Category: <span>Politics</span>

9 Days vs. 3 Years

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I.

All the way back in 1992, at the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama published a book called The End of History and the Last Man. This book has come under a lot of criticism (including from me before I read it) for claiming that we had reached “the end of history”. But in reality the book’s claims are far more subtle. And its main claim, that liberal democracy and free markets have no remaining viable competitor, has been the default assumption of basically all politicians and policy makers over the last 30 years. But as we conduct our retrospective on the events in Afghanistan, these events are not merely a reflection on the country and its peculiarities, nor an embarrassment for Biden, they are a test of this assumption, a test of the liberal order. A test I’m pretty sure we failed.

It might be helpful at this point to remind ourselves of Fukuyama’s argument. In my review of the book I provided the following summary of his claims:

  • His strongest claim is that things are different because we can never go back to a condition where we didn’t understand the scientific method.
  • His next strongest claim is that we are unlikely to lose the knowledge we’ve acquired through that method. At this point we can’t go back to a time when no one knew how to make a thermonuclear weapon.
  • In the middle, is his claim that war will continue to exist, and those that use science, and the things science can give them, like the aforementioned nukes, are going to have an advantage in those wars, but that advantage requires significant industry in addition to significant scientific knowledge to take advantage of, and that achieving that industry is only possible under certain political systems. 
  • Finally, his weakest claim is that a western style liberal democracy with free markets/capitalism is the best system for achieving both the science and industry necessary to have this edge.

In the wake of our retreat from Afghanistan these claims must all be viewed in a different light. Yes we are probably better at taking advantage of the scientific method than the people in Afghanistan. But as I pointed out in the last post, science did not provide us with any method for turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy of the kind promoted by Fukuyama. It gave us a tremendous edge in fighting the Afghans who opposed us, but in the end it made very little impact on their desire to fight for themselves. (More on that in a second.) It remains open for debate whether there can be said to be a science of politics in general, but science certainly appears helpless when it comes to the politics of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was often viewed as a battle for hearts and minds, and while our science and industry are great at winning conventional battles, they proved powerless to fight these other battles of attitude and ideology. 

It’s not that the global liberal democratic project ended in Afghanistan, there are still many parts of the world where it (mostly) works. It’s that it didn’t expand into Afghanistan, and this despite an effort spanning 20 years and costing trillions of dollars. Fukuyama never asserted that liberal values were historically inevitable—despite how much he was influenced by Hegel—for him it was a matter of competition. Liberal democratic states would inevitably outcompete nonliberal states economically, intellectually, and militarily. In order to survive, states would have to adopt this ideology, otherwise their defeat was inevitable. Well we spent 20 years trying to get Afghanistan to accomplish exactly that and we appear to have failed. We didn’t outcompete the nonliberal elements either intellectually or militarily. It can be argued that we’re still outcompeting them economically, but that wasn’t enough. 

This is of course related to the point Richard Hanania made which opened my last post: that political science has failed. One of my readers asked why, when we suffered a similar failure in Vietnam, no one declared political science to be dead back then? If they didn’t, why should we do so now? To begin with, it’s possible they did (see numerous criticisms of guys like McNamara). Also, in response, political scientists, rather than all quitting their jobs to manage a McDonald’s, probably defended their profession (as people are inclined to do), perhaps arguing that they had incorporated the relevant criticism and improved things. I bring up this first possibility because I’m pretty sure that’s what is going to happen this time as well. But there’s another angle of his question that I’m more interested in. 

II.

While our exit from Afghanistan certainly reminded people of Vietnam, in many other respects the two wars were very different. The North Vietnamese had powerful backing in the form of the Soviet Union and China. Afghanistan had no such help (or very little). Also, while people have no problem categorizing communism as a true rival ideology, particularly at the time of the Vietnam war, very few people are framing the Taliban’s victory in ideological terms, and no one is anointing any ideology as potential successor to liberalism. (Islam might be considered for that role, but if anything Afghanistan has been a lesson more in its fractures than in its unity.)

Another difference is the history, America’s efforts in Afghanistan were conducted in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s previous disastrous occupation. And I think it’s more instructive to compare the end of our time in Afghanistan with the end of the Soviet’s time in Afghanistan than with the end of our time in Vietnam.

This difference was brought to my attention by Ross Douthat in his column from a couple of weeks ago. 

Only recently the view that without U.S. troops, the American-backed government in Kabul would be doomed to the same fate as the Soviet-backed government some 30 years ago seemed like hardheaded realism. Now such “realism” has been proven to be wildly overoptimistic. Without Soviet troops, the Moscow-backed government actually held out for several years before the mujahideen reached Kabul. Whereas our $2,000,000,000,000 built a regime that fell to the Taliban before American troops could even finish their retreat.

Later in the same article he points out that the US backed government was conquered faster by the Taliban than the Taliban were initially conquered by the US. I understand that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but the speed and lack of struggle accompanying this most recent death suggests something closer to euthanasia than murder. And basically this is exactly how Biden is defending his decision.

It feels like it would be hard to overemphasis this difference: the US backed government lasted 9 days while the Soviet backed government lasted several years. In fact I would argue that this difference speaks to a deep truth about the nature of the American effort and it’s associated ideological foundation. The point of this post is to uncover what that truth might be. Like all deep truths I don’t imagine that I’m going to do much more than scratch the surface in the space of a few thousand words, but I think one entry point would be a comparison of two leaders: 

The Soviet forces started withdrawing from Afghanistan in May of 1988 with the very last troops leaving in February of 1989. At this point Mohammad Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan was left to fend for himself. The Soviets were still giving him financial aid, but the US and Pakistan were still giving aid to his enemies. Initially things went okay for Najibullah, but by the beginning of 1991 he only held on to 10% of the country. On top of this the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing by this point, finally collapsing for good in December of that year. Despite this, Najibullah fought on, eventually resigning only in April of 1992. A resignation that came about in large part because of the defection of a key general. After being unsuccessful in his attempt to flee to India, he sought refuge in the UN compound where he stayed for the next four years. 

During those years the Afghan Civil War raged. In 1996 the Taliban eventually came out on top, and were on the verge of taking Kabul. At this point Najibullah was offered one final chance to escape which he turned down for reasons which have been much speculated on since then. As one might imagine, when the Taliban took Kabul they didn’t let anything like the UN stand in their way. Najibullah was abducted from the compound, tortured to death, dragged through the streets, and then hung outside the presidential palace. 

Now let’s turn to consider Ashraf Ghani, the most recent president of Afghanistan, the one backed by the US. I’m taking most of my information here from the excellent Washington Post article, “Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war“. In reading about Najibullah one gets the sense that the Soviet installed government wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did without him. In reading about Ghani one gets the exact opposite sense, that he’s the entire reason everything collapsed so swiftly. That once he fled everyone figured the government had lost, and there was no sense continuing the fight. Now to be fair to Ghani, some of his advisors told him, incorrectly, that the militants were already in the palace and looking for him. So without telling most of his other advisors or the US, he immediately fled. Basically people working for him went to lunch, and when they came back his office was empty. There was no explanation. This paragraph seems particularly damning:

Even after they had reached safety, the president and his party never circled back with senior officials who had been anxiously seeking their help. Some of those who had worked closely with Ghani over the years felt betrayed, believing he had left them to die.

Ghani’s sudden flight from Kabul was a disaster for his government, but it was at least understandable. We already saw what happened to the last president of Afghanistan when the Taliban came to town. Certainly we would hope that he was made of sterner stuff. Personally, I can’t imagine Najibullah fleeing so suddenly. But in a sense all of this is beside the point. In a moment of panic lots of actions are excusable, and while I think there are some insights to be gained in considering his flight from Kabul, I’m more interested in what Ghani did when he had time to reflect. What did he do before and after his panicked flight? We have already seen that he didn’t bother to “circle back” to those he had left behind, but what was he doing in the days beforehand, as all the provincial capitals were falling?

As the Taliban continued to accumulate gains, American officials began to see the president’s confidence as delusion.

Ghani’s lack of focus on the threat that the Taliban posed mystified U.S. officials, in particular, Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Ambassador Ross Wilson.

In a July meeting with Ghani in Kabul, the two men told the Afghan president that his team needed a “realistic, implementable and widely supported plan to defend the country” and must drop the idea of defending all 34 provincial capitals, said an official familiar with the meeting.

“They had to focus on what they could actually defend,” said the official. “All provinces are important, but some were integral to the defense of Kabul.”

Ghani appeared to agree, but there would be no follow-through, the official said.

“Advice would be given, the right things would be said, and nothing would happen,” the official said. “They never did it. They never came up with that plan.”

Even as a cascade of provincial capitals fell — starting with Zaranj in the far southwest on Aug. 6, and continuing through two dozen others over the nine days that followed — the president appeared distracted.

“Ghani would want to talk about digitization of the economy,” said the official, referring to the president’s plan for a government salary payment system. “It had nothing to do with the dire threat.”

As late as the Saturday afternoon before Kabul fell, Ghani did not suggest any urgency around departure arrangements or the safety of senior staff.

Receiving one adviser in the palace gardens, and speaking in his characteristic soft tones, he made arrangements to shore up the country’s economy. He was supposed to address the nation later that night. But he never did.

The Americans, meanwhile, were suffering their own delusions.

In June, U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed that the Afghan government would hang on for at least another six months. By August, the dominant view was that the Taliban wasn’t likely to pose a serious threat to Kabul until late fall.

As you can see the Washington Post doesn’t let the American military off the hook either, but the article does reserve its harshest criticism for Ghani. And perhaps the Soviets and Najibullah were similarly insouciant in February of 1989, as the Mujahideen roamed the country with their American-supplied stinger missiles. But I really doubt it. I suspect that the reason Najibullah lasted so long was not only did he have a plan for staying in power, but he was very good about executing on that plan.  

Beyond the general sense that the post-soviet withdrawal Afghanistan must have been a very different place that post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, the thing that really jumps out at me from the Washington Post account, is the idea that as the country collapses around him all Ghani wanted to talk about was the “digitization of the economy”. I understand that it’s possible, even likely, that in choosing to emphasize the differences in how long the two governments lasted, and then further emphasizing the two leaders, and then beyond that emphasizing one line in an article, that I have put an enormous amount of weight on a very tiny foundation. But for me this seems to encapsulate, in one anecdote, the entire problem. During the 20 years we spent in Afghanistan, we didn’t create Fukuyama’s market-fueled, science-driven, war-fighting powerhouse. We didn’t replace their tribal culture with a progressive culture. All we managed to do was create a small group of elites who worry about things like the digitization of the economy.

In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah was an expert in such conversations. Ghani apparently avoided them. 

III.

Reading about Ghani one word comes to mind: “untethered” as in untethered from reality. The US could also be accused of being untethered as well. There is of course the disconnect immediately preceding the fall of Kabul: despite the speed with which the Taliban was advancing everyone thought it would take a lot longer. There was the famous assertion that Kabul was not in an “imminent threat environment” made just two days before it fell. And many of the key people were so confident of things that they went on vacation, for example the Secretary of State and even Biden himself. But one suspects we were untethered from reality during the entire 20 years we were in the country. 

At the beginning of those 20 years I think most people assumed that progress was possible, in fact they probably on some level imagined that it was inevitable. In a sense this is part of a general view of how the future is going to play out. Most people can imagine that in a 100 years that we’ll have colonies on Mars, very few imagine that when that happens the Taliban will still be in charge of Afghanistan. And yet, though it’s not 100 years, 20 years have passed and at least two trillion dollars have been spent, and rather than getting any closer to this imagined future we appear to have gone backwards. As Douthat says:

Now, though, we know that in terms of actual staying power, all our nation-building efforts couldn’t even match what the Soviet Union managed in its dotage.

So is progress possible? Will the Taliban or some roughly similar organization still be in charge of Afghanistan in 100 years or will Afghanistan, to borrow another idea of Fukuyama’s, have turned into something resembling Denmark?

If so, how might this progress actually occur? I’m not sure. I’m not one of the people who think it’s inevitable. I think it could very easily not occur, but if I were going to take some guesses here are a few:

Time: It may just be that it will occur, but that we can’t hurry it. That in fact by trying to intervene we actually slowed it down. By making progress seem to be explicitly foreign it becomes more difficult for people to adopt it.

Economic Necessity: It has long been thought that countries will progress towards liberal democracy out of a desire to be part of the global economy with all of its advantages. This was the major justification behind normalizing relations with China and inviting them to the WTO. That didn’t work out quite the way people expected. Even so, at the moment it looks like the best lever we have with Afghanistan.

War: People will argue that we already tried war. But I’m not sure that we have. The great transformation of Germany and Japan happened after the most brutal war imaginable. Taking such a course in Afghanistan would be horrible, but repeated and violent demonstrations of the military superiority of a western liberal democracy vs. Islamic tribalism might be the only thing that gets people to abandon the latter in favor of the former. At its core I think this is Fukuyama’s argument.

Muscular Ideology: Whatever our plan was for “nurtur[ing] the shoots of Afghan liberalism”, it had some curious holes. The US turned a blind eye to ridiculous amounts of corruption. It’s my understanding that this corruption was a major factor in the ease with which the Taliban took over. The US forces also turned a blind eye to traditional Afghan pederasty. Despite these examples of extreme tolerance it’s not like we didn’t impose any ideology on Afghanistan. Much has been made of the expansion of women’s rights and their subsequent retreat now that the Taliban are back in power. But if you’re an Afghan looking for an ideology to give your allegiance to this combination is a very weird mish-mash to stake your future on.

I think this last point starts to get to the heart of the matter, and illustrates the ultimate difference between Ghani and Najibullah. The former did plant his flag in this vague ideological mish-mash where digitizing the economy somehow took up more of his attention than ensuring the survival of his administration. Whereas the latter was almost certainly laser focused on survival and maintaining power. This is the difference between a regime which lasts 9 days and one that lasts three years. 

Of course the default American regime has lasted nearly 250 years. Why don’t we just use that ideology? Well that would obviously open us up to accusations of colonialism (it’s interesting what sort of things do trigger those accusations and what things don’t.) But also it’s an ideology which was being developed for centuries even before it provided for the foundation of the United States.

Examining this development makes the situation even more baffling. The countries which would go on to become western liberal democracies eliminated wide scale corruption and pederasty fairly early on. I’m not an expert on the level of corruption in 17th century Europe, but by the time of the American Revolution corruption was relatively rare, certainly far more rare than what we saw in Afghanistan. And of course pederasty had been taboo for centuries. On the other hand at the time of the American Revolution women’s suffrage was still more than a century away. And the digitization of the economy was another century or more beyond that. But somehow this is what we ended up focusing on, the fruits of liberal democracy rather than the foundation. It’s as if people think they can skip ahead and go straight to the parts they find attractive while overlooking all the steps that were initially required. We’ve become untethered from the ideology that got us here, and without it our days are numbered. We have more than 9 days our Afghan proteges lasted, but beyond that, I’m certain we have fewer days than we think.


Until writing this I didn’t realize how close we are to the Semiquincentennial (Wikipedia tells me it’s also called Sestercentennial or Quarter Millennial). I hope to still be writing about events when it happens and as that is many days hence I hope it does happen. If you’d like to help ensure that (my writing not the existence of the country) consider donating.


Afghanistan, or Just Because You Decide to Leave the Party Doesn’t Mean You Should Jump Out the Window

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I- A Brief Meta-Aside

I recently read a post by Tanner Greer over at Scholar’s Stage where he talked about the golden age of blogging, and what was present then that’s missing now. His basic conclusion was that back then people used blogs to think, discuss and react. That it was a conversation where ideas were fleshed out. Additionally blogging was subversive, people frequently blogged under pseudonyms because they often felt like whistle blowers or the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

Since then blogging has become professionalized—less thinking and more telling. People publish under their own name because credentials are important if you’re telling people something. Alongside declaiming something from on high they’re also designed as a way to flesh out the author’s CV, another aspect which works against having a discussion. Greer writes mostly in the national security space, and speaking of that space here’s how he describes it:

A junior officer who decided to take his views online in 2005 did so knowing that it might hurt his career; an M.A. student who decides to bring his views online in 2015 does in hopes it will help his career. Much of what is published in forums like War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, The National Interest, or Foreign Policy would never be written if its authors did not know it would directly boost their career goals and social profile. I don’t begrudge authors for this, but I cannot pretend it makes compelling reading. But this change in the media landscape also affects those writing for more disinterested reasons. Anyone who writes for a professional outlet knows that their writing must sound professional, or their professional reputation suffer[s]. They know that in the years to come they will be judged by these articles in [a] way they would not be judged for 200 word jottings published on Typepad or WordPress. The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. [Emphasis his]

The whole post is titled “In Favor of Bad Takes”, and while I think its conclusions are less true in the rationality space (which might be the best description of where I’m located, though the relationship is definitely parasitic) it nevertheless rang true for me even so. And it inspired me to try to move my writing at least somewhat in that direction. 

I’m always looking for ways to contribute more through writing, and this seemed like an approach that might work. So I’m going to experiment with splitting up my writing (the non-newsletter, book review stuff) between dialogue/conversational pieces and essays. In my imagination this will allow me to put out more polished (though probably fewer) “essays” while doing more shorter, immediate, thinking out loud pieces. Increasing both my total output and the benefit I provide to the larger world (which I know is slight, but every little bit helps right?)

Also the essay I promised to publish next about environmental chemicals is going slow. At the same time I’m fascinated by what’s happening in Afghanistan, and I’d like to put in my two cents before it’s old news. 

II- What should we have done with Afghanistan in general?

I think there are a lot of ways to look at the Afghanistan situation and I’m going to try to hit as many as I can. But let’s start with how I think we should have handled things.

It should now be clear to everyone that it was not possible to externally midwife a stable, independent state in Afghanistan. That despite 20 years of working on it, nothing stuck. This is true in two ways. We clearly didn’t create a new military willing to fight, which is unsurprising since we didn’t create a new state either. But neither did we lessen the dedication of the Taliban by a single degree either. As you can see from the swift fall of the country after we left the Taliban’s power is just as great as always and I’m hearing some argue that it’s even greater. This makes a certain amount of sense. For the Taliban it was always a matter of intense personal honor, it is their country after all. While the US public only ever considered it a liability and a hassle, particularly after Bin Laden was killed.

Given that state-building was impossible, we should have never tried. If we needed to punish them, or capture Bin Laden, or prevent terrorist training camps we should have done that. (And I’m not even sure how much of that needed to be done.) But trying to reform the culture of the area was always going to be an ultimately pointless endeavor. 

I understand that while it’s now clear to everyone that state building was impossible that wasn’t always the case, but it should have been. Certainly there were lots of people pointing it out. And in addition to those people there was the example of Soviet and British attempts to do something similar.  It’s not as if the Afghani’s didn’t already have a reputation of being entirely intractable. 

All of this is to say that I disagree with the whole “You break it you bought it” philosophy. We should have tried to break as little as we could—as small a footprint as possible. And not “buy” anything. Terrorism is in any case a flashy, but low impact danger. I think this is another place where the pandemic is very illuminating when you compare the money spent preventing that with how many people died and the money spent on the war on terror with how many people die from terror attacks. And of course there’s the sad fact that more people died from combat just in Afghanistan (2,372 Military 1,720 Civilian contractors 4096 total) than died on 9/11. It gets even worse if you include Iraq. 

III- Given the situation Biden inherited what should he have done?

Let me be clear, I agree that we couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever. As illustrated above I would have never planned to “stay” in the first place. And while I don’t intend to talk a lot about Trump (such discussions have a tendency to become all about him) I think his instinct that it was past time to get out was a good one. That said everything that happened since then has been disastrous. The so-called negotiations with the Taliban were a joke, and he and his State Department were either idiots or so eager to get a deal that they decided to ignore the fact that the Taliban didn’t intend to follow through on anything.

Those people who think we could have stayed forever make the argument that we had the country entirely under control. That there hadn’t been a combat death since March of 2020, and this condition was maintained by only a few thousand troops. And as that was the case there was no reason not to keep this going indefinitely. That initially sounded like a compelling argument, but it seems now that it was a gross misinterpretation of the situation. Once it was clear that the long waiting game the Taliban had been playing was about to be over, then there was no reason for them to kill troops anymore, it became all about convincing the US to follow through on their promise to leave while they gathered their strength. Is it a coincidence that:

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020 that called for peace talks between the two Afghan sides to start in March.

And that the last combat fatality was also in March of 2020? 

There are some people, as I mentioned above, who were and perhaps still are under the impression that we could have stayed indefinitely. But basically everyone else agrees that we had to leave at some point and this was as good a point as any. As such the vast majority of the criticism is over the manner of that departure. Or as Mitt Romney said, “Contrary to [Biden’s] claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever.”

If we add the assumption that the Taliban are awful, duplicitous monsters to the assumption that it’s time to get out, how does that change things? Well had we known that (and I believe we should have at least known it was possible). We should have prepared for all eventualities. It’s obvious that we didn’t. At a minimum Biden should have decided what was necessary to consider our withdrawal a success, and had the assets in place necessary to assure that. This does not appear to have happened, primarily because everyone appears to have severely underestimated the Taliban. 

As part of the damage control over this debacle Biden seems to be floating the idea that he inherited some timetable he couldn’t mess with, which I don’t buy at all. But this idea also leads into the assertion that they underestimated the Taliban. Also while I’ve been talking about Biden, you should read that to include him and everyone under him. I think the State Department obviously dropped the ball, and the military leadership also has a lot to answer for. I have heard some things that lead me to believe they’ve made Biden’s job harder.

Those caveats aside, what would success look like?

IV- Getting people out of there

I feel bad reading things like this:

Politico granted an Afghan journalist anonymity to write a brief essay on his experience hiding in Kabul over the weekend. “We could never have imagined and believed that this would happen. We could never imagine we could be betrayed so badly by the U.S. The feeling of betrayal … I dedicated my life to the [American] values,” he wrote. “There was a lot of promise, a lot of assurance. A lot of talk about values, a lot of talk about progress, about rights, about women’s rights, about freedom, about democracy. That all turned out to be hollow. Had I known that this commitment was temporary, I wouldn’t have risked my life. … I don’t care if it’s the Trump administration or the Biden administration. I believed in the U.S. But that turned out to be such a big mistake.”

This gets back to my first point on what our initial goals should have been going in, but when Biden decided to follow through on Trump’s agreement to get out, he obviously knew that there were a bunch of people whose lives were going to be made a lot more dangerous. And of course he didn’t entirely ignore this, there was lots of talk about saving interpreters and other people who had worked with US forces. And I don’t know if the journalist quoted above was ever on the list, but at a minimum the US has a responsibility to ensure the safety of American citizens. 

But now we’re hearing that Kabul fell so fast that they might not be able to get people out. I read this morning (in the Dispatch Newsletter) that:

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC’s Good Morning America Monday. “We are working to do that—first, by securing the airport today. And then, in the days ahead, by taking people out one flight at a time, flight after flight. We fully intend to continue an evacuation process to bring out people who worked alongside of us in Afghanistan.”

But reporting throughout the day and overnight suggests this will be a very difficult task. “As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan’s capital continues to deteriorate, thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country,” reports Josh Rogin, a global affairs columnist at the Washington Post. “As Taliban soldiers go door to door, searching for Westerners, these U.S. citizens are now reaching out to anyone and everyone back in Washington for help.”

The US made Kabul the rallying point for people fleeing and wanting to escape the Taliban and as recently as Friday was saying “Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment”. But it turns out that they were wrong, and couldn’t promise that. If only there were someplace that could have acted as a rallying point, some place with an airport that the US could have guaranteed to defend…

I’ve looked into things and Bagram Air Base, which was so precipitously abandoned at the beginning of July, is only about an hour and a half drive from Kabul. Would it have not made sense to maintain that as a refugee camp, have everyone who qualified and really wanted to leave come there as soon as the Taliban started advancing and then they could have flown them out or flown in more troops at their leisure? Instead they waited until the last minute and now they’ve got a situation where they’re trying to hold a commercial airport in a city that’s already fallen, and having to send more troops. Precisely what Biden didn’t want to do.

I understand that staying in Bagram could devolve into getting dragged back in, and it might be hard to leave if you’re surrounded by the Taliban, etc. And it might be hard in the end to not take everyone who showed up. But how is that any worse than what’s already happening?

(And one thing you may not have heard by abandoning Bagram they also essentially turned over the 5000 prisoners held there to the Taliban as well.)

We can talk about the promises made to the journalist about freedom and democracy, but the promise to get people out of Afghanistan was a promise Biden made. Not something forced on him by Trump, and it’s one that now looks like it’s going to be very difficult to fulfill. Obviously this is once again related to being laughably overconfident, but my suggestion of keeping Bagram as a backup does not seem like it would have been particularly difficult to do, and given the vagaries of war and war in Afghanistan in particular, surely someone must have considered the need for a failsafe.

V- Enforcing some kind of standard

It’s my understanding that, inexplicably, the peace deal with the Taliban had no enforcement mechanisms. That’s obviously on Trump and his State Department, but despite what Biden says about his hands being tied, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that Biden couldn’t have delivered some ultimatums or threats. One hardly imagines that anyone would count it against him if he didn’t follow the letter of the agreement given that the other party is the Taliban. Nor was the Taliban particularly good at following their side of the agreement.

 

Again, I don’t have a problem with withdrawing, but it appears that both Presidents were so eager to get out that they took no thought for how to accomplish that in a fashion that didn’t end up as a debacle. 

VI-Politics

Biden is already taking flack from both sides of the aisle over the withdrawal. Whatever blame Trump deserves (and I’m sure it’s plenty) Biden is going to end up most closely associated with the debacle. Setting aside the people of Afghanistan, and whether he should have taken a firmer stance with the Taliban, one has to imagine that Biden could have made the withdrawal less politically costly. And that even if he doesn’t care about the Afghans that he does care about about keeping congress on his side. Here I am less inclined to offer suggestions for what he should have done, but clearly it’s hard to imagine it going much worse than it did. In particular I’ve read articles about members of Congress pressing him for a better plan to get people out as far back as June. Something that reflects my previous point and a refusal by Biden and his team to even listen to criticisms of the plan that were being raised by members of his own party.

Failing to heed the concerns being raised by congress is not the biggest mistake, but it is the most surprising. The biggest long term consequence of the debacle might be on the international stage, and that shows up at several different levels.

First with respect to the Taliban it’s hard to imagine how the US could look more ridiculous, and the Taliban could look better. And I assume that this effect will carry over to similar groups. For example, does what happened in Afghanistan make a group like Hamas more or less scared of the US? I assume less scared and more bold.

Second there are those countries in direct competition with us. Countries like China and Russia and to a lesser extent India and possibly even Pakistan. How does this play out with them? Does this make them more respectful of US power and its demands or less? Certainly there have been plenty of reports about China gloating about our withdrawal, with one headline talking about how the Taliban have “embarrassed” an “arrogant” America. 

Finally there are those countries who have a defensive alliance with the US, alliances analogous to the deal we had with the previous government of Afghanistan. I read a newsletter this morning from Matthew Yglesias, and while we agreed on many points he claimed that the Afghanistan situation will end up having a positive impact on these relationships. That it will encourage countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and all the NATO countries to finally begin spending an appropriate amount on their own defense. Yglesias goes on to recommend:

I think it would be excellent for Secretary of State Blinken to send a memo to Tokyo and Taipei and Seoul and Berlin and say “look you’re right, this Afghanistan thing shows there are limits — the United States can do a lot for an ally but if the ally seems really unimpressive and helpless, we can’t do everything.” Don’t be the next Afghanistan! 

First off I feel relatively certain that if we wanted those countries to spend a greater percentage of their GDP on defense, that there are less costly, more direct ways than precipitously abandoning an ally and all the people who helped us out. Secondly, are you sure that’s the lesson all those countries are taking from the situation? That the US is still the best partner to have, they just need to step it up a little bit? Or are they taking the lesson that under the veneer of the alliance they’re essentially on their own. To put it in more concrete terms, do you think this makes it more likely or less likely that Japan will decide that it needs its own nukes?

VI- I’ve seen this movie before

The 70s were kind of awful for the US. There was the oil embargo. The Iran hostage crisis. Civil unrest and riots. All of this alongside hyperinflation, and of course, most relevant for our purposes, the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon.

I’ve often wondered how we managed to reverse all of these trends, regain our confidence and get out of this “funk”. I think Reagen deserves at least some of the credit. Perhaps more than the Democrats want to give him, but less than that required for the sainthood the Republicans want to bestow on him. I also think that some things just had a natural lifecycle which eventually reached its conclusion. You can’t embargo oil forever. And as much of the civil unrest was centered around the war, when the war ended, so did the unrest. I also think that at the end of the day our fundamentals were solid. We did eventually win the Cold War, vanquishing our main ideological competitor. We also went through several decades of tremendous innovation with computers, which started more or less in the 70s.

I expect that the debacle of Afghanistan along with the divisiveness of our politics, the increasing inequality, and the pandemic, among other things, will lead to a similar loss of confidence, and I’m not sure our fundamentals are still solid. 

Of all the things I read about Afghanistan over the last few days, the one that really struck with me was a newsletter from Antonio García Martínez titled “We are no longer a serious people”. And I think I’ll end with a long excerpt from it:

This is the true privilege of being an American in 2021 (vs. 1981): Enjoying an imperium so broad and blinding, you’re never made to suffer the limits of your understanding or re-assess your assumptions about a world that, even now, contains regions and peoples and governments antithetical to everything you stand for. If you fight demons, they’re entirely demons of your own creation, whether Cambridge Analytica or QAnon or the ‘insurrection’ or supposed electoral fraud or any of a host of bogeymen, and you get to tweet #resist while not dangling from the side of an airplane or risking your life on a raft to escape. If you’re overwhelmed by what you see, even if you work at places called ‘the Institute for the Study of War’, you can just take some ‘me time’ and not tune into the disturbing images because reality is purely optional at this stage of the game.

It’s a pleasant LARP, with self-reinforcing loops of hashtags, New York Times puff pieces and Psaki ‘circling back’, until one day the Taliban roll in and everyone is running for the helicopters. It’s like US elites finally had the VR headset knocked from their faces and actually had a look around. And what they saw was a roomful of men with faces out of an illustrated bible looking like they’d just pillaged a Cabela’s—that’s how much top-shelf, modded-out AR hardware they captured—sitting down for a super-awkward Zoom meeting announcing a sudden change of plans for American foreign policy.

This might seem flip and ‘too soon’, but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.


If you like this sort of “hot take” consider donating. If, on the hand, you would prefer that I stayed away from the melee of current events, then consider making current events less like a melee. And if you don’t know how to do that then donate to me and I’ll at least look into it.


The 10 Books I Finished in May

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

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

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


  1. A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by: Jeff Hawkins
  2. One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger by: Matthew Yglesias
  3. Persepolis Rising by: James S. E. Corey
  4. Project Hail Mary by: Andy Weir
  5. The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century by: Stein Ringen
  6. The Ethics of Authenticity by: Charles Taylor
  7. Legal Systems Very Different From Ours by: David D. Friedman
  8. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by: Alfred Lansing
  9. The Graveyard Book (Graphic Novel) by: Neil Gaiman Adapted by: P. Craig Russell Illustrated by: Various
  10. Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020 by: Seth Masket

It’s the end of the school year, and this one has been particularly dramatic. My two oldest both graduated from college, and my youngest graduated from high school. Beyond that my wife is a school teacher and this year has easily been her most difficult. She was required to do her normal in person teaching, while on top of that to prepare everything again for a separate virtual track. Which more than doubled her workload. My two oldest didn’t have a normal graduation ceremony, and spent much of their final year in virtual classes, which I don’t think they enjoyed. But the person who really suffered was my youngest. The pandemic clobbered the end of her junior year and most of her senior year. At a time when kids should be spending time with their friends and going to games and dances, she did far less of that than normal. Fortunately though they cancelled prom last year, they didn’t this year, which I was overjoyed to hear. She ended up missing the majority of her high school dances, I was glad she got to go to prom.

We did a lot during the pandemic to save the lives of old people. And it was easy to know if we were succeeding or not by looking at how many of them died. Of course in order to protect these lives we made sacrifices, we sacrificed the lives of the young for the lives of the old. Not literally of course, their sacrifice was less dramatic, but they did make sacrifices. In the end, perhaps whatever sacrifice the young needed to make was entirely worth it. It will probably end up being only a minor disruption, and quickly forgotten. Kids are pretty resilient after all. But when I consider everything my daughter was looking forward to that she ended up missing out on, and then beyond that to consider the millions of other kids who missed out on stuff I can’t help but be sad. Also it’s clearly a perversion of the natural order to have the very young make sacrifices for the very old, and I suspect that these days we do it far too often. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence

By: Jeff Hawkins

288 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

How the brain works, and what implications that has for artificial intelligence.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in artificial intelligence or neurology you should probably read this book. 

General Thoughts

This is a follow-up to Hawkins’ previous book, On Intelligence, which introduced the predictive processing model of the brain. I loved On Intelligence so I was eager to read Hawkins’ follow-up. I also enjoyed this book, but it was not nearly so revelatory as his first one, though it was more ambitious. However, I’m not sure this ambition was a good thing.

In this book Hawkins fleshes out the predictive processing model introduced in On Intelligence. For those unfamiliar with the idea, the predictive processing model holds that the brain works by creating predictions for what it will see and hear and then uses those predictions in essence to meet sensory input half way. That’s a simplistic explanation for a fascinating topic, and if it’s still unclear I would recommend the wikipedia article I linked to. In this book Hawkins adds two new ideas:

First off he presents the idea of reference frames. If the brain is going to make predictions it has to have a framework around which to base its predictions. Thus, according to Hawkins, intelligence relies on a large collection of models. It models objects, rooms, ideas, etc. Once these models are in place it can compare them against what it encounters in reality and use them to identify objects, catalog things which are new, and make judgements based on how closely things correspond or deviate from these models. 

His second idea, embodiment, is closely related to reference frames. A brain has to be attached to a source of sensory input to something in order to make and use these models. Perhaps not in theory, but in practice when all the food and the predators were physical, reference frames ended up being very closely tied to the actual environment. This means our intelligence is intimately connected to our bodies, and that creating an intelligence without giving it a body to control as it goes about collecting data and turning it into models is to miss the entire definition of intelligence. In more concrete terms Hawkins asserts that robotics will end up being critical to AI, that thinking is inseparable from moving. The natural question is whether we could simulate a physical environment. I think Hawkins could have spent more space on this question, but his answer appears to be that we cannot, not in a way that leads to actual intelligence.

Underlying all of this is the neocortex, the most recent addition to the brain and the seat of intelligence. The fundamental unit of the neocortex is the cortical column, which makes it also the fundamental unit of intelligence. If we assume (as Hawkins does) that each cortical column takes up one square millimeter at the surface of the brain and has a depth of 2.5 millimeters (the thickness of the neocortex) then humans have 150,000 of them. (Thus the title of the book.) And each one can contain parts of thousands of different models. But the key fact, according to Hawkins, is that they all have essentially the same architecture, and as such if we can just duplicate a cortical column we can attach it to a “body” and we’ll have intelligence, and consciousness. 

I will leave a full discussion of the book’s implications for AI and the “hard problem of consciousness” to the experts. Though I do find his contention that AI will need to learn through movement fascinating for religious reasons which I’ll get into at the very end of the post. And as far as consciousness, according to Hawkins it will be easy to replicate and should carry no particular moral weight, meaning it’s not a big deal to shut off such machines even if they are conscious, and getting into why takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

A big part of Hawkins’ book is making a division between the neocortex and the “old brain” and while he doesn’t go as far as some people I’ve seen (Tim Urban over at Wait but Why makes the same distinction and claims that “the Higher Mind [i.e. the neocortex] values truth above all else” and yes it was bold in the original.) Hawkins basically claims that all of the problems we’re currently grappling with as humans, the biases, the divisions, the violence, etc. originates in the old brain. Thus when we build an artificial neocortex it won’t have any of that bad stuff because we won’t have built an old brain along with it. Apparently caring about survival and consciousness is one of those bad things, which is why shutting off AIs which lack old brains will not carry any moral weight. Moreover, an AI built in such a fashion will be perfectly subservient and docile. From all this Hawkins concludes that all those people who are worried about AI risk are worried about nothing.

At a bare minimum such a blanket rejection seems hasty, but there’s a case to be made that it’s worse than that, that it’s actually staggeringly naive. I can think of at least 4 reasons why this might be the case:

  1. As I’ve pointed out over and over again civilization is the accumulation of cultural evolution. Out of this we’ve gotten things like rule of law, expectations of reciprocity, positive systems of belief, etc. Let’s assume, as Hawkings appears to, that none of this is built in, that we’re born as a blank slate with respect to these issues. This would mean that a blank neocortex would have none of this very important cultural evolution either. Nevertheless it seems important that they acquire it. How is that to be accomplished? This seems like a reasonably important and difficult issue, and I’m just talking about the technical aspects, forget the arguments which would arise over deciding which “culture” to embed in our AI.
  2. More importantly there are studies that indicate you actually can’t make even routine decisions without emotions, and further that emotion is tied to perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving. But emotions are all part of the bad old brain, so we’d have to come up with some other way of providing the AI with emotions or at least something which directs the neocortex. But wouldn’t this just take us back to the AI alignment problem?
  3. Another reason Hawkins has for dismissing AI risk is if we take it as given that intelligence needs to be embodied in order to learn, this inevitably puts a cap on how fast the AIs can develop. A computer may be able to play a million games of virtual chess in only a moment or two, but if it tries to play physical chess that fast the robot arm won’t be able to keep up. This is an important point, but I think Hawkins dismisses the potential of virtual worlds too easily. Also I think he underestimates the advantage of being able to clone experts and mass produce bodies. Which is to say there’s a good chance that if one robot spends the time necessary to become an expert in a given domain, we can copy that robot as often as we want, or even add that expertise to other robots. 
  4. The impression I got from the book is that if we can figure out how to create a cortical column then the problem of intelligence would be solved beyond a few trivial issues that are barely worth mentioning. One of these issues that was apparently too trivial to mention is the specialization between the left and right hemispheres, something I went into great detail on in a previous post. (Left brain obsesses over details, right brain is the one that assembles them into coherent wholes.) This oversight is just one example, I suspect there is vast complexity in the cortex that would not be captured by just duplicating cortical columns.

These are all significant problems, despite that it seems clear that if you think understanding natural intelligence is an important step in creating artificial intelligence, you’re going to have to grapple with Hawkins’ ideas. If we are as close to AI as Hawkins claims, it would carry profound implications for the future of humanity and our eventual destiny. This endeavor touches on most of the hot topics in the trans/posthumanist space, and in the last part of the book he also grapples with these.  He vigorously disagrees with the idea that anyone is ever going to want to have their brain uploaded, and he’s also fairly dismissive of the idea of integrating brains and computers cybernetically. He knows that part of this desire is connected with a desire for immortality which leads him to a discussion of ways to achieve immortality for humanity and Fermi’s Paradox. Here he summarily dismisses worries about announcing our existence (i.e. the Dark Forest explanation) and offers some ideas for creating a civilizational archive.

I agree with most of his predictions, though often for very different reasons, but I wonder if it would be a better book if he had leaned in more to these additional topics or ignored them entirely. His tactic of touching on them briefly gave the appearance of arrogance, and leads to the accusation that Hawkins feels that because he has solved one problem, how the brain works, that he can use that methodology to solve all problems.

I don’t think Hawkins has solved all the problems of the future, and I don’t even think he’s solved all of the problems of intelligence as comprehensively as he imagines. Nevertheless I think this book represents a significant step forward in our understanding of natural intelligence, which is why, despite my numerous criticisms, you should still probably read this book. 


One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger

By: Matthew Yglesias

268 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book is less about dramatically increasing the population than the title suggests. That is in there, but it is at least as much about ambitious technocratic solutions to our current problems.

Who should read this book?

If you like Yglesias then subscribe to his substack. (I do.) If you think his problem solving approach is so important that you should read everything you can about it, then also read this book, but I think from the standpoint of information density and utility the substack is better.

General Thoughts

As I said this book is less about the mechanics of getting “One Billion Americans” than the title would suggest, and at least as much about the subtitle “The Case for Thinking Bigger”. This disconnect violates one of Yglesias’ own rules, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. (I really like this rule, I did a whole post on it.) As an example of this lack, nowhere in the book does he lay out a timeline for how long he expects this population increase to take — 20 years? By the end of the century? He never even hints at this answer which seems like the bare minimum one should expect for a proposal like this. I suspect he leaves it out because it would point out some obvious difficulties with the idea. But clearly if we’re going to evaluate his idea we need to know what those difficulties might be, so let’s see if we can infer them based on what he does say. 

Space-wise he spends about the same amount of time on increasing population through increasing the birthrate as he does on increasing it through immigration, and he frequently talks about one billion as a tripling of the population. Obviously the first part of the three parts is the current population, so let’s say the second is babies born to current Americans and the third part is immigration. If we can decide a reasonable rate for adding the second part we can come up with a timeline for the whole endeavor. Currently the US Population is growing at 0.3% per year. At that rate it would take until 2256 for the population to double, and I’m assuming that much of that 0.3% is already due to immigration, but let’s be optimistic and assume it’s all births to current Americans, obviously we’re going to have to increase that rate, but how much is reasonable?

Let’s say we got it all the way to 1% in this case it would take until 2092. This would require that government incentives triple the population growth, something no government has even come close to doing, and we’re still looking at 2092. Israel has the highest population growth of any developed country at 1.44%, and they achieve that mostly through their huge population of orthodox Jews, so as it turns out religion is more powerful than policy. (A point I think I make all the time.) Even if we were to manage to get to that rate of growth it would still take until 2070 to double the population. This starts out as around five million new people per year and by 2070 it’s around 9 million people, since we’re assuming equal contribution from immigration this means that we’re also admitting that many immigrants. Currently we have around 46 million 1st generation immigrants, so we’d be doubling that number in 10 years, and eventually adding that many more immigrants every five years. And recall that these huge numbers get even huger if we can’t vastly increase the birthrate. So under the most optimistic scenario we’d need Israeli birthrates, 330 million immigrants and it wouldn’t happen until 2070.

One of the reasons Ygelsias gives for needing this massive population growth is to enable us to stay ahead of China. This is a big part of his book, it first comes up in the second paragraph of the introduction. As I’ve pointed out, getting to a billion Americans by 2070 would be a staggering achievement. Does anyone think it’s going to take 50 years before things come to a head with China? All of which is to say Yglesias is either encouraging politically inconceivable amounts of immigration, or he assumes that we will have many, many decades of runway before it will be a problem.

I focus on the unreality of Yglesias’ logistics first because if he’s actually serious then the minimum he can do is put together a timeline and some numbers. He has positioned himself as a pragmatist and I would think a timeline would be the bare minimum required for something to be considered a pragmatic solution. But the second thing I want to bring up is probably more serious, though at least he has an ideological excuse for ignoring it: 

It’s the problem of assimilating this massive influx of immigrants. My memory is that the topic of assimilation never appears in the book, certainly it’s never seriously grappled with. I bought the book expecting to be able to confirm this using the index, but it doesn’t have an index! (I would have bought the kindle version so I could search, but the hardback was actually less expensive.) I understand that some people believe assimilation to be unnecessary or even harmful, but I think they’re mistaken, particularly when dealing with an influx as massive as the one being discussed in this book..

Eschatological Implications

In some respects what this book has is an anti-eschatology. It contends that we can continue to avoid history and the catastrophes that accompany it if we just have a billion Americans, and perhaps more importantly if we implement his ambitious technocratic proposals, which cover areas like energy (way more nuclear), infrastructure (figure out and eliminate cost disease), and immigration (way more, but with some filtering). 

In this latter respect this book somewhat resembles Where Is My Flying Car, by J. Storrs Hall which I reviewed back in March. Hall claims all our problems can be solved by scientists and engineers if the government would just get out of the way. Yglesias claims that all our problems can be solved by government bureaucrats, though it’s not entirely clear who needs to get out of their way, perhaps the bureaucrats need to get out of their own way? This is the charitable interpretation of the book. But I don’t think it quite captures the book’s essence. No, for that we need to turn to Gary Larson’s The Far Side.

In one of the strips from this classic comic we see a man trapped in a box full of snakes hanging from the side of a tall building. The caption reads: “Professor Gallagher and his controversial technique of simultaneously confronting the fear of heights, snakes and the dark.” This appears to be the same technique Yglesias is advocating, that if America just had a billion people we would be forced to figure out a solution to transportation, infrastructure spending, and NIMBYism. And Yglesias has some decent ideas for how to do these things. Of course we would presumably also have to figure out racism, education (in particular racial achievement gaps), climate change and border control (Yglesias doesn’t want to admit just anyone). And here his ideas are far more vague, though I appreciated his advocacy of nuclear power. 

On one level you think, that might just be crazy enough to work! But on another level I think I would have been more interested in hearing the one thing he would focus on first, rather than his vague and crazy plan to solve everything all at once.


II- Capsule Reviews

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse #7)

By: James S. A. Corey

560 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book jumps 30 years into the future and finally reveals what’s been happening with the renegade Martians who’ve been hiding out all this time in the Laconian system.

Who should read this book?

It’s book 7 of a series, presumably by this point you should know whether or not you’re the audience for this book.

General Thoughts

The improbable centrality of James Holden and his associates to everything that happens everywhere continues in this next book of the Expanse series. But that’s okay. Since I came to the realization that the Expanse is just the campaign log for a particularly well run science fiction themed role-playing game that particular conceit has been a lot easier to stomach.

This book continues the interesting and capably written science fiction of the previous books with one notable exception. Singh, the viewpoint character for nearly a quarter of the chapters and the primary antagonist, did not gel for me. He was a bundle of attributes that never cohered. And out of all the attributes in that bundle he lacked the one you most expected him to have. So great was this lack that the book acknowledged its peculiarity and provided a perfunctory explanation. (I believe the cool kids call this lampshade hanging.) But as you might be able to tell I found the explanation entirely inadequate. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the Expanse series has actually done a reasonably good job of constructing interesting antagonists, and the Laconians have the potential to be the most interesting of all, but by making Singh the Laconian who gets the most screen time they fatally undermine this endeavor.


Project Hail Mary

by: Andy Weir

496 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the third book by the author of The Martian. (Now a major Hollywood motion picture starring Matt Damon!) This book is also the story of a scientist/engineer who finds himself alone and far away from home and must use his science/engineering chops to save the day.

Who should read this book?

If you liked The Martian I’m pretty confident you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned this book is very similar to The Martian, but that’s okay. Lot’s of authors essentially write the same book over and over again (Fleming, Le Carre, Clancy, Crichton, Doyle, etc.) and if that’s where their talent is that’s what they should do. And clearly Weir has a talent for this sort of book, so he should probably write as many of them as he and we can stomach. That said, as is so often the case, I had a couple of problems with the book, one minor and one existential. 

Starting with the minor one, Weir, like so many science fiction authors who end up touching on Fermi’s Paradox, falls prey to the Mistake of Dramatic Timing, where despite the fact that something could have happened anytime in the last 100 million years (if not far longer) it happens at some point in the next 20, at a point where it’s occurrence creates the most drama. But as I said this is a failing common to many authors, not just Weir. 

The existential issue I have involves massive spoilers, so I have hidden it but if you select the space below you can see it. But, seriously think carefully before you do, I am spoiling the central mystery/reveal of the book, and if you don’t want that spoiled then come back after you’ve read it.

The main character has amnesia, and the central mystery of the book is how he ended up on the spaceship, since as his memories return it’s clear that he was not supposed to be on it, someone else was and on top of that, there was another person as a backup for the first  person. As you read you figure that something obviously happened to the primary crew member and their backup and indeed near the end you find out that they both end up dying in a freak accident. And Ryland Grace, the main character, ends up being the best person to take their place, in part because he’s been intimately involved in the project and already mostly has all the necessary knowledge, and in part because he’s got the rare gene which allows people to survive the artificial coma the crew is going to have to undergo in order to make the 13 light year trip. (Not 13 years for the crew because of relativity, but long enough that without the coma the mission planners are confident the crew will end up going crazy and killing on another.) 

So far so normal, authors create contrived situations all the time in order to end up with the story they want. It’s contrived that the other two crew members would die, leaving him alone. It’s contrived that the main character would have amnesia. And the whole book is a contrivance constructed to get a junior high science teacher on an interstellar ship. But all of these I can forgive, because they’re part of the story. But then there’s one contrivance which ends up being part of Grace’s character and I can’t believe that Grace would act this way, and furthermore I can’t believe that Weir thought it was acceptable to write the character this way.

Near the climax of the book Grace finally remembers the accident which kills the person who was supposed to go as the science officer and that person’s backup. When this happens the woman in charge (who I love) asks him to take their place. And when she makes this request, when she tells him that the only hope of the ENTIRE WORLD and EVERYONE ON IT depends on him, that they’re days away from launch and it would be impossible to train someone else, he refuses to go.

What sort of person would refuse this request?!?! (Honestly, and I know this is abjectly sexist according to conventional norms, but what kind of man would refuse this request?) More than that, what sort of author thinks this unbelievable level of cowardice is an acceptable trait for anyone let alone their main character? And most important of all, how did we reach this point as a society where we have no problem accepting the idea that it should be someone’s right to refuse to save the world? That even if someone is the only hope for saving the world, that they can just say they don’t feel like it and that’s an understandable and acceptable motivation? I’ve looked around some and no one else seems to have this problem. Now possibly it hasn’t come up because it’s a huge spoiler, but before you let society off the hook also remember that Weir not only had to come up with the idea and it had to get past numerous editors and first readers. As one final point, compare this to the heroic novels of just a few decades ago and try to imagine how people back then would have reacted. 

As I mentioned in a previous post I’ve been reading the archives of The Last Psychiatrist, and he frequently talks about the way narcissism has become the defining trait of modernity. Could there be a better example than this? Perhaps? But this is a doozy regardless. 

Now Weir has a reason. In establishing that Grace’s desire to live is so strong that he would refuse to save the world (the mission is one way). When, later in the book, he has to choose between living and doing something else noble (I could go into details, but I’m trying not to spoil everything) it makes this choice more noble because we already know how much he wanted to live, enough to choose it over saving the planet. But couldn’t Weir have accomplished the same thing by doing something similar to what Nolan did in Interstellar — give the guy a daughter? Yes he would have been copying Interstellar, and yes it would have introduced some other complexities, but that’s kind of the point. How did it come to seem that the best choice, and more importantly a believable choice was making Grace a coward with zero sense of duty?

Finally as perhaps a denouement to my rant. Even if we ignore what this choice says about our world, it’s still hard to argue that it wasn’t a dramatic choice, and one that received zero foreshadowing. To consider just one possibility overlooked by Weir, there’s the scene where Grace finds out he has this rare gene, and he doesn’t introspect at all about what it might mean with respect to this mission he’s deeply involved in. Weir could have foreshadowed his terror at the idea, making his eventual choice at least somewhat more believable.

Having read this spoiler you may wonder why I’m recommending the book. Well it comes at the end, the noble thing which follows it, somewhat redeems the choice, and the book up until this reveal is genuinely fantastic. 


The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century 

By: Stein Ringen

194 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Defining what sort of government China has and what we can expect out of it going forward. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re really trying to understand China this is a valuable addition to that quest. If not, the book is pretty technical and dry.

General Thoughts

I already talked at some length about this book in a post from a couple of weeks ago, though in that post I mostly focused on Ringen’s predictions. The book actually spends most of its time assessing how successful the Communist party has been at ruling China, and the conclusion is “mediocre”. Ringen points out that South Korea modernized far faster and far more successfully, and that most of China’s success is a natural byproduct of being so huge and from starting at basically zero after Mao comprehensively wrecked the country. 

In a past post on China I wondered if, based on Fukuyama’s Hegelian analysis of history, if China represented the synthesis of a new and more successful form of government. Having read this book I think we can be reasonably confident that it’s not. And if Ringen is correct it’s swiftly moving to a form of government we already tried, and with disastrous results: facism. 


The Ethics of Authenticity

By: Charles Taylor

201 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way in which supporters and critics of the modern drive for authenticity end up missing the point.

Who should read this book?

This is a densely written book, similar to the other book I’ve read by Taylor, A Secular Age but not nearly so long, so it’s a great way to get both a sense of Taylor and a nuanced discussion of authenticity, but it is pretty academic.

General Thoughts

Arguments over authenticity generally fall into two camps. There are the people arguing that it’s acceptable to abandon everything, religion, family, and even spouses if it brings someone closer to their authentic self. And then there are people who think such abandonment is everything that’s wrong with the modern world, and an elaborate justification for the worst kind of selfish and destructive behavior. In this book Taylor attempts to strike a middle ground between these two views. He understands the importance of individual choice, of allowing people to choose what seems most authentic to them, but argues that in order for that choice to have any meaning there still has to be a background of external values. From the book:

Even the sense that the significance of my life comes from its being chosen — the case where authenticity is actually grounded on self-determining freedom — depends on the understanding that independent of my will there is something noble, courageous, and hence significant in giving shape to my own life…unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence. Self-choice as an ideal makes sense only because some issues are more significant than others…Which issues are significant I do not determine. If I did, no issue would be significant.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours

By: David D. Friedman

366 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The collected descriptions of historical legal systems with very different ways of doing things.

Who should read this book?

If you have libertarian leanings, or a fascination with historical legal systems, or if the idea of the book sounds interesting, you should read it. 

General Thoughts

I read this book as part of a Slate Star Codex reading group. The book was selected because it was reviewed on SSC. I don’t think I can improve on, or even add much, to that review. I will say that the discussion of historical methods for dealing with a legal code which was literally handed down by God — as is the case with Jews and Muslims (and to a lesser extent Mormons) — was fascinating. In these situations there needs to be some flexibility in enforcing the law particularly as times change — to give a simple example enforcing Jewish law in a Jewish state is a lot easier than enforcing it when you’re ruled over by the Romans — but a system of law which came directly from the mouth of God doesn’t naturally lend itself to flexibility. The historical ways in which flexibility was justified in spite of this made for some very interesting reading.


Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

By: Alfred Lansing

357 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ernest Shackleton’s aborted attempt to cross Antarctica in 1914 and the amazing survival story which took place after his ship was destroyed by the ice.

Who should read this book?

Everyone. Certainly everyone who isn’t intimately familiar with this amazing story.

General Thoughts

Many years ago I watched a TV show about Shackleton and since then I’ve been enthralled by the story, but I hadn’t really come across a good book about it (which is not to say that I looked very hard) so I was grateful when one of my readers recommended this book. It was a quick read (10 hours on audio) but I don’t think it skimped on the details. And really the story, particularly the part where Shackleton sails a 20 foot open boat 800 miles across the worst seas in the world to get help, is just incredible.


The Graveyard Book (Graphic Novel)

By: Neil Gaiman

Adapted by: P. Craig Russell

Illustrated by: Various

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s a graphic novel adaptation of Gaiman’s novel of the same name, which itself is a re-imagining of Kipling’s Jungle Book, with a graveyard in place of a jungle.

Who should read this book?

Everyone should definitely read The Graveyard Book, the question is whether the graphic novel version is faithful enough to serve as a replacement for the original novel. I would say probably, but I really think you should probably just read both, in which case I would probably start with the novel.

General Thoughts

I’m a huge fan of graphic novels (and it’s a mystery why I don’t read more, they would definitely help pump up my numbers). And I’m a huge fan of Gaiman and in particular The Graveyard Book so the other day when I was browsing through a Barnes and Noble and saw this book I immediately bought it and read it. 

Obviously when talking about a graphic novel you need to discuss the artwork. I thought it was good, but not incredible. There were slightly more examples of the artwork being worse than what I had imagined than there were examples of it being better. But that’s probably more a comment on how great the novel was at stoking my imagination than any comment on the skill of the artists. The art was great, and I’m glad I bought the book.


Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020

By: Seth Masket

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A data driven examination of what lessons the Democrats took from their loss in 2016 as they considered who to nominate in 2020.

Who should read this book?

Hardcore political junkies who think anecdotes just slow things down.

General Thoughts

Over the last few years I’ve read two great books about the lead up to the 2016 election from the Republican perspective. One was The Wilderness by McKay Coppins, the other was American Carnage by Tim Alberta (you can find my review of it here.) I immensely enjoyed both books, and was looking for something that did the same thing but from the perspective of the Democrats, I thought this might be such a book, it was not. Wilderness and Carnage were full of amazing anecdotes and behind the scenes stories. Learning from Loss was a collection of data from numerous surveys asking high level Democrats why they thought they had lost in 2016, and then graphs and analysis of their responses. I suppose that this methodology is more generally useful than knowing what Mitt Romney’s reaction was when Jeb Bush preemptively hired all the people qualified to run a campaign, but the latter is way more engaging. All of which is to say I did learn some things — for example lots of people blamed the loss on too big of an emphasis on identity politics which is how we ended up with an old white guy — but overall it was a pretty dull book.

III- Religious Reviews

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence [Addendum]

I mentioned above that the contention that intelligence has to be embodied is very interesting from a religious perspective. In particular I’m thinking of my own religion. In Mormon cosmology there is not only life after death, but there was life before birth. In that state people are specifically referred to as “intelligences” and one of the primary reasons to be born is in order to get a body. That the next step if you want to progress as an intelligence is to be embodied. Obviously it would be very easy to make too much of the way this correlates with what Hawkins is saying, but I find it a fascinating correlation nonetheless.


I worry about these posts being too long, though I’m sure the anchor links at the top help. Is there any benefit to breaking them up into separate posts, maybe spreading them out over the month? Would it give the impression of more content and thus encourage more donations? Obviously anything that encourages someone to donate is a good thing. 


Eschatologist #5: A Trillion Here, a Trillion There, and Pretty Soon You’re Talking Real Money

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:

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I’ve spent the last couple of newsletters talking about the knobs of society, the way technology allows us to “turn them up” in the pursuit of knowledge and progress. While I could continue to put things in terms of that metaphor, possibly forever, at some point we have to move from the realm of parable to the realm of policy. Policy is many things, but behind all those things is the government deciding how much money to spend on something, and more controversially how much to go into debt for something. 

You’ve almost certainly heard of the trillions of dollars the government spent attempting to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic. And you’ve probably also heard of the trillions more Biden proposes to spend between the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. In mentioning Biden I do not intend to lay specific blame for anything on the Democrats. During the Trump Presidency the national debt increased by nearly $8.3 trillion dollars. This is enough money, in today’s dollars, to refight World War II twice over.

It’s not just Biden, we’re all big spenders now.

One would think that this is a problem, that the debt can’t keep going up forever, that eventually something bad will happen. And mostly, people don’t think that it can go up forever, but short of “forever” there’s huge disagreement over how long the debt can go up for and how high it can go to.

Part of the problem is that historically there has been a lot of worry about the debt. Republicans mostly didn’t bat an eye when Trump proposed a $2 trillion stimulus package at the beginning of the pandemic, but when Obama was trying to pass an $800 billion stimulus package at the beginning of his presidency, not a single Republican voted for it, and there were many predictions of doom and financial ruin. Those predictions appear to have been wrong. 

Going farther back in time I’m old enough to remember Ross Perot’s charts and their warnings of out of control spending during his run for president in 1992. He lost and Bill Clinton became president, and by the end of that presidency we were actually running a small budget surplus. All of which is to say, that people have been worried about this issue for a long time, and since then the debt has gotten astronomically worse, but yet the sky hasn’t fallen. (Astronomically and sky, get it?)

No one believes that the sky will never fall, but there are a lot of people who still think such an event is a long way off. Some believe that as long as interest rates are low that it borders on the criminal to not borrow money as long as there are people still in need of it. Others believe that it doesn’t matter if the government takes in less than it spends, all that matters is inflation, and that if inflation starts going up then you just raise taxes, which takes money back out of the economy and reduces inflation.

These people seem to imagine that the knobs of society can be set to whatever they want. That when necessary they can easily turn down the spending knob and turn up the taxes knob and we can go about our merry way. But as it turns out the spending knob is much easier to turn up than to turn down, particularly when that’s the only direction we’ve been turning it for decades. And it’s the exact opposite for the taxes knob.

If we’re agreed that the spending knob can’t be turned up forever, then what happens when we run out of time? Do we default on our debt, sending the world into chaos? Do we end up with runaway inflation like in the 70s or worse like in Germany before World War II? I suspect it will be along the lines of the latter, and I suspect it’s already started. 

I suspect a lot of things, but a couple of things I know. I know that everytime we turn the spending knob up, the harder it becomes to turn it down, and that this level of spending really can not last forever.


I said “we’re all big spenders now” and by “all” I mean everyone, even you. The kind of big spender who donates to blogs because he likes the content, or just because I asked.


Vanquished Vaccines and Vetocracies

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I.

A friend of mine spent some time as a consultant for the Utah Department of Human Services. Which included things like foster care and child protective services. And he tells the story of a sign which had been put up outside one of the cubicle farms which said, “If we can save just one child it will all be worth it.” Or something to that effect. Upon seeing that sign he thought to himself, “No, if this department, which employs dozens of people, and costs millions of dollars to operate, can only save one child, it will not all have been worth it, it will have been an enormous misallocation of resources. To save only one child would be a failure of epic proportions.” 

We’re seeing another example of strangely mis-aligned government goals playing out in Europe. (By the way, for those who read my last post, just as I finished it I got an email saying that my European river cruise this summer had indeed been cancelled.) This second example concerns the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, which has run into all kinds of problems in Europe and still hasn’t been approved in America which has left tens of millions of doses sitting around, unused. 

Just in the last week the European Medical Agency concluded that there was a link between the AZ vaccine and blood clots. But went on to say that the benefits outweigh the risks. Despite this many countries have suspended the AZ vaccine for people under 60, and suggest they should take a different vaccine. This suspension might seem only prudent, but before making that decision let’s look at the actual risk. I grabbed some applicable quotes from an article in Business Insider (which is a weird mix of horrible ads and decent information)

“The risk of dying in an air crash is just astronomically higher than the risk of clotting after the vaccine dose, and yet we all get on a plane without a second thought,” Johan Bester, director of bioethics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine, told Insider.

Wednesday’s announcement came after European medical officials reviewed fewer than 100 blood-clotting cases reported among more than 25 million people in the EU who’ve gotten AstraZeneca’s shot. That’s a rate of roughly 4.6 clot cases per 1 million shots — higher than expected, the review found, but still extraordinarily rare. 

Although even a minuscule chance of a fatal blood clot sounds scary, no medicine carries zero risk. After a year of taking birth-control pills, about one in 1,000 women will develop blood clots. (The risk is about 1 in 10,000 for all young women, so it’s elevated nearly 10-fold in birth-control takers.)

Now I haven’t exhaustively looked into all the numbers I just quoted, so I don’t know if the “fewer than 100” cases (it looks like it was actually 86) they looked at represented most if not all of the cases or if there could be a lot more out there. On the other hand, out of those 86 cases only 18 people died, so the actual confirmed death rate would be less than 1 in a million. Even with this number in hand it can be difficult to compare it to the other numbers they mentioned

One clotting death for every one million shots is certainly less than 1 in 10,000. Which would initially seem to indicate that the risk of blood clots from the AZ vaccine is less than the default risk of clots mentioned in connection with young women. But I’m assuming that the 1 in 10,000 number is over a woman’s entire lifetime or since they say “young women” perhaps it’s over a span of 10-20 years, while the AZ numbers are compressed into the space of a few months. 

Regardless of the default rate what is clear is that taking birth-control pills for a year is probably more dangerous than getting vaccinated. And yes, I understand that the vaccine risks must be balanced against the risks of not getting vaccinated, which for young people is pretty low, so let’s look at another statistic: On a 500-mile road trip, the risk of dying is about 1.2 in 200,000. And yet which young adult would balk at a 500 mile road trip? Or to put it in economic terms, how much additional would they pay to avoid the risk of the road trip and fly instead? Based on my experience with young people and road trips, the answer is, not very much.

I spent so much time on the AZ vaccine both because it’s so interesting but also because we have a pretty good idea of how many deaths the vaccine can prevent, and a pretty good idea of how many deaths the vaccine might cause and it’s clear that the number of deaths it could have prevented is vastly higher than the number of deaths it causes. Nowhere is this more true than in America which has been sitting on at least 30 million doses of the vaccine since at least early March, and almost certainly longer than that. But for some reason the AZ vaccine still has yet to be approved. And here’s where we circle back to that sign. In the case of the Utah Department of Human Services success was saving even one kid. In the case of the AZ vaccine it appears that failure is causing even one death (or more accurately 1 death in a million doses, but you get the idea). 

At first glance it may seem like the two standards are precisely the opposite of one another, the one is about saving a single life while the other is about causing a single death, but they both stem from the same impulse. The impulse I mentioned in my last newsletter, of turning the knobs as far as they can to one side or the other. On the one hand we have the bureaucrats who believe that their job is so important and the value of saving children is so superlative, that even if they can only do it once, it will all have been worth it. On the other hand bureaucrats who believe that causing even one death due to something they authorized is so bad, that even if it only happens once, none of it will have been worth it. But in both cases they’ve turned the dial of individual importance as high as it will go.

Now of course this is something of a strawman for what they actually believe. I’m sure that the Utah Department of Human Services knows that it’s not enough to only save one child, even if that sign did hang in their offices. And the Europeans are still administering the AZ vaccine, even if they have attached restrictions and warnings to it. But the US still hasn’t started, and given what we know now about the blood clots, what’s your bet on whether they ever will? Mine is that they won’t. That best case scenario those doses will be shipped off to some country in need (some already have been) and worst case scenario they’ll languish in a warehouse, before eventually being tossed out. And what sort of trajectory would you project for the administration of the AZ vaccine in Europe? Would you predict that concerns over blood clots will fade, and the restrictions will be lifted? Or would you predict that each instance of someone dying from blood clots will be major news? That people will grow increasingly reluctant to take it and that eventually European governments will stop distributing it? I’m predicting the latter. As usual I hope I’m wrong, but I guess we’ll see. (In between writing this paragraph and finishing the post Denmark banned the AZ vaccine entirely, and the US paused Johnson and Johnson.)

II.

These examples and others tell us something important about the way western governments work these days. And moreover that they are not working as they should. Western governments should not be restricting the distribution of the AZ vaccine based on a handful of deaths, or consider saving only one child a metric for success. I say western governments because we’re not seeing the same thing happening in China or Russia. And I say “these days” because we didn’t see this sort of thing historically. Can anyone imagine a similar fuss over blood clots happening in Russia, China or 1930? 

What is this quality that separates us from these other countries and our past selves? Would you define it as a form of government? Is this what I was talking about in all those posts when I was criticizing technocracies? Perhaps a little bit, but here’s where I pull in the book Where’s My Flying Car by J. Storrs Hall (which I promised to expand on in my last post) because the book convinced me that I had perhaps been too hasty in using the term technocracy to describe what’s going on. I’m not sure technocracy is the right term for the form of government which obsesses over saving children and preventing blood clots. But nor do I think people use it to describe the opposite of that, a government which clears away safety regulations around flying cars and nuclear power, which is what Hall proposes. Which is to say in arriving at this point I may have made some mistakes in terminology, but that’s how these sorts of things work, and at no point in this journey did I claim to have all the answers. So let’s pull back a little bit, and rather than trying to say what a technocracy is let’s look at various problem solving approaches. Since we’re already talking about vaccines let’s continue to use that as an example..

Of course, with vaccines there are several countries that can afford to be as cautious as they want. Countries which stopped the spread of COVID and therefore don’t need to engage in a massive vaccination effort. The most notable of these success stories is China, which suffered the disadvantage of not only having a huge population and giant land borders, but worst of all, it was where the virus started. If their numbers can be believed they have suffered just 4,636 deaths from COVID, which is only about twice the number of my home state of Utah, at 2,159, despite having a population 400 times smaller. The US, as a whole, is currently at 564k deaths. Now I’m guessing that China’s number is low, that far more than 4k people died from COVID. But it’d have to be off by two orders of magnitude for their deaths to be as bad as the US’s and it’d have to be off by a factor of 500 for the per capita rate to be as bad. 

How did China do it? They did it by taking a different approach than we did, one enabled by having a different form of government. They did it through a draconian authoritarianism which allowed them to put into place a comprehensive lockdown of a breadth which was unimaginable nearly anywhere else. This is an authoritarian approach and it’s the first one we’ll put on our list.

The second approach takes us in the opposite direction, but before we can get into the details of the approach, we need to get into the details of the Moderna vaccine. (I got my second shot yesterday.) And the most important of these details is that it was developed in two days. Once this was known people started wondering, what would have happened if we had immediately started using the vaccine as soon as it had been developed? Well obviously inventing something is a long way from producing it in quantity, and presumably, given the nature of the crisis Moderna didn’t wait too long before they started ramping up production. They were presumably building out factories, and putting logistics into place long before FDA approval. But even in the unlikely event that we couldn’t have gotten doses any faster than we did, we still could have started administering those doses a lot sooner. And clearly many people who died between January 13, 2020 when the vaccine was developed and December 18, 2020 when the vaccine was approved could have been saved. And even if you want to argue about how much faster the Moderna vaccine could have been deployed, you can’t argue with the 30 million or more AZ doses which haven’t been used. 

This approach, this system, this world — the one where we started administering doses of Moderna as soon as it had been developed — this is the world of Where’s My Flying Car. It’s a world where we put our faith in technology and plunge boldly forward, not necessarily heedless of the dangers, but convinced that what technology breaks, technology is best at fixing. Now to a certain extent this is also a strawman. I doubt Hall was a proponent of administering the Moderna vaccine on the day it was developed, but I’m sure he was a proponent of going a lot faster than we did, and of doing things we mostly avoided like human challenge trials. And even if he wasn’t there were people who were. Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about is Alex Tabarrok, who has been a perpetual advocate of all sorts of tactics for speeding up vaccination (e.g. having the US approve the AZ vaccine as soon as Europe did, first doses first, rapid at home tests, and human challenge trials). Essentially pushing for our approach to be closer to the world as described by Hall. We will call this second approach, which mostly doesn’t exist in the wild, technolibertarianism.

The third approach I want to consider might be called the historical. It’s the system we had in place during the last pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu, and the system we continued to operate under in the decades which followed. Under this system there were masks, and things closed down, but neither intervention was nearly so widespread as it is today. Beyond that the authoritarianism on display by the Chinese was inconceivable back then. Though I know some imagine that things were more authoritarian back then, but at least in this case, no 1918 government had the wherewithal to lock things down to the extent China did in 2020. Nor did they probably ever even consider it.

On the vaccine side of things, would they have waited 11 months between developing a vaccine and trying it out? That’s harder to know. When the smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796 he just immediately tested it out on the 9 year-old son of the gardener. On the other hand by 1935 when John Kolmer was experimenting with the smallpox vaccination the fact that five out of 10,000 children died and 10 were paralyzed led to a pretty severe pushback, so severe that it was another 20 years before a smallpox vaccine was approved by the government. (Side note: these numbers are orders of magnitude higher than the AZ blood clot numbers.) Would it have been different 17 years earlier at the time of the Spanish Flu? If the years wouldn’t have made a difference would the speed and the severity of the disease have made a difference? Particularly as compared to the slower more chronic progression of polio? That’s also tough to say, but there is one thing we can confidently say, and it’s something I’ve wondered about before in this space: Whatever the disruption and the deaths caused by the Spanish Flu, in the decades that followed it was largely forgotten. It had almost no impact on the psyche of the nation. It’s hard to imagine the same thing being said of COVID.

An Aside

Why is this? Why did the 1918 Pandemic, which by any measure was far more horrible than what we’re going through now, have such little impact? In the course of writing this post a thought occurred to me. WWI is far better remembered and studied than the Spanish Flu despite fewer people dying (particularly in America). But war is always an existential threat, there is always the chance that the nation itself might perish, and as a result it’s important to the nation that it learn from those times in which it almost died. The Spanish Flu, despite its lethality, was never existential. There was never a chance that it would end nations. WWI might have, it never had the potential to end the US, but it could have been the effective end of France, with whom we have quite a bit of civilizational overlap. This was part of the reason we entered the war. (“Lafayette, we are here!”)

Given that the current pandemic has made far more of an impact on our national psyche, and will be a far greater part of our history, does this mean we view it as an existential threat? That’s a good question, and this whole idea is somewhat embryonic, but if I was going to push it just a little bit farther, historically, people felt the existence of a nation was ensured by subsequent generations, that if they were having children and raising them to carry on their and their nation’s ideals that the existence of that nation was not threatened, but increasingly existence is not about subsequent generations or our children, it’s about ourselves, and while even a bad pandemic has a hard time eradicating subsequent generations, there’s always a chance of it eradicating any given individual. All of which is to pose the question, is COVID more existential because we’re more selfish?

End Aside

All we’re left with is whatever approach we actually did take. The thing I’ve spent so much effort over the last few essays trying to get at. How did we do at fighting COVID?

Now that we can look back on things it seems clear that our approach wasn’t as successful as the authoritarian approach taken by China and it wasn’t as successful as a “caution to the wind” technolibertarian approach would have been. Was it more successful than the historical approach? The one taken by the US of 1918 when they were faced by the Spanish Flu? That’s a tougher question, and it’s going to be awhile before that’s clear. At this point it does seem safe to assert that it has been more damaging to our confidence. Beyond that things are still up in the air. Will the enormous amount of government spending cause any problems down the road? Will we have a tranche of kids who are permanently behind academically? Will we be quicker to draw on our “COVID toolkit” in the future? That is, quicker to throw trillions of dollars at our problems or even more likely to shut things down in whole or in part. We’ll have to see, but from where I’m sitting the early signs aren’t encouraging.

If on an even longer time horizon it becomes apparent that the historical approach would have also been better, then we will be in the unenviable position of having ended up with the worst approach of all. And if so how did that happen? It certainly seemed like we really wanted to do whatever it took to beat COVID, and yet, it’s already clear that we could have done a lot better. It’s understandable that we don’t want to mimic the authoritarianism of China. And it would have probably been impossible for the government to make us. And in a similar fashion I understand why it would have been hard to use the same approach we used in 1918, though I think there were elements there that we should have been paying attention to, but this is not the time to get into that, as I have spent enough time arguing that point, both here and in other posts. The big question I have after reading Where’s My Flying Car is why was it so difficult to take the technolibertarian approach? And is that approach a true technocracy? If not what is? 

Before proceeding to the next section we should give this final approach, the one we actually took, a label. Based on what’s happening with the vaccines, and elsewhere, vetocracy seems appropriate, but I acknowledge that this doesn’t quite cover all of the complexities. Because it’s not like everything gets vetoed. Some things still happen, some laws still get passed. What can we learn from an examination of what does get done vs. what doesn’t.

III.

One of the reasons this discussion has wandered quite a bit is that there’s a lot of ambiguity in defining what a technocracy is. I actually don’t think most people use it to describe Hall’s vision of flying cars, nanotechnology and nuclear power. I think it’s proponents make the claim that it’s the system which “follows the science”. Certainly the proponents of the current administration made that claim — whether or not they label themselves technocrats — and yet this is the administration which hasn’t released the AZ vaccine and just barely “paused” the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. (It’s amazing how things have changed just in the time it took me to write this post.) 

The most consistent definition of technocracy, at least from my perspective, is the idea not of following the science, but of following the macroeconomists. And here I assume that some of my hardcore socialist friends would say that technocracy is just the latest euphemism for the way entrenched capitalist interests always manage to remain entrenched. Or put more simply it’s just the latest way for the rich to get richer. And this point is not without merit, whatever the success of our COVID fighting efforts we have definitely succeeded in adding a lot of wealth to those who already had it.

Socialist critiques aside, it does seem that the term technocracy as it is commonly used is far more likely to concern money and monetary policy than technology. You hear it used to explain the explosive growth of South Korea and the rise of the chaebol’s (which literally means rich family). You heard the term used during the Greek financial crisis to refer to those most committed to doing what the IMF stipulated. Moving forward to our own time and place, even though we never got around to distributing the AZ vaccine (and probably never will) our own politicians had very little problem passing two huge COVID stimulus bills. And nothing is more technocratic than stimulus bills. 

As another example I think people like Matt Ygelsias and Ezra Klein are viewed as current day technocrats, and while they are interested in the Hall/Tabarrok form of technocracy, their primary focus has always been on economic policy — scolding deficit hawks, and pushing for large stimulus bills. But this gets to one of the key questions of the post: 

How is it that we’re so bold when it comes to spending trillions and trillions of dollars, but so timid when it comes to vaccine safety? Or the safety of other technologies?

Here it’s useful to bring in some of these other technologies, since up until this point I’ve mostly been talking about vaccines, but Hall describes essentially the same thing happening with nuclear power. Vaccines are being banned despite clear evidence that fewer people will die if we use them than if we don’t use them, and this is precisely what happened with nuclear power. It’s very easy to show that it’s the power source which causes the lowest number of deaths per unit of energy produced. And that, already low statistic, is based on reactors which were almost entirely built in the 70’s and 80’s. When it comes to next gen nuclear that number will certainly be even lower. So here you have a source of power that’s safer than even wind and solar, doesn’t emit any carbon, and uses as its power source elements which are all but inexhaustible (estimates are that uranium and thorium could power the world for 100,000 years) and yet, according to Where’s My Flying Car:

The startup company NuScale is intent on developing modular reactors, small enough to be built in a factory and thus cutting costs, construction times, and so forth significantly. NuScale has to date spent $505 million dollars just to produce the 12,000 pages of paperwork the NRC requires simply for an application. The company estimates that the regulatory process will delay actual production until 2026.

If that isn’t a vetocracy I don’t know what is.

Of course when it comes to nuclear power people immediately jump to the problem of waste, that we are creating waste which will still be around thousands of years from now. And in a similar fashion people who object to vaccines will often concede that it saves more lives in the short term, but you can never be sure what harms it might cause in a few months, a few years, or a few decades. And this is true, you can never be sure what harms the future holds. (BTW the historical response was straightforward, have as many children as possible.) But what approach or framework or system of knowledge causes us to be so unsure about the future harms and benefits of the AZ vaccine, but yet so confident about the beneficial effects and lack of any harm from massive government spending? It seems very possible that we are bold when we should be cautious and cautious when we should be bold. That in more areas than just vaccination we have ended up with the worst approach of all.

When I originally conceived of this post I thought I would spend most of my time talking about why we are so cautious, and also a lot more space on Where’s My Flying Car, but here we are 4300 words in and the references to the book have been sparse, and the examination of our caution has been almost non-existent. I think some of that discussion will take place in an abbreviated form in my next end of month newsletter, because it was my last newsletter that gave us a framework for understanding it. In that space I talked about the knobs technology had given us for controlling society, and how the temptation is to turn them all the way to one side or the other. And thinking of it this way is very clarifying. Let’s look at some potential knobs and their settings.

One of the first things you might try to get to the bottom of is the enormous disparity between how careful we are with vaccines vs. how careful we are with cars (see the statistics from earlier in the post). Or in a similar fashion why so little effort is being spent to reduce the amount of coal (100 deaths/terawatt hour) and how much effort is spent blocking nuclear (0.09 deaths/terawatt hour). And here we might say that with older technologies that the knob is stuck. Cars and coal are too entrenched for anything to be done.

Similarly you might try to get at the disparity between deaths caused by COVID and deaths caused by the vaccine. Between the deaths we might have caused and deaths nature might have caused. In essence this is the Trolley Problem. Is it better to let some external force kill five people or is it better to save those five people but to directly kill one person? Of course here we’re dealing with thousands if not tens of thousands of people saved for every one who dies. Also I think it’s very easy to count the one, but harder to count the thousands.

Thus every potential blood clot caused by a vaccine is rigorously documented, but how many people have any sense of how many people die from natural blood clots (or blood clots from birth control pills)? We rigorously dissect and document and mythologize every nuclear accident, but how many people die from coal mining or pollution? We are obsessed with every child we can save (“if we can save just one it will all have been worth it”) but relatively unconcerned with the millions we can’t save. 

You might say that our knob for counting harms we’ve caused is turned all the way up. And why wouldn’t it be? And our knob for safety is turned all the way up. Again, why wouldn’t it be? But in consequence, the minute we become aware of one death we’re responsible for we turn that knob, the one that caused it, (say the AZ vaccine) all the way to zero. Unless it’s stuck of course. This is the nature of our vetocracy.

I’m aware that this is not caused by a handful of bureaucrats imposing these regulations and restrictions and bans on an unwilling population, that this is a decision society as a whole has taken. That we don’t want the kind of authoritarianism that locks us down so tight COVID has no chance to spread, but we do want the kind of authoritarianism that makes new nuclear plants require a 12,000 page application. That we don’t want a technocracy that actually gives us new cool technology, but we’re fine with a technocracy that gives out lots of money. That we can’t imagine living like we did in the past because that’s terrifying, but we’re fine with a host of new, trivial terrors. That if we can prevent even a single death or save even a single child it will all have been worth it. Even if it has led us to a world entirely geared around avoiding risks rather than taking them.


Of course I often say that if my blog is read and appreciated by even one person it will all have been worth it. If you find that declaration to be similarly asinine and you would like me to read and appreciated by all people in need consider donating


Radical Reform and the Three Kinds of Complexity

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I.

The debate I’ve been engaged in over the last several posts continues. The latest salvo is a post from Scott Alexander titled: The Consequences Of Radical Reform. It opens as follows:

The thread that runs from Edmund Burke to James Scott and Seeing Like A State goes: systems that evolve organically are well-adapted to their purpose. Cultures, ancient traditions, and long-lasting institutions contain irreplaceable wisdom. If some reformer or technocrat who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room sweeps them aside and replaces them with some clever theory he just came up with, he’ll make everything much worse. That’s why collective farming, Brasilia, and Robert Moses worked worse than ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Alexander then goes on to disagree with this narrative, and in support of this disagreement he offers up a new piece of evidence, a study from 2009 (which he only recently came across) which compares the European territories where the Napoleonic Code was imposed vs. those where it was not. Basically those territories conquered by Napoleon vs. the one’s a little bit farther along his line of advance which weren’t. The study shows that, in terms of economic growth, urbanization, etc. The former did better. If we then go on to define imposition of the Napoleonic Code to be an example of radical reform, then we have the answer to our perennial question. This is proof that, to adapt Alexander’s original statement:

[A] technocrat who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room [can] sweep [traditional laws] aside and replace them with some clever theory he just came up with [and] he’ll make everything much… Better!

Now to be clear I don’t think Alexander is offering this up as some sort of “game, set, match” for the whole debate. But increasingly he has been taking the position that technocrats, on balance, make things better not worse. This study is evidence of that, and it appears to push him farther in that direction. Of course, if you’ve been following along, my contention has been the opposite: that on balance technocrats do make things worse. Though once again, this is on balance, I have never claimed that technocrats never get anything right or have any successes, and in the course of this post we’ll get to some of those successes. But first…

II.

Let’s establish what we’re talking about. Get a sense of what we’re debating and what the stakes are. In essence this is a discussion about societies, cultures, and civilizations at the highest level. We’re evaluating their success when everything is taken into account, not merely as a snapshot of a single point in time but their success over decades and centuries. Civilizations are enormously complex, and essentially this is a debate about how to manage that complexity. On the one side of our debate we have cultural evolution. (Alexander puts forth  Seeing Like a State, but for me the more pertinent corpus is Henrich’s books, Secret of our Success and WEIRDEST People in the World.) On the other side of the debate we have technocrats and rational planning. (Represented by? Enlightenment Now? Anything else?)

Of course, reducing it to two sides overlooks the possibility of other civilizational-level organizing principles, as well as a blending of technocracy and cultural evolution, both options which are outside the scope of this post. Though the latter is an interesting idea, and worth exploring, particularly if technocrats were content to stick with the things they’re good at, and refrain from interfering in areas where they’re less successful. But I have seen little evidence of such a willingness to forebear particularly recently. 

Having identified the two sides of the debate the next step is to define them. How do we distinguish between the two? While initially this might seem straightforward, once you dig in, the line dividing them is not as bright as one might think. Under cultural evolution a person comes up with an idea. If the idea is an improvement on what was being done before it spreads to other people, eventually becoming part of the cultural package.

Under technocracy an expert comes up with an idea. If the idea is an improvement on what was being done before it spreads to other governments eventually becoming part of the toolkit of “best practices”.

Stated that way the difference doesn’t seem all that great. I just swapped out a few words, and is there really that much difference between “person” and “expert” or “other people” and “government”? As a matter of fact I would argue that there is, that within these slightly different words lies the entire debate. Let’s start with “government”.

There is of course the standard libertarian argument that governments are different because they use force to get you to do things, whereas cultural evolution is presumably voluntary, or at least more voluntary than a modern state. This may be true, but I don’t think it’s a difference worth spending much time on. Particularly historically, cultures also carried a huge amount of weight. And, for the person experiencing it, the difference between being shunned by an entire community vs. policemen showing up at your door is probably not all that great. 

No, I think the primary difference between how technocracies implement new programs and the way that cultures evolve is a difference of scale and speed. Historically cultural evolution took place in small groups—extended families or tribes—and thus whatever the innovation was, at best it would be adopted by a few hundred people. The success of the innovation would be reflected, in part, by a greater number of offspring, which also provides a mechanism for spreading the innovation. Eventually this gets to the point where the successful culture starts displacing, absorbing or eliminating less successful ones. Beyond the foregoing other things might make the innovation spread more quickly, but at best the whole thing scales up over the course of years if not decades.

On the other hand, with a technocracy, change can be implemented across millions of people conceivably overnight—a speed and scale which is vastly greater. As an example, consider prohibition—a very progressive idea, in a very progressive age. One day booze was legal for 100 million people and the next day it wasn’t. Now there were plenty of scofflaws, but in some respects the battle it created between bootleggers and the police was the bigger story than the fact that alcohol was illegal, and equally a consequence of the technocratic implementation, which came at the stroke of a pen. Now yes, this stroke was preceded by a 394 day ratification process, and that was preceded by decades of effort by the temperance movement, but this is precisely my point. The 394 days the government spent on it accomplished something at a speed and on a scale that decades of attempts to change the culture couldn’t duplicate.

It should also be noted that scale and speed work in both directions. The government is pretty good at changing things, but it’s even better at preventing things from changing. And here we turn back to Alexander’s post, and the way people imagine technocracy will work—when it’s working well. In particular its superiority to vetocracy 

[E]ntrenched interests are constantly blocking necessary change. If only there were some centralized authority powerful enough to sweep them away and do all the changes we know we need, everything would be great.

Vetocracies block the necessary changes. While technocracies presumably don’t allow such vetoes, and are consequently able to make “all the changes we know we need”. Even if we grant that this is a practical description of how technocracies work, rather than just an aspirational one, those words “we know” are doing a lot of work. Who are “we”? And how do we “know”? Which takes us to…

III.

The other key difference between the definitions of cultural evolution and technocracy was replacing “people” with “experts”. This switch presumably comes because most of our problems are problems of complexity. If the world is complicated then it seems logical that we need experts to understand it. But is this in fact the case? I will certainly grant the first part—the world is complicated—it’s the second part I’m not sure about. To put it another way, we’re not debating the existence of complexity we’re debating how best to deal with it. 

Part of the problem is that complexity comes in many different flavors. There is complexity which has existed for as long as humans have (and perhaps longer), like what to do in a given environment so you don’t die. There is complexity which is brand new, like how best to manage social media. And then there is presumably lots of complexity in between that. The kind of complexity that came with nuclear weapons, the invention of the printing press or even the neolithic revolution. So when someone claims that experts are better at dealing with complexity, which sort of complexity are they talking about? All of the above? Just recent complexity? Or some other combination? 

Let’s return to the paper referenced by Alexander. Here’s the abstract:

The French Revolution of 1789 had a momentous impact on neighboring countries. The French Revolutionary armies during the 1790s and later under Napoleon invaded and controlled large parts of Europe. Together with invasion came various radical institutional changes. French invasion removed the legal and economic barriers that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law. The evidence suggests that areas that were occupied by the French and that underwent radical institutional reform experienced more rapid urbanization and economic growth, especially after 1850. There is no evidence of a negative effect of French invasion. Our interpretation is that the Revolution destroyed (the institutional underpinnings of) the power of oligarchies and elites opposed to economic change; combined with the arrival of new economic and industrial opportunities in the second half of the 19th century, this helped pave the way for future economic growth. The evidence does not provide any support for several other views, most notably, that evolved institutions are inherently superior to those ‘designed’; that institutions must be ‘appropriate’ and cannot be ‘transplanted’; and that the civil code and other French institutions have adverse economic effects.

(I kept thinking I could get away with only quoting part of the abstract, but in the end it was apparent that I was going to end up referencing it all.)

First we can clearly see the speed and scale mentioned in part II. But what about complexity? While not mentioned directly, the complexity referred to by this paper is clearly that brought on by the industrial revolution, so very recent complexity. (If you just do a google search for industrial revolution time period the info box says 1760-1840.) So best case, of the three types of complexity there are, this study represents one point of data for radical reform being better at dealing with new complexity. But there are numerous caveats even to this conclusion.

First it’s pretty straightforward to see that “nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies” are the people most likely to object to anything with the word “revolution” in the title, since they’re almost certainly the one’s benefiting from the status quo. Second it didn’t require visionary reformers or rarified experts to see that the industrial revolution would result in economic growth and urbanization, any unbiased observer could see it. Britain had already shown it could be done, so I’m not sure how radical these reforms really were. In other words, the bits that radical reform got right were not that complicated. This is not to say that the industrial revolution wasn’t complicated. It was horribly complicated. It introduced the complications of child labor, pollution, job losses for skilled workers and all manner of social unrest. (Note the widespread revolutions of 1848.)  

It’s therefore worth asking which institutions did better with the true complications brought on by the industrial revolution. The institutions these countries got from cultural evolution: monogamy, christianity, literacy? (At least according to WEIRDest People in the World) Or the things they got from technocracy: accelerated growth, elite destruction and equality before the law? I would lean towards the former, but at a minimum this question would seem to be a least as important as the one the paper actually addressed.

It might be useful to examine a current situation with several parallels to the industrial revolution, moving jobs over sea and automation. Once again this is something that the experts/technocrats/globalists have been almost universally in favor of. And again the benefits to doing so were obvious, lower labor costs, cheaper goods, etc. While the associated complexities were mostly ignored until they got too big to be ignored. I think there’s a good case to be made that one of the biggest of these complexities is the opioid epidemic which rages among the people who used to do the jobs that got moved out of the country. Admittedly this is probably a third order effect of the initial outsourcing, but it’s precisely second and third order effects that experts are bad at dealing with. Further, rather than helping mitigate the problem of opioids, there’s a strong case to be made that the experts were one of the key factors in exacerbating it. (For the full story on that see the previous post I did on that subject.) 

None of the foregoing is meant to represent my own “game, set, match” in this debate, but rather to remind people that it’s not enough to compare two things on a few selected issues, we have to compare them in their entirety. I’m sympathetic to arguments that cheap goods might help those displaced by offshoring more than they were harmed by the job losses associated with that same offshoring. But it seems apparent that what technocracies and “experts” are really good at is noticing obvious benefits, and implementing changes to capture those benefits rapidly and at scale, of plucking low hanging fruit from the Tree of Recent Technological Progress, but ignoring the pesticides necessary to grow that tree.

Or to use another analogy I heard once, they may be picking up nickels in front of steamrollers…

IV.

We’ve talked quite a bit about recent complexity, which I’m using to cover those things which have shown up in the last several decades or so, but not much about complexity which has been around for longer than that. Earlier, I divided complexity up into three categories, but the divisions are obviously pretty arbitrary, and it might be useful to split them into different buckets, but let’s see where we get with the three buckets I started with.

The oldest source of complexity is the natural world, and human’s relationship to it. One would put things like diet, reproduction, and really anything that impacts evolutionary fitness into this bucket. So what is the best way to deal with this complexity? Well, one imagines that given how long these things have been challenges for humans, we have probably developed genetic adaptations for dealing with this complexity, and it’s probably just best to stand back and let these adaptations do their thing. It’d be nice if it were so simple, and to a certain extent it is, but it’s clear more recent complexity has made the adaptations we’ve built for dealing with long term complexity less effective. 

Diet is a great example of all these factors in action. One assumes that there is a diet we’re adapted to. (Though there is a lot of argument over what that diet might be, an argument I’m not qualified to weigh in on.) But then along comes the USDA (read experts/technocrats) with the food pyramid, which provides an authoritative answer to what diet is appropriate. But I think it’s become clear that this is one of those complex areas where experts were not better, and recently the food pyramid has come in for all sorts of criticism, some probably justified some not. 

Then as an even more extreme example, there’s the story from a few years back about how in the 60’s the sugar industry paid scientists to demonize fat, instead of sugar, a mistake we’re still grappling with. Which is not to say that this is an easy problem, that’s precisely the point, it’s a devilish complicated one which modernity has exacerbated. For example, it’s clear that evolution has all sorts of tools to draw on in cases of food scarcity, but that never having had to grapple with long term food abundance and variety, it’s terrible at protecting us from that. This particular phenomenon has been labeled supernormal stimuli, and I wrote a whole post on it if you want more details, but I could certainly see an argument that this is an area where evolution and even tradition is fairly useless, because the situation is entirely novel. But of course that is the debate: are experts, through the medium of radical reform, better at this sort of thing or not?

Even with something as novel as supernormal stimuli, tradition is not entirely powerless. Fasting is very traditional and there’s good evidence that it helps with this issue. Also I’ve seen very little evidence that top-down interventions have made any impact on obesity. While diets that involve individuals listening to the evolutionary adaptations they were born with seem to work pretty well.

The upshot of all this is that it’s possible radical reform might help with some of the recent complexity which has been introduced. Even in areas where for a long time we were able to just rely on the adaptations evolution had provided us with, but… I haven’t seem much evidence of radical reform being applied in this fashion, and even less evidence of such a reform working.

Next there’s all the complexity which isn’t recent, but also hasn’t been around so long that we expect a solution to have been encoded in our genes. The area where if there have been adaptations they would have been cultural adaptations, and consequently where you would expect cultural evolution to have the most impact. But also the area where it’s possible that semi-random cultural evolution did not come up with a solution as good as what a team of modern experts could come up with. 

Most people have no problem accepting the utility of understanding what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. They may have different answers when asked what food that actually was, but they’re united in thinking that the answer is beneficial. As in there’s quite a bit of consensus that genetic adaptations are generally beneficial. As we get closer to the present day this unity disappears. As in there’s not nearly as much consensus that cultural adaptations are beneficial. Thus the fact that the Catholic Church and indeed most religions have been pushing the idea of sexual abstinence outside of marriage for thousands of years carries very little weight. That all it took was the sexual revolution to decide that was a dumb idea.

I’m not sure why people are willing to give so much weight to one kind of evolution, and so little weight to the other kind. It seems naive on its face, even if there weren’t books like the recently reviewed WEIRDest People in the World which spends hundreds of pages contradicting the idea. But of course some of this thinking seems to operate on separate tracks. People will view the forced imposition of the Napoleonic Code as a successful experiment with technocracy, but not view the sexual revolution as a similar technocratic experiment. And certainly it seems more technocratic to impose something from the top down, but once you account for the policies, legal rulings, and general sympathies of the technocratic class. It’s hard to argue that they are not conducting a similar experiment with modern sexual mores.  

To be fair I’m sure it doesn’t look like they’re imposing something. I’m sure it looks like they’re allowing something, and the distinction is an important one, though the difference between the two is not as great as you might think, particularly if technocrats use the power of government and the speed and scale we mentioned earlier to force other people to allow it. 

V.

Pulling all of the above together, what sort of conclusions can we draw? It would seem to me that the most difficult complexity to deal with is recent complexity, in that it generally disrupts the methods already in place to deal with long term complexity. That said even though recent complexity is where we should be focusing our attention, and where normal evolution and cultural evolution have done the least to prepare us, it’s still not clear that technocracy is obviously better at dealing with these new challenges. 

I’ve already given two examples where this might be the case. First, with the underlying complexities of the industrial revolution and second the way the opioid epidemic connects to the process of sending jobs to other countries. Let’s look at one more that’s probably closer to home for most of my readers. The problems associated with social media, a huge unforeseen complexity brought on by the internet. What have the experts/technocrats done to rein in this problem? What do they propose to do? How will that help the teenagers who suffer from social-media linked depression? The grandmas who fall into echo-chambers of extremism? Or help us restore civility to the public sphere? 

So far if you’re anything like me you’ve been unimpressed with governmental efforts to deal with the complexities brought on by social media. And you may think, given how recent of a phenomenon it is, that traditional adaptations and institutions would be equally powerless to deal with it. But my sense is this is not the case. That having two supportive parents helps out a great deal. That regular church attendance lowers the risk of depression. And that many “primitive” things like sunlight, physical activity, and seeing people face to face (something which has taken a big hit over the last year) work quite well in dealing with negative effects of social media. They also probably increase the chances that social media will be a positive thing. 

My conclusion would be that radical reform might be superior at dealing with recent complexity in certain narrow cases. That occasionally technology opens a new path to some obvious improvement, and in those cases experts/technocrats may be better at hastening the implementation of that improvement. But I think such wins are infrequent. Far more often the improvements brought on by technology are obvious and straight forward but the downsides are complex and opaque, and in focusing on the improvements the experts do nothing to mitigate the downsides. That in these cases—and in cases where we are dealing with long standing complexities—evolutionary adaptations, both natural and cultural, generally perform better. 

As one final thought, I want you to conduct a civilization pre-mortem. A pre-mortem is a tactic frequently used by businesses which asks people, at the start of a project, to imagine that it has failed, and then imagine why that might be, so that failure points obvious enough to be summoned up before the project has even started can be mitigated in advance. I want you to take this same methodology and apply it to civilization. If it ends up failing, what will have caused it? Will it have failed because we were too cautious about implementing radical reform? Or will it have failed because we were too aggressive in that endeavor? To look at it from the other side, are long standing adaptations more likely to cause the failure of society or are they more likely to prevent it? 


Asking for patronage is actually a very old adaptation to the problem of supporting writers you like, or at least those whose work you think is important. If you like the idea of solving complex problems with long standing adaptations you should like donating to my patreon


Technocracies Are Cool, but Are They Effective?

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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

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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

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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?

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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.