Category: <span>Politics</span>

Technocracies Are Cool, but Are They Effective?

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

Or download the MP3


I.

I was on a Discord chat the other day and someone exclaimed, “man substack is like too much content”. When he said that I knew exactly what he meant. At the moment when I’m writing this I have three substack newsletters waiting to be read in my inbox. Two are 4500 words and the “short” one is 3900 words. They all arrived today. Given that the average page of a book is 250 words, that’s over 50 pages of material which has arrived just today. 

(Before we get any farther, let me be clear. I realize that I often publish stuff which is that long, and I am infinitely grateful that anyone reads it. But you will notice that my newsletter is always less than 750 words and only comes out once a month. So while I am a hypocrite about many things, this hypocrisy does not extend to newsletters.)

The newsletters are not merely “too much content” they might also be “too much” to digest. Recently the value of technocracies seemed to be having their moment in my corner of the zeitgeist, and these same newsletters were holding forth on the value of that construct. One writer, somewhat in contradiction of previous comments he had made, was saying they were good. Another writer was also arguing that they’re good, but only so long as their policies are legible. And yet a third was saying that the first two have merely defined technocracies as governments that implement policies they like without describing what principles unite those policies. 

As if that weren’t enough I’m reading or have recently finished several books which would appear to weigh in on the topic. There’s: Seeing Like a State, which seems to be on the anti side of the technocracy debate. Secret of Our Success, also anti. The follow up to that book, WEIRDest People in the World, which so far also seems anti. (Representative quote, “What doesn’t happen is that rational parties sit down, put their heads together, and hash out effective institutional design.”) Island of the Blue Foxes, the story of mid-18th century Russia spending 1/6th of their annual budget on the ill-conceived mission of sending three thousand interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia. (Though with that many people invasion may be a more appropriate term than expedition.) Reviews for the latter two books will be coming soon, but once again both seem to make a powerful argument against big top down programs of the sort we imagine coming out of a technocracy. 

Finally on top of all of this, there’s the position I’ve taken on this subject already in my various posts. How do these newsletters (Presumably written by people whose opinion I admire, otherwise why would I subscribe?) and these books serve to update my old beliefs? Is anything I’ve read strong enough to overturn one of my beliefs in its entirety? To make me recant one of my previous posts. Unlikely, though I should be careful not to rule that out. But short of reversing my position I still should be updating my beliefs based on this new evidence, but that requires understanding what all of these multitudinous claims are evidence of. I’m sympathetic to the argument presented by the third newsletter that they don’t really represent arguments for or against technocracy, because no seems quite able to agree on exactly what technocracy is. Still the arguments are probably evidence of something, but already it’s obvious that we’re travelling through a complex intellectual landscape.

Furthermore, if this is the situation I’m in, as a bona fide pseudo-intellectual, imagine the situation of someone without such mastery of facts and reasoning? What are they to make of these various arguments? You may accurately assert that most people, even if they’re familiar with the word “technocracy” have very little interest in debates over its efficacy as a system. But the argument I’ve been describing is taking place as part of a larger discussion, one which they are interested in. A discussion that has been front and center since November 3rd: 

How do we come together as a people and enact long term, beneficial policies?

II.

Years ago, a very wise friend of mine made the assertion that the crisis of modern politics was a crisis of epistemology. His politics are very different from mine (though they appear to be converging in weird ways recently) and I suspect that my bias against those politics made me overlook the prophetic character of his words. But I’m paying attention now because everything he has foretold has come to pass. But before we go any further, we should define epistemology for those few who are unfamiliar with the term. This is not the first time I’ve brought up the topic. The last time around I defined it as: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Which is a pretty good definition (and one I stole from Wikipedia). But recently, I encountered the idea that epistemology can be broken up into three questions. And this may be an easier jumping off point for the discussion I want to have. These three questions are:

  1. What is knowledge?
  2. Can we have knowledge?
  3. How do we get knowledge?

It is assumed that if we can identify knowledge and acquire it, that we can then go on to apply that knowledge to our various problems in the form of policies, and all epistemological frameworks are designed to bridge that gap. But as we’ll see the chasm between facts and policies is wider than people realize, and this even if we assume that we actually can reliably acquire facts, which is by no means certain. 

This is clearly a place where some examples are in order. My first example is from a previous post on the topic. While I included it there as something of an aside—an idea that occurred to me while I was writing, but which I hadn’t given much thought to—it has since grown to seem more and more germane. This is the epistemological framework of national greatness. 

For this example I want you to picture old school patriotism. The kind one would have experienced during World War II, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But also the lower intensity form that was ubiquitous in the 50’s. This is the framework that prevailed in my primary education up at least though High School. It was a civic religion where the Revolutionary War was the creation myth, the Constitution the tablets of Sinai and the Founding Fathers its prophets. With that picture in your mind let’s return to our questions and see how this framework treats them.

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the principles that went into the foundation of this country. The way those principles were used to do good things and improve the world.
  2. Can we have knowledge? We can not only have this knowledge, it is our duty as good citizens to acquire a good civic education. To understand the Bill of Rights and the Constitution
  3. How do we get knowledge? By studying the history of the country. Noting the throughline of principles from the pilgrims to the founders through to the present day. And how all of this makes the United States unique and special.

When it came time to translate this knowledge into policies, that was relatively easy. Not because specific policies are obvious but because it acted as a religion, and in so doing encouraged belief and unity. This provided a foundation for agreement between various policy makers and had the power of creating a united front out of the entire country, for example the one presented to Russia during the Cold War. The benefits of this framework are less about getting everything right than in acting together. 

Our second example is more recent, it’s the epistemological framework of all the Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen. While this isn’t entirely accurate, for the moment let’s label this framework as Trumpism. Being more nascent, it’s contours have not quite come into focus, but you have the same process going on:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the things those in power don’t want us to know—the methods the elites use to retain power, and oppress the common man.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but not by listening to the mainstream media. We have to actively seek out the truth, which is only available through people on the fringe, who are constantly being censored.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By diligent search; by looking at the facts behind the scenes; by putting together the pieces of the conspiracy.

When people use this framework, the knowledge thus acquired translates into knowing “what needs to be done”. These are policies but they are necessarily of a desperate and radical nature because this epistemology encodes the idea that we are already at war. Or that in any case if we’re not at war with the elites they are already at war with us. That this is a life or death struggle, an existential crisis, requiring extraordinary measures.

The final example is of course a technocracy, which at least as I understand it, looks something like this:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of things we have uncovered using the scientific method.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but “we” should be construed fairly narrowly. This is not populism. We’re not aggregating the knowledge of the masses. We’re relying on the knowledge of experts.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By funding research; by collecting sociological data; by studying what other countries do. 

Advocates of technocracy assume that their methodology results in purer knowledge than the other two examples, and that the purer the knowledge the better the policies which derive from that knowledge. I think this often leads its advocates to be lazy, to assume that pure knowledge will naturally lead to good policies without much in the way of additional effort, which leads them to emphasize some things and neglect others. But of course the other frameworks do the same thing, each choses something different to focus on. 

III.

Technocracies seem to focus on the input. If we just make sure that we have truth going in the one side, then good policies will automatically come out the other side. This is why I was so impressed when Matthew Yglesias pointed out that policy has to be legible. Impressed enough that I wrote a whole post on it. Because this is one of the key weaknesses of a technocracy, it’s not enough to just work on the inputs into the system you have to polish the outputs as well. Implementation matters. And while I say this is a key weakness it’s not the only weakness or even the biggest weakness, it may just be the most obvious. No, the fatal weaknesses of technocracy are far more subtle, and often in the areas that look like strengths to its practitioners. As the first example of this, they emphasize measurement and accuracy, but by limiting themselves to what can be easily measured it fatally undermines both the inputs and the outputs. But as they emphasize inputs, let’s start there.

It would be nice to imagine that by using the epistemological framework of science that we can extract pure Truth and that having done that we can filter it through the medium of experts, generating perfect policies on the other end. But of course for all it’s strengths science does generate pure Truth, it generates a collection of insights with various levels of confidence, and these insights are only those which can be gathered using certain methodologies, in narrow domains while working under obvious limitations. 

As an example of how this operates we need merely look at how the pandemic was handled. We can measure the number of deaths, hospital capacity, and the rate at which the disease spreads, but we can’t measure the psychological toll of isolation, non-standard schooling, and a hundred other second order effects which will only manifest years later. So we focus on what we can measure, deaths. This is good and proper, but no one should pretend it’s perfect or that we have somehow arrived at an optimal solution to the problem. And of course it’s worse than that. Because as it turns out the technocrats have not even been particularly good at managing the problems they’re supposedly good at. You can blame Trump all you want, but it was technocrats who told people that masks weren’t effective, that travel bans were a bad idea, and possibly the least technocratic state in the country, West Virginia, is doing the best on vaccines (Wait, scratch that, my own home state of Utah apparently passed them recently… But WV is still second.) And don’t even get me started about the slow vaccination rate in Europe

This problem becomes even more difficult when you move from hard sciences like epidemiology to the social sciences. At least with the pandemic you had deaths to track and a virus to sequence. Tracking polarization is significantly more difficult and error prone, and there is no gene we can sequence which will allow us to target the source of the despair and anger which has been on display recently.

All of the foregoing is indisputably true, but proponents of technocracy will still argue that it’s better than Trumpism at solving this despair and anger. But is it? First there’s an argument that technocracy created those problems in the first place. Under a very narrow definition of technocracy it may be possible to argue that it didn’t, but expand it out a little bit and it’s hard not to see a correlation (even if causation is difficult to prove). Perhaps you remain unconvinced, but one still has to ask, “Better in whose estimation?” It would be unsurprising if the technocrats thought it was better, but what about the people actually experiencing the despair and anger?

If we take the people who stormed the Capitol as a representative sample, 60% of them, according to data compiled by the Washington Post, had prior financial troubles. Why would they blame technocrats for these troubles? Well let’s look at other data, this time from the RAND Corporation who found that if the income trends which existed from 1945 to 1974 had just continued to the present day that the bottom 90% would have ended up with $47 trillion dollars more in aggregate taxable income. Instead that money ended up with the top 10%. If you were going to apply a label to the top 10%, “technocrats” is as good a description as anything else. Certainly the voting pattern of the top 10% would skew heavily technocratic.

Interestingly technocracies are very good at taking numbers like this and inputting them into their system. We hear all about rising inequality, but under technocracy how do those inputs turn into outputs which actually end up reducing despair and anger? So far there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that they do.

All of this is not an argument to switch from technocracy to Trumpism. I’m making a point about the blind spots of both frameworks. The blindspots of Trumpism are easy to spot. The blindspots of technocracy are less obvious, but they are even more consequential. Trumpism has really never been the law of the land, even while Trump was president. The same can not be said of technocracies, which are in power all over the world, including the US.

Having covered the problems with the inputs, what about the outputs?

IV.

It’s easy to imagine that if you just have all the information about an issue that the policies for dealing with that issue will be obvious. But it’s also possible that there is no connection between facts and policies. In one sense this is just the old saw that correlation does not equal causation. In a larger sense we’re talking about making a connection between how things are and how things ought to be, what’s often referred to as the Is-ought problem, or Hume’s guillotine. It’s called that because Hume was the first to point out the impossibility of logically deriving a morale system from a starting point completely lacking in morality, for example, raw facts. That no matter how good the inputs into a framework, if they didn’t come with some morality attached, no morality will emerge out the other side. 

Now this is not to say the technocracies have zero embedded morality but, if you think back to the epistemologies of the three different frameworks, it’s clear that it has the least built in morality of any of them and the morality it does have is pretty sterile. On the other hand Trumpism is essentially a moral crusade. I think it’s pretty embryonic and poorly considered, and while Trump himself was able to get it started, and in fact proved fairly adept at it. He seemed unable to hammer it into anything effective. Which is to say, it doesn’t appear that either technocracy or Trumpism has a great plan for getting unity back. This leaves our third framework, national greatness. Thus far I haven’t spent much time talking about it, but it also has quite a bit of embedded morality, which provides interesting lessons for our current crisis, and those lessons are even more pertinent when we contrast it with a technocracy.

It might be most useful to start with a discussion of why we largely abandoned the framework of national greatness. After 200 or so years of using this framework as our default what made us decide that it was inadequate? As far as I can tell it was because of the morality embedded in its epistemology. In putting together its knowledge base it was decided it would be better (i.e. more moral) to overlook some inconvenient facts. For example the treatment of Native Americans; the restriction of suffrage to white, land-owning men; and most of all slavery, including the fact that most of the founders were slave owners. But that was part of the point, whereas technocracy emphasizes increasing the accuracy of the inputs, national greatness emphasized the efficacy of the outputs. This framework sacrificed accuracy for unity. But by embedding moral decisions in the inputs they were able to more easily output morality on the other side. Put more simply they created a civic religion, this is more important than it seems, since historically religions have always been the best place to put moral content.  

Contrast that with a technocracy which mostly eschews morality, and the morality it does put forth is limited to material issues, issues which are unavoidably competitive. (As much as self help gurus might preach otherwise, most people still have a zero sum mindset.) Accordingly not only is it a weaker morality than that put forth by a framework of national greatness, what morality it does contain serves to divide rather than unite. 

This finally takes us to the biggest weakness of a technocracy, it is not a religion. This is obviously a controversial assertion. Particularly since its supporters view this as one of it’s greatest strengths, but it is nevertheless true. 

V.

Even if you accept that some form of religion is the only way out of this mess—even if it’s an ersatz one like the civic religion of national greatness. We’re still a long ways away from anything approaching a concrete solution. And I’m already a couple of days past my self imposed deadline for this post, so we’ll have to explore what that might mean in our next post. But obviously I can’t just leave it here. So allow me to briefly toss out some thoughts to give you a sense of where I’m headed.

I imagine that some of you are still a long way away from believing that religion is the answer, so any post on this subject is going to have to spend at least some time creating that foundation. But I think there are plenty of books that make this exact argument. Just drawing on books I’ve reviewed there’s Clash of Civilizations, A Secular Age, Marriage and Civilization, Sex and Culture, Secret of our Success and the one I’m currently working on The WEIRDest people in the World. 

A quote from that last book seems particularly appropriate at this moment:

…throughout human history, rulers needed religions much more than religions needed rulers.

However important some sort of religion might be, our options are limited:

  • It seems difficult to imagine that we could go back to a unifying ideology of national greatness, and arguably that’s what Trump was trying to do. It’s possible to imagine that someone other than Trump might have been able to pull it off, but now that we’ve had Trump I think he might have burned that bridge.
  • It seems equally difficult to imagine some large scale return to an existing religion, however much some believers might wish for this. 
  • If we can’t retrace our steps is there some new religion we’re travelling towards? This is an interesting idea and one I’ve covered already in this space, and which I’ll certainly return to in the next post. But for now let’s just say that even if we can make such a transition it’s likely to involve serious upheaval if not actual bloodshed. (And perhaps this is what’s already happening.)

Everyone agrees that the country is sick. This might seem like a radical (not to mention underdeveloped) proposal for its cure, and in some respects it clearly is, but on the other hand I’m merely suggesting that we should look another look at what worked for thousands of years. 


I have a framework as well, I input books on one end of things and spit out posts on the other. This is just one of many possible frameworks. Other people input sanctimoniousness and spit out judgement. Still others input hot takes and spit out even hotter takes. If you think my framework is better than those and worth supporting consider donating


Parenting, Wildfires, and Politics

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

Or download the MP3


I- The Last Psychiatrist

For many years, in various contexts and in various forms, people have been recommending I read The Last Psychiatrist. A blog that ran from 2005-2014 before suddenly stopping. It was rumored that the sudden end was because someone had threatened to get the author in trouble with his work, or perhaps he did get in trouble at his work, but was able to negotiate leaving up the archives. In any event, I recently added it to the list of tabs I open every morning to start the day and, finally, I’ve gradually been working my way through it. It is quite good, and I can see why people have been recommending it for so long. Thus far I have particularly liked his three part series, The Most Important Article On Psychiatry You Will Ever Read. Perhaps, since I brought it up, you’re wondering what makes this article so important? Well it’s all about how adding more of a drug frequently doesn’t increase whatever that drug’s initial effect was. That in fact adding more might produce entirely different effects, because the drug will have saturated the initial receptors and adding more causes it to bind to different receptors causing, correspondingly, different effects. As a more simple example: doubling the dosage does not double the effect it may give you a completely different effect. 

However important and fascinating that subject is, for this post I’d like to use a different observation of his as a jumping off point for expanding on some of the themes I’ve explored in my last couple of posts. This observation of his concerned parenting, particularly parents who are psychiatrists. 

SOME psychiatrists think/try to do something noble (criticize behavior and not the child itself) but they are HUMAN, and get tired. They will eventually get angry, and, from a kid’s perspective, when the parent gets angry is what matters. What did I do to piss Dad off?

The opposite of this, call it the non-psychiatrist parent, is calm, then gets a little angry, a little more angry, a little more angry, then yells, screams. There’s a build up. A few years of this and you realize that there are some things that make Dad a little angry, and other things that make him really angry. There’s normal, varying levels of human emotion to different situations.

But the child of a psychiatrist doesn’t get that. He gets binary emotional states. “Lying is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Yelling loudly is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Picking your nose is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Stealing is not acceptable behavior.” What’s the relative value? A kid has no idea– he thinks the value is decided by Dad, not intrinsic to the behavior. “Eating cookies before dinner is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Kicking your brother is not acceptable behavior.” 

Ok, now here it comes:

After seven or eight or twenty five “not acceptable behavior” monotones, Dr. Dad can’t take it anymore; he explodes. “Goddamn it! What the hell is the matter with you?! What are you doing?!!” All the anger and affect gets released, finally. The problem– the exact problem– is this: the explosion of anger came at something relatively trivial. Maybe the kid spilled the milk.

So now the four year old concludes that the worst thing he did all day was spilled the milk– not kicking his brother, or lying, or stealing. Had he not spilled that milk, Dad wouldn’t have gotten angry. 

I imagine most people understand that this sort of radically inconsistent parenting is bad. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not just the explosion at the end that’s bad; to recognize that the answer is not to be calm all the time. And it’s not merely because it’s impossible (though it is). It’s because the calm, in the end, is just as bad. The explosion is misleading because it lays far too much emphasis on the spilled milk. The calm is bad because it doesn’t lay any emphasis on anything. Picking your nose provokes exactly the same response as stealing.

If this problem were isolated to just some portion of parents who also happen to be psychiatrists it wouldn’t be worth bringing up. But I think such attitudes are found among a large number of parents in general. And even beyond that the ideas and practices motivating these parents have seeped into institutions, policies, behavior, and culture. That it’s a deep ideological vein running through modern western culture at large. Despite this ubiquity there’s no easy label for it. However, despite this difficulty, that’s precisely what this post sets out to do. To help with that, let’s turn to another example, one that would initially appear to have nothing to do with parenting.

II- California Wildfires

Last year was so full of catastrophes that the California wildfires, which might normally have dominated the news, now seem largely forgotten. Perhaps not by people in California, but with everything else that’s been happening, I doubt many outside of the state have given them more than a moment’s thought over the last few months. But, again, that’s just a measure of how relatively bad everything else has been. The California wildfires were objectively terrible, even if they did produce some truly spectacular pictures. Generally, when something is that bad you look for ways to stop it from happening. Which takes us to the subject of wildfire control and suppression.

This is not the first time we’ve covered that subject in this space. It’s come up a few times in the past, including most recently in December of 2018 at the end of modern California’s  deadliest and most destructive fire season. (2020 was twice as big in terms of acres burned, but lower in terms of damage and fatalities.) In that post I mostly looked at the debate over whether more logging would have helped, a subject which, even after 2020, is still very controversial, but what seems less controversial is the idea of controlled burns. 

As most people who’ve paid any attention to the subject are aware of, the problem of wildfires, while multifaceted, can actually be made much worse by the process of fighting those same fires. This seems counterintuitive and indeed for many years, the U.S. Forest Service had a very aggressive approach, unofficially known as the 10 a.m. policy, which directed that wildfires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As you can imagine, throughout most of history, forest fires were not extinguished by the next morning, and moreover forests have not evolved with Forest Service policy in mind. Predictably, at least with hindsight, this approach resulted in many second order effects, similar to those created by the discipline of scientific forestry I mentioned at the beginning of the month in my review of Seeing Like a State. In both cases it’s clear that when you start to mess with the way forests operate naturally you end up with numerous unintended consequences. In this case aggressively fighting fires ended up creating at least two consequences of note: First, it resulted in an accumulation of deadwood because there were no fires anymore to periodically burn it out. Second, the population of the forest changed from a small number of large trees (30 or 40 per acre) to a large number of small trees (1000 to 2000 per acre) because fires used to periodically clear out smaller trees as well.

Both of these together mean that fires, when they do happen, can end up being extraordinary destructive, with both far more fuel available from the accumulated deadwood than would normally be the case and smaller trees which catch fire more easily and burn hotter (as anyone who has started a fire with kindling can attest to.) Additionally large trees which have spent hundreds of years surviving normal fires are no match for these super fires fueled by the proliferation of smaller trees and accumulated deadwood.

Obviously there are many ways to deal with this problem. There’s the logging I focused on in my previous post. Also you can be less aggressive in fighting fires. For example, if fires start naturally, you could let them burn. There are, however, several problems with this. To begin with we’re long past the point where we are dealing with “natural” fires. Most fires are going to be too hot and destructive to just leave alone. Also people find it extraordinarily difficult to not intervene. (Which is one of the first hints to where all this is headed.) Which takes us to…

III- Controlled Burns

As an alternative to just letting the fire burn as it naturally would you could try and manage the burn, not immediately put it out, but not let it get out of control either. All of the same difficulties present themselves along with a host of additional difficulties. By the time you discover the fire it may already be too late. It’s probably fire season and there are numerous fires to fight and we can’t spare the manpower to carefully manage them, but rather we need to extinguish them as soon as possible. Also fires are most likely to happen when conditions are dry and there’s more than the average amount of fuel which is the worst time to attempt any management of them.

The final option is scheduled, intentionally set, controlled burns, and in the wake of 4.4 million acres burned, $12 billion in property damage and 31 fatalities in 2020 (on top of 2 million acres, $26 billion and 103 fatalities in 2018) most people are asking why we don’t do more of them. Or as this article from ProPublica puts it, They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?

This article contains a lot of interesting and frustrating observations, but let’s start with the answer of why there aren’t more scheduled, controlled burns. To begin with the article mentions how lucrative and exciting seasonal firefighting is, but:

By comparison, planning a prescribed burn is cumbersome. A wildfire is categorized as an emergency, meaning firefighters pull down hazard pay and can drive a bulldozer into a protected wilderness area where regulations typically prohibit mountain bikes. Planned burns are human-made events and as such need to follow all environmental compliance rules. That includes the Clean Air Act, which limits the emission of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, from human-caused events. In California, those rules are enforced by CARB, the state’s mighty air resources board, and its local affiliates. “I’ve talked to many prescribed fire managers, particularly in the Sierra Nevada over the years, who’ve told me, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get all geared up to do a prescribed burn,’ and then they get shut down.” Maybe there’s too much smog that day from agricultural emissions in the Central Valley, or even too many locals complain that they don’t like smoke. Reforms after the epic 2017 and 2018 fire seasons led to some loosening of the CARB/prescribed fire rules, but we still have a long way to go.

Of course it’s worth pointing out that the impact to air quality from what actually happened last year is vastly worse than whatever would have resulted from a controlled burn (and the reason the pictures are so breathtaking). Which presumably means that in the end, those who are worried about clean air made the wrong call. 

I mentioned at the beginning that I was going to be drawing on my two previous posts. I’ve already made a connection to my discussion of Seeing Like a State, now it’s time to draw on my last post, Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, but No Simpler. In that post I described three hierarchies of systems:

  1. Natural
  2. Legible
  3. Controlled

Let’s go through each of these with respect to wildfires:

Most people, including myself, are kind of fuzzy on how wildfires worked in a “state of nature”, and in retrospect I was negligent in not paying more attention to it when I last visited this issue. At the time I assumed, now that the problems of being too aggressive with wildfire suppression were blindingly obvious, that things have gotten better. That we had switched to focusing just on fires that were going to threaten houses. But the ProPublica article claims otherwise:

We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures.

Well that seems misguided, but of greatest interest was the gap between where we are and where things were in the “unspoiled” past.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres.

So not only has the acreage of prescribed burns been going down over the last couple of decades, but also, even as bad as last year was, it was on the very lowest end of the estimate for the number of acres which burned historically. 

I assume that comparing last year’s fires with historical fires is something of an apples and oranges comparison. Since last year’s fires were burning in areas with the aforementioned accumulation of fuel, while historical fires would have presumably been milder. Though if we’re trying to look on the bright side, we should at least be able to say we met our historical fire budget last year. But it’s also clear that it would be unthinkable to do that every year. Which is to say, even if we hadn’t drastically altered the makeup of the forests, the idea returning to the natural system is ludicrous. 

Even if by this measurement we did meet our “burn budget” for 2020, we’re still left with the question of what we’re supposed to do in all the other years? The gap between 13,000 acres and 4.4 million acres (to say nothing of 11.8 million) seems entirely unbridgeable. But we should still try, and this takes us to the other two systems: legible and controlled. Let’s start with controlled.

I would argue that when the ProPublica article describes the system where thousands of dollars can be spent preparing for a burn only to have it stopped because of air quality issues or complaints from local homeowners that this is the controlled system. The system which, as described in my last post, consists of layering on more rules: “If people are worried about the discretionary use of power, you need to make sure the decision-makers go through an elaborate compliance checklist.” Such a controlled system is exactly what you would expect from California, which leads all other states in the number of regulations it imposes. And also, just as you might expect, this system is not working. So if a natural system is inconceivable and a controlled system doesn’t work, what might a legible system look like?

I don’t know that I have the requisite expertise to answer that, and it’s somewhat tangential to the actual point of this post, but as long as we’re here I might as well offer an opinion. To begin with I think incentives should be better aligned such that more money and prestige is available for prescribed fires i.e. more focus on preventing less on curing. And further that prescribed fires should be exempt from air quality regulations, or at least the bar for preventing them should be much, much higher. Finally I would urge people to remember that a legible system is not the perfectly just system, it’s not even the perfect system, it’s just a system that will get used. But it turns out, somewhat paradoxically, that making things simple can be quite complicated.

IV- Our Other Attempts at Controlling Nature

I have spent so much time on the subject of managing wildfires because it’s fascinating, and also because I assume that many people, after reading my review of Seeing Like a State and hearing about the scientific forestry debacle of late 18th century Prussia, would assume that we can’t possibly be doing something similar, and yet, the management of wildfires would seem to be a failure of almost exactly the same sort, going so far as to also center on controlling the natural life cycle of forests. Does the discussion serve any purpose beyond that? Well while I have already admitted that I don’t have the expertise to talk about a legible system for fighting fires, I am very interested in fighting political unrest. And I sense there are parallels between what’s happening to our country, what the Last Psychiatrist described as happening with parents, and what’s happening with wildfires.

In the case of parenting, interestingly enough, the parent stands in for both those perpetrating the unrest and those trying to control the unrest. You might say that the parent is the country while the children he inconsistently parents are nature, and after attempting to maintain calm for so long, now we’re at the end of our rope, where all it takes is split milk to set us off. That we now suffer paroxysms of rage around mask wearing. And even the other stuff, like the actual pandemic, racial injustice, and election malfeasance are things we dealt with much more calmly in the past, even though it was all happening on a much larger scale. Both parenting and wildfires suffer from trying to impose too much control.

The parent assumes that if they are always in control that they’ll achieve better outcomes, but they can’t always be in control, and on the rare occasions when they’re not it wipes out all the benefits (which were questionable already) of those periods when they were calm. The Forest Service assumed that if they immediately took control of fires that they would have better outcomes, sadly it worked exactly the opposite. Now we’re in a situation where we have some ideas for making it better, but it’s not just wildfires we’re trying to control, we also want to control air quality and public opinion. So what are we trying to control in politics? Well similarly, a lot of things, but foremost among them, it appears that we are trying to control bad opinions, all the way down to the level of microaggressions. We don’t just want to keep our child from stealing we want to keep them from rolling their eyes behind our backs as well. That, as I mentioned when reviewing Seeing Like a State, we’re trying to get rid of all of the awful underbrush and create forests with straight lines of perfect trees.

Now perhaps even though we haven’t succeeded in doing this as parents, or with fighting fires, that we’ll nevertheless succeed at doing this politically. Perhaps, having driven bad thoughts from mainstream media to Fox, and more recently from Fox to OANN and NewsMax, that we are just one step away from driving them out of the country entirely. Perhaps having driven “the crazies” from Twitter to Parler and now having shut down Parler, we can declare victory. We have extinguished the big wildfire and all future wildfires will be small and easily managed. Society has regained its calm and now all issues, including our misbehaving children, will be treated with dispassion. It’s always possible this is how the rest of the decade will go, but this doesn’t seem to be how things are playing out. Merely expressing disapproval for certain opinions doesn’t make them go away. The measures which we have adopted may slow the transmission of such ideas, or peel off individuals whose fidelity was only lukewarm, but as I pointed out, the underbrush that’s left will be of the hardiest and most noxious varieties. And if it gets even the smallest opening it will overwhelm your carefully curated rows of trees. Or start a new fire in some undetected part of the forest that will be raging out of control by the time you discover it.

Trump is the perfect example of this effect. Going into 2016 it seemed that things were calm. And all manner of bad thoughts like racism and being against immigration had been banished from the halls of government, even among Republicans. And when Trump came along the idea that he would win the Republican Nomination to say nothing of the presidency was considered akin to his chances of playing in the NBA Finals. But as it turned out, it was a hot, dry summer in California, and over the years a huge amount of deadwood had accumulated and Trump was not just a match, he was a flamethrower, and more importantly a flamethrower who got 74 million votes. And perhaps we just need to pass more laws, and kick more social media platforms off of AWS, and the calm we hope for will return, and those 74 million people will vote for Mitt Romney in 2024. I doubt it, and is that more likely if Romney runs on the same platform as he ran on in 2012? Or is it more likely if he adopts some of Trump’s policies, like building the wall, but perhaps without Trump’s special brand of flamboyance? Should we prefer this Romney to Don Jr. running? What exactly are we hoping will happen in 2024?

All of which is to say, I’m not arguing that the wildfire currently raging is good. I’m just arguing that it exists, and that previous methods of fighting it have very probably made it worse. And now we need to ask, what represents a prescribed burn in this analogy? What would represent good parenting? This is a vast topic, and deserves more space than I have left, but let me just offer one example. It seems clear to me that in the past free speech has served in this role. And I’m fully aware that this time when we prepared to do our prescribed burn, as we have in the past, we found that Mark Zuckerburg had poured gasoline on all the accumulated deadwood and Jack Dorsey had used a helicopter to scatter cherry bombs in the area. And as a consequence, free speech isn’t looking so hot (get it?). But we still need a system. We have ruled out allowing nature to operate unchecked, and on the opposite side our attempts at a controlled solution, at extinguishing all fires as soon as they appear is even worse.

What we need is a legible system, and as it turns out free speech is legible. Under the three standards I brought up in the last post it is both accessible, accountable and achievable. Though, as with the other systems we looked at, the accountability does need some work. And insofar as the internet has changed things it has strengthened accessibility at the expense of accountability. And yes, free speech is another fire, but the point of all of this is that we need small, manageable fires if we want to keep giant conflagrations from consuming everything. 


Lest there be any confusion, my parents were fantastic. I was a little shit, but they were great and continue to be great. In fact they even donate my patreon. If you want to be as great as they are, consider doing the same. 


Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, but No Simpler

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

Or download the MP3


I.

My father spent many years working for himself as a management consultant. He wasn’t one of these people that advised CEOs on vision, instead his specialty was shiftwork. Companies that operated around the clock, 24 hours a day seven days a week. Quite frequently he ended up having to work with unions which was its own special brand of crazy, particularly if layoffs were involved.

During the winter of 1990, after the holiday rush was over, it was my turn to get laid off. Beyond all of the normal annoyances which accompany getting laid off, I was also annoyed because I felt that I had been laid off in favor of people who were worse than me at the job, but had greater seniority. So I asked my dad why companies did it that way. He explained: because it was a system which was easy to understand for all of the parties. Competence is fuzzy, and it can be hard to judge even if you’re not the person being judged, and no one has an accurate view of their own competence, but seniority is a bright line. Even if it has to come down to the difference of a few days, it’s clear who’s been working there longer. It’s clear to management, it’s clear to the person being laid off, and it’s clear to that person’s wife or husband. That last bit may be the most important of all, your significant other isn’t going to get angry about your lack of seniority, but they may get mad if they feel you were slacking off or alternatively if there was some favoritism involved. And, as we’ll get into, managing anger is a pretty important part of any process.

II.

Last week I was reminded of this story by an article Matthew Yglesias posted to the subscribers of his new newsletter, Slow Boring. The article was titled Making policy for a low-trust world. (Fortunately this was one of his public posts so you can easily read the whole thing if you want.) His subject is pretty clear from the title, and it touches on something real and pressing (moreso after the events of the 6th) how do you carry out policy when people don’t trust those in power? 

Yglesias offers up two options:

  1. Layer on more rules: “If people are worried about the discretionary use of power, you need to make sure the decision-makers go through an elaborate compliance checklist.”
  2. Fewer and far simpler rules or what Yglesias calls “it does exactly what it says on the tin” approach.

Yglesias favors that latter and offers up three steps for doing that:

  • It’s easy for everyone, whether they agree with you or disagree with you, to understand what it is you say you are doing.
  • It’s easy for everyone to see whether or not you are, in fact, doing what you said you would do.
  • It’s easy for you and your team to meet the goal of doing the thing that you said you would do.

The shorthand for these steps might be accessibility, accountability and achievability. (Yeah, I got cute and chose three words that began with “a”.) And Yglesias goes on to show what this looks like when applied to vaccine prioritization (he’s been a big proponent of simply prioritizing by age), the fiscal stimulus/PPP program, quantitative easing, and finally local infrastructure. It’s good stuff, (Tyler Cowen called it the best short essay of the year so far) and as I said it’s not paywalled so you should just go read it.

All that said, I want to take things in a somewhat different, and broader direction. First I should mention that I was saying something very similar in a post from 2017. (Truly I was ahead of my time.) Without getting too deep into the weeds (for that read the original post, I think it holds up really well) I was comparing the book Rationality: AI to Zombies (RAZ) something of a bible for rationalists and bayesians with the actual Bible. And basically arguing that RAZ and rationality in general were examples of Yglesias’ first option for dealing with the world. While they aren’t exactly making a compliance checklist (though I think some of that is in RAZ) they are trying to craft a decision framework for every eventuality. Contrariwise the Bible is an example of the second option. Obviously a totalizing religion is going to have a hard time always complying with all three of Yglesias’ steps, but it is pretty rare for someone to say they don’t understand Christianity (step 1-accessibility). And most people (especially non-Christians) feel perfectly comfortable identifying if someone is being Christian (step 2-accountability). Most of the trouble comes in the execution (step 3-achievability) which does create some unfortunate hypocrisy, but hypocrisy is not actually as bad as people want to claim.

All of the steps are important, but as you might have already guessed step 1, understanding the plan, is the most important not only because the remaining steps build on top of it, but also it’s the chief thing differentiating the two options. And it’s not even all of step one, within that step there is one word that’s more important than all the rest… “everyone”. In my aforementioned post, I pointed out that this was a key difference between rationality and Christianity. As an example of what I mean by this the story of someone in jail converting to Christianity or some other religion (see Malcolm X) is so common as to be a cliche. The story of someone reading the 2300 pages of RAZ and converting to bayesianism is so counterintuitive that I’m sure they could make a TV show out of it. Something similar to My Name is Earl (which was cancelled too soon by the way). In other words it’s not enough that your system is understood by bureaucrats, or people who’ve read the right hundred posts on social media (or 4chan) or the right 2300 page book. It has to be something everyone (or at least a percentage in the high 90’s) can understand.

III.

What’s interesting about Yglesias’ essay is that, despite the timing, he didn’t apply this framework to the election, which, for me, is the obvious place to do so. And you can see that this was basically what I was getting at in my post Voting as a Proxy For Power. I offered up three potential systems for deciding who had won. Which, if we restate them in Yglesias’ framework might look like this:

System 1: Elections as they are supposed to work

  1. Accessibility: We’re going to count up all the votes in the individual states, assign the electoral votes from that state to the one who got the most individual votes, and then whoever got the most electoral votes is president.
  2. Accountability: Each party gets to have observers at critical locations to confirm whether we did the above. (I understand that there are disputes about how well this worked, and in general step 2 in this system is weaker than I would like. But in theory counting votes should be something that can be transparent.)
  3. Achievability: Counting votes is a relatively straightforward exercise, and while it’s not unheard of for people to have questions (see hanging chads) nearly everyone feels confident about their ability to do it, and in fact the people who pushed back most vigorously on accusations that the election was stolen were frequently the election officials

System 2: Voting as a proxy for power

  1. Accessibility: We’re going to have a smooth, non-violent transition of power, as opposed to what happened historically.
  2. Accountability: We’re going to use voting and democracy to grant legitimacy to the person taking, or keeping that power. In a way that’s convincing (particularly to the elites in the media and government who are custodians of the power) even if it’s not perfect.
  3. Achievability: Everyone has done a good job if power is peacefully and smoothly transferred.

Once again the most difficulty comes on step two, but as you can see, this system is arguably actually even simpler and more straightforward than the first. Now let’s look at what Trump and his supporters actually tried:

System 3: Overturn the election by any means necessary

  1. Accessibility: We are going to get to the true winner of the election by uncovering proof, filing lawsuits, creating spreadsheets, tweeting out accusations, spreading innuendo, and crafting conspiracies. As a result of one or all of these plans the election will be given to Trump by the courts, or the state legislatures, or the Insurrection Act, or the military, or Mike Pence, or occupying the capital, or Trump himself in some bold stroke we didn’t even see.
  2. Accountability: Everyone can tell that it’s still working as long as any of the foregoing still has the slightest chance of working, and if all of them have been eliminated, then Trump supporters will provide you with six other possibilities you’ve never even heard of which are the real way to tell that it’s working, and unless every one of these possibilities has been made physically impossible by the laws of nature the plan is still working.
  3. Achievability: People working in this system should: Stop the count (except for a few days in AZ, in which case you should keep counting); release the Kraken; wait for the courts; wait for the state legislatures; watch Mike Pence; disregard everything that happened before January 6th (it’s all happening after that); gather in DC; storm the Capitol; wait for Trump’s instructions on Twitter; realize the video of Trump conceding on Twitter is a fake; and finally pay attention to the Emergency Broadcast System.

As you can see despite cramming this into Yglesias’ framework this is the first option he talked about, the idea of layering on more rules, though in this case they’re layering on every conceivable option so that no avenue for victory is left unexplored. And the point is, it’s so easy to convince yourself that this system has to work. That surely if you just account for every eventuality, mistakes won’t be made. Or if you pursue every possible avenue for victory one of them has to work out. But this is one of those times when no plan survives contact with the enemy. Your rules, checklists, and plans don’t exist in isolation, at some point they have to be understood and implemented. When the rubber actually hits the road, the additional complexity is a liability not an asset.

As we have seen in the days since the election, you can be the biggest Trump supporter there is, firmly believing in both his genius and in the fact that the election was stolen, and it still should be obvious at this point that the third system was never going to work because it entirely ignored the all important task of being something everyone could understand. And not merely does it need to be something your supporters can understand, it needs to be straightforward to understand and implement for all of the organizations you need to have on your side to be President when the smoke clears (regardless of whether it’s an election or a revolution/coup). The military can easily understand systems one and two, but even if you assume that they’re mostly on Trump’s side, how are they going to enact system three? Are you sure they’re not going to be confused by Christopher Miller, the acting Secretary of Defence, the guy Trump put in after the election (according to his supporters as part of the whole secret plan) saying:

I strongly condemn these acts of violence against our democracy. I, and the people I lead in the Department of Defense, continue to perform our duties in accordance with our oath of office, and will execute the time-honored peaceful transition of power to President-elect Biden on January 20.

How is anyone trying to execute on system three not going to be confused by that? Trump and his followers have weaponized complexity, but they haven’t figured out how to target anything with it yet.

Okay, as you might be able to tell I’m a little annoyed. And to be fair complexity has been weaponized for a long time, it might in fact be a serviceable definition of postmodernism. But we’ve certainly reached some kind of landmark.

Before I move on, a few notes about stability and history. First off I think we’ve had stability for so long that most people don’t realize how bad a non-peaceful transfer of power is. So let me be clear, I have strong misgivings about Biden, and Democrats, and progressives, and wokeism, and policies like student loan forgiveness, and reparations, etc. etc. But I would take Biden with a filibuster proof Senate majority composed entirely of Andrea Ocasio Cortez clones over full on civil war which ends up being as bad or worse than the last one. And I’d certainly take what we ended up with (President Biden and Democratic control of the Senate) over a repeat of the violence of the late 60’s/early 70s. For example 1972 when there were 1900 domestic bombings. Now unfortunately we may get both but I don’t think storming the Capitol made either Biden’s presidency or domestic terror less likely. 

On the other side of the coin people forget how difficult it is to actually pull off a coup or a revolution. I think people imagine that the French Revolution, for example, looked similar to last Wednesday’s march on the Capitol. That some people spontaneously rose up, and the next thing you know the whole government had changed. One day there was the monarchy and the next there wasn’t. But in reality the revolution was largely a very gradual process whereby the Estates General was replaced by the National Assembly which was replaced by the National Constituent Assembly which was replaced by the Legislative Assembly, and so forth and so on until eventually ten years later you get Napoleon, and for the first three years of that period the King was still around.

Mostly I point all of this out to add another angle on how dumb Trump’s plan really was. Not only was it very unlikely to work, it would have been horrible if it had.

IV.

Perhaps, despite its appropriateness, you’ve noticed that I’ve avoided using the word “legible”, as in “Yglesias is contending that policies need to be legible”, which I’ve expanded to the idea that “the transfer of power should be legible”. Even though it’s basically the perfect word to describe what he and I are talking about. I’ve avoided using that word because this post unfortunately fell immediately after my review of Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott. which is critical of the idea of trying to impose legibility on a natural system. And thus that word, right at this moment, has some baggage, and I wanted to make sure I’d laid the foundation of my thinking before I introduced it. But I do think we should consider Scott and the claims made in Seeing Like a State when discussing Yglesias’ framework, because it’s important to identify when “legibility” is a problem and when it’s an asset. 

Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that there’s a great deal of difference between efforts to make the citizenry legible to the state as opposed to making the state legible to the citizenry. In the former case the benefits accrue to the state, and in the latter they accrue to the citizenry and I’m almost exclusively talking about the latter.

Additionally, legibility is one of those things where you should apply as much as is needed but no more. In a sense it’s closely related to the idea of subsidiarity, that programs should be implemented as close to the problem and the people affected as possible. Legibility should be as close as possible to the way nature already works. 

It might help to think of there being three possible levels:

  1. Natural
  2. Legible
  3. Controlled

As it says in the Federalist papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Which get’s at the first and third levels. If men could be trusted to behave without any government that would be the best solution, and this is the state of nature as described by Scott, and the philosophy of anarchists and libertarians (though to different degrees). If on the other hand angels were to govern men, then we could give them control of everything knowing that we would never need to second guess them, and it wouldn’t matter how complicated those controls became. But since there are no angels in sight, the middle ends up being the goldilocks spot described by Yglesias where there are rules and policies, but they’re easy to understand. They’re legible but not complicated.

As I was working through this post it occurred to me that Yglesias’ framework can be applied to the recent reckoning on race, though I’m sure he’d probably rather not go there, and even I am only mentioning it as an observation rather than any kind of recommendation. 

What I’ve noticed is that as things have progressed since the death of George Floyd, the complexities of race have become very apparent. A few examples: There’s been a tendency to separate people as being either white or people of color (POC) and yet Asians who would be considered POC have much higher median household incomes than white americans. Affirmative action largely benefits people who are already in the upper middle class rather than minorities that are truly disadvantaged. When it comes to reparations there are all sorts of complexities. Does Oprah get reparations? Do people who recently immigrated from Africa, and have no enslaved ancestors get reparations? And what about the Native Americans?

I’m not saying these problems are insuperable, I’m just pointing out that they lead to exactly the sort of rules layering that Yglesias pointed to as being bad. On the other hand, the old standard of being completely colorblind is legible, straightforward and a perfect example of Yglesias’ criteria. But as I said I’m merely observing, not recommending.

V.

After taking the Yglesias framework up a level, and using it to consider the recent unpleasantness (i.e. from policies to the choosing of people to enact those policies). I think we can take it even one step higher, to the level of values.

As I was working my way through all of this I was reminded of my post on the justice/mercy dichotomy. As usual when I wander this far afield everything I say is pretty speculative, but I once again see a situation where there’s too much focus on justice and not nearly enough focus on mercy. To begin with, while I understand it’s hard for some people to understand, the riot that happened last week, insofar as it had a motive other than “riot tourism” (I forget where I saw that phrase but it seems apt) was motivated by justice. All or nearly all of those people are convinced, deep in their bones, that the election was stolen. That Trump actually won, but the Deep State contrived to make it appear as if he had lost. That if they had been able to sway enough of the senators to change the outcome of the electoral vote counting and give Trump the win, that this would have been just and proper. Now you can go back and read the previous post if you want an explanation for all the reasons why the modern world has made this path particularly easy to follow, and not just for Trump Supporters. So to an extent everyone is obsessed with justice. The problem is that justice and mercy are opposed. You can’t have both. And what we needed last week, and really since the election is more mercy.

Of course calls for the left/Biden Administration/institutions to be merciful to Trump supporters are legion. And while I think that’s an area where we should err on the side of mercy, in this space I’m going to argue that actually it’s Trump and his supporters who need to be more merciful. I understand that some people don’t think that’s possible. They think mercy is something that can only be granted by the people in power to the people who aren’t in power. But in reality mercy can operate even if you’re the weaker party. As long as you have some power you can decide to forgo using it and exercise mercy. Even if you have less power than your opponent, as long as you have any power you can use it to cause harm. Deciding to not to is an act of mercy. As such, conceding is an act of mercy, directed both at the other side (even though they won) and at the nation as a whole. And it’s actually more important if you think justice has not been served. Anyone can be merciful if they think they’re in the wrong, it’s being merciful when you think justice is on your side that poses all of the difficulties. 

So what does all of this have to do with legibility vs. complexity? I would argue that mercy is legible. Forgiveness is easy to understand. On the other hand justice, true justice, is enormously complicated. And I’m not arguing that we should abandon our quest for justice. I’m just pointing out that when Yglesias was calling for a framework that could easily be understood that he was also calling for mercy. 

As I’ve said this is all on the highly speculative end of things. And I can completely understand that in calling for mercy, particularly from the weaker party, I am in a sense calling for people to accept some injustice, and of the worst kind too: that committed by the strong against the weak. But perhaps, by flipping the framing such that Trump supporters are the ones who are being asked to meekly submit to injustices (whether perceived or real) and to do so for the good of the country, those most inclined to object to my conclusion might be induced to see that it contains a sliver of wisdom.


Perhaps the appeals I make at the end of every post also suffer from the weakness of being too complicated, so let me try Yglesias’ framework:

  1. I’m asking for money so I can prove to my wife that I’m not wasting my time.
  2. You’ll know it’s working by my periodic mentions of having a wife in the present tense.
  3. You can execute on this plan by going to https://patreon.com/jeremiah820 and clicking on one of the “Join” buttons.

When Is Moderation Not Appropriate?

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

Or download the MP3


Over the last couple of weeks a question has been percolating in the back of my mind, in a way that combined both importance and vagueness. It was only just now, as I sat down and weighed which of the many topics I should choose to hold forth on this time, that it finally crystallized into the question I’m using for the title. “When is moderation not appropriate?” One assumes that the application of this question to the most recent election is obvious, but it’s also a far bigger question, encompassing things like war, morality, and existential risk. (We’ll see how much I can actually cover.) Additionally, and perhaps more important to me personally, it’s a question I’m not sure I have a very good answer for, so in part this post will be about working through various situations, hypotheticals, and arguments to see if I can arrive at or at least approach an answer.

First let’s cover the situation which spawned this post, the election outcome. It’s easy to imagine, that as close as it ended up being, that if Trump had been just slightly more moderate on some of the issues, slightly less belligerent on Twitter, spoken a little bit more about the need for unity and a little bit less only to his base, or perhaps if he had just been less combative during that first debate, that he would have won. Or to put it another way it’s hard for most people (including me) to imagine how he could have been less moderate. And I understand all the points about firing up the base, and turnout, but it’s hard to imagine that his most ardent supporters would have stayed home from an election they widely viewed as an existential crisis, even if he had exercised a little more moderation, and there were lots of groups, like Cuban and Veneuzeulan immigrants who held their nose, and voted for Trump. (Without whom he probably would have lost Florida.) Might not even more people have done that if Trump had been just slightly more moderate?

Further, even if you acknowledge that some extremism is necessary to fire up the base, there’s the argument to be made even there that he was too extreme, with the result that now his base can’t imagine a way for him to have lost the election without fraud. Something which will almost certainly haunt the country in the coming weeks and months, if not the coming years. (For a discussion of the actual allegations see my previous post.)

The same case for moderation might be made when it comes to Democrats as well — though one doesn’t want to spend too much time questioning Biden’s strategy, he did win after all (absent something unprecedented happening). But outside of Biden there is plenty of room to question whether the larger Democratic strategy would have benefitted from greater moderation, particularly given that, contrary to expectations, the Republicans are very likely to hold on to the Senate and they did far better than expected in the House elections as well. Suggestions for moderation on the Democrat’s part might include slightly greater patriotism, more nuance in the conflict between police and protestors, less discussion of court packing (recall that Biden refused to comment on it for quite a while before eventually declaring that he was not a fan) and in particular less extremism in the culture war. One common assessment of the election I heard is that even if Biden won, wokeness lost

I suspect that some of my readers might push back on this last point so in an effort to anticipate potential objections let me offer two further points: First, how many people were voting against Trump rather than for Biden? Does anyone think the enormous turn out had anything to do with excitement around Biden? If not, then it matters a lot less what Biden’s positions were, he had the “anyone but Trump” vote locked down. “Okay,” you might retort, “That frees him to take whatever position he wants, but doesn’t mean he should have been more moderate, perhaps he should have moved more to the left.” Are you sure? While we can’t recreate the world, start over in 2018, and choose Sanders or Warren in place of Biden, does anyone imagine that, in what ended up being a very close election, they would have done better? Certainly none of the polls conducted back when all three of them were still in contention bear that idea out. 

All of this leads me to conclude that Trump and the Democrats would have done better with more moderation. Does this mean that moderation is always good? Well, that is my question isn’t it, when is it not appropriate? As I said above I think the case for Biden being more moderate is kind of ambiguous, if the results hold (and I have every reason to suspect they will) then he won, and second guessing success is always dangerous, particularly if you define success narrowly. But as long as we’re on the subject of the most recent election, would the Republicans have done even better in the House and Senate if they had been more moderate? Here we have the same situation we had with Biden.  If we assume that the Republicans don’t lose both senate races in January’s special election then they will maintain control of the Senate. And if we suggest they should have been more moderate we are once again in the position of second guessing success. Though here, when talking about greater moderation among Senate Republicans, the elephant of confirming Amy Coney Barrett can’t be overlooked.

From a Republican/conservative perspective, the nomination of Barrett would appear to be a huge win. Not only is it something which fundamentally tilts the balance of power in the branch of government which increasingly appears to wield the most power — though I have already mentioned I don’t think her confirmation will be as consequential as people expect — it’s a change which will last far beyond the next election, presumably all the way until Justice Thomas retires or dies. I know lots of people who voted for Trump primarily because his Supreme Court picks would be better than Clinton’s, and who were overjoyed that he put in three justices. In the time between the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the election their attitude seemed to be that losing the presidency and the Senate to get that final appointment was a trade they were more than willing to make (I definitely agree about the presidency, I’m less sure about the Senate). 

Of course all of this presumes that the Democrats don’t come along later and pack the court, or otherwise change the rules of game, but by keeping the Senate, that option is temporarily off the table, it’s like eating your cake and having it, and here we get the first example of where, at least from a certain perspective, moderation seems not to have been a virtue, certainly the moderate thing to do would have been to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, and then, presumably the Democrats would have had no room (or at least less room) to object to the replacement of RBG by a more conservative justice. But for the moment it would appear, at least from the Republican perspective, that they were correct to not exercise moderation. That by being extreme they won. It is of course a whole other question whether the country is better off because of their relative extremism, certainly there’s a very good argument to be made that it’s not. Nevertheless we can at least begin to see (if we couldn’t already) the shape of an argument for extremism.

Rather than pick around the edges of this argument let’s go straight to what most people would agree is the clearest example of the benefits of extremism: World War II and in particular the fight against Nazi Germany. Much of Churchill’s deserved reputation is based on the fact that he didn’t have a moderate bone in his body, and during the darkest days of World War II when Britain stood entirely alone, he wouldn’t even consider some kind of peace deal, treaty or accommodation. On the other hand, one imagines that the Germans would have been better off with significantly less extremism, which is to say that Churchill’s extremism was mostly justified by Hitler’s extremism. And there are definitely some people who would argue that the extremism of turfing Garland and shoving through Barrett and before her, Brett Kavanaugh was justified by liberal extremism, like Roe v. Wade, the Bork nomination and Obergefell v. Hodges. And the fact that it was justified is why they weren’t punished for it, why the Republicans seem likely to hold on to the Senate. 

At this point all that’s clear is that much of the time moderation is better, but that sometimes things have gotten so bad that only extremism will save the day, but how do we know in advance which is which? I imagine Churchill would have answered that he didn’t, that it could have gone the other way, but that it didn’t matter because he was following correct principles. That he was determined to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Of course saying that extremism is appropriate when it’s the right thing is just a tautology. If something is the right thing it’s always appropriate. But it also just moves the question deeper from a question of extremism vs. moderation to a question of right vs. wrong.

Questions of right and wrong automatically suggest morality, and from there it’s only a short trip to a discussion of religion. Many people argue that it is precisely the certainty of being right that makes religious extremism so prevalent. These same people often go on to point to the many harms committed in the name of religion, but at least with religion there exist comprehensive rules and commandments designed to carefully control what sort of extremism is and isn’t justified. Do these rules aways work? Are the commandments always followed? No. But I think it’s important to have some kind of measuring stick for determining when to seek a compromise and when to stand fast and refuse to retreat. And before we return to a discussion of the present political moment it might be useful to dig into what religion says about when to be extreme and when to be moderate. 

Obviously the first thing we need to do before we can proceed is select a scope for our inquiry, which is to say we need to choose which religions we’re going to examine. Obviously I have a bias towards Christianity, and an even more specific bias towards The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which is my own brand of Christianity, but given the foundational nature of Christianity to the West and its contribution to the West’s government and institutions I think it’s fair to restrict our inquiry to just Chrisitianity rather trying to be more comprehensive and make a broader survey that might include Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the rest. Beyond all of the foregoing I have an additional bias towards using Christianity because moderation holds such a prominent place in the doctrine. Yes there are times when extremism is urged, but what made Christianity revolutionary was how much it emphasized moderation, with injunctions about turning the other cheek, the critical importance of forgiveness and repentance and mercy, and even bits about separating religion from politics (particularly important in a day where politics increasingly is religion.) 

From this assumption of Christianity as somewhat foundational, I’m going to cut to the chase and condense two thousand years of history, commentary, and practice down into a single observation: when you’re talking about Christian-influenced Western Civ, moderation should be presumed to be the default. Moderation doesn’t need to be justified, it’s assumed to be the best course of action absent a compelling argument to the contrary, but rather it’s extremism which requires special justification. So when and under what circumstances is extremism justified? I think given the tenuous linkage of religion to politics and the aforementioned separation that it’s going to be easier to look at examples of extremism and ask whether they might be justified based on some interpretation of Western/Christian values than to work the other direction and create a set of rules that covers all eventualities.

The first consideration I want to deal with, since it’s already come up, is whether, in our examples, success should have any bearing on whether extremism is considered justified or not. If Trump had won instead of lost (or if he manages, improbably, to still pull out a win) there would be a lot of people celebrating his extremism rather than questioning it. As it was he certainly did better than most professional pollsters predicted. Does this mean that his extremism would have been wholly justified if he had won, but still partially when you consider the results? No, and I think this is where the benefits of drawing on an underlying foundation of religious principles comes in handy, because under that framework “winning” is not one of the acceptable justifications for extremism. To look at the example everyone agrees with, it’s clear that extremism in the war against the Nazis would have been justified even if we had lost. And lest there be any confusion I’m talking about refusing to surrender in the early years of the war, I’m not talking about extreme behavior. For example, I don’t think the fire-bombing of Dresden was justified even if the city was full of Nazis. (Which it wasn’t.)

Now Trump’s extremism might have been justified on other grounds, but it isn’t justified solely on the grounds of getting him what he wants. The ends he’s pursuing have to be justified, i.e. does a Trump victory save lives, prevent disaster or build a better future? Of course his supporters believe he is doing all of those things, and his opponents believe that he’s doing the opposite, and only time will tell who is correct, and I could imagine certain events over the next three years that would lead me to conclude that not only was Trump’s extremism justified but that he should have been even more extreme. Similarly I can imagine events that would lead me to believe that his extremism was incredibly harmful. But “time will tell” is different than, “well it succeeded didn’t it?”

Perhaps some people have been gifted with this certainty, through what that means I don’t know. To return to religion, it’s a least easier to imagine the gift of certainty coming from religious devotion, than coming from Trump, but perhaps those people convinced of the value of Trump’s extremism are just that smart. I am currently watching with rapt curiosity people who claim with exactly that level of certainty that Trump will serve a second term. Perhaps they will be correct, and then I’ll have some new mystery to ponder, but I suspect that they and actually most people who imagine they can predict the future will end up being wrong, and that this represents one of the great achievements of classical liberalism, this realization and the subsequent injection of doubt. This realization that if certainty is nearly impossible and extremism is only justified under such certainty, i.e. that moderation should be the default, is one of the most important intellectual developments of the modern age. 

This takes us back to the other example we gave of extremism succeeding, the Senate’s confirmation of three conservative justices, starting with refusing to hold a hearing for Merric Garland. Depending on your political leanings this is either an example of the worst political extremism in modern memory, of, “well it succeeded didn’t it?” or of “time will tell”. So far the answer is ambiguous. The court has yet to engage in much extremism itself, they have not overturned Roe v. Wade or done anything else the conservatives hoped for and the liberals feared. Meanwhile the whole process has definitely raised the temperature, and while it seems unlikely to result in an immediate reprisal from “the other side”, it certainly could. And here one can’t help but be reminded (if you weren’t already) of the Prisoner’s Dilemma

As I mentioned the last time it came up, if one conducts iterated games of Prisoner’s Dilemma some strategy of mostly cooperating ends up evolving to be the most successful one, with the caveat that constantly defecting can be surprisingly effective, particularly if the rest of the environment is composed of cooperators. At the time, I wondered if that’s what had happened to us. If we had reached a peak of cooperation and in doing so created an environment ripe for success by defectors. Certainly it seems that whatever the short term success of defecting that it leads to a longer term ratcheting effect that can’t help but end badly, even if you’re on the side doing all the defecting.

In this I’m also reminded of my discussion on the dichotomy between mercy and justice. Extremism seems to lend itself naturally to seeking justice, but is a poor fit if what we really need is more mercy, while the opposite could be said for moderation. And if, as I claimed, one of the problems currently plaguing us, is an overactive drive for justice, then this may explain as well the overabundance of extremism as well. This dynamic seems to be playing out in the immediate aftermath of the election. I have seen lots of people express a desire to be merciful in victory. Offering to accept Trump followers back into the fold so to speak (however condescending that my sound). This is oftentimes accompanied by calls for unity and healing. On the other hand, I will also say that I have seen what appears to be an equally large contingent of people arguing that what’s really needed is justice. That Trump and his supporters need to be punished, or at a minimum deprogrammed

These additional connections of moderation to mercy, of which we appear to be running an extreme deficit, and to winning the continual games of Prisoner’s Dilemma we seem to be playing, on top of moderation’s critical role in Western Liberalism and the religion that underpins it, convince me even more of the importance of considering moderation the default. But in such difficult times, when the opposite seems to be happening and extremism is everywhere we look, how do we achieve more moderation? I don’t know and despite growing recognition that more is needed we seem to continually end up with less and less as time goes on.

Here let me put in another brief plug for my preferred Presidential candidate: General James Mattis. The primary reason I decided to write him in was because it was low stakes, there was no chance writing him in would lead to the death of the Republic (and I made my argument at the time for why no other vote represented the salvation of the Republic.) But beyond how low risk it was, he reminds me of Eisenhower to a certain extent. The fact that both were generals is the obvious point of comparison, but the other less well known fact about Eisenhower is that he identified with neither party and the first time he voted it was for himself. He was so non-partisan in fact that the first person to reach out to him about running for President was Truman, who, incredibly, suggested Ike for President, while he would be vice-president.

Mattis is similarly non-partisan, and one imagines that if we’re really going to have a chance of bringing moderation to things that we need someone who hasn’t been fatally tarred by their deep association with one or the other camp. And while admittedly Mattis did serve under Trump, there appears to be no love lost between the two, with Trump blasting him as the “world’s most overrated general” recently after Mattis said he hopes that Biden pursues a foreign strategy that’s not “America First”. 

(As a brief aside, I myself think that we can’t remain the policemen of the world forever, and that Trump’s attempts to extract us from our various overseas commitments is a step in the right direction. That said, American hegemony is so critical to the peace we’ve enjoyed, that there is not only room for disagreement, but I could also certainly be persuaded that it would work better if it was more gradual with greater involvement from other nations.)

If I have any better ideas on how to achieve more moderation I’ll let you know, but beyond being out of ideas, I’m also out of space. When I started this post I had also intended to talk about environmental issues, x-risks and other issues where moderation appears to work worse than extremism, but those are big topics, so I’ll have to come back to them in a future post.


Sometimes things don’t come together in quite the way you hoped. Such was the case with this episode, and then the question becomes is it worth putting it out anyway? Can people listening to it still expect a positive return? I think so, and whether you feel that way about this episode, if you feel that my blog in general provides positive returns, consider donating.


Voting as a Proxy For Power

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

Or download the MP3


A week or so before the election I was listening to an episode of Radiolab, which began by introducing Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown, and someone who is, beyond that, very well connected in DC. The episode begins with Brooks telling the story of being at a dinner party sometime in 2019 (when people still had dinner parties) and posing a hypothetical to one of the other guests, “gosh, you know, what if Trump loses and he won’t step down…” The guest had a ready response, “oh, the military will never let that happen.” This answer surprised Brooks, though in turn I’m surprised that Brooks was surprised, I mean yes, I can understand how the exact mechanics of the military stopping things might be fuzzy, but it’s surprising that a DC insider, and someone, who in fact worked in the Department of Defense for several years, would be so ignorant of how power actually works.

To her credit, Brooks paid attention to the fact that she was confused, and decided to do something about her ignorance. She decided to war game the election. As it turns out this election was uncertain enough, that lots of people decided to do the same thing. You may have heard of Jeffrey Toobin’s fall from grace after he did something he shouldn’t have during a similar “election simulation”. (There are so many jokes that could be and have been made about this situation, but I will forebear.) In any case Brooks’ war games explored four different scenarios, one of which was an ambiguous result and other of which was a narrow Biden victory. Trump supporters seem to be acting as if it’s the first, when it seems pretty clear that it’s the second. Regardless it was while Brooks and the people she had assembled were working their way through the various scenarios that the answer the other dinner guest had offered finally played out:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff…sort of let it be known unofficially through leaks that they had decided that Biden was the legitimate winner and… that he was the guy who was getting the nuclear codes and so on. And that was the thing that proved decisive.

And so in that [scenario], Biden was eventually inaugurated. But in the [ambiguous scenario]… The partisans on both sides were still claiming victory, leading to the problem of two claims to commander in chief power, including access to the nuclear codes, at noon on January 20.

And it was left totally unclear what the military would do.

The possibility that at noon on the 20th, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have to hand the nuclear codes to someone.

Who holds the nuclear codes? They can come in and take them from Trump and hand them to Biden. They can do nothing, which means Trump holds them. But it was sobering as a sort of a non-warmongering, peaceful American citizen to realize that it’s the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military who will decide who the president is.

And that was both amazing and, also, as a strategist – oh, well, then we got to work the military. Those are the refs, and you got to work the refs.

To generalize those conclusions, when everything is stripped away, things are decided by force. The referee is always, when all is said and done, those who have the guns (and the tanks and the nuclear missiles). These rules are unsurprising to anyone who’s even remotely familiar with libertarian thinking, where the central tenant is that all laws are eventually enforced at the point of a gun or historically at the edge of a sword. This is especially the case when you’re talking about who is going to rule an entire country, which is to say who is going to have a monopoly on the use of that force. As Brooks herself was eventually forced to admit at the end of her war games, “I think we collectively put a little too much faith in the law and in institutions as if they exist outside of politics and power, but they don’t.” 

None of this is to say that we haven’t made progress, or that things aren’t better, in fact they’re so much better that people like Brooks, despite their education and experience, have essentially forgotten the fundamental rules, because these rules haven’t been necessary since the Civil War (more or less). Despite how long ago that was, I think the distance we’ve actually travelled is less than people think. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that recently we have reversed course and we’ve been moving closer to the time when those fundamental rules will come into play.

This is not the venue for detouring into a huge discussion of history, but in the pre-democractic era, when power changed hands in a country, the person who ended up with the power was generally the one with the biggest and most powerful army, and if there was some doubt then armies would engage in the true test of power and fight. Of course all of this fighting and uncertainty over the transfer of power wasn’t good for the country and so various methods were arrived at to transfer power peacefully: laws, assemblies, and of course the idea that power could be inherited and passing it from father to son. But in a sense this just made the person who could draw on these various customs, laws and traditions more likely to have the biggest army because those things made power easier to call upon.

Eventually, of course, we arrived at a democratic system. Most people understand that a democracy is supposed to work under the idea that the course favored by the majority of the citizens is more likely to be the right one, but it’s also a way of tallying up the size of each side’s army. Of reminding those vying for power that it’s best to stick with a peaceful transition of power, because, when they’re voted out of power, it was in consequence of the other side having a bigger “army”. So resisting that transfer is less likely to succeed, it’s already been demonstrated that you have the smaller “army”. Obviously this is overly simplistic, both because there’s a lot more that goes into an “army’s” power than the number of people in it, and also because people are not the only source of power. But it has the advantage of being simple, reflecting something real, and being tied into larger principles of civic duty, participation and decision making. 

All of this takes us to the current situation, which is no longer a war game, but a battle which is really happening, and in essence Trump supporters are claiming that they had the bigger army, but that the Deep State used their other forms of power to deny them the victory that was rightfully theirs. But isn’t that precisely what a battle is? Two sides bringing their power to bear, with the one who brings the greater power to bear winning?

To put it more concretely there are basically three options:

  1. The election was broadly legitimate. There might be some fraud, but if so we’re looking at something on the order of a few ballots here, or a few ballots there. Nothing even close to the 14,000 ballots which would be needed to tip even Georgia, which has the narrowest margin. And even if Trump could prevail there that would just make the race 290 to 248. Trump would need at least two other states on top of that to actually win the election. Two states where the gaps are even larger.
  2. The election was stolen by the Deep State. Either through some massive, unheard of level of fraud or through actually messing with counts at the level of the voting machines. The battle was joined and the anti-Trump forces were able to bring a huge amount of power to bear and quite frankly whether they beat Trump fairly with votes, or unfairly with power that Trump and his followers couldn’t match, they won, it’s over. And in the final analysis it doesn’t matter if the war was fought in the manner Trump supporters expected or if it was fought with dirty underhanded tactics they never saw coming. The war is over and Trump and his supporters have lost.
  3. The same as 2, but Trump and his supporters have power of their own, that they are in the process of bringing to bear. The power of being on the right side of the law, because there really was massive fraud. Or the power of a 6-3 Supreme Court which will eventually rule in Trump’s favor despite the prima facie vote totals. Or the power of the military, who, when January 20th rolls around, won’t take away the nuclear codes. Or we’ll find out that there’s enough hardcore Trump supporters in the military that there will be a bona fide violent coup. Or the power of a violent and bloody revolution, with armed Trump supporters (of which there are many) rising up and storming the Bastille. 

To be clear, I have seen very little evidence that it’s not option 1 (I’ll get to the “very little” part of that in a minute.) Because of this I’m very confident that it is option 1, I don’t think there’s some massive coverup, some huge source of undetected fraud. I do think that the mail in balloting which was implemented in response to COVID which was always going to result in the slow counting of urban ballots which were, additionally, always going to be heavily Democratic, happened at the worst possible time. That it provided fertile soil for people to plant conspiracies in. But not only do I not believe any of the election related conspiracies, even if I did, I still think it would be best to ignore them. Which brings us to option 2. What I’m trying to get across by having you consider this option is that once you start from the premise that the election was stolen (which by the way is a significant filter that will distort all subsequent reasoning) then you have already admitted that we’re not playing the game of “count the legitimate votes”, we’re playing the game of “exercise power in whatever way you can” and if that’s the game we’re playing you’ve not only lost, you’ve lost so comprehensively, that continuing to play the 2020 round of the game is only going to make you look foolish. That you should regroup, realize how inadequate your own power has been and start preparing for the 2024 round of the game.

Now I understand that, despite labelling it as a game, that this is a dark view of the world and to reiterate, it’s not my view, I’m just saying that once you’ve accepted that view, then you’ve ceased to think of the election as the legitimate and law-abiding counting of votes, and you’ve moved to thinking of it as an exercise of raw power, and my point is, that even reframing it in this way, you’ve still lost. But perhaps this part of the post is unnecessary, you’re already comfortable with the idea that we’ve moved into the realm of raw power, you just think that whatever power the anti-trump forces have mustered, the pro-trump forces can match. Which takes us to option 3, and the various ways the pro-trump side might exercise their power, given that this is the game you’ve decided we’re playing. I already listed several, let’s go through them in more detail:

The power of the law: This is what Trump’s defender’s claim that he’s doing. I personally think that he has moved beyond this, but we’ll start here. First as I already mentioned Trump has to change the results in three of the close states, and his arguments for doing it in even one are extremely tenuous. I went to a friend of mine who’s very intelligent, and who has a far greater tolerance for conspiracies than I do. (As a side note I’ve gotten far more benefit out of respectfully engaging with this friend than I ever would have by dismissing him.) And I asked him for the single most compelling evidence of fraud he had come across. He gave me a few, and so I looked into them. At first glance they were all pretty compelling, but after digging in deeper, (see the afterword for a dissection of one of them) none of them represented the kind of clear evidentiary smoking gun necessary for courts — which by the way should be less susceptible to accusations of bias having recently received an influx of Trump appointees — to exercise enough power to overturn the results of the election in three different states. 

Mechanically, it’s not even entirely clear what Trump supporters imagine is going to happen.  A full audit of results would be ideal, but so far unless I missed something that’s only taking place in Georgia. And I am willing to bet substantial real money, at favorable odds to whoever takes me up on it, that this audit will not change the results of Georgia. But even if it did that wouldn’t change the results of the election. Also even if people wanted to do audits in all the states that are close, we’re running out of time. Recall that in Bush v. Gore the decision came down to the idea that they couldn’t do a full recount in Florida in the time remaining. That was one state where only a few hundred votes separated the candidates, here we’re talking about thousands of votes across a minimum of three different states. Though, speaking of Bush v. Gore, that takes us to the next form of power the Republican’s might be able to exercise:

The power of the Supreme Court: These options are basically in order of how damaging they would be to the long term civic health of the country, and mostly that maps to their probability as well, but not in this case. The idea that the Supreme Court, because of its conservative majority, would hand Trump the election, given the evidence as it currently stands, is insane. There is zero chance of it happening, even more so after the lukewarm reception the justices gave to the recent Obamacare case

A decision by the military: I’m trying to be somewhat comprehensive here and as one of the war games I mentioned in the beginning was finally resolved by the Joint Chiefs using back channels to indicate their support, I thought I should cover that option, but it seems even more disruptive and more improbable than the Supreme Court deciding the election. I know that there’s a common perception that the military is strongly Republican, but a quick review of recent stories on the subject seem to indicate that this is not the case with Trump, and I see no reason to suspect that it’s different at the highest levels. In the situation we’re in, I agree we may see exactly the scenario mentioned in the war game played out. And by “exactly” I mean we may see backchannel support for Biden. We won’t see it for Trump.

An actual military coup: Of course historically, those times when a country’s military decided to intervene in an election generally took a more dramatic form than subtly making it know who the next leader should be. Typically, if the military intervenes in the transfer it’s to seize power through the use of force and at the point of the sword. This is another thing which is incredibly unlikely to happen in 2020 as a way of Trump “winning” the election. But as an option it’s always going to be lurking in the background because as I’ve been trying to explain, power is ultimately implemented through force, and there is a lot of force in the military.

The power of a popular uprising: It seems clear that Trump is already trying to access this power, and while I don’t see too many problems with him doing that if it just takes the form of some peaceful protests like the Million MAGA March that happened over the weekend (what’s good for the goose, and so on), there’s a very fine line between 1st Amendment Freedom of assembly and violence. Also as I have repeatedly urged people to consider, “What if you’re wrong?” What if you rise up in anger over a fraudulent election and it wasn’t? What if you’ve been misled? And even if you’re 100% sure you’re right, not only is this exercise of power fraught with danger for the country, it’s also unlikely to go the way you expect. To use a quote I’ve used several times before in this space, from a post by David Hines:

Political violence is like war, like violence in general: people have a fantasy about how it works.

This is the fantasy of how violence works: you smite your enemies in a grand and glorious cleansing because of course you’re better.

Grand and glorious smiting isn’t actually how violence works…

I’ve worked a few places that have had serious political violence. And I’m not sure how to really describe it so people get it.

This is a stupid comparison, but here: imagine that one day Godzilla walks through your town.

The next day, he does it again.

And he keeps doing it. Some days he steps on more people than others. That’s it. That’s all he does: trudging through your town, back and forth. Your town’s not your town now; it’s The Godzilla Trudging Zone.

That’s kind of what it’s like.

Everyone imagines that they will rise up in a grand and glorious smiting, but that’s never how it works. Let me repeat: that’s NEVER how it works. As a consequence of this mismatch between expectations and reality, everyone vastly underestimates the value of stability. And here I’m going to lay my cards on the table. I’m a huge fan of stability. Which is to say at this point even if I was convinced that the election had been stolen on behalf of Biden (I don’t think Biden himself is capable of stealing it) and even if Trump was and will be every amazing thing his supporters claim. It would not be worth taking up arms. It would not be worth a violent insurrection. It would not be worth bloodshed. 

I think it’s clear from my record that I am not an apologist for the left or the Democrats. Headlines like “Biden Fills Economic Posts With Experts on Systemic Racism“ fill me with unease. But discrediting and denying the results of the 2020 election is not the place to have the ideological fight. Whether through legitimate voting (by far the most likely scenario) or through an enormous exercise of vast and unmatched conspiratorial power, Biden won. And the longer it takes people to admit that and the more they fight that the greater chance there will be that we’ll all end up losing.


I’m trying something new, adding a brief appendix/afterword. Let me know what you think. If you like it (or anything I’ve written) the easiest way to show it is by donating. Even if you hate it, I think you’ll have to admit that softening the criticism with money is the right thing to do.

Afterword

First I’d like to refer you back to my deep dive on the ADL’s numbers on extremism for a reminder that going deep into something is rarely as productive as one might hope. It can take an enormous amount of time to verify even one claim and I think at this point there are thousands. Still, it’s a useful exercise.

In looking through the claims my friend sent me, the one that jumped out as both incredibly damning if true, but easy to verify was one that said that in Georgia, on those ballots where people only voted for the president (and presumably no one else) those ballots went 818 for Trump and 95,801 for Biden. While those ballots which had votes for more than just the president went 2,456,915 for Trump and 2,376,081 for Biden. You can see an example of this on twitter here, and Donald Trump Jr. retweeting it here

Well the first question is why would people go to the effort of creating approximating 95,000 votes for Biden, and not also create 95,000 votes for the two Democratic senate candidates in Georgia. Arguably when it comes to frustrating the Democrats, particularly over the long-term, Mitch McConnell and his Senate majority have been far more effective than Trump. Did the conspirators think that they had the Senate locked up but they needed all the help they could get when it came to Trump?

The next obvious question would be whether there are even 95,000 more votes in the Presidential vote pool than in any of the other pools. Taking the Ossoff-Perdue race (this will be important later) we find that there were a total of 4,945,704 votes, and in the Trump Biden race there were 4,992,004, for a difference of 46,300. Only half the number required for just the math to check out. (The numbers are from Fox News and include third party candidates.) But of course the question is where are these numbers coming from in the first place? Is there some official site I can look at? Some dusty corner of the Georgia state election office where I can find the paperwork? 

Nope, the data the person making the claim is relying on, is right out there on every election website. It’s all based on the fact that Biden received 99,922 more votes than Ossoff and Trump received 785 votes less than Purdue. I’m going to assume that it was 95,801 and positive 818 respectively at the time the information began spreading, and that the late arriving votes which skewed Democratic are what moved it into the current position. So, in the end, I guess the mistake is not realizing that people don’t have to vote straight party?  

Fortunately, this time around, the explanation was straight forward. It didn’t reflect anything extraordinary, and there’s no reason to suspect shenanigans. In fact when it comes down to it, it’s kind of embarrassing for the people making the claim once you realize what they’re doing. But at first glance it was something that seemed really damning. If anyone out there still thinks they have some smoking gun, let me know, I don’t have time to look into everything, but I’d be happy to look into something else you think it’s particularly convincing.


What Will and Won’t Change After the Election

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

Or download the MP3


At the moment it’s difficult to think of anything but the election, so while I considered trying to write about something else, I think it would be difficult to find the required focus. (Though for those of you who follow me on Twitter, I am planning a post on the website wtfhappenedin1971.com.) Of course as bad as it is right now, I imagine that a few days after this goes out, i.e. after the election already happened, focusing on anything else is going to be impossible.

People are obviously putting a lot of weight on the outcome of this election, which I think has been the case for a while when it comes to presidential elections, certainly 2000, 2004 and 2008 felt that way. There was perhaps a little bit of a break in 2012. The shine was off of Obama, and whatever Romney’s faults, no one thought he was an existential threat or a potential messiah in the manner of Bush, Gore, Obama, Clinton or Trump in other elections. (I’ll let you decide who thought which of those things about whom.) Despite the seemingly low stakes of 2012 I remember thinking it was a big deal. In particular I was worried about the rising federal debt level, which is laughable looking back, not because the debt has ceased to worry me but because these days I would love to get back to just worrying about spending, but also, however big I was worried the debt would get, COVID has taken my most pessimistic projection and smashed it on the concrete, repeatedly, and then jumped up and down on what was left.

Another issue with worrying about the debt these days is that there’s really no longer any expectation that either party will do anything about it. If you’re worried about too much immigration then you can hold out some hope that if Trump wins reelection it will be reduced. Or if you’re worried about the opposite problem of too little immigration and mistreatment of those who do immigrate, then you have good reason to predict that this might change under Biden, but if you’re worried about the deficit neither of the two major candidates even pretends that they’ll do anything about it. Thus it’s best to adopt a fairly insouciant attitude, and pray that the modern monetary theorists are correct, despite all of your intuitions telling you that they’re not.

This, then, is the point of this post, to take some small stab at identifying what will change, and what won’t after the election. And right off the bat my suspicion/prediction is that less will change than most people imagine. Which is why I started with a discussion of the deficit/debt. Not only is this not going to change, but I think everyone has pretty much acknowledged this fact. However I would also submit that people are suffering from the opposite problem, where they haven’t accepted that the deficit is just one of the many things that aren’t going to change, where they still hold out false hope that when Biden is elected we’ll finally get Scandinavian style socialism or that Trump will actually build a wall. Which takes us to our first scenario, the one where you would expect the least amount of change, Trump getting reelected. We’ll use that as a warm up for eventually discussing how even if lots of things get changed by the election not as much as you might expect will change on the ground.

If Trump is reelected, defying pollsters and predictions once again, then it’s hard to imagine that the Republicans won’t also maintain control of the Senate, though regardless of what happens in those two contests I am confident in predicting that they won’t retake the house. Given that nothing was changed at the macro level by the election, you would expect that very little would change on the ground as well. And this holds true even for the things hoped for by Trump’s supporters. 

As I already said I don’t think Trump will finally build the wall in his second term. In fact, I predict that if Trump is given a second term that he won’t accomplish much of anything. (Certainly he won’t bring a Satanic ring of pedophiles to justice.) But, in saying this I don’t mean to place very much of the projected blame for this on Trump. He’s got numerous things working against him. First, there is a lot of truth to the people who claim that he’s been relentlessly attacked by the mainstream media, academia, and the permanent bureaucracy since he took office. Second, as I mentioned when I reviewed The Decadent Society, there’s a lot of sclerosis in Washington right now (and for the foreseeable future). Consequently it’s just harder in general to get anything done at all regardless of your position and backing. Finally there are the Democrats who won’t give him an inch on anything (and to be fair that’s basically how the Republican’s treated Obama). 

Speaking of decadence and Obama, even without the relentless criticism by the mainstream press, I don’t recall him doing much in his second term either. They had to pull out all the stops to get Obamacare over the finish line early in his first term, and that was basically the extent of the significant legislation he enacted. In a similar fashion the Republicans managed to pass their tax cuts and since doing that there really hasn’t been anything else that was worthy of note. All of this is to say that four more years of Trump will be very similar to the last couple of years. Lots of sturm and drang, but without any real substance. (I am excluding emergency relief packages since they’re reactive legislation that would basically happen regardless of who controls the government.)

Now you might object that at the level of the Supreme Court things have changed enormously, and that Trump deserves the credit. I’ll get to that, but it’s something which has already changed, not something which will change based on the outcome of things on November 3rd. Though it does provide one more reason for people on the left to hope that Trump doesn’t win. Breyer is 82, and yes RBG made it all the way to 87, but after what happened during Trump’s first term I don’t think anyone’s plans should hinge on Breyer remaining healthy for the entire time.

The next possibility we should consider is a Biden victory, but the Republicans somehow manage to hold on to the Senate by the skin of their teeth. Once again, I think less changes than most people think. Certainly, Biden reverses all of Trump’s executive orders, DACA gets reinstated, transgender people may once again serve in the military, etc. And given how powerful the executive order has become he might be able to pull off other things as well. Though I suspect that the 6-3 Supreme Court will temper those powers at least a little bit. So yes there will be some changes, certainly around the edges, but from a legislative perspective I wouldn’t expect much. Certainly there’s the possibility that if Biden proposes something relatively moderate that he might be able to peel off enough Republicans to get it across the finish line, but something moderate enough to get past a Republican Senate also has to be moderate enough to not change things very much. 

Presumably most people would be unsurprised by the idea that not much will change if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate (regardless of how things turn out with Trump). But I imagine that the same could not be said of people’s expectations if the Democrats end up controlling both the presidency and congress. And once again, I would submit that they’re going to be disappointed. I do think that beltway politics will calm down, particularly the permanent bureaucracy. They’ll be in the news less, we’ll go back to a time where there are fewer so-called crises, fewer instances where department heads are called to testify before congress. Of course just because the government calms down does not mean that our problems are solved. I actually think the bureaucracy could use some shaking up, and it’s unfortunate that Trump didn’t do more than that.

It’s obvious why things don’t change if you have “those obstructionist Republicans!” in control of the Senate, it’s less obvious why things don’t change if you have control of both houses of congress and the presidency. A big part of the issue is the sclerosis I mentioned above, an issue which Ross Douthat points out in his book The Decadent Society. And at this point it would be useful to turn to that book for it’s description of the passage of Obamacare, the last major Democratic policy victory:

The Obamacare case study is useful here, not least because it’s a rare example where a meaningful reform, as opposed to just a deficit funded tax cut [see Trump’s one legislative accomplishment] or a spending boost, did ultimately pass—unlike Clinton’s health care fiasco, or Bush’s doomed Social Security reform effort, or the Trump administration’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace effort, or every attempted immigration reform deal…

We should pause here to note the list of all the attempts to change things that failed, and this is before our current hyperpartisanship, and largely with more favorable numbers and support. Of course even with these advantages Obamacare did suffer a huge amount of resistance, though less of it came from Republicans than people remember:

The real reason that Obamacare opposition became so fierce, and the debate so toxic, was that the health care system [is]… a huge sprawl of client populations and powerful interest groups, all of which have a strong financial stake in the existing system, and all of which have spent decades building up the lobbying shops and inner-ring knowledge required to either frustrate or redirect reform.

Of course this doesn’t apply to just the healthcare system, but most areas of government. Including the one that’s getting the most attention right now: the police. I would assume that the police and their unions are equally powerful if not more so, particularly at a local level, though it was not always this way with either the police or with healthcare.

This thicket of clients and stakeholders and interest groups barely existed when Franklin Roosevelt was clearing the ground for the New Deal; it grew far more sparsely when Lyndon Johnson established Medicare and Medicaid. But those president’s achievements fertilized and thickened it, leaving future reformers little choice but to do what Obama ultimately did and rely on inefficient and overly complicated workarounds, disguised or delayed tax increases, and of course, some simple lies…

I’m being hard on Obama, so it’s important to stress that this is what success looks like.

This is the depressing morale of the whole sad story. Obamacare is as good as it gets in terms of making big changes in government. As Douthat says, this is what success looks like. Is there anyone who thinks that Biden is going to be more successful than Obama? That big changes which couldn’t be implemented then, with all the initial goodwill and legislative strength, are going to be implementable now? This is why I don’t think much is going to change. Because of how difficult change of any kind already was, and nothing has gotten easier since Obamacare, rather everything has gotten more difficult.

Fair enough, you may be saying, we won’t get any legislative breakthroughs just because we elect Biden, but I’d be happy if we just had a saner COVID response, or if we got some substantial action on BLM and the protests. But once again, I think people are going to be disappointed. If it’s not clear already it’s important to separate out what things the president (and the Senate) are directly responsible for, and therefore might change if they change, and what sort of things would happen and are happening regardless of who’s in power. I think this separation has become more difficult since Trump was elected because he draws so much attention that it starts to seem like everything is connected with him (And indeed in some respects this is his great talent.) But because of this you forget that, speaking of COVID, other developed countries are not doing that much better than the US. Belgium and Spain are ahead of us in deaths per 100k, we’re essentially tied with the UK, and we’re only about 10% ahead of Italy. Which is to say, while it’s always possible that a different president could have saved thousands of lives, no president could have stopped it entirely or even decreased things by more than about 10-20%. 

None of this is to say that things aren’t changing, they are and rapidly, which brings me to the other thing I think people are hoping will improve under Biden, the protests and the associated demands of the BLM movement. Part of this hope has to stem from the nearly ubiquitous narrative that Trump is a racially divisive figure, which is of course true, but also exaggerated, particularly when it comes to blaming him for what’s happening now. As an example of what I mean by that let’s take the recent shooting in Philadelphia, now imagine that it happened in exactly the fashion it did, the same in every particular, only instead of taking place at the end of October it took place at the end of November with Biden confirmed as the winner of the election. Do you think the protests and the reaction would have been any different? More generally do you think that protests are going to go away if Biden is elected president? That either police shootings will stop happening or that people will stop caring about them just because someone else is the president?

You may counter with the argument that November is too soon. That Biden won’t have the chance to implement any policies which will address the concerns of the protestors. But what policies do you imagine he might implement? Certainly the fact that he’s an old white guy with a history of being reasonably tough on crime is going to make it hard for him to calm the nation by the sheer force of his influence and charisma. Nor is the problem particularly amenable to high level solutions. This is a local problem, which let it be remembered, is most apparent in cities which are already controlled by Democrats. Now of course I would love to be wrong about this. I’d love it if Biden came in and single-handedly healed the nation’s racial divisions, if he succeeded where every other president since at least the mid 60s has failed, but I think we can agree that this probably won’t happen.

Lest you think I am being too flippant there is of course a whole discussion to be had about where BLM goes from here, and how the election affects that trajectory, and there certainly is an argument to be made that the reelection of Trump would result in the biggest protests of all, and that this would certainly represent something that changed after the election, but it’s not a change Trump can be held responsible for, but rather something of a heckler’s veto. In essence what I’m saying is that even if you think that Trump winning the election would increase the protests you can’t use that to extrapolate the other way and assume that if Trump makes protests worse that Biden has to make the protests better. At best, he might make them different.

This assertion gets to my central point. Biden is not going to make everything better, there is no return to normal, some dramatic change from the chaos of the Trump years to the mundanity of the Biden presidency. No vast legislative package that will swoop in to save the day. COVID will still be a problem, people will still be mad at the police (and conversely the police will still feel unfairly attacked), China will still be out there doing whatever it is China does, and people will gradually realize that, other than appointing three Supreme Court Justices, Trump had far less of an impact than people think, and that his disappearance (or at least his removal from office, I don’t think he’ll be disappearing anytime soon) is not going to magically heal everything that’s wrong with the country. That in essence he has been unfairly blamed for too much of what’s wrong. 

Some of you may be protesting at this point that by artificially limiting my discussion to things that might change to the narrow category of things that might change based on the election results that I am overlooking a huge source of recent change, Amy Coney Barrett’s elevation to the Supreme Court. And indeed that is a big change and it deserves to be discussed, but even here I think conservative hopes and liberal fears are both equally overblown. I predict that Obamacare will not be judicially gutted or overturned. That Roe v. Wade will persist, though I could certainly imagine that they might give greater deference to state level restrictions and that states might use these to make abortions very difficult to obtain. That the election will not be decided, in Trump’s favor, by the Supreme Court. And that in general the court will be surprisingly deferential to precedent, and particularly to legislative decisions. So if the Democrats do end up in control of the House and Senate they will have the perfect platform from which to create the world they say they want, and I predict that the Supreme Court is very unlikely to completely disregard any decisions they reach legislatively.

In conclusion, as long as we’re on the subject of predictions. I’d like to go ahead and make a few more. Though as a reminder my predictions generally concern black swans (or to be technical grey swans). Either those people fear, but don’t need to worry about (see the predictions I just made about the court) or those which might or might not happen, but the probability is large enough that you should probably worry. Which is what I’ll do now.

I don’t think Biden will die in office, but I do think that he will exhibit increasing mental degradation in speech and behavior. Discussion of the 25th Amendment will begin shortly after he takes office, initially by pundits and people in need of content but increasingly by Republicans and even members of his own party. Depending on how well liked Harris is, it just might happen.

Democrats won’t immediately pack the courts, but they’ll have their finger on the trigger just waiting for an excuse to pull it. This will be one of the reasons why the Supreme Court won’t be as radical as people fear (or hope). If Roberts isn’t able to keep things together and something dramatic does happen, then they’ll try it, and they might very well succeed, if so it will be incredibly destabilizing over the long run.

Calls for various social justice measures will dramatically increase. Biden, Pelosi and whoever ends up with McConnell’s job will have a difficult time placating or even controlling far left elements of their party (another reason why legislative victories will be difficult). While a Trump victory might result in very intense focused protests, a Biden victory will result in broad, long lasting agitation on many separate fronts.

In essence, a Biden presidency will not be notably less chaotic than Trump’s presidency was.


I’m interested in your predictions. Where do you think I’m wrong? What do you think is going to happen with the Supreme Court? Do you think I’m ever going to stop asking for donations


The Obligatory Pre-Election Post (Spoiler: I’m Writing in Mattis)

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

Or download the MP3


It’s time for another presidential election. I’ve actually been blogging for long enough that this is my second, and while presumably not every blog that’s out there needs to comment on the upcoming election, I think mine is one of those where it’s expected. The last time around I was actually more outspoken and perhaps because of that, the feeling that I had already said my piece on several issues, I felt less compulsion to blog about those same issues this time around. But as there is a good chance that someone reading me now was not reading me then, here are a selection of my political posts from 2016:

  • Is It Finally Time to Start Thinking About Voting Third Party? In this post I discussed my voting methodology and why, unless you happen to be living in Florida in the year 2000, your vote for president will have the most impact if it’s cast for a 3rd party candidate.
  • Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election This was a post about the need to account for potential negative black swans when making voting decisions. For example imagine if one candidate was great on everything, except they were almost certain to get into a war with China. The negative consequences to the nation and the world, of that, are so great it might overwhelm all the good things the candidate might do. I’m not prepared to say that one candidate has more of these than the other this time around, in fact I think both candidates bring significant “black swan potential” a subject I’ll be coming back to. Even if you disagree with me on that, I think this is a factor more people need to pay attention to.
  • Hillary Clinton and the Criteria of Embarrassment Paradoxically the information age has made it even more difficult to separate truth from fiction. This post offered up the “criteria of embarrassment” as one way of penetrating the fog of competing narratives, media organizations which can’t be trusted (on both sides), and the government’s predilection for secrecy in general. The criteria states that information which is revealed over a candidate’s objections is the most likely to be accurate, while conversely the information they want you to have is the least likely to be accurate.  
  • I Don’t Know If Everything Will Be Okay: My Thoughts On the Election This post and the next were written after the election. At the time, as you may or may not recall, lots of people were saying that despite the Trump victory things were going to be okay. I countered by saying that it was impossible to know if everything was going to be okay, but gave some reasons for thinking that the worst fears of Trump’s opponents would probably not be realized, an opinion which I think has largely been borne out by subsequent events. 
  • Is This Election Different? It was apparently pretty early on that resistance to Trump’s presidency was going to be significant and sustained, and while we had seen this sort of thing previously during Bush and Obama’s presidency, the level of anger felt different in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election (thus the title of the post). Another phenomenon that, while it has ebbed and flowed, also largely came to pass as I feared, though it took longer and came in a different form than I expected.

In any case, that was four years ago, but here we are again facing some of the same issues, and while much of the advice, maybe even most of it, is still valid, 2020 has a madness all it’s own. But let’s start with the similarities. 

If anything, we’re even more in the grip of the idea that there are only two possible options, Trump or Biden. And if you don’t like either of them you’re told that it’s still your responsibility to vote regardless. And thus you’re forced to choose whoever you feel is the lesser of the two evils and cast your vote for them. And actually this description is being generous. Most people don’t even entertain the idea of voting for someone other than the two major party candidates, or if they do it’s in the category of one of those insane things that only conspiracy theorists and tin-foil hat wearers do. Of course the obvious next question to ask is, if everyone thinks it’s so insane why am I bringing it up? Why would I recommend voting for someone other than Trump or Biden?

To start with the fundamental issue everyone should be considering is “What can I do?” “What power do I possess?” At the local level quite a bit, and if you’re willing to spend a lot of time on it, you might even be able to swing the needle at a state level, but we’re going to restrict things to a discussion of the presidential race. And here the answer is, almost nothing. 

Let’s start with the most obvious case of powerlessness: casting a vote in a state that’s not a swing state. Here your vote (for president) has zero power. You’re another person voting for Biden in California, or another person voting for Trump in West Virginia. It’s meaningless, and as such any vote that had even a little bit of power would be better. Now, it’s your vote so I’ll leave it to you to decide if you’re actually in one of these states, but probably close to 82% of all voters fall into this category.

Turning to those voters who actually are in a swing state, you’re still looking at nearly astronomical odds that your vote for one candidate or the other is really going to be decisive, and honestly if the current election is going to be that close then the country will almost certainly have bigger problems then the fact that you, personally, didn’t vote for Biden or Trump. (I don’t even want to imagine what will happen if 2020 ends up being as close as 2000.) But if, after all this, you’re still worried about it, find someone in a state that’s locked up for one candidate or the other and offer, on their behalf, to vote for Trump or Biden, while they vote for your preferred third party candidate. (It’s called vote trading, and if you look around you can find forums for connecting people who want to do it if you don’t personally know anyone you can trade with.) 

You might argue that “Yes, my individual vote in the presidential election is almost certainly meaningless, and even if I think it might have meaning, I can have my cake and eat it too with vote trading. But focusing just on the one vote I cast overlooks the fact that I can do more than just vote. I can volunteer my time to one or the other of the campaigns.” Of course if you really think you’re choosing between the lesser of two evils, it seems unlikely that you’re going to want to spend a huge amount of time volunteering for a campaign, but let’s assume that you’ve decided one of the choices is so bad — that Trump will use any close vote to destroy the republic and stay in power, or that Biden will get walked all over by the far left and critical race theory will be the law of the land — that you’ve decided to hold your nose and work to elect the other guy. 

In this case your efforts are still likely to be less effective than putting in a similar effort for some lesser known candidate or around an issue you’re passionate about. Though it’s important to define effectiveness. If you think the time you spend is actually going to affect the election, that without your efforts Trump would win, but with them Biden wins, or vice versa, then you’re almost certainly overestimating your impact by an enormous amount. Mike Bloomberg has decided he wants to make sure that Biden wins Florida, so he went to an election consultant and asked him what that would take. The answer was, bare minimum $20 million, but more realistically $40 million and Bloomberg eventually decided to spend $100 million. As rich as he is I doubt he spends an additional $60 million without good reason, he obviously thought it was a difficult problem, and this is in a state where, according to 538, Biden has held a narrow lead since April. 

So, yes, the odds of you affecting an election by volunteering are slightly better than the odds of your vote changing the election, but still infinitesimal, and if altering the actual election outcome is off the table, then all that’s left is creating awareness in the people you talk to. But when you’re talking to people about either of the two major presidential candidates then there are at least two things working against you. First, their awareness is already pretty high, so moving the needle on it is a lot more difficult. They almost certainly already have an opinion and anything you say is unlikely to change it. Second the awareness you create is diluted by the fact that if you’re talking about a candidate the candidates themselves come with a whole basket of issues, and even if you only focus on one it’s going to be difficult to give it the impact you might feel it deserves if it’s also connected with a particular candidate, and all the positions they hold and all the things they’ve done. But if you’re just engaged in issue advocacy, of using your time to hold forth on what you truly believe is important, then neither of those things are true, people are less likely to have a strongly held opinion and your message is less likely to be muddied by other considerations. So yes, if you’re going to open things up to the entire universe of what you could be doing with your time, then there are lots of possibilities, but I still think advocacy for one of the two major presidential candidates is demonstrably one of the worst uses of that time. Also most people are just focused on who to vote for, so let’s return to discussing that.

Hopefully everyone who has gotten this far can at least entertain the idea that voting for either Trump or Biden despite disliking both of them is neither necessary nor effective. Once we can entertain that notion the next question becomes, what should you be doing? Well, as I argued in 2016 you should vote for the candidate that most reflects your values, and before we go any further, in case it’s not clear, if that candidate is actually Trump or Biden then that’s who you should vote for, but if it’s not, then there would appear to be no remaining reason not to just vote for your favorite candidate. Doing so has numerous advantages:

First, and perhaps most importantly you won’t have to hold your nose, there won’t be any complicated justification of why you should overlook this issue or that indiscretion, you can vote with a clear conscience.

Second, and closely related, you will be accurately communicating your preference. Trump got (almost) 63 million votes in 2016, can anyone tell me, how many of those people really loved him, how many just really hated Clinton, how many voted for him because of the wall, and how many because they thought he would bring back jobs? But if someone goes to the trouble of voting for the Libertarian or the Green Party candidate or writing in Andrew Yang, the signal is much clearer. Particularly since they had to overcome so much social pressure to do it.

Third, because of this, your vote is actually more effective. I understand that it’s not very effective, but we’ve already established that being the 1 millionth or 4 millionth or 8,753,788th person to vote for Clinton in California has zero effectiveness, so voting for someone else doesn’t have to be very effective at all to beat that.  But when primary season rolls around the next time, or if the race is close (as all races appear to be these days) the candidates are going to be looking at the people who didn’t vote for either candidate and asking themselves how they can change that. Particularly if there’s a little bit of coordination, a point I’ll be returning to.

Now I understand that there are some who make the argument that it’s not a good use of your time to vote period, and it’s entirely possible that’s true, I’m not arguing that voting for a third party candidate or writing someone in is the best possible use of your time I’m arguing that if you’re going to vote anyway, perhaps because you think it’s your civic duty or perhaps because you think voting in local elections is a good use of your time and as long as you’re there you might as well vote for the president, then you also might as well vote your conscious. 

There is one other reason, and on a larger scale it may be the biggest reason of all, it gives you the opportunity to stand outside of the system. This part probably requires a deeper explanation, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I turn to World War I, it’s been on my mind a lot recently.

One of the things that happened in World War I is that it descended into a never-ending cycle of tit-for-tat reprisals. The Germans did something so that was the justification for the Allied Powers doing some other thing, which made the Germans feel that they needed to do something else. Additionally it was perhaps the greatest demonstration of the sunk cost fallacy the world has ever seen. The combination of these two factors meant that there was no possibility of the two sides being willing to negotiate with each other, certainly not under terms that were remotely reasonable, and as a result it just got bloodier and bloodier as each side became more and more determined that they had to win. 

Of course for most of the war the US stood on the sidelines, though they gave quite a bit more tacit support to the Allied Powers (Britain, France and Russia) than they did to the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and the Ottomans) but despite this, it was still possible that being outside of the sunk cost thinking and the dreadful spiraling of death and reprisals that they could have brokered a deal, particularly since without their help the Allied Powers would have had a hard time winning. And by holding onto that chip the US eventually would have been able to prevail. However, once they threw in their lot with one side, they lost most of their bargaining power with both sides. The Allied Powers naturally assumed that they had their support locked up and consequently ended up ignoring the vast majority of Wilson’s suggestions because they had already gotten what they needed out of the US. And Germany wasn’t about to listen to Wilson because he was clearly biased. So rather than achieving any lasting peace, the crushing Treaty of Versailles meant that all of the hostility remained and 20 years later it was the same damn thing all over again with World War II. 

We are currently engaged in something very similar to World War I where each side is becoming increasingly hostile to the other, and increasingly unwilling to negotiate or compromise, and in this election I see a lot of people pointing out all the bad things the Germans have done, or alternatively all the bad things the French have done, and I think what we should really be pointing out is how bad the war itself is. That rather than focusing on killing a lot of Germans, or a lot of French that we should focus on not killing people at all! And it’s apparent from the posts I see on social media that if you’re firmly committed to one side or the other, this task becomes exceptionally difficult. But, in essence, voting for one of the two major candidates is voting for the war to continue.

I’ll end by giving you an example of how it works in practice and revealing what I’m going to do, which is write in General James Norman Mattis. To begin with this carries all the benefits I  mentioned above:

  • It allows me to vote with an entirely clear conscience for the person I’m familiar with who I actually think would do the best job as president
  • I am accurately communicating my preference. I think the system is broken and we need a clearly non-partisan thoughtful individual to come in and help reset it.
  • I believe that, living in Utah, this is a more effective vote than being the 400,000th person to vote for Trump or even the 100,000th person to vote for Biden.
  • In particular, I believe it sends the clearest signal it is possible to send using the mechanism of a single vote in a universe of hundreds of millions of votes, that it’s neither the Republicans or the Democrats that are the bad guys, but it’s the system. It’s not the Germans or the French it’s war itself. 

Beyond that there were obviously at least a few other considerations in choosing Mattis. Ideally you’d want someone who could take the hint and run the next time, and it would be nice if Mattis were younger, though in 2024 he’ll be the same age as Trump is now, and still younger than Biden’s current age. Also following from that you want to choose someone who could conceivably be president. But beyond this it’s a good idea to choose a person other people are likely to choose. It’s nice if there’s actually some coordination. 

I would be overjoyed if there was already a huge write in campaign for Mattis, so that my vote would be joined with thousands of others, and while there is certainly some movement in that direction (I’d be very surprised if I’m the only person who’s going to write in Mattis) it’s probably not big enough to get a ton of notice. In the past, when I considered coordination the most important thing, I voted for an actual third party candidate who appeared on the ballot, mostly Libertarian, though in 2000 I actually voted for Nader, not because I agreed with his policies but because I thought it was the best way to bring about greater third party participation in elections. (Of course in reality Nader probably killed the idea of third party support because the election was so close.) But I’m actually starting to feel like well known third parties have already been factored into the calculations and as such they no longer have the same punch they once did. In any case, above all you want to vote for someone who won’t elicit a “Who?” when people review the numbers.

That’s a lot of advice and a lot of words about something which I also simultaneously concede is pretty inconsequential, but if you’re going to vote I still contend there’s no better way of making it count than the tactic of actually voting for the person you think will do the best job.


I realized only after I started writing this that with all the early voting and mail in voting that it’s possible many of you have already cast your vote, and I’m too late. Well the good news is that it’s never too late to donate!


What’s to Be Done About China?

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

Or download the MP3


I.

With all that is going on currently, from the pandemic, to civil unrest, to an incredibly contentious political climate, even those who were alive at the time find it hard to remember how much optimism there was at the end of the Cold War, particularly around the subject of China. It’s easy to grasp now why there was optimism about the Soviet Union and the accompanying collapse of communism, but people forget that there was almost as much optimism about the Chinese communists. The Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989, which actually happened before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union officially dissolved, seemed like the first shudder of the massive earthquake of democracy and liberalization that would eventually come for China in the same way that it came for all the countries of the former Soviet Bloc.

It was this optimism that spawned things like The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama a book which has occupied a prominent position in my last two posts. And even though, as I mentioned, it holds up better than I would have expected, it’s equally obvious that Fukuyama was very wrong on China, but it’s starting to look more and more like everyone was wrong. 

The example of this “wrongness” that’s gotten the most attention recently is what happened between China and the NBA. It all started when Daryl Morey, the owner of the Houston Rockets tweeted, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The backlash from China and Chinese companies was swift, and presumably surprising. It’s not worth going into everything that happened but it was quickly apparent to the NBA that billions of dollars were on the line and everyone, including Morey backtracked, apologized, and, in keeping with the theme, basically kowtowed. From this example it might not immediately be clear what “everyone was wrong” about. But I think it can be best summed up by the idea that doing business in and with China was going to be the same as doing business in and with other countries. This is not to say that there aren’t difficulties in doing business in Russia or Saudia Arabia, but not only does the Chinese reaction seem more extreme than what you might expect out of those other two countries, there’s also so much more at stake. Whatever broadcast deal the NBA has with Russia or Saudia Arabia, I’m sure it’s a small fraction of the $1.5 billion they’re getting out of China. In other words China is different, more different than I think the NBA expected.

This post is all about exploring how they’re different, because I don’t think that’s quite clear yet. Also, since a discussion of differences could fill several books, I’m going to restrict my discussion to examining very high level differences between nations and cultures. Even with this restriction there are still numerous competing explanations of how China is different, or what the “wrongness” might be, so we’ll spend a little bit of time with each of them.

II.

To begin our examination I’d like to turn back to the book, What’s Wrong With China? by Paul Midler, which I reviewed here, since, based on the title, it should provide an almost direct answer to our question, and Midler doesn’t just provide one answer to this question he provides lots of them, but most of his explanations and the stories which illustrate them operate at a level lower than the one we’re interested in. That said he does have two very important insights. First, that in China the rules and expectations surrounding business and agreements in general are very different from Western rules and expectations, and second, and perhaps more importantly from our perspective, he has some very interesting things to say about the motivation of the Chinese leadership. 

According to Midler, it’s very important to understand that the Chinese think dynastically. They don’t imagine a smooth upward curve where they’ll be in power forever, but rather they imagine that they have a limited window when times are good and that they need to take advantage of that window. (Sometimes this is referred to as the Mandate of Heaven.) Accordingly, Midler asserts that one of the keys to understanding their actions is to recognize that they’re in a rush to accomplish as much as possible before the current dynastic cycle ends. Some quotes from the book:

Beijing appears to be in a hurry, but for what?

…When the United States voiced it’s concern over reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing did not respond by cooling down related activity. Quite the opposite, project crews began working around the clock…

In moving fast, Beijing was guaranteeing that the international community would apply greater pressure. But by its own calculations, the window of opportunity was going to close one way or another anyway, so why not put as many points on the board before it did so?

…No, this foolish rush is about something else, something simpler. It’s about ringing the bell. It’s about seeing just how far China can take things before that great window of opportunity shuts.

Of course, more than helping us understand China, what we really want out of an explanation is a guide for what to do about China, what actions we should take. 

How does this explanation do on that front?  Well it does supply the somewhat counterintuitive guidance that the more pressure we bring to bear upon China the more aggressive they’ll be. But more interestingly it seems to suggest that we can just wait China out. That just like we expected in the early 90s eventually the Communist Party will be removed from power or suffer some other calamity, and the problem will go away. Unfortunately, in the meantime, this does nothing for the Hong Kong Protestors, or the Tibetians or the Uighurs. Nor is it clear even if we can wait them out how long that might take. Certainly the Chinese Communists themselves are determined to hold on to the Mandate of Heaven for as long as possible.

The final question which we need to ask of this explanation and of all our explanations is how much weight we should give it, and here, I’m inclined to say quite a lot. Of all the people I mention Midler is the only one who has spent decades living in China, and so while it might be possible to argue that others understand the Chinese leadership better (possible to argue, not definitely true) I don’t think anyone I’ve come across has a better grasp of the people.

III.

In his book The Accidental Superpower. Peter Zeihan puts forth an even more pessimistic view about China’s prospects:

The reality of China is considerably different from the conventional wisdom. There are many reasons to doubt the strength of the Chinese system, but let’s focus on those relevant to things geographic and demographic. Individually, any of the raft of concerns I’m about to detail would be enough to derail the Chinese rise. Collectively they are more than enough to return China to the fractured, self-containing mess that it has been for most of its history. 

I don’t intend to spend much time on Zeihan’s concerns, but it’s worth being aware of what they are:

First, Zeihan’s primary focus is geography and this might be the area he feels the strongest about. Specifically he thinks China is actually three nations (or perhaps four). This may be the least obvious of his concerns, so I’ll include his explanation:

This tripartite system—northern China as the stable-as-glass political core, central China as the nationally disinterested economic core, and southern China as the potentially secessionist territory (and the interior being largely ignored)—holds to the present day. Even contemporary China’s political system reflects it: All of the critical military branches of the government are headquartered in the north, the north and central regions trade of the premiership every decade in order to balance security and trade interests, while the south is not even represented on the Politburo.

Such a geographic look at the country lays bare the greatest myth about China: that it is united. I’m not talking here about the concept of the mainland versus Taiwan, but rather the idea that the mainland itself can ever truly be a unified entity. Taking a closer look at history indicates that China’s past periods of “unity” are anything but.

Second, that as deep as their rivalry/conflict runs with the US that their rivalry/conflict with Japan is a hundred times deeper.

Third, that the only reason they’re unified right now is because of the US. We neutralized the rivalry with Japan, we cleared the oceans of predatory navies (Ziehan also makes the point that China is not a natural naval power), enforced freedom of navigation, and created and invited them to participate in a global market.

Fourth, their financial system is a mess, and is more a system of subsidization, than a system of credit. Leading to lots of projects that are technically possible but economically ridiculous. (This is something Midler touches on as well).

Fifth, demography, China is getting old faster than it’s getting rich, which is bad for all kinds of reasons, but particularly because their economy is entirely driven by exports, which requires new cheap workers. And even if they wanted to switch to internal consumption, demography makes that hard as well.

Finally, and I had to include this because it seems to be the opposite of what everyone else is saying. Zeihan claims that Taiwan, in concert with Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore, “Form a line of islands off the Chinese coast that block any possible Chinese access to the ocean blue.”  

If anything this assessment of what’s wrong with China (everything) and what we should do about China (wait and/or exclude them from the international system) is even more optimistic than Midler’s. Though I should also point out the book was published in 2014, so it’s possible that the last few years have made a huge difference, though you wouldn’t think so. As far as how much weight we should assign to Zeihan, I would say over the long run, particularly when it comes to geography, quite a bit, but in the short run I think he misses a lot of subtleties. Perhaps the most interesting part of his analysis is the part about the rivalry between China and Japan. A subject I’ll be returning to. 

IV.

One more “we don’t need to worry about China” position came to light while I was composing this post, it’s a set of remarks delivered a couple of weeks ago by Chas Freeman, a noted American Diplomat, and Nixon’s chief translator during his 1972 visit to China. The article is titled The Struggle with China is not a Replay of the Cold War. Some key quotes:

  • To analogize [the conflict between China and the US] to the Cold War of 1947 – 1991 is intellectually lazy… China is both a much less inherently hostile and far more robust rival than the Soviet Union was.
  • China is a threat to American global primacy, but mostly in economic and technological rather than political or military terms, in which it remains decidedly inferior.
  • China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is an order-setting geoeconomic strategy with no Soviet parallel that dwarfs the nearest American equivalent – the Marshall Plan.
  • American military intervention in the Russian civil war lasted only two years (1918-1920). Overt U.S. intervention in China’s ongoing civil war, sparked by the Korean War, began in 1950.  Seventy years later, U.S. support for the heirs to Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Chinese regime not only continues but is escalating.
  •  During the Cold War, the United States was the uncontested leader of a bloc of dependent nations that it called “the free world.” That bloc is now in an advanced state of decay.
  • If the contest were military and didn’t go nuclear, the United States, with its battle-hardened and uniquely lethal military, would enjoy insuperable advantages. (emphasis mine)
  • Asking countries to choose between China and the United States, when China is clearly rising and America is simultaneously stagnating and declining, practically guarantees the progressive eclipse of American prestige and power. 
  • For the first time in our history, we Americans must decide how to deal with a country that not only has the capacity to surpass us but is actually doing so. 

This seems to answer the question of what’s wrong with China with “nothing”. The question you should be asking is what’s wrong with the US, and I guess the answer there is that we’re attempting to replay the Cold War with China, and that’s not going to work. Which is also a prescription for the actions we need to be taking. As for my opinion on this advice, certainly I think he’s correct about China being a more “robust rival” than Russia. But I have reason to suspect that our military advantage is not insuperable. Certainly not in the area where hostilities are most likely to break out. Which brings us to the next view of China.

V.

Thus far the people we’ve discussed have either had no opinion on China’s military (Midler) or have asserted that it’s far inferior to the military of the United States. In The Kill Chain by Christian Brose which I reviewed in my last post, and to a lesser extent in Trump vs. China by Newt Gingrich, the exact opposite position is put forth, both authors are convinced that we would probably lose a war against China, particularly one that was fought over Taiwan or the South China Sea, and didn’t involve nuclear weapons. 

Given the colossal amount of money the US spends on its military, an amount which is still significantly more than that spent by China, this may seem hard to believe. And a full explanation would involve describing a host of new weapons systems, hypersonic and anti-carrier missiles, autonomous drones, cyber warfare and misinformation campaigns like those conducted by Russia against the Ukraine. And if you really want to get into that I would highly suggest reading Brose’s book. But I have several reasons for finding his description of things more credible than Freeman’s or Zeihan’s (though to be fair Zeihan’s argument isn’t quite as strong as Freeman’s).

To begin with I think it’s clear Brose, and obviously Gingrich to a certain extent have a far more insight into the condition of our military, and how well it’s likely to perform in any potential conflict. The perfect string of war game losses mentioned by Brose seems particularly applicable here. Also I don’t get the sense that Freeman or Zeihan are as familiar as they should be with some of the weapons systems China has or is developing, and that’s really what the outcome of any future conflict will hinge upon. What sort of impact will newer weapon’s systems have, and who will best take advantage of them? When considering this question the last few major conflicts are very instructive. In every single one, the dominant weapon of the previous war was rendered obsolete by new weapons. In World War I it was the cavalry being rendered obsolete by the machine gun. In World War II it was the battleship being rendered obsolete by the aircraft carrier and the defensive line being rendered obsolete by the tank. (And I realize that the true picture is somewhat more complicated than this.) 

In any potential war against China there’s numerous candidates for game-changing weapons, and China is ahead of us on basically all of them. We’re focused on things that make big juicy targets, like aircraft carriers and bases on Guam and Okinawa, they’re focused on what they call the “assassin’s mace”, cheap, numerous, and, frankly, sneaky weapons that are designed precisely to take out those big targets. Additionally all of our recent military experience has come against opponents where we’re overwhelmingly more powerful. Where we can count on our satellites and our communication and having an AWACS hanging around. And yes, the Taliban can’t do anything about those systems, but China can.

VI.

The foregoing discussion of a potential military conflict is pretty meaningless if a war never happens. Though the one thing nearly everyone seems to agree on is that China will not rest until it has reabsorbed Taiwan, and if America remains committed to preventing that, then war would appear to be inevitable. And this is another area where many people like to flip things, and rather than asking what’s wrong with China that they would want to do that, they ask what’s wrong with us that we think it’s our job to stop that? 

Probably you’re not merely worried about the liberty and continued independence of Taiwan, you’re also worried about freedom for the citizens of Hong Kong, or perhaps you feel that the US has some moral responsibility to stop the ongoing abuse of the Uighars and Tibetans. And there’s no denying that great harms are being committed, and perhaps it is the role of the US and the other free countries of the world to stop such harms wherever they might be happening. Certainly it would be nice if we could, but if there is such a path it almost certainly doesn’t involve war with China, which would very likely cause more harm than it prevented. (For a taste of what I mean consider Iraq and Afghanistan, and then factor in China’s vastly greater capacity to fight back.)

Beyond outright war, which we didn’t resort to even with the Soviet Union, there is the option of a very aggressive and confrontational stance that stops short of outright war. But there are arguments to be made that even this might be a mistake. A few examples:

First there’s the position of Freeman which appeared earlier in the post. He doesn’t mention the Uyghurs at all, and he doesn’t offer much of an opinion on Taiwan either. But his position that the US needs to avoid another cold war with China has a certain logic to it, if for no other reason than that China has an economic strength the Soviet Union never possessed.

Next there’s the position of Samuel Huntington and his book Clash of Civilizations, which I talked about here. Huntington contends that Southeast Asia has and always will be part of the Chinese sphere of control and that in the long run there’s not much we can do about it. Interestingly Fukuyama was a student of Huntington but in this area he disagrees with his former professor, not in claiming that they aren’t civilizations, or that they’re not important, but rather in putting forth the idea that progress has spawned a universal civilization. As such, rather than abandoning most of Asia to the dominion of China we should instead be encouraging China to join the universal civilization. 

Beyond these two America has always had a streak of isolationism, perhaps best represented currently by Pat Buchanan. Who recently pointed out in reference to the rising tensions between China and India that:

Exactly what kind of “ally and partner” the U.S. is to be “in the fight” between India and China over disputed terrain in the Himalayan Mountains was left unexplained. We have no vital interest in where the Line of Control between the most populous nations on earth should lie that would justify U.S. military involvement with a world power like China.

I understand that Buchanen is something of a pariah among some, but it’s hard to find fault with this statement.

Underlying all of these arguments is the question of US hegemony, and what the ongoing value of that is. From where I sit, it would appear that the biggest value is slowing down nuclear proliferation. To speak more directly to the subject at hand, Japan has the technology for nuclear weapons, they don’t possess them (that we know) because the US is shielding them with its nuclear umbrella. Should the US make a significant withdrawal from Asia, effectively ceding it to China, there’s good reason to suspect that Japan would decide that “now” would be an excellent time to start possessing such weapons. 

The foregoing would appear to leave us with three choices:

  1. Accept that our power and influence is or will be declining and attempt to create a new hegemony, perhaps something involving the creation of a significant international coalition, or perhaps just an international order that focuses on nonproliferation, but doesn’t try and solve all of the worlds problems (i.e. something that keeps Japan from feeling the need for nukes, but does nothing to prevent China from annexing Taiwan.)
  2. Accept that our power and influence are declining and decide that any attempt to replace the US hegemony with something else is destined to fail, so why bother making the attempt. Perhaps this comes about from deciding that any effort spear-headed by the US is bound to have too much baggage, and hope someone else will step up.
  3. Hang on to our current role for as long as we can, and do everything possible to extend this period. In the meantime, hope that something changes, perhaps China will embrace liberal democracy, or China and Russia will go to war or some weird technological singularity will come along (this is exactly the plan laid out by Ian Morris in his book War! What Is It Good For? Which I reviewed here.)

VII.

Finally we arrive at what is simultaneously the most interesting and the most frightening possibility of all. I’ve frequently mentioned Fukuyama and his book End of History and the Last Man in the course of this discussion, and I think it’s fair to say that the book is very Hegelian. Of course as Fukuyama also points out, Marx essentially ruined Hegel, but if you can strip that away and look at what Hegel was actually saying, it’s all pretty interesting. When talking about Hegel everyone mentions the “dialectic”, but essentially, as Hegel saw it that mostly amounted to a conversation between civilizations, a conversation that generally starts with two opposing viewpoints (thesis and antithesis), but eventually through dialogue, ideas, experimentation, and yes, even war, the two ideas eventually combine into one better idea (synthesis).

As an example you might start out with security on one side and freedom on the other, eventually synthesizing the two into a system with both significant policing, but also significant protection for individual rights. As that example makes clear, it’s not always as clean and straightforward as Hegel would lead you to believe, but he nevertheless claimed that this process also operated at the level of nations and brought us liberal democracy. Whether this was in fact “the process”, and whether it was not only “the process”, but the end point of “that process” are separate issues. I think there’s a good case to be made that the process was something like that, but the idea that we’ve reached the end is less certain, despite Hegel’s and later Fukuyama’s claims to the contrary. 

With an understanding of that framework, we’re now in a position to discuss the interesting/frightening possibility I alluded to at the beginning of the section. What if the Chinese government is the next level of Hegelian synthesis? What if they have synthesized market capitalism, with communism (or if you prefer just straight authoritarianism)? As you may recall from some of my previous posts on the book, Fukuyama isn’t making the claim that liberal democracy is some sort of obvious utopia, and he mostly tries to minimize claims of whig history, rather what he’s saying is that only liberal democracy has both the legitimacy necessary for internal health and the access to science and industry necessary to win a modern war, that is external threats to a nation’s health. But so far threats to the legitimacy of the Chinese government have been pretty anemic, and, if Brose is correct, their war making capability is at least sufficient and it may be superior. 

In both cases there are other elements which have contributed to China’s success. Turning first to legitimacy, there was a time when it was expected that technology and particularly the  internet would be a huge boon to political freedom, and the longer things go the more it looks like it might be just the opposite. China’s great firewall has proven to work a lot better than people expected when it was first mooted, things like China’s social credit system wouldn’t be possible without recent technology, and finally advances in machine learning/AI promise to make the tools available to the government more effective still. All of this works to shore up the authoritarian side of the synthesis. It also makes it easier to disentangle market capitalism from other elements of liberal democracy giving China an engine of economic growth the Soviet Union lacked.

On the war-fighting side of things, the Chinese seem to have managed to avoid the bureaucratic inertia that, according to Brose, currently plagues the US military. I assume that there are a lot of things which have contributed to this, but it’s easy to imagine that being authoritarian helps out quite a bit. Another simplifying factor is the fact that the Chinese have well-defined goals for their military, unlike the US which, in addition to trying to maintain its hegemonic position, also has a tendency to get into endless wars of occupation.

To be clear in putting this possibility out there I am not arguing that this is in fact what has happened. I’m not a Hegelian, I’m a Christian, but for those who do see history from a Hegelian viewpoint, like Fukuyama, or those who just have a general belief in progress, like Pinker, what’s the counter argument? And if there isn’t a definitive counter argument what does that mean for the history of humanity? Will all nations end up converging to this new endpoint? Or does it only work for China? 

VIII.

This post ended up being longer than I expected and rather than making it much longer, on the one hand, or on the other, cutting out anything genuinely interesting, I thought I would dump it all in the last section as a collection of miscellaneous rapid fire thoughts, so here goes:

I didn’t really touch much on trade, but obviously that’s been one of the biggest areas of contention between the US and China over the last several years. Despite this trade restrictions are still controversial and my sense is that they’re unlikely to continue under Biden, though honestly neither side is really spending much time talking about China at this point, so it’s difficult to tell. As far as whether they should continue, that’s always difficult to say, but the conventional wisdom seems to be that the trade war was a bad idea, which hurt us more than it hurt them. However the one study I came across estimated that China lost $35.2 billion as a result of it while the US only lost $15.6 billion. Indicating that we have more bargaining power than we think, that if it is necessary to confront China this is a good place to do it, that Trump probably deserves at least some of the credit, and that Biden should continue the policy.

It’s really amazing all of the different venues where China is causing problems, or at the very least distorting the way things have traditionally been done. We’ve already talked about the NBA, but they also exercise a significant influence on how Hollywood makes movies. They’ve got significant influence in developed countries, and they’re influencing technology in major ways as well, particularly when it comes to 5G. And because of the way their influence works, these distortions don’t get reported on to nearly the extent you would expect, meaning that the news is yet another area of distortion.

Everything I read portrayed China as being almost entirely machiavellian, willing to ignore agreements, skirt treaties, conceal their intentions, and outright lie if it served their purpose. As examples they’re actively trying to subvert the UN, the agreements they have made on autonomous weapons are obviously designed with huge loopholes, and they’ve got a secondary naval militia disguised as a fishing fleet. And while I understand the caution that we shouldn’t enter into another cold war with China, they’ve deliberately closed off nearly all avenues short of force. This is part of why a trade war is appealing because as bad as it might be it’s still orders of magnitude better than outright war.

As China gets closer and closer to the point where they feel ready to annex Taiwan, the Taiwanese people, particularly the younger segment of the population are less and less likely to want to be reabsorbed. In particular the recent crack-down in Hong Kong has only increased their reluctance. 

Finally, one of the books I already finished in October is From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia by Pankaj Mishra. I had intended to talk about it more in this post, but it’s one of the things that didn’t fit in anywhere else. In the book, the point Mishra emphasizes repeatedly is the level of humiliation felt by the Chinese as a consequence of colonialism. A humiliation they still feel. I’m not sure exactly how that translates into a policy prescription, or what we can really do about it at this point, but it does suggest that underlying everything I’ve talked about is less the normal desire for a people to improve their circumstances and more a straight up hunger for revenge.


As my posts gradually get longer they also get less frequent. I guess I could have split this in two, but I feel like it’s better to get it all out at once. If you have an opinion on that I’d love to hear it. You know what I also love? Donations. Mostly because of the warm fuzzy feeling they give me. 


Have We Run Out of History and Legitimacy?

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

Or download the MP3


Sometimes when I sit down to start a post I have something that’s dying to get out, something which I feel must be said, and as quickly as possible. In my assessment of social media I assume that many people feel this same mix of necessity and rapidity, and that it’s probably just as illusory for them as it is for me, but without such illusions no one would ever write anything. At other times I’m not sure what to write about. One might imagine that in these instances that I would decide to write nothing, but that never happens. Perhaps it should, but I tell myself that my writing is as much for my own education as it is for the education of others, and as such I should maintain the habit regardless of whether I feel particularly driven to write at any given moment.

All of this is a way of explaining that when I sat down to write this post I found myself in the latter category, wondering what to write about. Which is not to say there was no subject that seemed important enough to write about, but more that there were too many important subjects at that moment, and I’ve already talked about them, and worry I’m out of anything unique or noteworthy to add. As a further drag on my desire I worry that my own methodology for speaking about things might be getting overused, that is digging into the deeper implications of some book I’m reading, or alternatively exploring the ramifications of the political crisis de jour. But I’ve decided that rather than avoiding this tendency that, at least in this post, I’m going to double down on it, and combine a discussion of a book I’m reading with a discussion of the latest political crisis! I’m sure you’re all very excited.

The book is The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. In the past I have made light of the contention Fukuyama makes right in the book’s title. That we have reached the “end of history”, but my criticisms were probably misplaced and mostly due to me having an overly simplified view of what he was saying. After discovering that his point was more complicated, I vowed to read the book, which I did while at the same time working on this post. 

Fukuyama’s chief argument is that, at the end of the cold war the hybrid system of capitalism and liberal democracy didn’t have any obvious competitors. That no other ideologies remained which had a credible claim for being the better system. The book was written in 1992, when the Chinese communist system was still looking somewhat shaky in the wake of things like Tiananmen Square. In the intervening years I think it’s made a credible run at providing a competing vision of governance, but a specific discussion of China will have to wait for another post (probably not the next post which will be my September book review post, but the post after that.) However, in 1992 things were very different and there was lots of room for hope. Thus one obvious criticism of the book is that it suffers from being too close to things.

At the time, this idea that capitalism and liberal democracy had won, was treated as great news. The cold war was over. We didn’t have to worry about being eventually overwhelmed by communism or alternatively perishing in a fiery apocalypse brought on by two irreconcilable ideologies. Unfortunately in the midst of all this optimism, a new problem emerged, and this is where Fukuyama’s book is at his best. (Chapter 28, “Men Without Chests”, which discusses Nietzsche’s view of things, justifies the entire book all by itself.) This new problem might be stated: If what we have is as good as it’s going to get, if we’ve reached an ideological dead end, what happens if it turns out not to work either? What if we discover that liberal democracy itself is ultimately fragile in a similar fashion to all previous types of government? (Perhaps the fragility just takes longer to manifest?) If this turns out to be the case, then there’s really no refuge left. To put it another way, since the Enlightenment, people have aspired to a liberal democratic government as an ideal, even more so after 1776 when it was apparent that it was actually possible. And it was felt that if a nation ever managed to make that transition that things would vastly improve But if, as seems to be currently happening, liberal democracy starts breaking down, then what’s left to aspire to?

I know some people still aspire to communism but that carries a host of issues, including it’s record of failure, and the difficulty of assembling a broad enough base of support. Beyond that there are proposals for a variety of untried systems, or for massive changes to liberal democracy, but the proposals seem unlikely to work in anything close to the fashion their advocates envision, and making massive changes seem at best a method of buying more time, not anything that changes liberal democracy from something which can fail into something which can’t.

In examining this question of whether democracy too might fail, or whether it’s already failing, it’s useful to consider why previous systems of government failed. Fukuyama mainly ascribes these previous failures to a lack of legitimacy. In particular the 20th century saw lots of totalitarian states. These states derived their legitimacy from several things, economic growth, stability, and particularly the point of a gun. What didn’t play any part in their legitimacy were big ideas which persisted when those other three things went away. Because eventually all three of those things will go away.  Even rule at the point of a gun isn’t sustainable forever. (Though as North Korea illustrates it can be sustained for a very long time.) To a certain extent communist regimes had big ideas like equality and plenty for all, but these big ideas never panned out, even after decades of effort. Also it’s difficult to combine maintaining something at the point of a gun while also claiming that it’s really the big idea that keeps everything going. Which is to say it’s tough to believe in the utopia of Communism when your country is being run by Stalin.

Previous to democracy and communism, and even well into the 19th century, there were monarchies, which operated under big ideas like heredity and the divine right of kings. (And the fact that the vast masses of people couldn’t do much about the system even if they wanted to.) Whatever their source, according to Fukuyama, these big ideas provide a long-term source of legitimacy, similar to a cash reserve that can be drawn on when things get bad. In the case of the monarchy, even during a revolution, these big ideas were in play, and a relative of the previous king started from a much stronger position than some random individual, or even some random noble. In the same way that someone who won an election (even if that election was suspected of being rigged) has far more legitimacy than the average individual these days. But this isn’t the only source of modern legitimacy. When things were tough for the Soviet Union during World War II they could draw on the idea that they were fighting fascist hordes who wanted to wreck their communist utopia, and probably they drew on their sense of national pride as well. Finally, the point of a gun was almost certainly in there as well. This is still Stalin we’re talking about.

This last example brings up the idea of necessity, which is related, but somewhat different than legitimacy. As I pointed out in a previous post, one possible reason for why we’re so disunited at the moment is that there’s nothing forcing us to be united. No external threat we need to face. Post Pearl Harbor and with literal Nazis in charge of Europe, it was probably pretty easy to be united, and as far as I can tell there were very few questions of where the government derived its legitimacy. And the point that Fukuyama makes in his book, is that while some external threat exists, or alternatively when the economy is booming and times are really good, it’s easy for any form of government to seem legitimate. They’re performing the core tasks that governments need to perform. It’s when times get tough and there’s nothing external to unite against that totalitarian governments end up being more fragile than liberal democracies because there’s no underlying big idea to draw on to keep things together if, say the economy tanks. 

If, as is the case today, the country feels no necessity to unite in the face of an external threat, because there are none. And further, if the economy is not booming and things are not going well, at least for the vast majority of people. And finally, if the government is (hopefully) not being maintained at the point of a gun. Then the only difference between a totalitarian regime on the verge of collapse, say the Soviet Union in 1988, and us, is our big ideas. And if they truly are the only thing standing between us and collapse, then it’s probably a good idea to examine what those big ideas are and see how they’re holding up.

One of the big ideas is permitting free and open debate. The assumption being that if all the information is out there that people will eventually make the right decision. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this particular idea because it’s something which I’ve talked a lot about in the past, and it’s also something that’s being talked about a lot by people other than me, but it seems clear that this is one big idea that’s looking pretty shaky. Not only is it harder and harder to separate good information from bad, but there’s a significant push to restrict speech and information above and beyond that. 

Another big idea is using elections to ensure the peaceful transfer of power. This isn’t looking that great either. Certainly Trump’s recent statements undermining this idea are alarming, but when Hillary Clinton is saying that Biden should not concede the election “under any circumstances” I’m not sure 100% of the blame can be placed on Trump for the erosion of this idea. My current prediction is that the 2020 election will continue to fulfill this function, but it’s hard to argue that this idea isn’t getting weaker each cycle.

Yet another important big idea is equality of opportunity. Of all the ideas that existed at the time Fukuyama wrote his book, this is the one that has undergone the most sustained attack, particularly from the perspective of the ongoing racial inequalities. Though in Fukuyama’s defense he foresees that this might be the case:

Moreover, even American democracy has not been particularly successful in solving its most persistent ethnic problem, that of American blacks. Black slavery constituted the major exception to the generalization that Americans were “born equal,” and American democracy could not in fact settle the question of slavery through democratic means. Long after the abolition of slavery, long, indeed after the achievement of full legal equality by American blacks, many remain profoundly alienated from the mainstream of American culture. Given the profoundly cultural nature of the problem, on the side both of blacks and whites, it is not clear that American democracy is really capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.

However, having mentioned it as a possibility, he doesn’t seem to think it poses much of a problem long term. Yes, it comes up a lot, but only in very general terms, he definitely didn’t foresee what’s happening now. And of course maybe he’s right, and in the end current unrest may have very little long term impact. Perhaps I’m as blinded by the events of 2020 as Fukuyama was by the events of 1989. In his case it ended up creating too much optimism, perhaps in my case it’s creating too much pessimism. But for the moment let’s imagine that the possibility Fukuyama brings up in the book is in fact a description of our current reality, that American democracy is not “capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.” What then?

Well, insofar as big ideas confer a reserve of legitimacy, to be drawn on when times are difficult (which they seem to be) the disappearance of this idea, perhaps more than any of the other big ideas, may leave us without any reserves of legitimacy. The equivalent of a totalitarian government dealing with a popular uprising. Indeed many people would describe it in just these terms, but I don’t think any of those people have actually ever lived somewhere truly repressive. 

The recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg brings up the final big idea I’d like to cover. (To be clear there are lots of big ideas underpinning liberal democracy, but I think even the ones I’ve neglected to mention are passing through a period of unusual weakness.) This final big idea is the rule of law. Now of course Republicans would be quick to point out that in confirming her replacement they aren’t violating any laws, and this is entirely true, nor did they violate any laws when they refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, nor did the Democrats violate any laws when they failed to confirm Robert Bork, nor will they be violating any laws if they retake the Presidency and the Senate and pack the courts. But laws, particularly laws as elegantly devised and as pithy as the Constitution aren’t designed to cover every conceivable eventuality. Accordingly part of the “rule of law” big idea is the awareness that laws are surrounded with certain understandings, norms, and even a layer of civility and cooperation which keeps things from descending into a contest of merely seeing who can get away with the most the fastest. 

Despite the existence of these many pressing problems I just pointed out (and the many I didn’t), it’s common to hear people counter that things aren’t as bad as they were in the late 60s/early 70s, and certainly they’re nowhere near where they were on the eve of the Civil War. (I’ve even done it myself on occasion.) But if, as Fukuyama asserts, it’s less about the amount of blood being spilt and more about the amount of legitimacy in reserve, then we might actually be closer to disaster than we were in either of those cases. For example, however intense the violence got during the late 60s/early 70s, all of the “big ideas” were significantly healthier. Free and open debate was taken to be an article of faith by the media and those in power, and it was a particular cause of the left (see for example the Free Speech Movement). I don’t recall any big worries about the peaceful transition of power, but that says more about us than about them, that the subject has even come up. Moving on to equality of opportunity, certainly the Civil Rights act didn’t solve everything, but I would nevertheless argue that people were significantly more optimistic about it solving the problems of racial inequality than anyone is about anything involving race right now. Finally, as has been well documented, despite whatever other unrest was going on, partisan rancor was not nearly so severe. Further, I can only conclude, based on all the people arguing that the Senate has historically “never done this”, or “never done that”, or “always done something else” that this history of greater cooperation they’re referring to includes that period in the late 60s and early 70s. 

As far as the Civil War. Here the case for big ideas is even stronger. So strong, that, speaking personally, I’ve always had a hard time entirely wrapping my head around it. This is a situation where, speaking just of soldiers on the Union side (it being dangerous to say much of anything about the Confederacy these days) 360,222 were willing to die, just for the big idea of preserving the United States. For those with more modern sensibilities it would be easier to understand if you imagine that they were dying for the big idea of ending slavery and indeed that was the thing underlaying the entire war, but for the average Union solider the priority was preserving the country. They were fighting and dying for the big idea of American exceptionalism. This takes on added significance when you recall that the 360,000 who died came out of a far smaller population, about a tenth of what it is today, meaning that would be equivalent to 3.6 million dying today.

If all of the foregoing is correct and legitimacy is really the thing that matters, and liberal democracy, especially American liberal democracy, is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, what can we do about it? The totalitarian governments which had recently fallen when Fukuyama was writing his book were able to shift from totalitarianism to liberal democracy. But as I pointed out at the beginning, if Fukuyama is correct and liberal democracy represents the end point of progression, then there is no system we can switch to. We’re at the end of things, and if that system doesn’t work then there’s nowhere else to go. 

Some people seem to imagine that communism is still an option, and perhaps it is, perhaps it just needs certain institutions, technologies and attitudes which didn’t exist the last time it was tried. An idea I explored in a previous post, despite this it’s still a pretty far-fetched idea. 

Other people think that there’s a way of combining critical race theory with liberal democracy to produce a new system which would finally fully assimilate blacks in a way that actually led to equality of condition. When I say that some people think there’s a way to do this, I’m actually not sure anyone seriously thinks it can be done, the conflicts between the two systems are essentially irreconcilable, but it represents the vague desires of everyone with a “Black Lives Matter” sign in their yard. Which is to say, it’s a great idea, but from the standpoint of this post, even if it were possible, the system would end up possessing neither the big ideas of liberal democracy nor the big ideas of critical race theory. I understand this last bit is a claim that probably needs more support than I’m giving it. But my post Liberalism vs. Critical Race Theory covers a lot of that territory.

As perhaps the most radical option of all, conceivably you could ditch liberal democracy entirely, and switch to a system whose legitimacy rested on the big ideas of Critical Race Theory. Fukuyama actually covers this possibility, though not directly:

At one extreme, the Marxist project sought to promote an extreme form of social equality at the expense of liberty, by eliminating natural inequalities through the reward not of talent but of need, and through the attempt to abolish the division of labor. All future efforts to push social equality beyond the point of a “middle-class society” must contend with the failure of the Marxist project. For in order to eradicate those seemingly “necessary and ineradicable” differences, it was necessary to create a monstrously powerful state. (emphasis mine)

Again, I understand that this point deserves more support than it’s getting, and again I would direct you to my previous post

After surveying our various options, it would seem that if our reserves of legitimacy are depleted that there are no good options, of course other than somehow refilling those reserves, of restoring the big ideas enough so that they can once again act as a source of legitimacy. Put that way, there are obviously lots of people working on the project. But unfortunately I’m not seeing many signs that they’ve been at all successful.


There is one other system that seems to possess some reserves of legitimacy, (though how large these reserves are is anyone’s guess) that system is Chinese Communism. But as I alluded to near the beginning I’m saving that for the post after next. If you have any concerns that I might run out of steam before then, consider donating.


Liberalism vs. Critical Race Theory (A Distressing Lack of Pragmatism)

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

Or download the MP3


As you may or may not have noticed one of my primary intellectual projects since the death of George Floyd has been an attempt to understand the underlying issues (some might say the underlying corruption) which lead to his death, and to further understand the various proposals being put forth for fixing these issues (or uprooting this corruption). I will say that in the beginning, my lack of understanding led me to avoid the subject, or at least approach it very gingerly, which was almost certainly the best course of action, and it might still be the wisest course of action. But given that the debate which ensued shows no signs of fading away and, added to that, recent developments like the Harper’s Letter and letters written in opposition to that letter, and violent clashes between BLM and Blue Lives Matter protesters, ignoring things seems increasingly a form of abdication, particularly when I see very important points apparently getting overlooked by everyone.

This time around my attention was drawn to these “overlooked things” by an article in the Economist: Enlightenment liberalism is losing ground in the debate about race, by Diane Ejaita. This article was sent to me by a friend who has, himself, followed a trajectory of growing disenchantment with “Enlightenment liberalism” and who appreciated this article:

I like the way this article balances the issue. The author clearly leans towards enlightenment liberalism but frankly acknowledges the fact that it has failed to bring about adequate solutions to the problems of race in America.

To begin with, he’s correct. I don’t know that I’ve seen a better attempt than this article at explaining the conflict between these two ideologies, a conflict which has gotten increasingly heated, particularly among those traditionally on the classically liberal left. And yet despite this article being as good as it gets, I believe that it contains a number of egregious assumptions that need to be pointed out. It’s perhaps arrogant of me to think that I’m the man to do it, but it really feels like someone has to. 

Before getting to that, it’s possible that you’re not clear on what the two competing ideologies are. From the article:

To understand all this, it is worth going back to the battle of ideas. In one corner is liberalism, with its tarnished record, and in the other the anti-liberal theories emerging from the campus to challenge it.

It is indeed worth discussing this battle of ideas, in fact while other things might be more important in the short term, ten or twenty years from now the results of this ideological debate will be the element that had the greatest impact on the world.

As I said, on the whole, the article was a great discussion of the tensions currently in play and why liberalism is “on the ropes”. It’s not it’s general point, but rather the assumptions and evidence used to buttress that general point that need to be reexamined. Yes there is a conflict between these two ideologies, and there should be, but Ejaita makes several points which serve to understate the strengths of liberalism and overstate the case for anti-liberal alternatives. Accordingly the rest of the post will largely be me quoting a specific passage and then pointing out what’s wrong with it. As I do this it’s possible I’ll read too much into these individual statements, that I’ll miss some of the nuances, or that my objections will veer towards stridency. Feel free to call me out on that, as I said this debate is important, and I genuinely don’t want to strawman the other side.

With all that out of the way, here’s the first statement that jumped out at me:

But [liberalism’s] poor record on race, especially with regard to African-Americans, stands out. Income, wealth, education and incarceration remain correlated with ethnicity to a staggering degree. True, great steps have been taken against overt racial animus. But the lack of progress means liberals must have either tried and failed to create a society in which people of all races can flourish, or failed to try at all.

This paragraph manages to be contradictory, and overly simplistic at the same time. In one breath it mentions the “great steps” which have been taken against “overt” racial animus, and then goes on to speculate that liberalism might have failed to try “at all”. Which is it? Because it clearly can’t be both. Or does all of this hinge on the overt part? Is it that liberalism has failed to make any attempt at eradicating inner racism? First, efforts were being made to police language, jokes and attitudes as far back as the 70s. So, secondly, it seems clear that the answer is that they tried and failed, because third, it’s an exceptionally difficult problem, and it’s not as if “anti-liberal theories emerging from campuses” have stumbled on a fool-proof way of accomplishing it which people have just refused to adopt. If anything they seem equally clueless, a point I’ll be returning to.

Ejaita goes on:

And although slavery is a near-universal feature of pre-Enlightenment societies, the Atlantic slave trade is notable for having been tied to notions of racial superiority.

This is a very strange sentence. Is she actually implying that enlightenment societies, which she admits are the only societies where slavery ended up not being “nearly universal” should nevertheless share equal (or perhaps greater?) guilt with pre-Enlightenment societies because the slavery of those societies wasn’t racist? First I’m not entirely sure it’s as clear cut as she claims, every civilization had an out-group that they considered worthy of enslavement, and while I’m no expert on this, I’d be surprised if there weren’t other examples of enslavement based around race. And there was certainly enslavement based on nationality and religion. Also even if the Atlantic slave trade was uniquely bad because it was based on racial superiority, do the enlightenment societies not get any credit for being the first societies to put and end to it? And in the case of the US, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives?

The article then spends a few paragraphs talking about colonialism, and insofar as The Economist is a UK publication that makes sense, but even in the UK, I don’t think it does much to illuminate the problem, and it’s a particularly weird tangent when you turn to a discussion of the United States. I haven’t heard any reports of Filipino grievances being part of the recent protests, and while the Puerto Rican independence movement was a big thing in the middle of the last century, including an attempted assassination of Truman, the last time a vote was taken on independence 60% wanted to be a state and only 5.5% wanted independence, and that percentage has been stable going all the way back to 1967.

After this detour into colonialism, Ejaita makes her way into the 60s and discusses the civil rights era and affirmative action. Shortly thereafter is also when the main competitor to liberalism enters the story:

As the gains of the civil-rights era failed to translate into sustained progress for African-Americans, dissatisfaction with liberalism set in. One of the first to respond was Derrick Bell, a legal scholar working at Harvard in the 1970s. “Critical race theory”, which fused French post-modernism with the insights of African-Americans like Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist, then emerged.

Over the decades other concepts like intersectionality (“A black woman could lose a case of discrimination against an employer who could show that he did not discriminate against black men or white women”) have been added to this package, until eventually:

[C]ritical race theory has flourished, spreading to education, political science, gender studies, history and beyond. HR departments use its terminology. Allusions to “white privilege” and “unconscious bias” are commonplace. Over 1,000 CEOs, including those of firms such as JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer and Walmart, have joined an anti-racism coalition and promised that their staff will undertake unconscious-bias training (the evidence on its efficacy is limited). Critical race theory informs the claim that the aim of journalism is not “objectivity” but “moral clarity”.

There’s a lot to unpack here… First off, if critical race theory is ubiquitous, why is it also largely ineffective? We come to this conclusion based not only on the fact that injustice is still ubiquitous (should we not be able to point to someplace as a success story? Perhaps academia?) but also the admission of the article itself, which offers one concrete recommendation and then goes on to say, “the evidence on its efficacy is limited”. Are you beginning to see a thread? Critical race theory (CRT) seems big on rhetoric, but short on practical solutions. Secondly she makes this incredibly sweeping claim in the last sentence, that the “aim of journalism is not ‘objectivity’ but ‘moral clarity’”. If clarity is not objective it can only be subjective, and subjective clarity seems at best an oxymoron and at worst the sort of thing that proceeds all of the worst revolutionary excesses throughout history. Beyond this, attempts to achieve “moral certainty” stretch back at least to the Greeks, so I’m inclined to doubt that we’ve suddenly solved it in the last few decades with the invention of CRT. 

In fact, that last sentence actually reminds me a lot of the most striking passage from Bari Weiss’ resignation letter:

Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else. 

Weiss offers it up as a criticism but Ejaita seems to be offering up a functionally identical statement, and touting it as a strength. It can’t be both, and it seems far more likely for it to be the former than the latter. Moving on: 

The philosophical mechanics that bolt together critical race theory can be obscure. But the approach is elegantly engineered into bestselling books such as “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.

I have not read Kendi’s book, but I did read DiAngelo’s and it was anything but elegant. Not only is her argument undermined by the paradox I mentioned in that previous discussion. (Racism is fantastically evil. All white people are racist. But white people are fragile if they ever react negatively to being accused of racism.) But she frequently admits as part of the book the same thing mentioned in the article, that her trainings don’t appear to have any noticeable effect on people’s attitude, to say nothing of actually solving the problem. 

I think you’ve probably long ago been able to see where I was going with all of this, but before we get there, one more quote from the article:

The appeal of critical race theory—or at least its manifestation in popular writing—is partly that it confidently prescribes what should be done to fight injustice….

Liberals have no such simple prescription. 

Here we see, spelled out, my central problem with CRT. From everything I can see the situation is exactly the opposite of the section I just quoted. Enlightenment liberalism has a whole host of pragmatic techniques and suggestions which have been tried and tested over hundreds of years. CRT is the side that appears completely lacking in pragmatism.

Let’s compare, liberalism’s first great idea for fighting injustice was very straightforward, let’s end slavery. Which they did. No only is this a “simple prescription” but it’s very important to remember that before liberalism, as the article itself admits, slavery was nearly universal. Liberalism is essentially the first system to come up with this idea and implement it on a large scale. 100 years later when that didn’t work liberalism next recommended passing laws that further outlawed discrimination, while also allowing for positive, “rectificatory justice” (a phrase from the article) like affirmative action. Finally, underlying all of this was the commitment to a free and open exchange of ideas so that if there were any areas where we hadn’t arrived at the truth, we eventually would. I bow to no one in my criticism of the idea that enlightened liberalism is some sort of unstoppable force. I think there’s all sorts of reasons why it’s force might be spent, but it should at least get credit for what it already accomplished!

In the other corner, critical race theory, which as far as I can tell has three major practical, policy recommendations: unconscious-bias training, defunding the police, and reparations. We’ve already discussed how evidence for the effectiveness of the first is limited. Defunding the police is an interesting idea, which I’ve expressed support for trying on a limited basis, but I have yet to see someone offer up a community or nation as an example of where this is already working (most examples I’ve seen of better policing involve giving the police more money) which makes it less a practical suggestion than an untested hypothesis. Finally there’s reparations, which again, is an interesting idea, but from the standpoint of practicality, it’s a nightmare of genealogy, logistics, history and ideology.

Now to be clear, here is what I’m not arguing. I’m not arguing that liberalism is fast. I’m not arguing that there are no blind spots. I’m not arguing that eventually liberalism will fix everything if we just wait long enough. I’m not even arguing that CRT doesn’t have anything useful to add to policies and behavior. Rather what I am arguing is that most of the criticisms of liberalism which have gotten so much attention over the last few weeks share a distressing lack of pragmatism. And that people don’t even seem to be aware of this weakness. Arguing, as for example in this article, that it’s in fact the other way around, that CRT has “confident prescriptions”, that it’s possible that liberalism has “failed to try at all” and that CRT brings a “moral clarity” which has somehow been overlooked for centuries. 

Pulling everything together, it’s not entirely clear what the article’s point is. There are lots of parts (like the ones I’ve quoted) where Ejaita frames things as a contest between liberalism and anti-liberal theories, in particular CRT, and indicates that the latter has the edge in this contest. But then in the concluding paragraph there’s no mention of the competition or of anti-liberal alternatives:

Plenty of people are trying to work out what [putting right past failures] entails, but the practicalities are formidable. Having failed adequately to grapple with racial issues, liberals find themselves in a political moment that demands an agenda which is both practically and politically feasible. The risk is that they do not find one.

I couldn’t agree more that the “practicalities are formidable” and that the “political moment…demands an agenda that is both practically and politically feasible.” What I don’t understand is what Ejaita means by that very last sentence. I see three possible interpretations:

  1. The “risk” being discussed is a risk to the project of liberalism. If it can’t come up with an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible”, it and its supporters will be sidelined, similar to what happened to, say, communists, but the world as a whole will pivot to anti-liberal theories and be fine. 
  2. Despite significant discussion of alternatives to liberalism, Ejaita understands that it is really the only game in town, and the risk to us all is that if it can’t figure out how to fix racial disparities there’s nothing concrete to take its place and we’re all doomed.
  3. That despite only mentioning liberals in the concluding paragraph, the point of the article is that all ideologies find themselves in this same political moment with the same demands for an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible” and the “risk” is that no ideology will find itself adequate to the task, and we’re all doomed. 

You can see how the text seems to point strongly in the direction of the first interpretation, which in my opinion is naive to the point of being dangerous. Because as far as I can tell a practical and politically feasible agenda is precisely what CRT and anti-liberal theories lack. My own opinion would be closer to the second interpretation, and it is possible that’s what she’s saying, certainly if you consider the final paragraph in isolation, that seems like the most straightforward reading. 

But if we grant that CRT or something similar is a viable alternative (frankly, I’m not convinced that it is) then it should be held to the same standards of practicality and political feasibility as liberalism, or what I pointed out as the final interpretation. But neither this article nor the many supporters of anti-liberal theories seem to be demanding that standard or putting forth this interpretation of our “political moment”. But the risk that no ideology will find itself equal to the task is very real.

I understand the concerns of my friends and of this article and others like it about the weaknesses of liberalism, but if the choice is between something which has been working (albeit nowhere close to perfectly) for centuries, and something entirely unproven, with recommendations that are either vague, radical or both, I choose to be a defender of liberalism.


Savaging articles from The Economist requires me to subscribe to The Economist, which costs money, so if such savagery appeals to you, consider donating.