but only a very small part. No, I think civility in congress, as Senator Flake described it, is more about people calmly working together despite having very different ideologies.

That does seem to be an admirable goal, but unless all members of congress are saints (which clearly isn’t the case), then in order for this type of civility to be present it has to provide some benefit. In the past it may have been enough that it made them look noble and statesman like. But these days, at least among the base, it does the exact opposite, and makes them look traitorous and cowardly. In the past it might also have been driven by a sense of duty, a duty to put aside differences and work together for the good of the country, but the general concept of duty has been on a long slow decline since the early 1800’s (at least according to the Google Ngram Viewer.)

No, getting members of the two parties to work together, no longer makes them look good, and it’s definitely going to require something a lot more concrete than the fading idea of duty. It’s going to require something like money, money for something they want, something that will make the people back home happy, and which will, in turn, help them get elected. Maybe something in a bill? Something set aside specifically to this purpose? Something… “earmarked”?

This history of earmarks is interesting. You can find things which fit the basic criteria going all the way back to 1789, though initially such things were definitely rare. By the end of the 1800’s the practice was common enough that it started to be called pork-barrel politics, but apparently things really took off between 1994 and 2005 (the most memorable example being the Bridge to Nowhere). As you might imagine some people took issue with the practice and in 2010 they were banned (though not for non-profits). And who lead the charge on that? Who was the most ferocious opponent of earmarks? As it turns out, it was Senator Flake. Here’s the relevant section from Wikipedia:

Flake is “known for his ardent opposition to earmarks.”He has been called an “anti-earmark crusader,” and frequently challenges earmarks proposed by other members of Congress. Since May 2006, he has become prominent with the “Flake Hour,” a tradition at the end of spending bill debates in which he asks earmark sponsors to come to the house floor and justify why taxpayers should pay for their “pet projects.” He is credited with prompting House rule changes to require earmark sponsors to identify themselves.

Until September 2010, Flake issued a press release listing an “egregious earmark of the week” every Friday. Usually the earmark will be followed by Flake making a humorous comment; as an example, Rep. Flake once said of Congressman Jose Serrano’s $150,000 earmark to fix plumbing in Italian restaurants, “I would argue this is one cannoli the taxpayer doesn’t want to take a bite of.” The “earmark of the week” releases were ended and replaced with the “So Just How Broke Are We?” series of releases. In March 2010, the House Appropriations Committee implemented rules to ban earmarks to for-profit corporations, a change Flake supported. “This is the best day we’ve had in a while,” he said to the New York Times, which reported that approximately 1,000 such earmarks were authorized in the previous year, worth $1.7 billion.

Senator Flake’s opposition to earmarks is not only easy to understand, it’s laudable. But in retrospect, some people have started wondering whether it might be part of the reason why congress has become so “uncivil”. Their theory is straightforward: Earmarks were one more thing that could be offered as part of the negotiation for a congress member’s vote. One that’s particularly useful when you’re crossing party lines and the member is otherwise opposed to or at least unsure about the bill. You overcome their reluctance by, in essence, offering to “pay” them if it passed. It’s a basic law of economics that you get more of what you pay for and so naturally you ended up with more bipartisan support for bills which contained earmarks. Eliminate earmarks and you have less bipartisan support. And if civility means working together across party lines, that means you have less civility.

Now, I’m not here to say that earmarks are actually good. Or that banning them is solely responsible for the breakdown in civility and working across the aisle. Or to make any insinuation that Flake is a hypocrite, or that he screwed up. Rather, what I want to do is point out how complicated even a simple call for civility ends up being.

As I said, civility seemed to be the unofficial theme of the conference, so what did other people have to say on the subject? Well I just got done asserting that it was complicated, so I guess I should move to the speaker who offered a very simple definition of civility. This was Eric Dowdle, an artist who specializes in drawing very interesting landscapes and cityscapes and then selling them as puzzles. He defined civility as character plus diversity.

You may wonder what qualifies him to make such a definitive proclamation. (Though as a blogger with no especial qualifications myself, I don’t.) Or at least you may wonder what prompted the invitation to speak from BYU Management Society. Well Dowdle, in addition to being an artist, is the founder and chairman of the board for the proposed George Washington Museum of American History. This is an effort to assemble an exhibition of the 250 “Greatest Moments in American History” and then take them on tour of all 50 states in 2026 (the 250th year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence). After which it will have a permanent home in Utah. As you can imagine the Museum has many goals from increasing historical literacy, to a celebration of the Founders, but included in there is a goal to educate people on, what Dowdle feels, are the twin pillars of America: character and diversity. Which, when combined, create civility.

As you can imagine he is also worried about the ills of the nation and the increasing polarization. And he hopes that by educating people about these twin pillars that he will help bring about a return to civility, much like Senator Flake. And, once again, this is another clearly laudable goal, though I’m not sure that his definition entirely captures the full nuance of what civility is. That said, I nevertheless think that it captures something important about what civility means at the present political moment.

I’m a big fan of “character”, but I think it’s place in the equation leads to some weird conclusions. Would he say that people who push diversity, while ignoring civility, must therefore lack character? If so that would be a fairly incendiary claim, and if true would immediately lead to a question of what sort of character do they lack? What aspect of character is not present in their advocacy for diversity? Does character equal a respect for a certain set of ethics? Could it be extended to mean respect for the rule of law? On the other hand, and probably even more inflammatory, are we meant to conclude that people who civilly rail against diversity do it because they have a lot of character? It is interesting to ask what ramifications this equation has if taken to its extreme, but, unfortunately, I think it breaks down pretty quickly.

If we leave aside character, then I still think he makes an important point about the connection between diversity and civility, and the need for increasing civility as society becomes increasingly diverse. (In fact, if we hold character constant then this is certainly one way to read his formula.) And it’s also interesting to draw inspiration, as he clearly is, from the founding of the country. So much of what made it into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was designed to create civility among diverse groups. In that vein, allow me to offer another equation, one that might have been on the minds of the founders: diversity minus civility equals violence. Before the American Revolution there was a lot of violence generated by ideological diversity, something which would have been on the minds of the founders. I refer you to the European Wars of Religion:

The conflicts began with the Knights’ Revolt (1522), a minor war in the Holy Roman Empire. Warfare intensified after the Catholic Church began the Counter-Reformation in 1545 to counter the growth of Protestantism. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which devastated Germany and killed one-third of its population. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) put an end to the war by recognising three separate Christian traditions in the Holy Roman Empire: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Although many European leaders were ‘sickened’ by the religious bloodshed by 1648, religious wars continued to be waged in the post-Westphalian period until the 1710s.

I understand the explicitly religious wars were over by the time of the Revolution, but if you draw a graph from “killing one third of the population”, through continued bloodshed up until 1710, and zero it out at the election of JFK, who won despite people wondering if he was going to take orders from the Pope you’ll see that in 1776, things were still pretty heated, and the founders knew that the only way to avoid violence in the diverse republic they were creating was to bake a lot of rules for civility right into the Constitution.

This is not to say that we’ve always been civil, or that there hasn’t been violence, for example you may have heard of a little thing called the Civil War (which, despite its title was very uncivil). Further, this doesn’t mean that the rules the Founders added were perfect, or that they were were always followed. And it most especially doesn’t mean that there weren’t any trade-offs. A subject I’ll be returning to shortly. But, I think if you look back on things, especially relative to other nations at the same point in history. The US did pretty well at accommodating a diversity of nations and peoples and ideologies with a minimum of violence. In fact, it may be argued, we did so well that people no longer see the need for some of the rules the Founders came up with, in particular Freedom of Speech.

I’ve talked about free speech a lot in this space, and while I tend to be pretty vigorous in it’s defense, I can also acknowledge that much like the other two endeavors we’ve considered, defending free speech is laudable, but, particularly in this day and age, can be complicated as well. This also takes me to another of the speakers from the conference, McKay Coppins, a columnist for the Atlantic. I also picked up his book, The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House, and even had him sign it, though, once again, I haven’t had time to read it.

As a columnist you might imagine he is a strong supporter of free speech and opened his talk with a Thomas Jefferson quote that’s a favorite of journalists everywhere. (Back to the Founders!)

The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

As I recall he only recited the last bit, but I think it’s worth quoting the first part, since one of the things which has definitely changed since the time of Jefferson is what “full information” means, what “channel” they get that through, and the way it “penetrates”. Which is to say, would Jefferson be as confident in saying, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without social media or social media without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I suspect he might not.

As I said things have become more complicated, and Coppins did acknowledge that in his speech. In particular he talked about fake news, and the waning power of the larger media outlets. To combat this he urged us all to be individual media outlets. To civilly work to combat misinformation when we see it, and help move the national conversation in the direction of the truth. The Jeffersonian idea that more speech is preferable to less speech and that if we encourage as many people as possible to speak that this will create the “full information” necessary for truth to triumph.

I currently agree with Coppins that this strategy is probably the best way forward, but I also know that when presented with this strategy many people argue that it’s largely a continuation of the status quo and as such will allow those with the biggest microphone to continue to dominate the discussion, and that whatever power imbalance which currently exists will continue to exist. Given the overlap in our proposed strategy I was curious to get Coppins take on it, and asked him about it during the question and answer period. He pointed out that when you’re encouraging more speech you’re also encouraging those who haven’t had much of a voice. In fact, you may even offer them more encouragement, and that hopefully as this process continues it won’t be the same individuals and organizations doing all the talking.

All of this finally takes us to the arguments against civility. As I already mentioned, there are those, traditionally on the left, who feel that civility is just an excuse to continue to silence and oppress those who are already powerless. For example this quote my friend Stuart Parker, who’s running for office in British Columbia:

I read a post by a fellow socialist running for office today and I feel I need to make a point about calls for civility: liberalism is about civility. Socialism is not. Socialism is about meeting people who are being screwed-over by the system and hearing them out. And a crucial part of hearing them out is hearing their anger.

And we, as socialists, should share that anger. A full debate, a debate that encompasses the global extinction event, the affordability crisis and the opioid epidemic is a debate that confronts pain, death and loss. It confronts injustice. Our discourse today should not seek to suppress people’s justified rage but to channel it, to hone it, to express it with precision without losing one iota of the urgency and conviction it contains.

British Columbians are outraged. And they are seeking candidates to articulate their rage for them. Let’s not let them down.

Instinctively you’ve got to have sympathy for this position. But as he points out, liberalism, particularly classical liberalism, the liberalism of the Founders, does place a high degree of importance on civility, and I don’t think we should casually toss that aside. It’s been a long time since we’ve experienced true incivility, and as I pointed out in a previous post, we imagine that we can tolerate small amounts of incivility, and censorship and it won’t lead to violence or repression. Or that if it does it will be righteous violence and repression of only evil people. But that’s not how it works. Rather once things start it’s less like a righteous cleansing and more like Godzilla trudging back and forth through your city. In other words, once those norms get broken it becomes difficult to draw a line. I think this is the lesson the founders had learned from the several hundred years before the revolution, and it’s the lesson they tried to impart to us.

To be fair, it is not only people on the left that have turned against civility. It’s also happening on the right, particularly the alt-right, who insofar as they have a point, believe that conservatives have very civilly and very politely lost every single battle in the culture war. Whether or not this is true (though I’ve already written about how it’s basically true) it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should abandon civility. (Though, i guess, there’s always a chance it might mean that…) In fact if it means anything I would opine that it means we need to be more civil and less censorious, especially with respect to the typical Trump supporter, lest we inadvertently confirm this exact belief, the idea that there is no point in being civil. Of course, as far as I can tell this is the exact opposite of the direction we’re headed. In fact, I just barely saw that apparently James Woods has been locked out of Twitter. (Though, as usual with stuff that just happened this may turn out later to be incorrect.)

Putting everything I’ve said together I suppose my central point is that the current situation is more complicated than it may at first appear, and that a simple return to civility may be more difficult and less effective than people think. But, that we should push for it anyway, because the alternative has the potential to be much, much worse.


Every week I try to civilly and with humor ask for donations, but perhaps the week I write about civility should be the one week I abandon all that and just say, “GIVE ME MONEY!” Or maybe not.


Is War Necessary?

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I’d like to start this week by making a point I’ve made over and over again:

It’s probably a mistake to assume that everyone in the past was horribly violent, irredeemably evil or massively ignorant.

Rather, as I have repeatedly pointed out, they probably had a reason for doing whatever it was they did. That reason may no longer exist, the world is a very different place than it was 500 years ago, or even 100 years ago. So we certainly don’t want to automatically assume that it’s a good idea to continue doing things the way we always have, but that hardly seems to be the mistake most people are making. Rather most people seem to be making the opposite mistake, the one I keep pointing out, declaring that all the reasons for how things were done in the past were bad reasons and we can safely ignore them.

If you were going to point out a place where people in the past acted irrationally you might point to the omnipresence of war. Something which, thankfully, seems to have experienced a massive decline since World War II (at least in terms of combat deaths as a percentage of population.) If there’s anything we can all agree is bad, it’s war. Though as it turns out, not everyone does agree with that, or at least a few people have raised some interesting questions.

I talked about one of these people just last week, Robin Hanson, and his assertion that we are engaged in rapid cultural exploration, which carries unknown risks we may not be properly accounting for. In his original post he gives seven examples of risky cultural exploration, including one related to the subject of war:

While the world has become much more peaceful over the last century, this has been accompanied by big declines in cultural support for military action and tolerance for military losses. Is the world now more vulnerable to conquest by a new military power with more local cultural support and tolerance for losses?

Another person to recently question the idea that war is a horrible mistake, is professor Benjamin Ginsberg, who I encountered recently on an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast. (I should say that I’m grateful to frequent commenter Boonton for pointing the episode out to me.) Ginsberg is a political science professor at John Hopkins University and he recently published a book titled The Worth of War. I have not read it, but from what I gather he acknowledges the horrible death toll of war as well as the other associated suffering, but points out that there are some positives to war as well.

To begin with Ginsberg seems reasonably certain that true peace is impossible, that there will be war, and as long as that’s the case we shouldn’t completely demonize it because it will come back to haunt us when war does return. As you can see his thought process is very similar to Hanson’s though I get the sense that Ginsberg is more certain. For my own part it appears that the key question is whether there are cultures with dramatically more support for war and dramatically greater tolerance for losses than our own. And if so, why haven’t they conquered us already?

Off the top of my head it would appear that the Taliban checks both the “cultural support” and the “loss tolerance” box. Which leaves only the question of why haven’t they conquered us already? Well, there are only 34.5 million Afghanis (and not all belong to the Taliban) and there are 326 million Americans. Also Afghanistan’s blue water navy is notoriously underfunded, meaning a direct attack on America is only possible through terrorism. But we can examine our own attempts to conquer them, and as far as I can tell it’s not going well.

Here are a few recent headlines:

Some quotes from the last article.

Even Kabul is not secure. When I’m coming from home and I say hello to my baby and wife, I am thinking sometimes there is no guarantee to be back at home,” says Najibullah Hekmat, a third-generation Afghan surgeon trained and working at the hospital.

ISIS claimed responsibility for Kabul’s latest attack on Wednesday, twin blasts that killed 20 civilians and wounded 70 more.

An escalation in terrorist attacks and fighting between the Taliban and government forces has helped drive the number of civilian deaths this year to its highest point on record — 1,692 civilians killed by June 30, according to the UN.

No one is arguing that the US is in imminent danger of being conquered by the Taliban but despite spending billions and billions of dollars and thousands of lives we’re having a heck of a time conquering them. One would think that our huge advantage in resources and technology would prove to be a decisive advantage, but it has not. Obviously, in part, we’re restrained by humanitarian impulses, which, among other things, restricts indiscriminate killing on a large scale, but even taking that into account, the Taliban obviously have a will to fight, and to suffer hardship and casualties which we don’t.

Is there some future, where the Taliban, or some other nation, pulls even with the US as far as resources and technology, while at the same time maintaining that greater will to fight and sacrifice? This is an important question. As I said I just listened to the podcast, but I get the feeling that Ginsberg’s answer is yes, and that Hanson’s answer is maybe. Personally, I’m on the side of Hanson. It does seem like there might be something about the progress required to get resources and technology, which is inevitably pacifying. That perhaps, when you get to the point where you have a blue water navy and nukes you don’t want to use them. You might argue that the US does, at least, use its navy, but it’s hard to argue we use it in the same way the Taliban would.

Do we have any other examples we can use? On the one hand there is Europe and on the other hand, China. Europe clearly seems like a place which has the technology and resources to be a significant military power, but which also has zero will to fight, and almost as little desire to sacrifice. China has the resources, and is quickly catching up on the tech, and while certainly more aggressive than Europe, it’s unclear when it comes right down to it how warlike they actually are. When was the last time China invaded another country anyway? Does the Sino-Vietnamese War count?

I suppose Russia is also an example, but as with most things, it’s something of an enigma, is their willingness to fight and sacrifice greater now than it was during the Cold War? What about their resources and tech? Their military is certainly smaller than it was during the Soviet era. Though their absolute tech level may have gotten better.  

I guess all of this is to say that if technology has no relationship to a country’s will to fight, then eventually you’re going to have a high tech society (with a blue water navy and nukes and the whole nine yards) who really wants to take over the world, and, if, as Hanson and Ginsberg fear, the US and other developed nations have lost that will, then they’re probably going to lose. (Which, as I pointed out, is kind of already happening in Afghanistan, and it didn’t even require equal resources and technology.)

If, on the other hand, technology and pacifism, are somewhat linked than maybe getting the military necessary to do something like take over the US, automatically means that you’re too “civilized” to actually do it. Perhaps, but to me this seems like a thin premise to bet the future of the nation on.

This idea of preparedness is the first positive Ginsberg points out, that war, or at least a warlike attitude, makes us more likely to emerge victorious when war inevitably arrives. I guess if you’re sure there’s going to be a big game, and if that game is for all the marbles, then it’s pretty silly not to practice. To which, guys like Steven Pinker argue, that there isn’t necessarily going to be another big game, that big games are horrible, and by practicing for them we make them more likely to happen. But this post is not about the likelihood of big games, I have other posts about that. It’s about whether there are any positives to having the occasional big game, so let’s move on to the next one.

Beyond the argument that preparing for war makes it more likely, Pinker and people like him also argue that having a warlike culture has negative effects on the culture itself. Ginsberg argues the exact opposite, and mentions it as a positive. This is another topic I’ve discussed in past posts, but to summarize: Pinker and people like him point out that warlike societies have a much greater risk of death due to violence. Case closed. The argument on the other side is more nuanced, and I’m not sure of the specifics of Ginsberg’s version of the argument, but the best argument I’ve come across is in the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. He points out that psychological problems go away and people report being happier during times of war.

The best example of this argument being played out is among the Native American tribes during the colonial period. On the one side, Pinker points out that people in these tribes had an appallingly high chance of dying due to violence. On the other side, Junger points out this quote from french émigré, Hector de Crèvecoeur, who actually was around at the time (unlike Pinker):

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

Obviously premature death due to violence is bad, but apparently not bad enough to make people prefer the less violent culture over the more violent one. Meaning that when actually given a choice between Pinker’s world or Junger’s world people choose the more warlike world of Junger. The reasons why or whether this can be extrapolated into the present or whether there’s some way to get the happiness without the violence are beyond the scope of this post. (If you’re interested the post where I reviewed Tribe does get into it.) But I think at a minimum it points to a more complicated picture of war than what most people entertain these days. Which is Ginsberg’s whole point.

Before leaving our discussion of the societal benefits of war, I want to also draw your attention to another post I did, which you may or may not have read. In this other post I discussed the book The Great Leveler, which argued that mass mobilization war is one of the few things that has ever reduced inequality. Opinions vary on how bad inequality is, but if you’re one of those people who thinks that it will eventually result in some kind of internal civil war or revolution, then there’s certainly an argument to be made that a nation is better off occasionally going to war, than eventually self-destructing in bloody violence. Or to put it more crudely if it takes death to reduce inequality there’s an argument to be made that deaths outside the nation are preferable to deaths inside the nation.

Ginsberg also spent a lot of time (as it seemed to me) talking about all of the technology which has come out of wars. Here, at least, I’m not convinced the benefit is as big a deal as he thinks. I imagine that most of the technology which was developed to help out during wartime would have been developed eventually even without the war. Also, oftentimes the technology being developed is solving a problem which is only significant because of war. Ginsberg mentions the advances in prosthetics which have occured recently. Advances he says we only have because of the recent wars. And it is true, a lot of people have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan with a missing limb, and as a result we’ve gotten a lot better a building artificial limbs, but to be clear these artificial limbs wouldn’t be needed in the first place without the war. I’m not saying there aren’t other people who lose limbs in other ways (or who are born without them). I’m saying when you consider that most of this technology would have been developed eventually, I’m reasonably certain that spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives to hasten it by a few years is not worth it.

To put it another way, however bad you think the government is at directing research priorities. Imagine that instead of going to war they said here’s $5 trillion (one estimate for the total cost of Iraq and Afghanistan) think of all the technology that might be developed in the course of a war, things like battlefield surgery, prosthetics, drones, etc. And see what you can come up with. Imagining this scenario, can you honestly say that we wouldn’t have developed everything that came out of the war and then some? I imagine we could probably do it for a tenth of that money.

That said, there may be a deeper issue, I can see making the more subtle argument that war forces us to focus on certain kinds of technology, technology that’s better at helping us survive rather than technology that’s better at keeping us happy (though “keeping us distracted” seems much closer to the mark.) I’ve talked in the past about the conflict between prioritizing survival and prioritizing happiness, and it could be that the farther you go down one of the roads, the harder it is to pay any attention to the other road. That the more new technology consists of things like Instagram, Twitch and Coffee meets Bagel, that the harder it will be to develop technology which actually contributes to our survival. Once again I think it just makes things take longer, but, on the other hand, there is plenty of science fiction where the whole course of the future was determined by early choices in what to prioritize, leading to technology that could only have been discovered on the exact path that was chosen. Certainly I have warned of the dangers of a long term focus on lotus eating, so maybe we are painting ourselves into a corner.

This does take us to the final and perhaps most compelling point Ginsberg makes about the benefits of war: War is the ultimate test of rationality. The meaning of this observation should be obvious, though I think people have forgotten it. Why? Because since the end of the cold war the US has been so strong militarily that it didn’t matter whether we had the ideal strategy or the perfect tactics, we were going to win regardless. Such was not the case during the Cold War, when there were huge debates about which ideology would provide the decisive edge in the inevitable war. Now we no longer worry about it because no one worries about war against some vastly inferior power, people only worry about a war when it’s going to be close (as most wars are, otherwise they never begin in the first place.)

From this the argument can be made that when a nation is powerful, (like the US is currently) they and their citizens can engage in irrational behavior for a very long time. Particularly if that behavior doesn’t carry the seeds of its own destruction. If your irrationality doesn’t cause you to starve to death or overdose (which it very well might) or something equally fatal, then it has no natural endpoint. This is particularly true given all of the things we’ve implemented to prevent irrationality from being fatal. But everything I’ve said so far applies only to internal destructive tendencies, not external destructive actors. Once those enter the equation, in the form of war, and if the sides are fairly evenly matched, as they generally are, irrationality will be quickly revealed. As Master Sergeant Farell (played by the late, great Bill Paxton in the criminally underrated movie Edge of Tomorrow) said:

Battle is the Great Redeemer. It is the fiery crucible in which true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank, regardless of what kind of parasitic scum they were going in.

I’m mostly interested in the “fiery crucible” part (though I think “parasitic scum” may have some bearing here as well). And the associated idea that if there is anything present in you or your civilization which doesn’t help you survive, it gets burned away. I realize I am once again making survival the primary value, but I think this is one area where it is definitely justified. Not only is survival directly threatened by war, but if your ideas won’t help you survive than there’s a good chance they won’t continue past your death.

We may not know where our irrationality lies until the moment we’re put to the test. But I can think of some candidates. One of the bitterly fought battles of the culture war has been expanding who can serve in combat, and in the military in general. In 2010 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed allowing LGB’s to serve openly. Then in 2013 the ban on women serving in combat was lifted. And of course just recently we’ve seen the fight over transgender individuals serving. I am not saying that any of these expansions are definitely irrational, though they certainly could be if, when the time comes, they make our military any less effective at its core responsibility of killing the other guy before they can kill us. Or as Hanson alludes to, if it reduces our support for military action and our tolerance for military losses.

What are the odds of that happening? Well there are four possible effects these expansions could have:

  1. They could be a great idea. I could be that if another big war comes our military will fight more effectively than they would have otherwise.
  2. It could be that it doesn’t matter, because we’re done with big, existential-level wars.
  3. It could be that it has no effect either way.
  4. It could be that these policies were irrational, and when put to the test they will have some negative impact on our ability to wage war effectively.

One seems unlikely to me. If it’s a good idea why hasn’t it been done historically? When wars were much more common why did no one arrive at this competitive advantage? Two, kind of seems to be the underlying argument of a lot of people I’ve talked to about this, who seem to consider the expansions more akin to ending job discrimination than anything which impacts military readiness. As far as three, it’s hard for me to imagine that it has zero effect, which leaves only the idea that, if put to the test, it will prove to have been a bad idea.

If it is it won’t be the first bad idea which was only uncovered in the heat of battle. Nor will it probably be the last. But what happens if we no longer have battle to uncover these bad ideas? Hard to say. I hope that we can uncover bad ideas without people dying. That we can decide important issues without the shedding of blood. But I don’t think the trends point in that direction. And this takes me to my concluding point.

As you may have noticed I have a large interest in Fermi’s Paradox. And when Boonton sent me the link to the Art of Manliness podcast he pointed out how it suggested an interesting explanation for the paradox:

War is required to advance civilization, and without it, civilization stalls out. But, once you acquire nukes, war is no longer an option. So either a civilization blows itself up, or it ceases to advance, either way it never ends up expanding outward into space.

As I said at the beginning, people in the past probably had a reason for doing what they did, and one of the things they did a lot of was go to war. Let’s hope that we have progressed past the point where war is necessary, but prepare for the possibility that it still is.


Another example of irrationality (though one which anyone can uncover) would clearly be donating to a marginal blog, specializing in esoteric musings, in an forgotten corner of the internet. Nevertheless I hope you’ll do it anyway.


Burning Man, Dreamtime and Dragons

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Like many people I went on a short vacation over the Labor Day weekend. Mine took me out to the Bay Area, where I attended the Pleasanton Scottish Festival with my family. I should mention that the festival was gigantic. It’s supposed to be the largest Scottish Festival west of the Mississippi and after being there, I can believe it. But the marvels of caber-tossing, bagpipe competitions, and sheep-dog trials (exclusive to the Pleasanton Scottish Festival as far as I can tell) are not what I want to talk about.

I did not realize, until we were on our way back, that the Labor Day weekend is also when Burning Man ends. My first clue was when we checked into a hotel in Reno on Sunday night, and I overheard someone talking about it, only to then realize that basically the entire lobby was filled with burners, as they’re called. Their presence continued to make itself felt on the drive home on Monday. As we drove east on I-80, I would estimate that half of the cars sharing the road with us were on their way home from Burning Man, so much so that my wife and I made a game of pointing them out. It wasn’t necessarily a hard game, people coming back from “The Burn” are pretty distinctive. If nothing else, there’s the distinctive dust of the playa, the dry lake bed in northern Nevada where Burning Man is held. This dust would generally be covering the entire vehicle, though sometimes just the bikes the person had strapped on to the back of their old RV and sometimes just the wheels, as in the case when my wife identified a burner I had missed.

So, then, Burning Man is what I want to talk about? No, or at least not directly. And before I get any farther, there are probably some of you who have never heard of Burning Man, or if you have heard of it, you’re not sure what it is. Well this is not the place to find out, but I have found that this quote from an old article about the phenomenon from Slate, does a pretty good job of encapsulating the weirdness, while also finally making the connection to the subject I do want to cover:

A good friend who’s been to many Burns but (to his tremendous disappointment) couldn’t make it out to the desert this year insisted that I visit him at his New York apartment to receive some pre-Burn instruction and advice. “Burning Man is an effort to reinvent the culture of Earth,” he told me, in dead serious tones. “If you go, you must surrender to the spirit of the endeavor. You have a duty to participate. You can’t just observe. You’ll bring everybody down.” He then solemnly handed me a white fur vest, a spangly blue cowboy hat, and a pair of ski goggles. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to do with them. He assured me all would become clear soon enough.

I’ve never been to Burning Man, though I have several friends who’ve gone, and I get the impression that the tagline “Reinventing the Culture of the Earth in a White Fur Vest and a Spangly Blue Cowboy Hat” would not be very far from the mark. Alternatively the Slate article also described Burning Man as a collection of “unshowered vegans [and] jet-setting art freaks” which also seems pretty accurate from what I can tell. (If you detect some disdain at this point, it might be due to the fact that a group of very loud burners decided to have a conversation right outside my hotel room at 3:30 am when I was in Reno.) But as I said I’ve never gone, so it’s entirely possible that I’m misrepresenting it. But that line about reinventing the culture of the Earth always stuck with me, and it suggests that there are some people who think that a thousand years from now, “Burning” will be viewed as a movement similar in impact to Christianity or Buddhism. Put me down as someone who thinks this is very unlikely, but I do think that even if Burning Man specifically doesn’t end up deserving a special place in history, that this era more generally will. And here, finally, is what I want to talk about.

If humanity is around in a thousand years (and I certainly hope they are, in one form or another.) What place will this era hold in our history? Well first, it might be interesting to ask how how people of the future will demarcate this era. Will it be the era of American dominance? The era of hedonism?

Will they draw a line after World War II because that will have been the last big war? Will they draw a line at the start of the enlightenment? At the invention of the steam engine? At the fall of the Soviet Union?

I could see a case being made for any of the above, but I would vote for a line drawn after World War II. And not necessarily because it was the last big war (I’m on record as saying that it won’t be) but because it was the era when all the rules changed. Previously democracy was rare, now it’s common. Previously hierarchies were explicit, now equality is expected (if not always realized). Previously war was diplomacy by other means, now war is apocalyptic. Previously someone’s rights were abstract and rarely considered, now they’re central and frequently referred to. Now, obviously, this all didn’t happen instantly at the end of World War II, it was a gradual process, and as I said I can see drawing a line at any number of places, from the Civil War to the French Revolution to the impeachment of Trump (should it happen). But I think World War II was (at least for America) when it became apparent that the road ahead was clear, and it was time to put on the gas.

All of which is to say, even if I’m not sure where they’ll draw the line, I think it’s clear that when people look back they will see our time as a distinct era, and an important one as well. Mostly because of all the changes I just mentioned. Though, saying that this is an important and distinct period is not particularly revolutionary or even noteworthy. The real question I’m curious about is, a thousand years on, what will the impact of this era have been? Will I be wrong and people will call it the “Era of Burning Man?” There are apparently some people who think so, but, as I said I don’t think that’s one of the likely scenarios. And, of course, if I’m speaking of likely scenarios for something a thousand years in the future I can only speak very broadly. But in very broad terms here are a few likely scenarios:

  1. The Beginning of Utopia: Though humans a thousand years from now might not give a place a pride to Burning Man, they may still view this era as the time when humanity passed from brutishness to true enlightenment. When the Long Peace started, the peace that eventually turned into the Forever Peace. When the initial faint promise of Transhumanism and AI turned into the Singularity and humans turned into gods. When all the hate and cruelty and inhumanity was done away with and when the era of tolerance and love, and individual flourishing began. Here, I offer my usual caveat. I would love it if this were the case, but even if I thought it were likely I would still argue that all of the rest of the items on this list are bad enough that we should still spend a significant amount of effort hedging against them.
  2. Large Scale Nuclear War Happens: If this ends up happening then people a thousand years in the future will look back on this era as one of unmitigated folly. As the time when we had developed nuclear weapons but went blithely along, unconcerned by how destructive they were and how certain (in retrospect) their eventual use was. (This also would be a powerful argument for starting the era at the end of World War II.) I assume they would also view it as a time of vast hedonistic excess as well, considering everything we did between developing nukes and the eventual war as the worst trade-off of long-term responsibility for immediate pleasure in the history of humanity.
  3. Some Other Negative Black Swan: I could have included nuclear war in this category as well, but I think it’s special enough that it deserves it’s own section. In this scenario we manage to avoid large scale nuclear war, but there is some other large negative event that we should have seen coming, but didn’t. I’ve talked about this a lot in past posts, including this one from just a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into a huge amount of detail here. Particularly since the list of potential swans is nearly endless, and even if it’s one no one thought of, I imagine that the people of the future, much like ourselves, will not cut us much slack if we overlook our eventual doom, no matter how unlikely it seemed at the time.
  4. Adolescent Idealism: Some people have put forth the theory that humanity is passing through something resembling college or maybe high school. A time when you feel like you know everything and the traditions and rules of your parents (and society in general) seem hopelessly antiquated, needlessly repressive and entirely unimportant in light of all the new knowledge you’ve just gained. Oftentimes this is accompanied by the belief that they’re going to change the world through social justice, equality, and radical redistribution. Sometimes these feelings last, but in general people discover that it’s all a lot harder than they thought. People a thousand years from now might look back on this as just such an era of “youthful” idealism. This view could exist alongside of possibilities two and three, or it could be that we avoid major negative events, and yet still appear hopelessly naive to our descendents.
  5. Dreamtime: Many years ago Robin Hanson wrote an article where he speculated that our descendents would look back on this era as something of a “dreamtime”. He mentions many differences which will probably exist between us and our descendants, but he calls it dreamtime because of one huge difference, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” Why is that? Well he offers seven reasons in the original article, but all of them basically boil down to the idea that we are adapted to live in a world very different from the one we live in now. For 99.9% of human history we lived in a world with far fewer people, hardly any wealth, and almost no ongoing technological advancement. This difference is something I’ve mentioned many times in the past, and Hansen hits on many of the same things. The part where it gets interesting is when he points out that these are differences which not only existed between us and our ancestors, but which will exist between us and our descendents as well. Something I’d like to dig into a little bit more.

The idea of far fewer people may be where Hanson is on the shakiest ground. It certainly doesn’t feel, at this point, that this is likely to be that different for our descendents. But if you toss in the idea that we will eventually spread to the stars than this assertion makes perfect sense. Right now humanity is as global and connected as it has ever been, and possibly as it ever will be. I could, in theory, drop everything, hop on Skype and talk to anyone in the world. If, in the far future, the average descendent ends up on a planet light years away from Earth or any other planet, then this will obviously no longer be the case. Also whatever planet that is, it’s unlikely to have seven billion people on it. Now whether this will happen in a thousand years or not, I don’t know, but you can see where the tiny, widely separated colonies Hanson envisions for the future will be more similar to the world of yesterday than the world of today.

When someone says there was hardly any wealth in the past, no one is inclined to argue very much, but when Hanson points out that there will be hardly any wealth in the future, there are plenty of people willing to argue. But as I pointed out in a previous post, The current level of growth cannot continue forever, eventually it has to fall back to the level of “barely above zero” it was for most of human history. Hanson says it this way:

If income only doubled every century, in a million years that would be a factor of 103000, which seems impossible to achieve with only the 1070 atoms of our galaxy available by then.

Finally there’s the idea of almost no ongoing technological advancement. This is another area where things can’t continue forever. Or rather if it can continue forever than this era definitely does represent the beginning of utopia, and we can cease to worry about basically anything else. More likely there are still many things to discover, but the pace of discovery will start to slow, and discovering anything truly new will become rarer and rarer, until eventually we reach, a permanent technological plateau. This ends up being one of the key reasons for Hanson’s claim that future generations will view us as delusional.

Our knowledge has been growing so fast, and bringing such radical changes, that many of us see anything as possible, so that nothing can really be labeled a delusion.

So what should we be doing?

As I said, it may be that this era will be viewed by people in the future as the beginning of utopia, and what we should really be doing is rushing towards it as fast as possible. But I also listed four other likely scenarios which indicate that perhaps we should be exercising both more caution and more humility. Now I don’t claim that because there are four bad scenarios and only one good one that this means that the bad scenarios are more likely by a factor of four to one (though they might be, it’s impossible to know.) On the other hand, I think dismissing those scenarios, as so many people are quick to do, is equally, if not more foolish. The argument I’m making is that we live in a unique era, which, above all else, calls for unique caution. And this takes me to another, much more recent article by Robin Hanson.

He theorizes that one of the things that’s unique about this era is that rather than exploring new physical spaces, that we have moved to exploring new cultural spaces:

I want to suggest that Spaceship Earth is in fact a story of a brave crew risking much to explore a strange new territory. But the space we explore is more cultural than physical.

During the industrial era, the world economy has doubled roughly every fifteen years. Each such doubling of output has moved us into new uncharted cultural territory. This growth has put new pressures on our environment, and has resulted in large and rapid changes to our culture and social organization.

This growth results mostly from innovation, and most innovations are small and well tested against local conditions, giving us little reason to doubt their local value. But all these small changes add up to big overall moves that are often entangled with externalities, coordination failures, and other reasons to doubt their net value.

So humanity continues to venture out into new untried and risky cultural spaces, via changes to cultural conditions with which we don’t have much experience, and which thus risk disaster and destruction. The good crew of Spaceship Earth should carefully weigh these risks when considering where and how fast to venture.

This is a great way of framing what I’ve been saying from the very beginning. And when I assert, as the theme of this blog that, “We are not saved.” One of the reasons for making that assertion is that rather than moving cautiously and slowly into this new cultural space, we appear to be moving faster and getting less cautious with each passing year.

My guess is that there are two reasons why this is happening. First, as I just said, if people believe that this is the start of a future utopia, then it makes sense to be rushing towards it as fast as possible. But, as I have argued, not only is this not a given, it may not even be likely. And paradoxically, rushing into it, may make it less likely rather than more. Second there is the inertia of the status quo, which has had a bias towards “progress” for decades if not centuries, a belief that there is no level at which progress becomes bad, and faster progress is always better than slower progress.

This metaphor of the current era as a ship engaged in risky and rapid (cultural) exploration was the primary thing I wanted to pass along from the article, but Hanson does tie it into the culture war (as you might imagine) and gives the usual plea for more reasonable debate:

The most common framing today for such issues is one of cultural war. You ask yourself which side feels right to you, commiserate with your moral allies, then puff yourself up with righteous indignation against those who see things differently, and go to war with them. But we might do better to frame these as reasonable debates on how much to risk as we explore culture space.

This got me to thinking, people always offer up reasonable debate as a potential solution to this problem.  And it does seem eminently sensible, things would probably go better if there was more talking and less war. I have certainly also advocated for this position, particularly in preference to Godzilla trudging back and forth. But I have also pointed out that there were decades of reasonable debates before the current crisis, and yet it had very little effect on the speed of cultural exploration. Also, in a certain sense, the cultural war is a debate, particularly given that, even using very extreme estimates, there have been almost no fatalities in this war (so far). The problem we’re facing is not that we need to have more debates or that the debates need to be more reasonable (though neither would hurt). The problem is that our policies don’t do a very good job of reflecting the uncertainty we are (or at least should be) experiencing.

I have definitely covered many areas where we should be less certain than we are. This is well covered territory (in this blog and a few others, though not much outside that.) But perhaps framing it as the idea of risky exploration, or of a unique era calling for unique caution makes it clear to some people in a way that previous explanations didn’t. Also, once we realize that humanity is engaged in cultural exploration we can go on to realize that this exploration is proceeding at a faster rate than ever.

What does the future hold? How will this era be viewed a thousand years from now? I don’t know, but I think the next few decades could be very consequential to that future view. The old maps used to mark unexplored areas of the world with pictures of dragons, or sea serpents: here be dragons, as they say. As it turns out there weren’t any dragons, but as we explore the space of culture, we may find out, that this time, there are.


Speaking of unexplored spaces, I’m guessing that many reading this blog have not explored the space of donations. It’s actually not as bad as you think. In fact I guarantee there are no dragons.


The Conspiracy Against Gawker: Things Have to Be More Than Just True to Be Newsworthy

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A couple of posts ago I reviewed (in my own idiosyncratic fashion) Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. This was a book about the many crimes and falsehoods of Theranos, a healthcare startup which got away with the aforementioned crimes and falsehoods for far longer than they should have. They accomplished this mostly through a combination of influencing powerful people and intimidating anyone who tried to expose them. As a country (and a civilization) we take a dim view of this sort of behavior and have set up various failsafes to protect us against it. In the case of Theranos all of our failsafes… failed… (I’m pretty sure that despite the name that’s not what they’re supposed to do.)

Of course, this failure didn’t last forever. Theranos was eventually exposed, by the press. Though even this exposure took a lot longer than it should have, given that Theranos was around for more than a dozen years. Now, it wasn’t the hottest startup in the valley, with a valuation of nine billion dollars for all of those years, but the red flags started appearing as early as 2006 when Elizabeth Holmes (the Theranos Founder) fired the CFO for questioning her ethics. (And if there’s any moral of the Theranos story it’s that Holmes did have questionable ethics.) Also from the very beginning Theranos was claiming to have technology which was entirely too good to be true. It really shouldn’t have taken as long as it did for Theranos to be exposed.

I mentioned in my previous post that Theranos was very liberal with the threat of lawsuits, and that this went a long way towards keeping their various misdeeds secret for so long. Also Silicon Valley is a weird place for news. You have hundreds of startups who want coverage, but probably only a few who actually deserve to be exposed in the way Theranos deserved to be exposed. Given this, I assume it takes a certain amount of specialization to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak. What was really needed during those years that Theranos was at the height of its wickedness was a Silicon Valley specific publication, with zero fear of being sued.

If only such an outlet existed…

A few days ago I was browsing the Slate Star Codex subreddit, as I sometimes do. And I started reading a post by youcanteatbullets where he mentioned that he had just finished reading Bad Blood (“Much like me,” I thought) and that the book he had read just before that was Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday (“Interesting, that’s the book I’m currently reading,” I thought) and that his big question was if Gawker was so intent on uncovering Silicon Valley gossip that they felt the need to out Peter Thiel, (as gay in case that isn’t clear) which then led to the whole vendetta which eventually lead to the lawsuit that brought down Gawker, how is it that they completely missed the Theranos story? (“That is an a terribly interesting question!” I thought. “One which never occurred to me.” I thought.)

As it turns out such an outlet did exist, it was Gawker. One of the major takeaways from Conspiracy, is that they viewed lawsuits with total disdain, going so far as ignore the explicit orders of judges. As scary as David Boies is, I’m guessing that he wouldn’t have made much headway with Gawker had they decided to publish a Theranos expose. And as part of the Gawker network there was a site, Valleywag, specifically devoted to Silicon Valley news.  Or as youcanteatbullets puts it, a little more directly:

Nick Denton also liked to say that “todays gossip is tomorrows news”. SO WHY THE HELL DIDN’T GAWKER BREAK THE STORY OF THERANOS?! Their dedicated silicon valley beat Valleywag had its ups and downs but was active from 2013-2015; certainly other Gawker properties covered SV as well. The Carreyrou story was published in October 2015. I checked the Gawker site, the only stories I could find on Theranos were after that original WSJ piece. If Gawker played any socially valuable role at all, it would be exposing a company like Theranos.

Nick Denton was, of course, the owner of Gawker (and Valleywag) and a specific target of Thiel’s anger. And to understand things we need to backup a little bit. Particularly if you’re not familiar with all the details surrounding the lawsuit and the vendetta.

It basically all started in 2007 when, as I mentioned, Valleywag/Gawker outed Peter Thiel. You may or may not know who Thiel is, but you’re far more likely to know who he is now than you were to know who he was then. For those that still don’t, Peter Thiel is a billionaire investor who was one of the founders of Paypal, and one of the earliest investors in Facebook. Even now it’s a stretch to call him a public figure, but back then it would have been especially difficult to make that argument. But if there’s one thing you should know about Gawker, such fine distinctions rarely troubled them. Also I know even if he wasn’t a public figure that doesn’t automatically make what Gawker did illegal, I’m just saying, it’s clear from the book, that the question almost certainly never crossed their minds.

Thiel was not especially closeted at the time, but it still annoyed him because he wanted to be known as a great investor, not a great gay investor. (Also if you have followed Thiel at all, you’ll know he’s pretty conservative, which almost certainly plays into it.) But beyond the annoyance he felt at the violation of his personal privacy, he also felt that an organ specifically dedicated to spreading gossip about the valley was bad for the health of the startup ecosystem, and at one point he compared Gawker to terrorists. (I suppose this means he would have been opposed to Gawker using gossip to bring down Theranos. And I’ll get to that.) These feelings hardened until eventually Thiel decided to figure out a way to take Gawker down. Eventually forming the conspiracy from which the title of the book is taken.

After some years of working at it, the conspiracy finally got their chance to strike when Gawker made the ultimately fatal error of publishing the Hulk Hogan sex tape in October of 2012. At this point I should mention that if you’re anything like me, you might have heard that in addition to all of the embarrassment associated with a sex tape, that this was a sex tape involving Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) and his best friend’s wife. As it turns out, that’s true, but incredibly misleading. His best friend apparently had an open marriage, and the best friend was the one who suggested it, and filmed it. Also Hogan’s wife had, that very day, finally, and irrevocably ended their marriage. This information isn’t necessary to the point I want to make, but I thought it was interesting.

When the tape was posted, Hogan had his attorneys immediately send a cease and desist letter. When Gawker not only ignored the letter, but sent a disdainful response, Hogan said he would sue. Thiel offered to fund the suit. Of course this was a conspiracy, so Thiel didn’t make this offer directly. In fact Hogan doesn’t find out about Thiel’s involvement until after the verdict. Essentially at the same time as everyone else.

The lawsuit drags on for several years before finally going to trial in March of 2016. And in the end the jury delivers a $140 million dollar judgement against Gawker and Denton, which drives both Denton and Gawker into bankruptcy. (Gawker ends up being sold to Univision in the bankruptcy sale.) As part of the bankruptcy proceedings Hogan ends up with $31 million. And Denton actually ends up with $15 million, so it could have been a lot worse. But one assumes, if nothing else, that people are going to be more careful about posting sex tapes. Or outing people as gay.

In retrospect it’s easy to look at things and point out all of the mistakes Gawker made. Many of them driven by pure arrogance on their part. But if you peel away all the arrogance, there’s an argument to be made that Gawker fought for a somewhat noble and idealistic reason.They fought because they had a philosophy that the “truth” was an absolute defense. Of course as it turns out, it wasn’t, and Conspiracy is mostly a story of the limits of that ideology. Though, I can certainly see its attraction. It’s clean, easy to understand, and the first priority of Superman! It’s hard to imagine prioritizing something above the truth, and I confess, particularly when I was younger that I probably held a very similar ideology to Denton, but as I’ve gotten older, and as Holiday points out, I’ve realized things are more complicated.

This kind of purity is childish, the domain of people who live in the realm of theory and words and recoil from the real world where someone can punch you in the face if you say the wrong words to the wrong person. There is always a defense necessary; discretion is the responsibility of freedom, the obligation that comes along with rights. If not in court, then in life. If not to other people, then to yourself. But that’s only part of it—Nick was the leader. He had allowed that to happen. He had allowed them to proceed closer and closer to trial without really bothering to think through these hard issues, without facing the hard truths about his company. Even the hard truths about how other people would see his company.

If truth isn’t an absolute standard, what should the standard be? I plan to spend most of the space remaining to me examining that question. (To be clear, I’m not sure I have an answer.) But, before I do, I’d like to go on a brief tangent.

When one reads about Thiel’s conspiracy, the obvious question is why don’t more people conspire in this fashion? Thiel is certainly not the only individual with money and power. Nor does he come across as particularly machiavellian. (Though Machiavelli is referenced a lot in the book.) There have to be people more conniving than him. Leading to the obvious question, is Thiel an outlier for engaging in a conspiracy? Or is he only an outlier for having his conspiracy exposed? When you think about it, Thiel’s conspiracy was (comparatively) legal and benign, and while the people involved did take steps to keep things a secret, you got the feeling they could have done more. The stakes if they were found out weren’t enormous, i.e. they weren’t going to go to jail or anything like that. You would imagine that if conspiracies are common that the stakes for most of them are a lot higher, and consequently the incentive to keep things secret is much greater as well. This line of thought inclines me to believe that Thiel is more likely an outlier for having been exposed, than for having done it in the first place.

Of course there are people who see conspiracies everywhere. We call them conspiracy theorists. And I happen to know a few of them. I was talking to one just the other day, and he said that he wasn’t necessarily sure of anything, but that, preceding from the idea that you can’t trust the government, and that people do conspire, you would expect there to be government conspiracies, and further you would expect word of them to leak out. I don’t see any obvious weaknesses in any of these assertions, though also, I should hasten to add, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and would have a hard time offering up a “conspiracy” that I thought had a greater than single digit chance of being true.

The reason I am not a conspiracy theorist is Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I prefer to replace the word stupidity with the word incompetence, and I also like the theory that Hanlon is a corruption of Heinlein, who had one of his character’s say, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” In any event, when I mentioned this, the conspiracy theorist admitted that was a pretty strong rebuttal (though one he had heard) but that he detects more malice, perhaps, than I do in the world. And perhaps the story of Thiel and his conspiracy should lead me to update my own assessment of the probability that certain conspiracy theories are true.

The existence of conspiracy theories was a tangent, but it also gets back to this idea of what should be our standard for saying something, or more accurately publishing something? As I’ve mentioned I don’t think we can rely on a pure standard of “anything that’s true”. (In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned there are significant difficulties in even determining what is true.) Instead it appears the courts have, in part, pivoted instead to a standard of newsworthiness.

I should make it clear up front that this isn’t a horrible standard, I know how hard it is to come up with standards in the first place, and as standards go this is not bad. That said, it has some definite weaknesses. First it’s mostly only applicable to news making organizations. It doesn’t help very much with the current crisis, which seems to largely concern big companies kicking individuals off of their platforms. I’m not necessarily saying that a company should never be able to kick someone off their platform, I’m saying that I don’t think applying a standard of newsworthiness helps very much in making the determination of who should stay and who should go.

Second, newsworthiness can easily devolve into a tyranny of the majority or of money. If ten million people want to see something does that automatically make it newsworthy? Gawker seemed to be advocating for essentially exactly this position. And both Bad Blood and Conspiracy illustrate that with enough money you can make something not newsworthy. To be clear I’m far more sympathetic to Thiel than I am to Holmes and Theranos. Also, while Thiel probably changed the definition of newsworthy going forward, it’s difficult to say exactly how. Further, I assume that the inverse, making something newsworthy through money is probably even easier.

Finally, newsworthiness let’s us know what we can cover, but I’m not sure it does a very good job of telling us what we should cover. This is of course part of the reason it devolves into a popularity contest or an auction. Those both seem to be telling us what we should cover, but I think at best it’s a skewed signal, and at worst it may lead us in completely the opposite direction, which takes us back to the story of Gawker and Theranos.

Imagine for the moment that there are things which it would be beneficial for the public to know. (Perhaps this is the definition of newsworthiness?) But the public isn’t aware of them. Someone has to uncover them, probably an organization we would think of as “The Press”. I would argue that Theranos is a perfect example of this, but beyond that I’m sure there are other things being done by big corporations or especially the government, which also fit this criteria. (Watergate is the classic example of this, and I’m sure many people would argue that the current president is doing things which also fit this criteria.) As we consider this we need to ask two questions.

First, are there more of these things now than there were in the past? Are corporations and governments doing more things which need to be revealed, the same amount or less? My sense is that they’re probably doing more. Government is bigger. Corporations are bigger. There’s also simply more people, period. On the opposite side, it may be that these things are harder to hide and easier to expose, but this takes us to the second question.

Are we better at finding out about these things now than we used to be? Or are we worse? This question is both harder to answer, but also more important. I’m not sure what the answer is, but  part of the reason why Gawker completely missing the Theranos fraud is so interesting is that it’s one large data point in favor of the argument that we’re worse at it. Gawker was the quintessential new media company. They were a news organization built for the internet. If “The Press” was going to be more effective when moved to the internet than Gawker should be the number one example of this increased effectiveness, and yet what important news did they end up breaking? Their motto was that today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news. And in the book it mentions that this was sometimes the case, but unless I missed it, it never provided an actual example of this transition. I’m sure if you talked to Denton, he would have a list, but I also assume if there was something of the level of Watergate or Spotlight or Theranos, that it would have been mentioned prominently in the book. If there was such a thing I missed it.

All of this is to say that Gawker certainly used a newsworthiness standard (a very, very broad one) in terms of what they could cover. But appeared to have a skewed view of newsworthiness when it came to what they should cover. In fact the book makes the point, repeatedly, that Gawker was almost exclusively driven by page views. (The Hogan sex tape ultimately racked up seven million.) And I think we can all agree that whatever the definition of newsworthiness (or whether it should even be our primary criteria) that it is not a concept which can be directly exchanged for page views.

Of course, what Gawker was really optimizing for was even worse. They were optimizing for page views/hour of effort. And salacious, but ultimately unimportant gossip ends up being very high on that measure. Which is why they missed the one piece of Theranos gossip which would have been right up their alley. The fact that Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos President Sunny Balwani were in a secret relationship, despite the fact that he was 20 years her senior. Would this have broken open the story by itself? Probably not, but it does illustrate that they weren’t driven to get gossip per se. They were only interested in gossip that required very little effort to get. (Recall that the post that started it all, outing Thiel, was a revelation of something a lot of people already knew.)

The biggest example of Gawker’s weakness was that they were unable to uncover the conspiracy to destroy them. A story that held existential importance for them.

I think the lesson we can draw here is that if we do want to be better at uncovering things that are actually newsworthy, then the centralized, page-view driven model of Gawker is the wrong way to do it. Obviously we can’t put the genie of the internet back in the bottle, we can only work with the wishes we’ve already been granted. One of which is the sheer number and diversity of voices on the internet. (Arguably the opposite of Gawker’s emphasis.)

I said earlier that it’s naive to use the fact that something is true as an absolute standard for what can and can’t be said. I also mentioned that Gawker missed the most important story at all. Perhaps newsworthiness is truth, combined with importance. And on both measures I think that by encouraging a diversity of opinion we stand the greatest chance of encountering both those things. Does this mean we allow people to post (seemingly) crazy conspiracy theories? Well let’s look at those for a second through the lens of importance. Does it matter at all that Hulk Hogan had sex with his best friend’s wife? Not really. Not to anybody beyond the few dozen people directly involved. Does it matter if Theranos was giving out wildly inaccurate test results? Yeah, it does. It doesn’t imperil the country, but it’s important to the thousands of people who did blood tests using their technology. Does it matter if the government was behind 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden had nothing to do with it? Definitely. It matters a huge amount. It might be the most important story of the century. Now, for reasons I already explained, I give that a very, very low chance of being true. And I certainly don’t agree with any associated harassment. But if they just want a forum to make their case, I kind of think they should have it.

Now, to be clear, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I also think people should be given a space to air their seemingly outrageous theories about Trump’s crimes as well.  (Though, honestly, I think we are in less danger of any censorship there.) All of which is to say, I understand there are trade-offs, and I understand most people aren’t trying to optimize for newsworthiness or truth or importance. But, if you take nothing else from this post, remember, in theory Gawker was trying to do all three, and, as far as I can tell, they kind of sucked at it, and it might be important, if we want to understand where things are going, if we figure out why.


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How Much Ruin Is in a Nation?

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It is said that after General Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga during the Revolutionary War that a young nobleman, named Sinclair, came to Adam Smith, and declared that the surrender would be “the ruin of the nation.” To which Adam Smith reportedly responded, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Meaning, one supposes, that nations are sturdy things, and it takes more than you probably think to kill them off, or even cause them long term inconvenience. And certainly the UK remained a great power for many, many years after this.

In our own day we have a lot of Sinclairs running around saying that this or that will be the ruin of our nation. In the past I think it’s fair to say that most of the Sinclairs came from the right side of the political spectrum. But, lately, global warming and the election of Trump, among other things, have given the Sinclairs on the left greater visibility. Despite all this panic from both the right and left, I think Smith’s statement is still essentially correct, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” And I think we’re a long way away from the US collapsing in spectacular fashion, if indeed it ever does. Most nations go out with a whimper, not a bang.

There is one possible exception to this: nuclear weapons. As usual they’re a huge wild card. I don’t think some limited exchange would cause the nation to collapse (though given the extreme reaction to 9/11 who knows.) But certainly if there was all out war between the US and Russia you’d be shocked if the US wasn’t fundamentally altered in some critical aspect. (Loss of territory, change in system of government, etc.) And to be fair to the people panicking over Trump, we have foolishly given the current president absolute control over the nuclear arsenal. All of this is to say, that I’m not going to rule it out, but that’s a subject for a different post (one I’ve already written.)

On top of this, there are also of course natural disasters, the eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano, a new Carrington Event, etc. But I want to talk about what might happen in the normal course of things, in fact I want to talk about what might happen without any huge black swans. Which is not to say there won’t be black swans, there definitely will be (positive and negative) but to look at how bad things can get even without them.

I was prompted to write on this topic when I read a recent Bloomberg article by Tyler Cowen: The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, where he essentially takes the same approach. He lists numerous challenges America will soon be facing. None of these challenges are surprising, or especially dramatic, but neither are any of them simple to solve, or easy to avoid. I’ve decided to go through his list, make some of my own comments, and then, at the end, add one item of my own as well.

He starts off by assuming that we get through the Trump presidency without a major constitutional crisis. I think that’s the way to bet, but he’s already assuming a rosier outlook for the future than many people, who can’t see farther than 2020. And it’s after 2020 when things start to get difficult, because it’s only then that recent financial trends really start to reach a tipping point. Cowen’s summation of the problem is excellent:

In recent years, the underlying rate of productivity growth often has been about 1 percent, and rates of economic growth are not even half of what they used to be. Meanwhile, America will have to increase taxes or reduce spending by about $2,200 per taxpayer per year to keep the national debt-to-GDP ratio from rising ever higher, and that figure predates the Trump tax cuts. To fund that shortfall, the U.S. will cut back on infrastructure maintenance. At least one-third of this country will end up looking like — forgive the colloquial phrase — “a dump.” The racial wealth gap will not be narrowed.

This takes us back to the question of whether national debt matters. I have argued strongly that it does, and Cowen seems to think so as well. Though as he mentions, if economic growth was better this might not be a problem, and indeed GDP for the second quarter of this year was a blistering 4.1%. Which Trump took credit for of course, and maybe he should, I don’t see many other great explanations for it out there, and certainly it’s the opposite of what many economists predicted would happen after Trump was elected. But for the majority of people who don’t believe Trump is going to usher in a new era of consistently high growth, and who also believe that the debt does matter, then the problems Cowen point out appear to basically be inevitable.

What effect will this have? Well it depends on what ends up getting cut. Cowen already mentioned infrastructure maintenance, but even if we cut that to zero it wouldn’t get us very far. To make any significant dent you have to cut spending from military or entitlements. Cowen is of the opinion that entitlements will mostly survive, meaning most of the money will come from the military. I generally agree with this assessment, though I’m not sure it’s the right choice, at least from the perspective of avoiding big negative black swans. Allow me to explain.

If you cut entitlements, then you have a lot more poor people, and presumably these people suffer more than they would if they were not as poor. More alarmingly you might end up with people dying who otherwise wouldn’t have. So it is bad, potentially very bad. Though I think in the end it wouldn’t be quite as bad as people predict. And I would even predict there would be some long term positives in there as well.

If you cut the military, then suddenly rather than having the umbrella of US global hegemony keeping regional conflicts below a certain level, you end up with a re-ordering of regional spheres of influence. Here’s how Cowen imagines it playing out:

Over a period of less than five years, China will retake Taiwan and also bring much of East and Southeast Asia into a much tighter sphere of influence. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will build nuclear weapons and become dominant players in their regions. Russia will continue to nibble at the borders of neighboring states, including Latvia and Estonia, and NATO will lose its credibility, except for a few bilateral relationships, such as with the U.K. Parts of Eastern Europe will return to fascism. NAFTA will exist on paper, but it will be under perpetual renegotiation and hemispheric relations will fray.

I’m not sure where Cowen starts his five years. From today? From the minute we start cutting the military? Regardless, the China scenario he outlines is becoming increasingly likely regardless of what the US does, and a reduction in our military would only hasten it. But it’s his next claim that’s more alarming, that Turkey and Saudi Arabia will build nukes. Though, once you assume the decline of American hegemony, than the rise of regional powers would seem to naturally follow. And it’s hard to imagine how someone can be taken seriously as a regional power if they don’t have nukes, particularly if their rivals do. People always talk about India and Pakistan in the same breath and yet India is eight times as wealthy and has seven times as many people. Yet they both have nukes, which gives Pakistan an equality it could otherwise never hope to claim. On top of the two countries Cowen named, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, I would add the usual suspect of Iran, but there’s also a good possibility Japan would develop nukes.

Here, we can finally see why I’m not sure that cutting the military in preference to cutting entitlements is the right choice. Yes, cutting entitlements would almost certainly cause some suffering, but it’s hard to imagine how a nuclear war, even a limited one wouldn’t cause a lot more. Though in reality the end of American hegemony has to come eventually, I’m sympathetic to people who think it might be replaced with some kind of global government which will keep the peace. But nothing in the current geopolitical landscape leads me to think that has the remotest chance of happening. All of this is to say that there doesn’t appear to be a lot of good options.

Cowen moves on to talk about drugs, and while he thinks the opioid crisis will eventually abate, he worries a lot about drugs which can be whipped up in a “home lab”. I’m not sure I share his optimism about the opioid crisis, I agree it’s hard to imagine that it will continue at the same rate. Overdose deaths from Fentanyl increased at an annual rate of 88%(!!!) from 2013 to 2016. Were that rate to continue, the entire country would be dead by 2030. But even if everything were to freeze where it is we’re still looking at 64,000 deaths from overdosing on drugs per year, which is now nearly twice as many as die in car accidents every year. As far as “home lab” drugs, also called designer drugs, I’m not sure how big of a problem they will be. Obviously I’m inclined to caution, but my initial impression is that so far they (fortunately) haven’t lived up to the hype. A search on designer drug danger turns up a lot of articles from 2013, and the number three hit is from 2003, so I’m not sure what to make of that. At a minimum it doesn’t seem like we’ve reached a crisis point yet.

There was an article just recently in the Atlantic claiming that marijuana is a lot more addictive than people claim. And I feel like I should mention it in this section. Though fortunately it’s basically impossible to overdose on marijuana, it does seem like when you pull all of this together that there’s a real danger that we’re turning into a nation of lotus eaters.

Cowen goes on to talk about technology, but rather than talking about benefits of it, he chooses to focus on the potential downsides. Many people are optimistic about the future precisely because of technology, but Cowen points out that in the near term we’re more likely to see technology being used to create a dystopian police state, than a transhumanist paradise. He doesn’t mention China in this context, but that’s an example worth considering.

Those, like me, who were around during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, can probably remember thinking that the fall of the Chinese communists seemed inevitable. Recall that 1989 also saw the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, the fall of all Eastern European communist regimes and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Change was definitely in the air. (Negotiations to end South African apartheid began the next year in 1990). And yet amidst all that change the Chinese Communists hung on. How they did that is a post unto itself. (One I’m almost certainly not qualified to write.) The important point is that somehow, despite all the technology that has come along since 1989, in particular the world wide web, the Chinese communists have continued to hold on.

It’s unclear how much technology has hindered the ability of the Chinese communists to hang on to control up until this point, but going forward there is a lot of technology which promises to greatly assist them in that endeavor. And here we turn back to Cowen:

Artificial intelligence and facial and gait surveillance will lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy, causing another 1 or 2 percent of Americans to decide to “live off the grid.” The impact of assassin drones will be curbed — by filling the skies with police drones. Public crimes will plummet, but public spaces in major cities will have a depressing sameness, due to the near-total absence of spontaneous behavior. Advances in recording technologies will make most conversations in public, and many in private, remarkably bland.

As you may have noticed, he’s talking about America, but you know that however bad it is here, it will be ten times as bad in China.

From there he goes on to touch on global warming, and much like myself, argues that “The very worst fears about climate change won’t come true.” Though, he argues that it will still be a significant drag on the economy, making the growth necessary to avoid cutting the military (or, less likely, entitlements) that much harder to achieve.

Cowen decides to end the article by tossing in some of his own petty gripes. Which include the fact that as more and more of current media is being driven by what is or isn’t available to stream, that fewer people are going to end up seeing classic movies. (Though one would think that once the copyright expires everyone will have old movies available for streaming, but maybe the cost of digitizing say, Battleship Potemkin, is prohibitive.) He also predicts that live performance of classical music will become less and less common. I can certainly sympathize with both of these complaints, though if I were to list my own petty annoyances I would probably come up with something like the proliferation giant ear gauging, or the vacuity of social media, or how the Hollywood regurgitation loop just keeps getting smaller and smaller.  But that’s just off the top of my head (and my first annoyance is almost certainly due to some giant gauging I saw just yesterday.)

The point of all of this, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that there are a lot of current trends which suggest ways in which the future could go poorly, without going catastrophically, and Cowen has done an admirable job of explaining many of the ways this could happen, but he did miss a few. This is entirely understandable. He made no claim to being comprehensive. But there’s one in particular that I think deserves a mention, and it’s one which might end up being as, if not more, consequential than the things he did mention.

This is the population growth trend in Africa. Most people will automatically translate this into a claim that there are “too many Africans”, which is not the sort of thing one talks about in polite society (and probably one of the reasons why Cowen didn’t mention it.) For myself, I certainly hope that how ever many people there end up being, both living in Africa and elsewhere, that they will grow up happy and well fed, and that they will all be blessed with the same opportunities and advantages as people born in the United States or Europe. But, I also hope that I’m wrong about the dangers of the national debt and that medicare and social security and Pax Americana will last forever. And, unfortunately, just because I hope for all these things doesn’t mean they’ll happen, though of course they might.

All of this is to say that Africa might have problems with overpopulation, just as all the things Cowen mentioned might happen as well. And this is certainly the way the trend is pointing. if you look at the official UN predictions for the population of Africa their most conservative estimate still has Africa reaching a population of just over 3 billion (up from 1.2 billion right now) with the most extreme estimate being that it will end up north of 5.5 billion (both estimates are for 2100). Now there has already been a lot of panic about overpopulation which didn’t end up coming to pass. And I hope that my fears will prove to be overblown again, but there are a lot of ways for things to go wrong and only one way for them to go right.

As far as ways for things to go wrong, well we’ve already gotten a first taste of one way they could go poorly with the recent European refugee crisis. Whether the Europeans should have been more welcoming is somewhat beside the point. Their welcome was what it was, which was somewhat mixed to say the least. And if that’s their reaction to the flow of refugees when the population of Africa is 1.2 billion what will it be like in 30 years when the best guess of the UN is that it will be twice that?

The reaction of Europeans and other people in the developed world to the refugees is what many people are focused on at the moment, and will probably be the thing most people are interested in for the foreseeable future, but in the long term what I’m really just trying to show is that we probably can’t assume that the “riches” of the developed world will be redistributed in such a fashion that all of the additional people will be taken care of. It might be nice if they could all come to America and Europe, find a place to live and a job, or if we could just increase our foreign aid, but that seems very unlikely. The people living in Africa are going to have to figure out a way to support themselves, specifically they’re going to have to figure out how to grow enough food to feed a lot more people, potentially three or four times as many people. I’m going to be honest, that seems like a hard problem, even if all of the energy of science and technology is brought to bear on the problem.

Accordingly, another way in which the future could go poorly just based on current trends (though catastrophic may be a better word) is for there to be widespread famine in Africa. As I said, it may not happen, everyone thought there would be widespread famine in India before the Green Revolution and there wasn’t. I hope that essentially the same thing happens with Africa.

It’d be nice if at the end of it all I could point out some simple things that we could do to solve the problems Cowen mentioned, but there aren’t any, which is of course why he’s worried about them. In fact one would be inclined to think they’re unavoidable. They may be.

I can offer only two pieces of consolation. First, there is of course the advice of Adam Smith, which I started the post with. There is a lot of ruin in a nation, or in a continent or in a civilization, and I’m sure we’re all farther away from catastrophe than people think. Though that’s part of the point, catastrophe may be far away, but a situation where things are just kind of “sucky” (if you need an example think, the 70s) might not be that far away.

Second, the technology optimists, of whom Steven Pinker is the best example (particularly his book Enlightenment Now, which I talked about in a previous post) will argue that technology has solved all of the problems we’ve had so far (this is debatable, but also not the time to get picky.) This has often happened through means we couldn’t even imagine a few years beforehand, and there’s every reason to think that technology will do so again. I certainly hope that it creates another Green Revolution and that there isn’t widespread famine in Africa or anywhere else. I’m less clear how technology will solve regional conflict in the absence of American power, or the related problem of US government spending, but despite that I hope it solves those problems as well. As I have often said, I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that I’m not. Or as Cowen says in closing his article:

So what in this description sounds so implausible? Is it that you think productivity growth will come in at 3 percent? That it will all be worth it because advances in medicine will allow us to stick around in decent form until age 135? That technological breakthroughs will extend the reach of the U.S. military further yet? That the Mars colony will be awesome?

Just how lucky are you feeling?

In answer I would say, I think our luck might be running out. Or to put it a different way. The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.


You may be thinking, “But there must be something I can do? Maybe I could contribute to something? Maybe something which calls attention to these problems? Maybe a blog or something like that?” Well you’re in luck. You may not have heard, but I just drew attention to it, and I accept donations!


Review: Bad Blood (Theranos)

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I just finished reading Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. Actually, I should correct that, I didn’t read it, I listened to the audiobook. Which, now that I’ve decided to do a review, is kind of unfortunate, because it makes it a lot more difficult to go back and find passages I might want to quote. For that reason, and others, the review I’m going to write will be more focused on the broad lessons of Theranos, than a recap of the story or an examination of specific events. If you’re looking for that, here are some other excellent reviews which you might want to check out.

One of the reviews I just linked to starts off by mentioning a quote from the back of the book, “No matter how bad you think the Theranos story was, you’ll learn that the reality was actually far worse.” I can say, having finished the book, that was definitely my impression as well. I first heard about Theranos in 2015 from of friend of mine who works at a clinical laboratory (ARUP, which was actually mentioned in the book.) He was very suspicious of Theranos’ claims, but it was still several months before the scandal broke. Still, his suspicions stuck with me, so when the story did break, I followed along as it happened. What I’m trying to get at, is that I already thought I had a pretty good idea of what Theranos had done. But no, the quote is right, in reality it was “far worse”.

So the book paints a disturbing picture, but to truly know how disturbed we should be we need to know whether Theranos was some kind of extreme outlier. Something entirely unique, and not similar at all to other Silicon Valley startups, or if it was broadly similar to every other startup, and it was unique just in that it happened to be the one that got caught. The fact that Theranos was more of a healthcare company than a software company, certainly contributed to the way things played out, but this shouldn’t make us complacent, there are more and more non-software startups, for example Uber and Airbnb.

At this point, I should mention that I do have some experience in the startup world. I spent over a year trying to raise money for my own startup, and I worked for three years in a startup that had raised several million dollars.

In the first case, we were 16 hours away from signing the paperwork on our initial round of funding when a key angel dropped out and the deal collapsed. This was in the middle of 2008, a couple of months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when the country was already in a recession, so I’ll let you guess how well things went after that.

As disappointing as it was to work like crazy on something for a year only to have it ultimately amount to nothing, the experience of working at a startup which had actually raised money was a hundred times worse. It was bad for basically all the reasons Theranos was bad, enough so that reading the book (okay technically listening) was somewhat uncomfortable. Now this is not to say that the startup I worked for was anywhere near as big as Theranos. Also, as I said, Theranos was a healthcare startup, which added a level of craziness and potential harm above and beyond the craziness of a software startup. But I would nevertheless say that the difference between the startup I worked for and Theranos was more a matter of scale than of kind. (Don’t worry, there will be examples.)

On top of this, I’ve had friends who did startups and their experiences were also broadly similar (i.e. horrible). When all of this is put together (and I admit it’s not a huge dataset) it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Theranos was not unique. That there are lots of companies operating in a very similar fashion. That if, as Mark Zuckerberg said, startups should move fast and break stuff, that Theranos’ mistake may have just been moving slightly faster and breaking slightly more stuff (and, being in healthcare, the stuff they did break was more consequential.)

Determining an answer to this question is important, because if Theranos was unique than we can marvel at the story of their mendacity and subsequent downfall and then go back to business as usual. But if Theranos was not unique then there are probably other startups who are similarly playing fast and loose with the law, and most especially the truth, and we need to worry about what the consequences will be when it eventually comes to light. In support of the argument that it’s a broader problem, in addition to the points I’ve already made, there is a history of corporate hubris occurring in clusters. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the hubris which lead to the 2007-2008 crash, and the hubris associated with the dotcom bubble. Going farther back you have junk bonds in 1989, and the savings and loans crisis in the early 80s.

By this am I implying that Theranos is just the first taste of an eventual startup apocalypse? Perhaps, and if you’re in a position to do so I would recommend making financial hedges against that possibility, but that’s as far as my prediction extends. Rather what I’m more interested in is how the various, what you might call, hubris failsafes, built up in response to past blow-ups and crashes, performed in the case of Theranos.

To begin with you would assume that the founders and company executives themselves act as a failsafe on things, at least to a certain degree. You might expect that they’d be concerned with whether they actually have a product that will work. You might further expect that they would be wary of lying or doing something illegal, because they don’t want to get caught in those lies and they definitely don’t want to go to jail. And as it turns out both of those things did happen with Theranos, not only were the lies eventually exposed, but Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani (Theranos President and Holmes’ boyfriend) have been charged with wire fraud, and could conceivably spend 20 years in jail. And yet this possibility seemed to have not deterred them in the slightest. This seems to be the trend recently and maybe I’m imagining that it used to be different, that leaders used to admit wrongdoing, even if they weren’t directly involved, and resign. But now everyone seems to fight in the most vicious fashion possible and to the bitter end. Certainly Trump would appear to be an excellent example of this.

Speaking of politics, I think founders and politicians suffer from a similar problem, in that the type of people who are attracted to being a startup founder or executive, are not necessarily the kind of people you want to be a startup founder or executive. It takes a level of rapacious greed and delusional confidence to believe that you’re going to be the next Steve Jobs, as Elizabeth Holmes clearly did. And, of course, Holmes’ story is the heart of the book, but Balwani’s involvement is, if anything even more interesting, and where things resonated the most with my experience.

One of the most interesting things about Balwani’s involvement, which I already mentioned, but which basically very few people knew about (not the board, not the investors, and not even many of the employees) was that he was Holmes’ boyfriend. This is in spite of a 20 year age gap (and recall Holmes was pretty young). This is creepy on its face and many people have tried to spin the narrative that Balwani was some sort of svengali figure for Holmes, but Carreyrou points out that many of the most egregious acts committed by Holmes were committed before Balwani came on the scene. In any event, a creepy May-December romance is not something I experienced during my time in startup land. But Balwani did remind me of some other things I encountered.

First, you’re going to run into a lot of people with money in the startup world: Angels, VCs, entrepreneurs with a previous successful exit, etc. And most of them are going to assume that they got that money by being skilled. Sometimes that’s the case, more often they got it by being in the right place at the right time, or as most people would say, they got it by being lucky. As you might imagine those who were lucky tend not to think of it that way. They assume their money is a direct result of their skills, skills which other people don’t possess. Balwani was apparently a great example of this and the CEO of the startup I worked for also fit this profile, and based on the stories I’ve heard from others it’s pretty widespread. I won’t go into the details of my CEO lest I get sued (again, but I’ll get to that.) But Balwani made his money by creating an unremarkable company and selling it for a bunch of money at the height of the dotcom boom. That’s luck, not skill.

For the people I’m talking about, imagining that they acquired all this wealth via skill rather than luck goes a long way towards creating the delusional confidence I mentioned earlier. As far as the greed part of it, while you might expect having a lot of money to reduce that, on the contrary it appears, rather, to inflame it. If they made 10 million in a single year, then surely, someone of their evident talent can be a billionaire, if they just put in a few more years.

As I said, you might hope the founders or the executives themselves would be one of the failsafes, but clearly we have created a process which basically selects, as founders, the people least likely to have any inherent checks on their ambition. This is not to say all founders are bad, but we should be more surprised when they’re not than when they are.

Of course, the company is more than it’s founders and executives. There is also the board of directors, who have, as their primary job, keeping an eye on the, aforementioned, executives and founders. In other words they are designed to be yet another failsafe. How did they do in the case of Theranos? Not great. The story of George Shultz, the former Secretary of State and his grandson Tyler was particularly fascinating. Tyler went to work at Theranos, saw how bad it was and tried to become a whistleblower, his initial hope being that his grandfather would back him up. But in the end, the elder Shultz essentially took Holmes’ side over his grandson’s. As an aside this does illustrate Holmes’ significant charisma, which as long as we’re talking about the board of directors, allowed her to change corporate by-laws to give the shares she held 100x the voting power of normal shares. Meaning, even if by some miracle the board had turned against her they would have had no power to do anything even then.

As you may have already heard, George Shultz was not the only former politician, or politically connected individual on Theranos’ board. Here’s how Fortunate Magazine described it:

We have former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Senators Sam Nunn and Bill Frist (who, it should be noted, is a surgeon), former Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, former Marine Corps General James Mattis, and former CEOs Dick Kovacevich of Wells Fargo and Riley Bechtel of Bechtel. There is also one former epidemiologist—William Foege, and, in addition to Holmes, one current executive, Sunny Balwani, who is Theranos’ president and CEO.

It’s quite an impressive group, isn’t it? But here’s what it’s not: an appropriate board of directors for a company that is valued at $9 billion. There are no sitting chief executives at other companies—a basic tenet of board best practices. There is but one still-licensed medical expert, Bill Frist (Foege, age 79, is retired). And while it’s probably useful to have a retired government official or two to teach and offer good leadership skills, when there are six with no medical or technology experience—with an average age, get this, of 80—one wonders just how plugged in they are to Theranos’ day-to-day activities.

Interestingly Fortune was the same magazine who put Holmes’ on their cover the year before this. And at that point they called the Theranos board of directors, “the single most accomplished board in U.S. corporate history.” And this illustrates the problem, not only was the board not equipped to act as a failsafe on Holmes’ and Theranos, but until Carreyrou broke the story, no one took the obvious step of pointing out that Holmes’ board was great if you wanted to skirt regulation and intimidate people, but awful if you were actually interested in designing an effective medical device. The article I just quoted from was only published after Carreyrou’s initial WSJ Piece. But it is only in light of that reporting that Fortune finally makes the same point I just made.

[The Theranos board] was assembled for its regulatory and governmental connections, not for its understanding of the company or its technology.

Of course now it’s arguably far too late. Interesting how quickly people decided that what was once thought of as a major strength of the company should have been regarded as an early warning sign that something was very wrong.

To be fair, there wasn’t much evidence of Holmes using the board to directly subvert regulations. (Though I suspect indirect influence played a large role.) But regulations are, of course, another failsafe, and eventually laws and regulations are what killed Theranos, the question is should they have done that sooner? A discussion of regulations will often devolve into a partisan fight over whether Republican antipathy towards regulation is really at the root of the whole problem. I don’t think that argument can be made here. Lots of very prominent Democrats were big supporters of Theranos, and this support extends beyond the board of directors. (Obama made Holmes one of his business ambassadors and Biden was visiting and praising the Theranos facilities just a few months before the scandal broke.) Meaning I don’t think it would have made any difference which party was in power, nor is there some repealed law one could point to as a smoking gun which enabled the whole disaster.

Actually if there was any single thing which empowered Theranos to continue for as long as it did, that thing was lawsuits, and more broadly the threat of lawsuits. And if there was any person to hold responsible for that it was David Boies, known for Bush v. Gore (he was on Gore’s side) and US v. Microsoft. For my money Boies is easily number three on the Theranos villain list and given that he escaped relatively unscathed (his role at Theranos is barely mentioned in his Wikipedia article.) And that of all the people involved he’s the one who really should have known better. Perhaps he deserves to be number one on that list.

As I alluded to earlier, my experience working for a startup also led to me being sued. The case has been settled and dismissed with prejudice. Also you can see I’ve tried to be careful to not mention any names, but it still makes me nervous to talk about. At the time I was sued I kind of figured that it was exceptional, that the guy paying for the lawsuit had made a bad decision based on bad information. But having read the story of Theranos, I get the feeling that lawsuits are more common than I thought in Silicon Valley.

The lawsuit side of the equation is interesting for several reasons. First it’s interesting to speculate how it interacts with the failsafe of government regulation. Would having more laws just give Boies more laws to sue people under? Or would it have made it easier for the government to crack down on Theranos. I strongly suspect the former, particularly given that once the appropriate agencies were made aware of what was happening, they had no problem shutting them down via the laws that were already on the books. But getting to the point where they were aware of the problems took a lot longer than it should have because of Theranos lawyers. Second, as far as I can tell, lawsuits have way more to do with how much money you have than whether you’re right or wrong. This is not to say that the side with the most money always wins, but to even play the game costs tens of thousands of dollars (in my case) and hundreds of thousands of dollars (in Tyler Shultz’s case).

Finally lawsuits, as I already alluded to, act as the opposite of a failsafe. In that they make all the other failsafes more difficult to trigger. As it turns out, despite however unethical the people at the top of Theranos were, Carreyrou tells the story of dozens of employees who wanted to make the world aware of what was happening, but were kept from doing so by the fear of a potential lawsuit. The story of Tyler Shultz facing down David Boies was one of the most gripping parts of the whole book, and if he hadn’t been the grandson of a member of the board and had parents who were willing to spend $400k to keep them at bay, it’s unlikely that he would have persisted either. Also once Boies turned on Tyler, even $400k was not enough to allow him to continue to talking to Carreyrou. He had to immediately shut up AND pay $400k.

This takes us to the failsafe which finally brought Theranos down, the press. One would imagine that once the Wall Street Journal got ahold of the story that it was all over. But it’s surprising how much effort Holmes, Balwani and Boies put into trying to quash the story even then. Carreyrou was constantly hounded by attorneys (and followed everywhere he went by private investigators). More interestingly, Holmes, aware of the story, managed to convince Rupert Murdoch (the owner of the WSJ) to invest $125 million in Theranos, and then proceeded to use that to try to leverage him into killing the story. I know lots of people don’t like Murdoch, but to his credit he apparently not only refused to kill the story, but refused to involve himself at all, and eventually lost the entirety of his investment (a drop in the bucket for him, but still.)

The final failsafe is supposed to be the most reliable of all, money, and by extension self-interest. How did Theranos raise $700 million dollars, and secure lucrative contracts with both Walgreens and Safeway despite not having anything close to the technology they claimed? Carreyrou’s answer was FOMO, or fear of missing out, which of everything I’ve mentioned so far may be the most modern phenomenon of all. And also the one I’m the least sure how to solve. It’s clear that FOMO is a major driver of bubbles, as everyone sees the upward spike and rushes in, never pausing to think if the growth is sustainable or if they’re just the greater fools. But what should be done about it? It’s a big problem, but in the very specific case of startups, I think it needs to be much easier to bet against them. And one of the things that has made that harder is the decline of the IPO.

All of this is a fairly large topic, and I’m out of space, but I will say that if I was one of the investors in Theranos, or one of it’s board members, or Walgreens or Safeway, that I would be taking a long hard look at how I ended up being so thoroughly duped and how to prevent it in the future.

As I said in the beginning, it’s not clear if Theranos is an extreme outlier, but I suspect it’s not, and I further suspect that if the many lessons of Theranos are not learned, we’re in for a lot more of this sort of thing, and I predict some of it will make Theranos seem quaint by comparison.


Much like Theranos, there are many areas where I’m incompetent. In their case it was worth $700 million. I’m not expecting my incompetence to be worth that much, but if you think it’s worth anything consider donating.


Pornography and the Time Horizon of Uncertainty

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As technology advances, new innovations are periodically introduced. Sometimes these innovations are so obviously beneficial (think the smallpox vaccine) that there is very little objection to them. On other occasions, the innovation might encounter significant resistance. A group of people may assemble who feel that this new innovation is harmful, or potentially harmful. And, if the influence of this group is large enough, this resistance might get classified as a moral panic.

Past examples of this include birth control pills, television and even heavy metal music. (You may not think that technology had anything to do with panic over music, but I think you’ll find it had more to do with it than most people think.) And of course there are plenty of panics happening right now, as just one example many people are intensely concerned about the potential negative effects of social media.

Reading this introduction one might almost assume that I’m preparing to dismiss the current panics by pointing out that past panics didn’t amount to anything and thus current panics probably won’t either. And certainly there is something to that, but I think if you look deeper at past panics, and current panics, you’ll find that the people who panic aren’t so misguided after all. What do I mean by this? Well, I would argue that many, if not most, of the things people feared did come to pass, it just took a lot longer than they predicted, their very worst fears did turn out to be unfounded, and, most importantly, by the time they did come to pass, very few people cared anymore.  

To use an analogy, you might say that the kick was accurate, but that the goalposts were moved. And true, a miss is a miss, but most people end up, incorrectly, blaming the kicker without mentioning that the goal posts were moved. Which is to say that people assume all of these panics were misguided. That over and over the forces of reactionary intolerance are always being proved wrong. And that anyone who worries about something like, social media increasing teen suicide risk, is just a neo-luddite puritan who blindly opposes all progress. Rather than someone who will turn out to be, on the whole, correct, just not quite as dramatically as they would have hoped and long after anyone cares enough to do something about it

At this point examples would probably be beneficial. Of course the problem is that, as I said, while I believe a lot of the predictions have come to pass, they rarely come to pass in a dramatic, undeniable fashion. Also, as I mentioned, to the extent that they have come to pass, people may no longer view it as a bad thing, and in some cases, people will even think it’s a good thing. For all of these reasons, I confidently predict that people are going to quibble with the examples I provide, which is fine. But I think if you start by setting aside your modern prejudices and really try to get into the head of historical people and their moral panics. You’ll realize that most of them, upon seeing the world of today, would not only feel entirely vindicated, but probably, that they had not panicked enough.

To start with, let’s look at one of the items I mentioned above: birth control pills. At the time of this panic, people confidently predicted that widespread availability of birth control pills would lead to more extra marital sex. Is there any doubt that this is exactly what happened? Now you can argue that it was not as bad as they thought, or that it’s actually a good thing, or that this came to pass, but some of the other things didn’t, but this is exactly the goalpost moving I was talking about.

There have been countless government programs passed on the idea that, whatever the costs associated, they would not end up being excessive. And since at least the days of Ross Perot, people have predicted that the costs would end up being much greater than the politicians said, that the debt would just keep growing, with an associated panic about what happens if it gets too big. Now we can argue (as we have in this space) about how harmful the deficit/debt is, but is there any doubt that it is WAY bigger than any politician could have imagined even a few decades ago? As one example of this process, Social Security was never envisioned to be a pay as you go system. From an article in the Washington Post titled, Would Roosevelt recognize today’s Social Security?

When Roosevelt proposed Social Security in 1935, he envisioned a contributory pension plan. Workers’ payroll taxes (“contributions”) would be saved and used to pay their retirement benefits. Initially, before workers had time to pay into the system, there would be temporary subsidies. But Roosevelt rejected Social Security as a “pay-as-you-go” system that channeled the taxes of today’s workers to pay today’s retirees. That, he believed, would saddle future generations with huge debts — or higher taxes — as the number of retirees expanded.

Discovering that the original draft wasn’t a contributory pension, Roosevelt ordered it rewritten and complained to Frances Perkins, his labor secretary: “This is the same old dole under another name. It is almost dishonest to build up an accumulated deficit for the Congress . . . to meet.”

A great example of a prediction which came to pass, but by the time it did the goal posts had been moved.

We’ve covered examples of morality and bureaucracy. This next example combines them. People have long argued that you “get what you pay for”. Leading many people, stretching all the way back to the New Deal, to predict that welfare might act as an incentive for various behaviors we don’t want to encourage: joblessness, a decline in marriage, etc. and disincentivize things like being resourceful and personal ambition. I understand there’s an argument to be had about how much welfare contributes to the current levels of all of those things, or if welfare and these trends act entirely independently. But imagine showing someone who opposed the War on Poverty the current figures on the number of poor, welfare spending and the increase in single mothers. Can you imagine this person experiencing any emotion other than vindication?  Particularly when you consider our society’s relative affluence.

I could go on, but at this point you’re either nodding your head in agreement, or you’ve already dismissed me as a hopeless reactionary, attempting to disingenuously fight battles which were already long ago decided against me.

For those of you nodding along, (and those who are inexplicably still reading despite dismissing me) all of this is leading to a discussion of a current panic, one which is being dismissed in the same fashion as all the previous panics.  But one where I think, eventually, the predictions of harm being made will once again, turn out to be true.

The battle in question is over pornography, and I was inspired to revisit this issue by a recent article in Slate, Why Are We Still So Worried About Wat­­ching Porn? subtitled: “Decades of fearmongering almost got porn addiction added to the International Classification of Diseases. Thankfully, the World Health Organization got it right.”

To begin with I should point out that they’re not dismissing all worry. But they seem to think that harcore porn videos should engender about as much worry as watching TV.

Even if sex-film viewing has been grossly exaggerated as a national problem, might it still be a problem for some people? Of course, just as there are excellent interventions to help reduce television viewing without invoking mental illness labels, you might want to reduce your sex-film viewing in favor of other activities you value more.

I read that as, sure it might be nice if people didn’t watch five hours of porn every day in the same way that it might be nice if people didn’t watch five hours of TV every day, but there’s nothing which makes pornography worse than binging Stranger Things. I would disagree.

As you can tell from the subtitle the article was prompted by a recent decision by the WHO to not add porn addiction to the list of official diseases. Right off the bat the article talks about, “…the shock when journalists learn that ‘pornography addiction’ is actually not recognized by any national or international diagnostic manual.” My immediate question is why are they shocked? Surely no journalist would be shocked to be told that there’s no entry in the DSM for being addicted to broccoli, and they probably wouldn’t be shocked to find out there’s no entry for TV addiction, and yet according to the authors of the article it would be basically the same thing, and yet one is obviously shocking and the other isn’t.

I would argue that they’re shocked because they know people who consider themselves addicted to pornography, and have heard stories about behavior that certainly seems like addiction. That they are shocked because it does not match what they’re seeing with their own two eyes and hearing with their own two ears. This is why it makes sense that they’re shocked, and in fact within the article they mention that a non-trivial percent of people consider themselves addicted.

Amazingly, the first nationally representative peer-reviewed study on sex-film viewing was only just published in 2017 in Australia. This study found that 84 percent of men and 54 percent of women had ever viewed sexual material. Overall, 3.69 percent of men (144 of 3,923) and 0.65 percent of women (28 of 4,218) in the study believed that they were “addicted” to pornography, and only half of this group reported that using pornography had any negative impact on their lives.

Several things jump out from this quote. First, 3.69% is not 0%, and certainly as a percentage of males it has to be higher than some of the other things which did make it into something like the WHO disease guidelines or the DSM. On top of that I think the numbers from the study are low. You’re saying, in this day and age, that 16% of men and nearly half of all women have never viewed sexual material? That doesn’t pass the smell test. And other numbers disagree with the Australian study. This survey (admitted conducted by a Christian group) claims that 13% of men admit to being addicted to porn, with another 5% are unsure (they did interview both religious and non-religious individuals). Add those numbers together and you’re in the ballpark with the number of men who smoke (16.7%).

Finally and most interestingly, they mention that this is the “first nationally representative peer-reviewed study on sex-film viewing” and that it was only published in 2017. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the replication crisis, and the other problems with social science studies of exactly this kind, but I’m loath to take a single study and carve it into stone, as they appear to be doing. Also the self-reported aspect of this study raises a lot of red flags as well. We have one self-reported study with a male addiction rate of between 13-18% and one with a male addiction rate of 3.69%. Yes, you can certainly point out the bias of the first, but how sure are you that the second is bias free? Also, how likely is someone to self-report that they’re addicted to porn and that it’s having a negative impact? It would make sense for all the bias to be towards under-reporting on those questions.

Why would this be? Because people are ashamed of course. Why are they ashamed? Well according to the article:

Speaking to the heart of the issue, one of the biggest problems for some porn users is shame. Shame about viewing sex films is heaped on the public by the sex-addiction treatment industry (for profit), by the media (for clickbait), and by religious groups (to regulate sexuality). Unfortunately, whether you believe porn viewing is appropriate or not, stigmatizing sex-film viewing may be contributing to the problem. In fact, an increasing number of studies show that many people who identify as “porn addicted” do not actually view sex films more than other people. They simply feel more shame about their behaviors, which is associated with growing up in a religious or sexually restrictive society. Further, labeling behaviors as a mental disorder is often stigmatizing and harmful in itself, so it should only be done when strongly warranted by evidence. If we really wanted to help such people, one of the most direct ways to do it would be to normalize and validate their sexual desires, including their interest in sex films.

They appear to be suggesting that shame would be nearly non-existent without unscrupulous external organizations. Who create shame for their own selfish reasons. From this they go on to say that the elimination of shame is the best way to deal with the issue, or as they say it, we should, “normalize and validate their sexual desires, including their interest in sex films.” But if this is really what we should be doing, why is shame so deeply embedded on this issue? Even if we believe the authors and grant that there are bad actors out there using shame for their own ends (The vast sex-addiction treatment/religious-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about!) why is shame so easy to invoke? Is it all cultural? A left over from the Victorian era, which, somehow, 50 years into the sexual revolution we still haven’t gotten rid of? Or is it more deeply embedded? Perhaps genetic? And if so, could it be that it’s been built in for a reason?

I would argue that it is genetic or common to all humans through some other mechanism. (For example, how many societies can you name where individuals have sex in public without any attached shame?) Maybe it is cultural and not genetic, just particularly tenacious culture. But in any event, from this, it follows, shame is probably there for a reason.

I have talked in the past about pornography being a supernormal stimulus. To refresh your memory, supernormal stimuli are phenomena where a species’ evolutionary preferences are unbounded in a certain direction, allowing technology to create a situation where this preference becomes counterproductive. The classic example is a species of bird which prefers large eggs, and scientists were able to get the bird to incubate artificial eggs almost as big as the bird itself, eggs which couldn’t possibly be natural. And most alarming, to prefer these eggs to the eggs they’d actually laid, eggs which might actually produce chicks.

The big question is, why would the bird do something so counterproductive? Well the bird could never lay an egg as big as she was, so there was no reason for evolution to cap this preference. (Brood parasites are obviously a possible exception to this, but outside the bounds of this post.) Turning this to humans, it obviously increases our evolutionary fitness if we have a strong urge to have sex. One aspect of this appears to take the form of an urge to see people naked or engaged in sex acts. In the millions of years humans and proto-humans wandered the African savanna there was a limit on how much of this someone might have access to. This is no longer the case. We have created giant eggs, and it’s not inconceivable that people will incubate these eggs in preference to incubating eggs with actual offspring.

As I said the big question is why do the birds do this? Obviously if this became common enough you would expect them to eventually adapt. Through language, memes and culture humans have the means to adapt to things more quickly than other species. Is it possible that shame is humanity’s adaptation to this supernormal stimuli? Recall that things like prostitutes and similar erotic “technology” has been around for a very long time.

To be clear about all this, I’m not saying that pornography is definitely a supernormal stimuli. I am saying I think that’s the way to bet.

I’m not saying that porn addiction is definitely a thing, and equivalent to smoking in its harmful effects, and something which should be included in the DSM and the WHO’s lists of diseases. I am saying that I am very doubtful that pornography isn’t a problem for a lot of people, even after you eliminate the supposed effects of externally generated shame.

I’m not saying that the authors of the article aren’t trying to be genuinely helpful. I am saying that they overlook several very large factors, which should make them far more cautious in jumping to the conclusion that “pornography” is essentially harmless.

I’ve already mentioned several factors they’re overlooking. First there’s the issue of the shifting goalposts. People say something will happen, it does, but it takes so long that no one cares anymore. We touched on how important this goalpost shifting is, which is a big topic, but if nothing else, in the here and now, we should give more weight to the predictions of those who are alarmed.

I also mentioned how little data there is. The article admits that one of the first studies done (certainly the first study they find credible, there was the other survey I mentioned) was done in 2017. Viewed in light of things like the replication crisis and the other problems currently affecting social science I don’t think their data is as ironclad as they want you to believe.

This all leads into another issue I think they’re overlooking. Not only was the first study done in 2017, but the entire phenomenon is incredibly recent. They specifically mention “sex films”. Well as I argued in another post, the ubiquity of “sex films” is basically 10 years old. Are they really saying that they can accurately predict the long term consequences of a technology that’s been around for less time than Gray’s Anatomy and NCIS?  And speaking of TV, what would predictions made after it’s first 10 years of existence look like? How closely would those predictions match what TV actually became?  The answer is, “not very close at all.”

I think in the case of pornography our predictive power is going to be even worse, when you consider things like VR pornography and sex robots (which came up during the recent discussion of incels.) And to be clear, I personally have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of sex robots becoming very common, but it is a wildcard, and if the authors get their way and manage to banish all shame, maybe that’s all that stands in the way of their widespread adoption.

When you consider all of these things, it takes an exceptional amount of hubris to dismiss all of the concerns about pornography as groundless. And all of the associated shame around the topic as counterproductive and existing only because of external actors with harmful motivations.

In the final analysis it comes back to a consideration of costs. What does the situation look like on the balance? Does the pornography status quo, with the ubiquity of porn on one side, and the shame on the other side cause more net harm or more net benefit? The article appears to be making the argument that there’s no downside to the ubiquitous porn and only the current and potential harm that comes from the associated shame. First, as I argued, I don’t think we should be so quick to assume that shame is a useless, entirely negative emotion, with no long term benefits. And I’m inclined to believe further that even if there is some short term limited harm, that in the long run there could be big benefits.

Maybe there are some people who react negatively to shame and instead of improving their life they just sink into a deeper funk, but my guess is the number of people who don’t do a bad thing because of something like shame vastly exceeds the number of people who just get worse.

In the end what I urge most is caution. I understand that eliminating pornography from the internet is beyond quixotic, but I think that declaring all activities related to “sex films” to be “normal and healthy” (as the article does) after a scant handful of years is similarly insane.


Just like all those people in the past, eventually I’m going to be right. And yes, by that point people might not care, and also, I may no longer be around. So if you suspect that I’m right, you’re only choice is to donate now.