Category: Politics

Punctuated Equilibrium and Memetic Accumulation

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A few posts ago I talked about memetic evolution. As a result of this post one of my readers, Mark, and I had an in depth discussion about what mechanism, exactly, I was trying to describe and whether there really is such a thing as memetic evolution. Mark is a scientist specializing in oncology research (he also has a blog, which you should check out) and he pointed out that evolution is exceptionally complicated and that many people use the term to describe lots of things that aren’t actually evolution by natural selection. Particularly when they’re trying to use it by way of analogy which I was. As part of our discussion a lot of things were clarified for me, and I think I’ve tightened up the analogy and hopefully gotten rid of most of the issues Mark pointed out. This post is about sharing the additional insights which came out of that discussion.

I.

Mark was, of course, correct, there are in fact lots of pitfalls involved in the discussion of evolution and selection, and even if you manage to avoid making any big mistakes there are still numerous specifics that can trip you up as well. For example, most people don’t realize that there are two competing theories regarding the rate at which evolution occurs. And the difference between these two theories turns out to be very important. Not only in general but also for the point I want to make.

The first theory, and the one initially put forward by Darwin, is phyletic gradualism. Under this theory the creation of new species happens very gradually, almost imperceptibly as small changes accumulate over tens of thousands of years. Because of how gradual this process is, you might not end up with a clear line where you can say that one species has changed into another, and, insofar as a layman thinks about evolution with any rigor, they probably envision it working something like this.

The second theory, which was proposed only in 1972, by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, is called punctuated equilibrium. This theory holds that species appear fairly suddenly in response to some rare and geologically rapid event (the punctuation) and that once a species appears that it ends up being relatively stable (the equilibrium). To reiterate, I’m no expert, but it’s my impression that this theory has the most support among scientists, particularly when you’re talking about the big evolutionary events, like speciation. To be clear both kinds of evolution, gradual and punctuated, appear to be taking place, but the latter is more impactful, and more important, particularly when the survival of a given species is really in question.

Having, hopefully, grounded our understanding and discussion of evolution on a somewhat firmer footing, we are still left with the question of how much of that understanding and discussion maps cleanly to the topic of cultural evolution, and beyond that to the more speculative topic of memetic evolution. For instance, insofar as cultural evolution is adaptive, is this adaptation gradual? Or does it operate more along the lines of the punctuated equilibrium model? I’m not entirely sure what would count as hard data when considering these questions, but at the level of anecdote, I’m inclined to believe that the situation is similar to genetic evolution, both forms occur, but that the cultural selection which occurs gradually ends up being less impactful than cultural selection which happens at times of rapid change and extreme crisis.

As I said this is mostly at the level of anecdote, but consider the example of Germany. It’s hard to argue that Germany didn’t have a long martial tradition, starting with their first appearance in the records of the Roman Empire and continuing down through the centuries to the two World Wars. Would you say they still have that culture today? I think most people would agree that they don’t, and that it all changed during the extreme crisis at the end of World War II. Sure there have been many gradual changes to German culture over the years, but the fact that there’s also numerous long-standing stereotypes about Germans would seem to indicate that a relatively stable equilibrium existed as well. From where I sit, this example has all the elements you’d expect if cultural evolution also happened according to the punctuated equilibrium model.  

Another example would be the creation of the United States of America. Evolution through natural selection concerns itself with the creation of new species. The parallel in cultural evolution would be the creation of a new culture or nation, and this is an example of exactly that. And, once again, it happened over the course of a few years where things were rapidly changing under crisis conditions. Additionally what resulted was not some incremental change in English culture (though there are obvious connections) but an entirely new culture forged in the fires of the Revolutionary War and the many debates over governments and rights

The more I consider the question the more I am convinced that there are numerous examples of punctuated equilibrium with respect to cultural evolution. I suspect all of the examples of nations in crisis given by Jared Diamond in his recent book Upheaval (see my review), would end up being examples of the punctuated equilibrium model of cultural evolution as well. And of course these are successful “mutations”, if cultural evolution is anything like biological evolution most mutations are going to end in failure. Is that perhaps the best way of describing communism and fascism?

Obviously not all cultural changes are so large, as I said, I’m sure that things also change gradually, but we would appear to have less to fear from those changes. Sure the vast majority will fail just like all “mutations”, but that failure should be much easier to recover from. Much less disastrous than the analogous “speciation” of adopting something like communism.

II.

If you’ve followed me this far and you accept (even if only for the sake of argument) that punctuated equilibrium applies not only to biological evolution, but to cultural evolution as well, then we’re finally ready to revisit memetic evolution, though right off the bat I’m going to dump the word “evolution”. One of Mark’s bigger contributions in the discussion we ended up having was to point out that once we’ve reached this point that things have been stretched so far that using the term evolution conceals more than it reveals, particularly if we’re more interested in the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. So we need a new term, but before we get to that what exactly are we talking about? And, in what sense are we talking about something separate and interesting?  

When considering the punctuated equilibrium model most of the attention ends up on the punctuation part, but what’s happening during the equilibrium part? Here I’m going to quote liberally from Mark:

[The punctuated equilibrium model] posits [that] major selection events might be somewhat uncommon.  As such, we would expect to see accumulations of multiple different mutations, all present in a species’ gene pool simultaneously.  The longer the period of time free of selection, the greater the potential for diverse new mutations within the species. Since anything directly lethal is going to weed itself out fairly quickly, this enriches for potentially-beneficial mutations.  With all these mutations lying around, it’s possible for individuals to even have two or more traits that might not be adaptive on their own but that function very well together. This period of stability can be thought of as ‘good’ in that is allows for much greater variability to enter the population.

Along comes the selection event – the filter, removing anything that can’t pass through a particular challenge – and most of that diversity disappears.  However, since the population experienced a long period of growth and mutation without being subject to a filter, it’s possible that the adaptation that made it through the filter is more complex – is a bigger change – than the kind of single-mutation adaptation you would see from a series of rapid filters.  Populations that instead pass through serial filtering events will only be able to select based on single-mutation traits.

….We expect to have multiple possible pro-adaptive traits at any given time, waiting to pass through the next, unexpected, filter and join future generations.  Thus, memetic evolution is simply a sub-process of cultural evolution. It would be as meaningless to speak of it in isolation as it would be to talk about accumulating mutations prior to selection events (filters) when speaking of biological evolution.

…Memetic ‘evolution’ is simply another name for cultural evolution prior to selecting events. 

Some of this is obviously speculative, but on the whole Mark’s comments were fantastic, and really helped me to understand something that had previously eluded me, and I agree with everything he said, with one exception… I don’t think it’s “meaningless to speak of it in isolation”. I think “it” is very important to talk about. What is “it”? What is this thing that’s worth discussing, but which is not evolution? I’m going to call it “memetic accumulation”. 

III.

For most of history the rate of accumulation for genetic mutations has probably been fairly static. I assume that during periods of greater radiation (if any) that it might have increased, or perhaps the greater the variety of life the greater the space for mutations to occur and perhaps there are other factors as well, but I don’t see any evidence that there were periods where it was significantly faster or slower. There is the Cambrian Explosion, but remember we’re talking about the rate of accumulation, not the rate of evolution or of speciation, and while it was an “explosion” for many things, I don’t think it was an explosion in the accumulation of mutations. In other words I think the rate of mutation accumulation with natural evolution has been pretty constant. 

Even when humans entered the scene and started the selective breeding of domesticated animals, this didn’t change the mutation rate, even for the animals in question. (CRISPR, however may be another matter.) We just introduced a lot more filters and selection events. So, if mutations are relatively constant in natural evolution, what about cultural evolution? Has that rate also been constant? I would argue that it hasn’t, and this, more than anything else, is why it’s worth discussing. I suppose, given the fact that humans can introduce new ideas, new potential memes into the space of culture whenever they feel like it, that there are a great many things which could affect the speed at which memetic accumulation occurs. But certainly technology and progress has to have a large impact on that speed, and almost exclusively in the direction of speeding it up. In fact, “something which speeds up the rate of memetic accumulation” is not a half bad definition of progress. But beyond that, might technology and progress have any other effect than generating ideas quickly?

With the advent of global communication and social media, we are moving ever more rapidly in the direction of creating a single ecosystem for ideas, and I don’t think we’ve fully come to terms with what that means or how it will play out. Certainly ideas propagate faster, and I would also say we end up with a handful of “apex ideas” similar to the idea of an apex predator. Which is to say that we’re in a space where a memetically fit idea is able to very quickly outcompete all the other ideas among people susceptible to that idea. (Notice the increase in the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories.) Leading to a stratification at the level of ideas rather than at the level of a community or nation. Basically, social media and global communication have allowed invasive species/ideas to go everywhere.

On top of all this there’s one final thing which needs to be pointed out, humans are more removed from issues of actual survival than ever before. Toss all of this together and we have rapid memetic generation, but which results in a relatively barren collection of a few dominant memes/ideologies, none of which are likely to have anything to do with actual survival. Now I’m aware that this is something of an oversimplification, culture is still complex and varied, and people still worry about survival, but we have nevertheless lost an awful lot of both those qualities.

Finally, if I’ve convinced you that memetic accumulation is speeding up, then even if you disagree with me about everything else, you might at least want to examine what the potential consequences of that are with respect to cultural evolution.

IV.

Having examined what the modern state of memetic accumulation is within the equilibrium part of the model, what does all of this mean for the eventual “punctuation”? How does our rapid, barren and superficial method of memetic accumulation play out when we actually run into a selection event? Into rapidly changing crisis conditions? Well that’s hard to say, though none of those elements would appear to be positive.

Just by itself, the rapid part isn’t necessarily bad. Perhaps if culture is moving rapidly, then, by the time the eventual crisis rolls around, we will be in some location uniquely well suited for surviving that crisis, a location we would not have reached had we not been moving so quickly. And certainly if there were a bunch of cultures all speeding off towards their own unique locations we might have some expectation that at least one of these locations would be exactly the spot they should be in, but this is where the lack of variety comes into play, we’re not all choosing different locations where we can survive the potential crisis, we seem to all be journeying as quickly as we can towards a small handful of locations, and the rapid bit means if it’s not the right place we will have gone an awfully long distance in the wrong direction. Furthermore, what do these locations look like? If we were really concerned about survival, they would hopefully be strongholds, but if we don’t factor in survival I would think they’re more likely to end up looking like expensive penthouses. Dwellings which look really nice and are great for entertaining, but also the last location you’d want to be in when the zombie apocalypse starts. There’s obviously still a lot of variety in these dwellings, but can anyone honestly tell me we’re not building a lot more penthouses than strongholds these days?

There also seems to be significant effort being spent on getting people to abandon locations which proved to be strongholds in the past. I think I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating, there are essentially three ways to choose a “location” we can choose them randomly, which is essentially what natural evolution is doing. We can choose one based on whether it sounds good or not, but in this sense, as I already pointed out, we’re probably not choosing a stronghold so much as a nice place to live. Or we can choose one based on what’s worked in the past. Any option where we choose is going to be better than random (one would hope) but it’s not clear to me that “sounds good” is definitely better than “worked in the past” (in fact, I strongly suspect it’s worse) and in any event it’s probably best to have cultures in both types of locations.

To be clear, we don’t know which location will best withstand the eventual crisis, because we don’t know what that crisis will look like, but you could certainly see how changing the way in which memetic accumulation happens could change the likelihood of being in the right location. And I hope we can agree on this, even if you don’t agree with me on exactly how memetic accumulation has changed

But beyond all this, there’s probably more bad news, particularly if you believe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s contention, that in addition to changing to speed of memetic accumulation, that progress and technology has also changed the nature of potential crises as well. That we have made them less frequent, but in the process we’ve also made them larger. As a real world example, lots of people feel that there is no safe location (both figuratively and literally) if the crisis ends up being full scale nuclear war or runaway climate change (I disagree, but I’ve already covered that in past posts). Both crises that have only been made possible recently.

I will freely admit that I’ve followed a long chain of assumptions to get to this point, but strip all that away and I would contend that the two initial ideas, 1) that cultural evolution also follows a pattern of punctuated equilibrium, and 2) that technology and progress can change the rate at which cultural mutations/memes accumulate, are both pretty solid. And both of those together should be enough to introduce serious uncertainty into any claims that conditions are following some long-term, unstoppable, positive trend.

A couple of final things to think about, which I leave as an exercise for the reader:

Are we at a point of “punctuation” right now? If so how’s it looking?

Could memetic accumulation get so out of whack that it actually causes the crisis?


With this post I’ve gone a long way down a pretty obscure road. It you like that sort of thing consider donating. If you don’t like that sort of thing you should also consider donating, but I think it will make less of a difference.


How Do We Adapt to Things?

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When I started my last post I had intended to examine the various ways in which humans adapt to their environment. Four thousand words later, and I’d spent all of them on a defense of cultural evolution/tradition, which is of course just one of the ways we adapt to things, and probably (based on the comments) more interesting when considered in connection with other methods of adaptation than when considered in isolation. Though I still think my last post was important because there’s not nearly enough attention paid to cultural evolution as compared to other methods of adaptation, so establishing some kind of grounding there before proceeding will probably turn out to have been useful. But in any event, I didn’t even get to a discussion of other ways in which humans can adapt to their conditions, so I’m going to take another shot at it and see if I can do better this time. That resolution in place I’m going to immediately go in the opposite direction and spend just a minute or two clarifying some things left over from the last post.

I ended up posting a link to the last post in one of the SSC open comment threads. In addition to the link I laid out my four alternative criteria for judging a tradition. In response to this someone pointed out that in addition to being applied to same sex marriage that these criteria could also be applied to slavery: 

  1. The duration of the tradition. –> Slavery was around for millenia
  2. The strength of enforcement for the tradition. –> Escaped slaves were punished by death.
  3. The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. –> Slavery was very common
  4. The domain of the tradition. Does it relate to survival or reproduction? –> “The Confederacy decided slavery was so vital to their survival, they went to war for it. See again the Spartacus rebellion.”

To begin with, I found his response to the fourth point not very on point, and probably even a little flippant, but that still leaves the other three. Obviously it’s hard to talk about slavery in any fashion other than righteous flaming denunciation without it getting messy, but I guess I’m going to try it anyway. First, we need to remember that cultural evolution doesn’t care about morality, it cares about survival. Essentially what he’s arguing is that nothing immoral could possibly also be important for survival, which doesn’t follow at all. Second, this is precisely why the fourth point is important, I don’t think slavery does have any relationship to survival or reproduction. Finally, if we are going to add morality to the criteria, as this person seems to be doing, slavery has always provoked intense moral debates, while such debates over SSM are very recent.

In fact everything about SSM is very recent, which leads to the other observation I wanted to make before we move on. After finishing the last post, and discussing it a bit with some people, I realized I left out one of my main motivations. Given that it makes me look better (I think) it seemed wise to include it. I imagine that a lot of people would take that last post as evidence that SSM keeps me up at night, particularly if they also know that I’m religious. They might even assume, despite my many statements to the contrary, that I’m an extreme homophobe. But honestly, my interest is largely intellectual. I know I shouldn’t put too much weight on any one piece of data, but I keep coming back to the content disparity present in the Timeline of Same Sex Marriage article on Wikipedia. How is it that evidence before 1970 could be so slim? Not only does it represent a mere 4% of the article, but it’s clear that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel to get even that. If you haven’t bothered to check out the article here are some examples of evidence for SSM  before 1970.

  • They mention a single marriage in Spain from 1061.
  • There’s a paragraph on it being referred to in a derisory fashion to describe political opponents during the Roman Empire.
  • It appears to have been legal in ancient Assyria.
  • The emperor’s Nero and Elagabalus married men.
  • It was part of the culture of an oasis in Egypt of about 30,000 people (that is its modern population, I assume anciently it was even less).

Reviewing this list you might assume that I cherry picked the least impressive examples, but actually the list I just gave is more or less comprehensive. These are essentially all of the  examples they could come up with. How is it that something which was so incredibly rare in the past has become such a huge deal in only the last few decades? One of my commenters suggested that perhaps it had just not occurred to anyone before 1970. I suppose that’s possible but if anything that just makes things more interesting. We have lots of examples of historical taboos, I can’t think of another example of something never even being considered before the present, certainly not outside of new technology, which SSM is not.

If my interest in SSM is mostly intellectual, you might wonder if I can provide any more visceral examples, reports of traditions under threat where my reaction involves more anger. I can. In particular I remember being very annoyed by the story making the rounds last month about training being given by the New York City Department of Education where things like “individualism,” “objectivity” and “worship of the written word,” were labeled as “White Supremacy Culture”. This is only one data point, but it was a piece of data that fed into a feeling I’ve had for awhile. While I mostly talk about the erosion of moral traditions because that erosion is so obvious, it feels like there’s something deeper going on. I’ve had the sense for awhile that the attack on traditions might not stop there. And when I hear someone label objectivity as “White Supremacy” it seems to confirm those deeper fears. 

With the last post put to bed let’s finally turn to a discussion of the various ways humans can adapt to their environment.

The first and most obvious method of adaptation is evolution through natural selection, which is a large topic unto itself, so for our purposes I just want to point out a few key features. To begin with, it operates through genetic mutations, which occur randomly. Most of the time these mutations are benign, some of the time they’re maladaptive and a tiny minority of the time they’re actually beneficial. (Commentators may notice that I borrowed some of their wording.) Despite the fact that these mutations are beneficial only a tiny minority of the time, the vast majority of what we see when we look are beneficial mutations, because that’s what’s being selected for, and is in fact the definition of beneficial since in this context that just means it makes the organism more likely to reproduce in such a fashion that the gene is transmitted to the next generation. To boil everything down, at this level adaptation:

  1. Is initiated randomly.
  2. Is tested in the crucible of genetic reproduction and survival.
  3. Takes a very, very long time.

The next method of adaptation, is the one I discussed at such length in the last post, that is cultural evolution. I obviously spent quite a bit of time on it in the last post, so you would expect there wouldn’t be much left to say on the subject. But I think it’s important to draw some sharp lines about what it is and what it isn’t. To begin with, while evolution through natural selection operates on the level of genes. Cultural evolution operates at the level of practices that can be transmitted by language. Which I shorthanded as traditions, and it makes having a common language pretty important (though being able to translate might get you most of the way.) The first thing that’s interesting about this, is that it makes culture harder to transmit in some respects, but easier in others.

Genes represent a common language for everything, meaning we get them from all over the place, not merely from Neanderthals, but from viruses as well. The same can not be said for traditions. We didn’t get any traditions from viruses, and it seems pretty unlikely we got any from the Neaderthals either. This is where traditions and culture are harder to transmit, but if you speak the same language, they suddenly become much easier to transmit than genes. Which makes it faster as well. So then how is it tested? This is the part of cultural evolution where all the debate is happening, and where I spent a lot of time in the previous post. But certainly survival has to be in there, and not merely survival of individuals, but survival of the whole culture. In fact I would argue that humans being what they are, that if your culture, taken in its totality, can’t survive conflict with other cultures (i.e. war). Then sooner or later your culture isn’t going to be around and there will be no traditions left to transmit.

Beyond survival, if traditions are the unit of evolution they have to be easily transmissible as well. They also have to be sticky, otherwise they wouldn’t be around long enough to have any effect. That makes traditions sound like memes, but I think there is one big difference. I think for a tradition to be considered part of cultural evolution it has to be attached to its host’s reproduction and survival. I think a meme just has to be able to ensure its own survival.  This takes us to the final and weirdest way for humans to adapt. But before we go there let’s summarize the attributes of cultural evolution:

  1. Is initiated with some thought. “Hey, what if we tried this?”
  2. Is tested in the crucible of cultural and individual reproduction and survival
  3. Is much quicker than genetic evolution, but still kind of slow.

At last we reach the final method of adaptation, memetic evolution, and yet again I’m indebted to Scott Alexander of SSC for so clearly identifying it and I would encourage you to read the original post he did on it. But I also think there’s more to the story than what he points out, in particular I think he undersells the role of survival as the key differentiator between cultural and memetic evolution. But before we jump ahead I should explain the differences between the two as Alexander sees them. For him it mostly revolves around the idea of “convincingness”. That memetic evolution is about doing what sounds good (with competition happening around what that is at any given moment) while cultural evolution is about doing what worked in the past. 

As you can see from the previous list, cultural evolution probably starts in very much the same way. Despite this there are at least two significant differences in how this process works for each. To begin with, in cultural evolution, the space of things eligible to be considered “good ideas” is much smaller, both because of greater resistance to change and because, due to technology, the list of things which could possibly be changed is also vastly smaller. The other difference is that at some point or another the “good idea” is going to be tested to see whether it actually improves the culture’s fitness or makes it worse. Neither of these things is true when it comes to memetic evolution. In the first case it’s a difference of degree, resistance to change still exists, but it’s decreased while the list of potential good ideas just keeps growing. But in the second case it’s a difference of kind, and I would contend that with memetic evolution we have reached a point where “good ideas” are completely disconnected from fitness. The test never happens. Accordingly the attributes of memetic evolution are:

  1. Entirely idea based, with a large potential space for generating those ideas.
  2. Ideas don’t need to provide any survival value for the humans which hold them. It’s all about idea propagation, and “mindshare”.
  3. Much quicker than cultural evolution, and it can be made quicker still by technology.

While we have mostly covered the first point, the remaining two require further discussion. While I think point two is self evident, it immediately leads to a very important follow-up question, how can we get away with no longer worrying about survival? There are three possibilities:

  1. We have progressed to the point where survival is no longer in doubt, therefore we can safely ignore it. The old rules really don’t apply. Perhaps because everything promised by the advocates of posthumanism is coming to pass.
  2. Survival and reproduction and evolutionary fitness still lurk in the background, but we have managed to make significant progress in lessening their importance, allowing us to profitably focus on other things, perhaps in something akin to Maslow’s hierarchy.
  3. We can’t get away with it. Survival and reproduction are just as important as ever, but they’ve been completely overshadowed by the variety and speed of memetic evolution. That eventually cultural evolution will still be important.

You can probably guess which possibility I favor, but I’m not the only one to notice that we have developed lots of behaviors that have little to do with ongoing survival. Robin Hanson calls it Dreamtime, and describes it thusly, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” But I’m jumping ahead, each of these possibilities has some interesting and possibly disturbing implications. 

The first possibility represents the most extreme shift. Because, as I said, the old rules don’t apply. Under the old rules it was all about us, the humans, and whether we continued to exist or not. With possibility number one it’s all about ideas, and humans are just a place for ideas to reside, and not even a particularly good place now that we have computers, which takes us to my posthuman reference. If ideas are all that matter what’s to say we even have a role in the world of the future. Certainly there are lots of posthumanists who worry that we don’t.

Under the second possibility, one imagines that, civilizationally, we’re perched near the top of Maslow’s pyramid in the areas of love, esteem and self-actualization, and that this is a good thing. But in this model the bottom level with the physical needs of food and water is still down there. Is there ever a point where we forget how to supply those needs? Certainly on an individual level, almost no one in the US knows how to grow or kill enough food to feed themselves for an extended period. We still possess this knowledge at a civilizational level, fortunately, but it’s unclear how robust this knowledge is. I say this, primarily, because it hasn’t been put to the test recently, There are lots of ways for something like this to be tested, but if nothing else in the past there were frequent wars which acted to test the mettle of a civilization. We haven’t had one of those recently, and to be clear, that’s a good thing, but it also seems like the kind of thing where the longer you go without one, the worse it is when it finally happens. And I’m by no means convinced that there will never be another great power war.

Turning to the third possibility, the first thing we need to do is decide what it means for survival to be “just as important as ever”. From one perspective, of course it’s as important as ever, as I frequently point out, if you can’t survive (and reproduce) you can’t do anything else either. So on reflection, it’s more accurate to say that the third possibility asserts that survival is just as difficult as ever. Stating it this way I assume a lot of people are going to immediately dismiss it as obviously incorrect, since that’s not what the numbers show at all. Rather they show a huge increase in life expectancy and vast decreases to most of the causes of death people had to worry about historically, like infant mortality or infectious diseases. This is a pretty good argument, but let me offer at least one counterargument (there are many).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the point that technology and progress have not created any decrease in fragility, that rather, if anything, they have increased it, which would mean that, currently, survival is not merely as difficult, it’s more difficult. But what about the numbers? Here Taleb argues that though technology doesn’t decrease fragility it does allow you to dampen volatility, particularly in the short term. I say in the short term because what we’re really doing is postponing volatility and making things that much worse when whatever tools you’ve been using eventually reach the limits of their effectiveness

You can see how this all might play out using the example of nuclear war. It is widely agreed that a large part of the reason for the Long Peace is the horror of nuclear weapons. This is the low volatility. However if war ever does come the eventual volatility will be far greater than any previous war. Additionally, while no previous war ever threatened the survival of humanity, a nuclear war very well might, leading to exactly the situation I described. Survival isn’t just as difficult, it’s actually much more difficult.

The last issue we have to deal with is the speed of memetic evolution. Recall the title question, “How do we adapt to things?’ Or to take it from another angle, what are we adapting to? In the past all adaptation was in service of survival and reproduction, and the fact that cultural evolution was faster than genetic evolution allowed humans to adapt more quickly to a variety of conditions. Certainly I’m not aware of any other animals which have adapted to live nearly anywhere. But if we’re not adapting to survive in changing conditions because our survival is no longer in question than what are we adapting to? And how does doing it faster help? If anything it appears that things are reversed. That the changes brought about by memetic evolution aren’t helping us to adapt they’re what we have to adapt to. In which case, the fact that it just keeps going faster isn’t a feature, it’s a bug…

If we have passed into the era of memetic evolution. And if it has the qualities I describe. Both of which seem very likely. Then there doesn’t seem to be much of a silver lining. It would appear that the best case scenario would be to hope that we have progressed into a new and better world where ideas are the only thing that matters, and then to further hope that we can manage to find a place in that world. The other possibilities all seem to boil down to a rapidly changing world where survival is still important but the conditions we’re trying to adapt our survival to are changing with ever greater rapidity.


These ending blurbs are actually examples of memetic evolution. No, really. I never said they were good examples, in fact they’re more akin to the random mutations of genetic evolution. But maybe this is the random mutation that will work, and you’ll be convinced to donate.


Taking Democracy for Granted

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As the presidential election approaches, the amount of (mostly virtual) ink being spilled on the contest has reached epic proportions. Obviously you can find articles and blog posts about all sorts of things, but as of this writing (10/13/16) the major headlines all appear to be about the accusations of Trump’s sexual harassment. While I’m sure these accusations are interesting, I’m not sure that they are important. But let’s talk about the interesting bits first, and then we’ll examine its importance.

Of all the things going on with this story the element that interests me the most is the timing of the accusations. It seems to be a classic October Surprise. And by that I mean it appears likely that people have been waiting to announce their accusations until a point when the accusations could inflict the maximum damage. I see no evidence that any of the revelations are the result of things which only could have been uncovered recently. As far as I can tell, just based on a brief glance (there are a LOT of accusations) even the most recent dates from 2013. Also it’s not as if Trump has just suddenly become important, or that it has suddenly become important for him to be stopped. Four or five months have passed since he was a lock for the Republican nomination, over a year has passed since he announced he was running, and he’s been a public figure since before I graduated from high school. (Which trust me is a long time.) Why wait until now to go public?

Obviously a certain amount of speculation is involved. There can be many reasons for delaying an accusation against a public figure, not the least of which is the media circus certain to ensue as soon as you do. But on the other hand it distresses me when I find out that people have been afraid to come forward. Not only is that something we need to work on (though my ideas for how to do this may be different than most.) But it would have been hugely beneficial to know all this stuff during the primaries rather than four weeks before the election. Still, the point of all of this, is to say that if it was intentional, then, “Well played!” I always thought that Trump was going to have a difficult time of it, but as I said recently in an email to a friend of mine, I think he’s well and truly beaten, if not out-maneuvered at this point.

In that same email to my friend I said a couple of other things that are worth relating. First I offered the caveat that I had repeatedly been wrong about “Peak Trump” so it’s possible I was wrong this time, though this one feels different, possibly because he’s been faltering in places where he was previously strong, like the debates and Utah, normally the most reliable Republican state there is (more on that later.)

The second thing I said in the email was that I found the manner of Trump’s demise to be fascinating, particularly given Bill Clinton’s history in this area. Obviously there are differences, but those differences aren’t as great as people like to think. Which brings me to the issue of whether these accusations aren’t merely interesting, but important. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has recently taken some heat for his commentary on the election. One of his recent pieces was titled Scandal Poker, where he compares the various accusations against Trump and Clinton to determine whether either has the edge. On the issue of their treatment of women he declares things a tie. I’m not sure that I agree with that, at least not in terms of how things are being perceived. (Which is pretty critical when you’re going to decide things by popular vote.) And, frankly, the reason perception tilts in Clinton’s favor is in large part because the people who police these sorts of things are more forgiving of indiscretions on the left side of the aisle than they are on the right. But if you remove perception from the equation and just look at it’s effect on their ability to be president then I don’t think it’s important. Meaning, I don’t think chastity has much correlation with the ability to be a good president. Jimmy Carter was by all accounts a very chaste person and a mediocre (at best) President. And of course more recently everyone seems to agree that Clinton was an above average president, but as we’ve mentioned he wasn’t very chaste.

Does this mean we shouldn’t want moral people to be president? I think all else being equal we definitely should, in fact I think we should even give it some weight, but with all of the other potential issues on the table it’s honestly not going to be at the top of my list. Now of course as Mormons/Christians we do think chastity is important, and in a broader sense the Book of Mormon explicitly ties morality into good governance. (Mosiah 29:25-27) But if the salvation of the country lies in having chaste presidents we’ve been doomed since at least Kennedy if not before.

If Donald’s (and Bill’s) chastity isn’t important, what is? I mentioned the enormous amount of ink being spilled, and it’s forgivable if the interesting and titillating stuff makes the front page, but surely in all that’s being written the truly important stuff is in there, just perhaps not on the front page? I would argue that it’s not, that no one is talking about the truly important issues and questions, which go well beyond Clinton and Trump. The truly important questions are, what are the limits of democracy? And has democracy*, in fact, failed?

*I understand that we’re not really a democracy, but I use that word throughout because it makes more sense to modern ears and is a mostly accurate description of things in any event.

From a Mormon perspective we already know what the limits of democracy are, it lasts until the people choose inquity, and when that happens it pretty much doesn’t matter what your form of government is, bad things are on the horizon. And, as you might imagine from the general tenor of doom and gloom on this blog, I think that’s the position we’re in. Rather than offer up statistics or some high level view of things, let me instead relate the situation I encountered the other day. I found myself in a meeting with four old (all 70+) men, and we ended up talking, in a general way, about politics. From the discussion it was impossible to say if they were hard-core devotees of either party, but knowing what I do about them, I suspect that they all lean Republican in a vague way, but have voted for many Democrats over the years. As the conversation progressed it was apparent that none of them had any idea who to vote for. In miniature, this is the problem. This group of men hadn’t chosen inquity, but come November 8th they won’t be able not to. Maybe that’s not true, maybe one of the two candidates isn’t a bad choice, but that’s certainly not how they feel. And even setting aside this example we’re still looking at an election between the most unpopular presidential candidate ever, and the second most unpopular presidential candidate ever. And even if you don’t agree that it’s symptomatic of the failure of democracy, you’re surely not going to argue that the 2016 election is democracy’s finest hour either.

Of course there is the option of voting third party, which I’ve talked about already, and perhaps the gentlemen I was talking with will all end up voting for Evan McMullin. There’s even a scenario where he could actually become president. Evan just has to take Utah, Trump has to prevent Hillary from winning a majority of the remaining electoral votes, and then when it gets tossed to the House they give it to Evan. I could see McMullin taking Utah. The rest seems pretty improbable, bordering on the fantastic. In other words, while I appreciate the fact that people are getting a lesson on what happens if no one gets a majority of the electoral votes. It’s not going to get us out of this.

We return then to what I consider the important point. Has democracy failed? To answer that I’d like to go back in history a bit. To start with, it’s obvious if one looks at the history of the American experiment that it was by no means certain that it would work, or that democracy in general had any sort of legs. It’s important to recall that six years after the Revolutionary War ended, there was a revolution in France and it did not go well. And that besides the bloodiness of the whole affair that actually returned to the monarchy under Napoleon III. Which certainly makes it sound like it didn’t take. But we don’t even have to look at France, switching from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution after less than ten years is not the sort of thing that inspires confidence. All of this may seem obvious to you, but even if it does, you may still not realize how precarious things still seemed even as late as the Civil War. This point was brought home to me recently while reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

For most people the Civil War starts and ends with the issue of slavery. And certainly I don’t want to take anything away from that. There would have been no Civil War without slavery and it deserves to be mentioned first whenever the Civil War is discussed. But as is usually the case there is a benefit to going deeper, because while slavery was necessary for the start of the Civil War, it was not sufficient. As Abraham Lincoln said:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Flat out stating that for him, the preservation of the Union was the primary goal. I had heard that quote before, though Team of Rivals reminded me of it, and corrected other mistaken ideas I had been carrying around.

One of the big things I was mistaken about was support for ending slavery even after the war had started. I had always kind of assumed that once war started and especially once the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued that it was pretty much understood, “Well as long as we’re doing this we should definitely make sure to eliminate slavery.” But even late in the war, when the South, through back channels, suggested peace, as long as they got to keep slavery (what sort of peace that would be is anybody’s guess), Lincoln was worried about this news leaking out. While he was adamant that he wouldn’t roll back emancipation, he knew that if the general public found out that the only thing keeping the war going was the issue of slavery, that they would turn against it. Several times it’s made clear that if the war became about just ending slavery that the general population of the North would stop supporting it.

Honestly I’ve never understood why it was so important to preserve the Union, why they couldn’t just let the south go and call it a day. Maybe I’m alone in that, but I can’t imagine Texas seceding and urging my son who turns 18 in a few months to immediately go enlist in the Army so he could join in on the invasion. And I’m pretty certain most people feel the same way. I particularly don’t understand why it was so important to preserve the Union when I consider the 670,000 people who would end up dead (390,000 just on the side of the Union). Now obviously I have the benefit of hindsight which Lincoln did not, but even so he would have to be a great fool to assume that it would not be terrible and bloody. And of course in addition to the number of dead there was the cost of the war, over $8 billion between the two belligerents and over $6 billion just for the North. (To say nothing of veteran benefits which eventually ended up exceeding the original cost of the war.)

To put those two figures in modern terms. Our current population is roughly 10 times the population in 1860, so imagine 6.7 million people dying, or roughly 2200 9/11’s or 1000 Iraqs and Afghanistans. And turning to the financial impact the cost would be equal to $30 trillion in today’s money. All of which is to say that they spent a lot of blood and treasure just to preserve the Union. So why was that so important?

After reading Team of Rivals I think I finally have an answer. As I said earlier we forget how precarious and how experimental our form of government was back then. Recall that at the time of the Civil War, the revolution and the passage of the Constitution were still within living memory. The Thomas Jefferson presidency was to them as the JFK presidency is to us. The debates we have about the expansion of the government under the New Deal? Imagine the same debates and the same time horizon, except the debates are about whether democracy is possible at all. All of this is stated very eloquently by Lincoln in the Gettysburg address:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We forget that it did still seem like a big experiment. At the start of the Civil War there were only three Democracies in the whole world (The aforementioned Napoleon III was in power in France). And of course the US was by far the largest and most ambitious. It certainly must have seemed possible, even probable that if you just let 11 states secede that the entire project was doomed. Whether that was the case I don’t know, but even if I don’t agree it makes sense.

Returning from our long detour through the Civil War, the takeaway is that they were intensely aware of the fragility of democracy, and conscious that it just might not work under some conditions. In fact one of the chief concerns about slavery was that democracy itself couldn’t function appropriately while slavery existed. Ignoring entirely the question of how black slaves should be treated.

By contrast today we just figure that democracy should work, that the governmental system we have will last forever. Or until the benevolent AI overlords can take over. Whether I agree with them or not, during the Civil War people were willing to fight and die in defense of their vision of how the nation should work. I am not suggesting that that’s what we should be doing. I am suggesting that we have gone entirely in the opposite direction to the point where we take democracy for granted. When the founding fathers created our system of government it was unique in all the world. We were the first thing even resembling a democracy in a long time. The Founding Fathers had to go back to the Roman Republic and Ancient Greece in order to find working examples to draw from. Beyond that it was just a bunch of theories put forth by people like Locke and Rousseau. One of their key worries was whether it would even work. As Benjamin Franklin said, when asked what form of government they had, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” This same question confronted Lincoln when he decided to go to war. But in the decades since then we have stopped asking whether we can keep it and we just assume that it’s part of the landscape. It may be overly simplistic to phrase it this way, but it’s precisely when you stop worrying about something that it can be the most likely to happen.

If our lack of concern was the only symptom then you should feel free to dismiss everything I’ve said (though hopefully you enjoyed the Civil War discussion) but of course there are lots of symptoms beyond just a lack of concern.

The current election is obviously a big one. No one feels like this is a contest between two noble individuals put forth after solemn deliberation by their respective parties to honorably contest for the highest position in the land. Instead it feels like the squabbling of toddlers (and I am perfectly willing to blame Trump for a greater portion of that). Reading Team of Rivals I couldn’t help but come away with the impression that the politicians of that era were giants compared to what we have to choose from today.

The increasing rancor of political discourse and the political parties in general is another symptom. Returning to the Civil War things were obviously more heated than they are now, but that shouldn’t provide any comfort when we realize what the final cost was to eventually heal that divide.

Still another symptom is the near absolute power of the Supreme Court. When it comes down to it most people admit that that’s where the true battleground is. And they may hate Trump with the fire of a thousand suns, but confess they’re still going to vote for him because he’s their only chance to get right-wing nominees on the bench. The topic of the Supreme Court will get it’s own post in the near future, but having nine people (and in reality just one person, Kennedy) decide all of the most pressing issues of our day is not the definition of a healthy democracy.

Closely related to the previous symptom, the tendency for people to lose on an issue when put to a popular vote and then get the courts to overrule that vote is another alarming trend. Same Sex Marriage (SSM) is one of the best examples of this, but it’s not the first time it happened and it certainly won’t be the last. Vox.com, a publication which certainly supports SSM recently posted an article pointing out the democracies collapse without graceful losers, not realizing that this same thinking applies something like SSM. (Needless to say there was no reference to that in the article or even to courts overturning majority votes.)

The final symptom I want to discuss, and I will probably get in trouble for this, is the current ideology that quantity is all that matters when it comes to voting. Quality doesn’t matter at all. Allow me to explain. While everyone talks about the need for well-informed voters, voters who care about what’s happening and are voting to make a difference, in every case where a choice must be made between quality and quantity, quantity wins. Of course almost no one views it as a tradeoff, despite the fact that there’s always a tradeoff between the two, to the point where it might as well be a fundamental law of the universe.

Getting to far into the weeds on this particular issue is liable to upset even the people who’ve made it this far, so let me just speak about it in more general terms. Nate Silver recently made a splash when he put out two electoral maps, the one showing what the election would look like if just women voted and one showing what it would look like if just men voted. Obviously no one’s trying to suggest that the election should be restricted in either fashion, but it’s a great example of the idea that you get different results based on how you slice the electorate. Right now we’re not slicing it, we’re making every effort to get every single person possible to vote. Which as I said is a quantity in deference to everything else. Now it’s certainly possible that maximizing quantity also maximizes beneficial outcomes, but I doubt it, and as you may be aware the founding fathers did not think that was the case either.

You may argue those were different times, and indeed they were, but moving it to the present day let’s engage in the following thought experiment. Imagine if we discovered a way to get 10 million more people to vote. Further imagine that these are all people who had never voted before, people who are entirely apathetic about the process, people who if asked could barely identify the people running for president (forget about any other offices). If we could get these people to vote, would they actually improve the outcome of the election? Would we get better leaders from an election with these 10 million people than without them? I can’t see anyway to argue that they would. You might argue that it has some moral benefit, but even that argument would disappear if you changed it from 10 million generic people to 10 million low-information, racist, misogynist  Trump supporters.

It’s easy to forget how recent democracy is. Even our own history of 230+ years is not very long by historical standards, but if we turn again to the website I referenced when I claimed there were only 3 democracies at the start of the Civil War (US, Switzerland and New Zealand) we find that the number of democracies hovered at 40 or less until 1984! To quote from the same website political freedom is a recent achievement. It may not seem that way, and it may seem like it’s something which is as immutable as the rising of the Sun, at least in the US, but that’s not the case. We take it for granted at our peril. Whether you agree with any or all of my symptoms I hope we can all agree that putting forward two candidates who were were seemingly grown in a lab for the express purpose of aggravating the other side is not a good sign.


The Politics of the Zombie Apocalypse

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One of my favorite blogs is Slatestarcodex, the blog of Scott Alexander. And yes I would offer the obligatory “check it out if you haven’t already.”

As an example of the high esteem I have for his blog I’ve started at the very beginning and I’m reading all the archives, and one of his earliest posts has some bearing on the topic we were discussing in my last post, but is also interesting enough on it’s own account to be worth reviewing. So I’ll start with that and then tie it back to my post. His post is titled A Thrive/Survive Theory of The Political Spectrum, and in it he puts forth his own theory of how to explain the right/left, conservative/liberal divide:

…rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

As an example of the rightist/survival mindset he offers the example of a zombie apocalypse. Imagining how you might react to a zombie apocalypse, he feels, is a great way to arrive at most of the things supported by the right/survive side of the political equation. You’d want lots of guns, you’d be very suspicious of outsiders, you’d become very religious (if there are no atheists in foxholes there are definitely no atheists in foxholes surrounded by zombies) extreme black and white thinking would dominate (zombies are not misunderstood, they’re evil), etc.

For the leftist/thrive side of the spectrum he offers the example of a future technological utopia:

Robotic factories produce far more wealth than anyone could possibly need. The laws of Nature have been altered to make crime and violence physically impossible (although this technology occasionally suffers glitches). Infinitely loving nurture-bots take over any portions of child-rearing that the parents find boring. And all traumatic events can be wiped from people’s minds, restoring them to a state of bliss. Even death itself has disappeared.

As you can imagine you’d probably get the exact opposite of the previous scenario. Guns would be nearly non-existent. If you don’t have to compete for resources and violence has been eliminated most of the current objections to foreigners would be gone. Also, based on current trends in the developed world, it seems unlikely that religion would have much of a foothold, nurture bots would make marriage vestigial, etc.

I find his theory very compelling, it makes as much sense as any of the theories I’ve come across, and I have no problem granting that it’s probably accurate. Which leads us to an examination of the implications of the theory, and this is where I think it gets really interesting.

The first thing to consider is which view of the future is more likely to be accurate. Is it going to be closer to the technological utopia or the zombie apocalypse? I think my own views on this subject are pretty clear. (Though as I mentioned way back in the first post I think we’re more likely to see a gradual catabolic collapse than a Mad Max/Walking Dead scenario.) But I’m also on record as saying that I could very well be wrong. Given that we can’t predict the future, what’s more important is not to try and guess what will happen, to say nothing of trying to plan around those guesses, but rather to choose the course where the penalty for being wrong is the smallest.

In other words if the world prepares for disaster and instead we end up with robotic factories that produce everything we could possible need, then it’s fine, and yes we wasted some time and resources preparing for disaster, but in light of the eventual abundance it was a small price to pay. But if the world pins its hopes on robotic factories and we end up with roving zombies then people die, which I understand is much worse than wasting time and money.

Of course one might immediately make the argument that by preparing for disaster we could slow down or actually prevent the technological utopia. Obviously that argument is not easy to dismiss, particularly since, generally, planning for A makes it harder to accomplish B. This is especially true if B is the opposite of A. Thus, on its face that argument would appear to be compelling. But let’s look at how things are actually playing out.

If we want robotic factories then we need to spend resources inventing them. More generally, the best way to guarantee the technological utopia is to put as many resources as we can into innovation. So how are our resources allocated? According to this chart 41% of US GDP goes to the government, not the first place you think of when the word innovation comes to mind. But it’s still possible that some innovation might emerge, but if it does it will most likely come from military spending, the area leftists would most like to cut. I would argue that innovation is least likely to come from entitlement spending the area leftists are most desirous to expand. In other words, at first glance the people planning on the utopian future may, paradoxically, be the people least likely to bring it about.

Of course there’s still the remaining 59% of the economy. It’s certainly conceivable that leftists could be so much better at encouraging innovation in that area of the economy that it makes up for whatever distortions they bring to the percent of GDP consumed by the government. On this count I see evidence going both ways. I think the generally laissez-faire attitude of the rightist is much better for encouraging innovation. On the other hand the hub of modern innovation is San Francisco, a notoriously leftist city. On the gripping hand you have things like Uber not being able to operate in SF because of regulations. Personally I would again say that rightist are better at encouraging innovation then leftists. Best case scenario I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a wash. Also as our affluence increases the percentage of GDP that goes to government also increases, which takes us back to the first argument.

Remember in the end, we don’t even need to show that rightest are better at innovation, just that their focus on survival doesn’t fatally injure the prospects of the technological utopia, which I don’t see any compelling evidence for.

Having progressed this far, we have the survive/rightist side of the aisle being great as a just-in-case measure, which doesn’t slow down the thrive/leftist side and may actually speed it up. In fact at this point you may think that Alexander obviously created the post as a defense of rightism, and many of the commenters on his blog felt the same way, but that was not the case. Here’s his response

…this post was not intended to sell Reaction [rightism/survive]. If anything, it was about how it was adapted for conditions that no longer exist. If you’re in a stable society without zombies, optimizing your life for zombie defense is a waste of time; working towards not-immediately-survival-related but nice and beautiful and enjoyable things like the environment and equality and knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.

Does he have a point? Is the survive mindset a relic of the past which now just represents a waste of time and resources? This is where we return to my last post. If you haven’t read it here’s the 30 second summary. Some smart concerned people wanted poor countries to use opiates like morphine to ease the pain of the dying. They refused. Instead it was all the rich countries who started using opiates leading to the deaths of an additional 100,000 people, just in the US, from prescription opiate overdoses.

This is a great example of the thrive/survive dichotomy. In typical survive fashion the poor countries were not worried about easing the pain of people who were effectively already dead. Rather, they were a lot more worried about addiction and overdosing among the young, healthy population. Whereas in typical thrive we-shouldn’t-have-to-worry-about-anything fashion, the rich world prescribed opiates like candy. In our post scarcity world why should anyone have to worry about pain? But as it turned out despite living in what is arguably already a technological utopia (I mean have you seen this thing called the internet?!?) heroin is still really addictive. And using technology to switch a few molecules around and slap a time release coating on it (and call it oxycontin) didn’t make as much of a difference as people hoped.

This should certainly not be taken as sufficient evidence to say that “survive” is superior (though I think that’s where we’re headed) but it should at least serve as sufficient evidence to refute the idea that the conditions where the survive mindset is beneficial “no longer exist.”

So we have 100.000 people, at least, who wish the needle had been a little bit more on the survive end of dial and a little bit less on the thrive side of dial. With a number like that one starts to wonder why we even have people who are optimized for thrive. Well, just like everything, it goes back to evolution. Of course anytime you start putting forth an evolutionary explanation for things you’re in danger of constructing a just-so story. Though this particular theory does have some evidence behind it. Here Alexander and I are once again largely in agreement so I’ll pass it back to him:

Developmental psychology has gradually been moving towards a paradigm where our biology actively seeks out information about our environment and then toggles between different modes based on what it finds. Probably the most talked-about example of this paradigm is the thrifty phenotype idea, devised to explain the observation that children starved in the womb will grow up to become obese

Coincidently I came across another example of this just the other day. My research began when I came across an article that indicated that Dawkin’s theory of the Selfish Gene had fallen out of favor and I wanted to know why. As it turns out this paradigm of phenotypical toggling was a big reason. The example given by this article dealing with the problems of the Selfish Gene concerned grasshoppers and locusts. What people didn’t realize until very recently is that grasshoppers and locusts are the same species, but grasshoppers turn into locusts when a switch is flipped by environmental cues. Continuing with Alexander:

It seems broadly plausible that there could be one of these switches for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and it’s job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”.

In other words humans switch to thrive when things are going well because it works better, and when things aren’t going well they switch to survive because that works better. Of course the immediate question is, what does it mean for something to “work better”. Since we’re talking about evolution, working better means reproductive success, or having more offspring. The fact that the people most associated with the thrive side of things have the least children is something that seems like a big flashing neon sign, which makes me want to switch to a completely separate topic, but I’m going to resist it.

Also if we’re talking in terms of an evolutionary response the thrive side of things has to have been a potential strategy for a long, long time. It can’t have been something that developed in the last 100 years, or even the last 500 years. We’re talking about something that’s been around for probably tens of thousands of years. Thus, any theory about it’s benefits would have to encompass a pre-historical reason for the thrive switch to exist.

As I warned earlier. discussions like this are apt to look like just so stories, so if even the hint of ad hoc reasoning bothers you, you should skip the next 5 paragraphs.

Obviously one category of people who might benefit from the thrive switch would be whoever ends up being in the ruling class. You might think that’s too small a category to deserve it’s own evolutionary switch, but I direct your attention to the fact that 1 in every 200 men are descendants of Genghis Khan, and the related finding that there were more mothers than fathers in the past indicating strong polygyny, almost certainly concentrated in the ruling class. What this implies is that even if something is only triggered a small amount of the time, it could have a disproportionate evolutionary effect. Sure, you might only be on the top of the heap a short time, perhaps only a few generations, but a switch to take advantage of that could have an enormous long term effect.

If we’re willing to grant that the thrive switch was largely designed to take advantage of your time on top, and we’re willing to see where speculation might take us (you were warned) it generates some interesting ideas.

First it definitely explains the promiscuity. It explains the hedonism. It explains the enormous focus on jockeying for status and signalling games. But so far I haven’t departed that much from Alexander’s position. What if I told you it explains microaggressions?

The concept of microaggressions has been much discussed over the last few years. Most people view it as a new and disturbing trend. But microaggressions have been around forever, however up until now they were restricted to royalty. In dealing with royalty you have to be careful not to give the slightest hint of offense, to use exactly the right words when addressing them. Can anyone look at this chart explaining the proper form of address for royalty and tell me it’s not the most elaborate system ever for avoiding microaggressions? Is the rising objection to microaggressions an unavoidable consequence of the increasing dominance of the thrive paradigm?

Okay perhaps that’s a stretch, speculation and just-so-story time over we’ll return to firmer ground.

Much of what we understand about the kind of evolutionary switching we’re talking about comes from game theory. And of course the classic example of game theory is prisoner’s dilemma. Iterated prisoner’s dilemma is often used as a proxy for group dynamics and evolution. In this case the strategy that works best is a tit-for tat strategy, but game theory also tells us that occasionally, particularly in the short term, it can be advantageous to defect. Could the thrive switch be just this? That when the rewards for defecting reach a certain level, the switch flips and the individual defects? The exact nature of the defection (and the abandoned co-operation) are not entirely clear to me, but we are still talking about a certain payoff leading to a switch in strategy. And you don’t have to be a hard core libertarian to think that the baron in his castle has a more predatory relationship with the peasant than the peasant has with another peasant.

I admit that I am once again speculating to a large degree. But this speculation proceeds from some reasonable assumptions. Assumption one: the thrive switch works in conjunction with the the survive switch. That there’s a reason grasshoppers aren’t locusts 100% of the time. Assumption two: this symbiotic relationship has not gone away (see the previous point about opiates.) Assumption three: There are unseen reasons for the historical equilibrium between the two modes.  In other words, one could certainly imagine that the thrive strategy relies on having a certain level of surrounding survive. That evolutionarily speaking a society that’s 20% thrive and 80% survive works great, but a society in which those numbers are reversed, works horribly, or is in any case much more fragile than the society which is only 20% thrive.

How might we test this? What would count as evidence for an imbalance between the strive and thrive portions of society? What would count as evidence of the imbalance being dangerous? I can think of few things:

-College: This area could provide a blog post or three all on it’s own. As Alexander says if you’re in thrive mode then pursuing “knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.” But there’s definitely a strong case to be made that we’ve reached a point where too many people go to college. And even if you agree with the general benefit of college and want it spread as widely as possibly, you can still probably agree that too many people take on too much debt to get degrees in fields with very little economic benefit. If that’s not evidence of a thrive imbalance than I think you have to invalidate the entire construct.   

-Debt: I’m reminded of an exchange in Anna Karenina when one of the main characters complains of being in debt. The noble’s he’s with asks how much and he responds with the amount of twenty thousand roubles, and they all laugh at him because it’s so small. One of the nobles is five million roubles in debt on a salary of twenty thousand a year. This to me encapsulates the idea that debt is something that was traditionally only available to the wealthy. But today we have a staggering amount of debt at all levels. I was just reading in The Economist that the unfunded pension liability in 20 OECD countries is $78 trillion dollars. That’s an amount that takes a minute to sink in, but for help $78 trillion is about the world’s GDP for an entire year. Now maybe Krugman and Yglesias and Keynes are all correct and government debt (even $78 trillion of it) is no big deal, but what about consumer debt, and student debt, and corporate debt. Is it all no big deal?

-Virtue Signalling: I mentioned signalling games earlier, and you may still be unclear on what those actually are. Well as Alexander explains:

When people are no longer constrained by reality, they spend most of their energy in signaling games. This is why rich people build ever-bigger yachts and fret over the parties they throw and who got invited where. It’s why heirs and heiresses so often become patrons of the art, or donors to major charities. Once you’ve got enough money, the next thing you need is status, and signaling is the way to get it.

So the people of this final utopia will be obsessed with looking good. They will become moralists, and try to prove themselves more virtuous than their neighbors.

In a virtue signalling arms race it becomes harder and harder to establish that you are truly the most virtuous, and as a result virtue get’s sliced into smaller and smaller parts. If three genders (male, female and other) is virtuous, surely seven is more virtuous, thirty-one still more virtuous and fifty-one the most virtuous of all (until someone comes along with their list of sixty-three or, not to be outdone, seventy-one.) Is this evidence of a thrive/survive imbalance? It sure looks like one, and of course, this is also just one example. Is it evidence of the imbalance being dangerous? That I’m less sure about, I guess it depends on how far the arms race goes. I have a hard time imagining that will eventually reach the point where murdering the transphobic is considered more virtuous than yelling at them, but honestly I never imagined we’d get as far as we have already.

Whether you accept these three points as evidence of a dangerous imbalance will largely depend on how closely your own biases and prejudices match mine. I’m certainly not the only one who thinks that worthless college degrees, massive debt, and the virtue arms race are problems. I just may be the only one who has tried to tie them to a single cause.

Since this is technically an LDS blog (though I’ve hid it very well the last couple of posts) you might constructively wonder what the Church’s stance on things is. And while the Church would strenuously object to an accusation that everyone in the Church is a Republican (particularly in light of the current candidate) and would probably also object (albeit perhaps less strenuously) over being labeled a Right-wing organization. With their emphasis on food storage, avoiding debt, chastity and family would they or anyone else object to them being labeled a “survive” organization


Hillary Clinton and the Criteria of Embarrassment

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It’s old news by now Hillary Clinton had a pretty rough time of it on September 11th. I’m sure you’ve heard the story and you might even be sick of it, so I won’t spend too much space on the details. I’m more interested in looking at it from a slightly higher level than that. In particular I’m interested in an examination of figuring out how to figure out what’s going on. Meta-figuring out you might say. Or perhaps meta-investigation sounds better.

In my reading I end up in some of the darker corners of the internet. And the idea that Clinton might have health issues has been floating in those corners for awhile. Of course if some person, in some dark corner of the internet says that Clinton is sick that doesn’t mean anything, but it doesn’t mean nothing either. However partisan someone is, they generally have to have something to latch onto first. In this case it was Clinton’s 2012 fainting spell where she hit her head and got a concussion, and when later examined was found to have a blood clot.

On its face that sounds serious, though, in the interest of full disclosure I have known two people who died as the result of, or from complications due to, blood clots, and both were comparatively young, so I may be predisposed to view clots as more dangerous than they actually are. Even so, I wouldn’t say I decided anything right then, certainly not that Clinton definitely has a health problem and there’s a conspiracy to hide it. Rather it was one of those things that you file in the “might be true” box which also puts it into the potential black swan category. Of course given the enormous power of the president and the fact that they’re only one person a president’s health is always a potential black swan, just look at William Henry Harrison. But when you hear something like that you might, without making any firm decisions, mentally increase the odds a little bit.

That’s where things remained for a while and that’s where they might still be, had no further facts come to light. But of course more facts did come to light. Also, the election is less than two months away, so if I am going to do something with it, I need to do it soon.

Now we’ve already talked about how any one person is very unlikely to influence the election, so if the only thing at stake is my vote, then who cares what I end up deciding as far as Clinton’s health? But of course it’s not just me. There are thousands, if not millions of people out there who have all heard the news about Clinton’s collapse, and are now trying to decide if Clinton’s health should be a factor in how they cast their vote. How do these people make up their mind? Where can they go to get their information?

I said earlier that more facts have become available, and while that’s true, facts are not what most people have access to. There are facts and there is the spin on those facts. And mostly what’s available is spin, which you then have to dissect to get the actual facts. And this is where the difficulty arises. This is where meta-investigation comes into play.

I’m going to take you through a few of my own attempts to do this dissection, mostly to illustrate the difficulty inherent in the process. Is this going to be horribly prejudiced? Almost certainly, but I think despite that, viewing the process might be valuable anyway. I am going to try to keep it as neutral and objective as possible, but just by choosing the subject of Hillary’s health, people are going to claim that I’ve clearly picked a side. Perhaps I have, though, honestly, I’m almost certainly going to vote third party. But certainly, by focusing on Clinton’s health, people who are looking for reasons to disqualify my opinion would have ample excuse right there. But if you’re looking for an excuse not to listen, I think you may already be dealing with an significant lack of objectivity without any help from me. And regardless of your political leanings I think the issue of how to get at the truth is important, and Clinton’s recent health problems just seem to be custom made for this sort of thing.

Returning to Clinton’s most recent episode on 9/11, as I said, obviously at this point there is already tons of stuff out there from all sides trying to spin the event as either not worth talking about at all, (which seems a stretch) or the end of the Clinton campaign (also a stretch). With such an enormous amount already written on the subject where does one go? How do we extract anything?

For myself I started with the video. What can we get out of that? First no one seems to be claiming that it’s not Clinton, which is a great start. It’s amazing how once you get into the weeds what sort of theories actually get floated. But it can be necessary to consider even the crazy stuff if you’re really trying to strip the facts from the spin. But it seems safe to put the video in the facts column. The video is an actual record of an event which actually happened.

Okay, so that’s a fact. What do we do with it then? Well on the one hand you’re not a doctor and you weren’t there, but on the other hand you do have a decision to make on November 8th, when it comes time to cast your vote. And, hopefully, you want to make the best decision possible, so while viewing a video isn’t ideal, it is information largely without a filter. What other facts can we extract?

Unfortunately not many. But wait, you may be saying, what about the fact that she was just overheated? Or that her doctor said that she had pneumonia? Or if we’re talking about videos being facts, what about the video a short while later when she emerged from the apartment and appeared to be doing great?

Let’s take those in reverse order. There’s a quote that I really like, that I think cuts to the heart of separating fact from spin:

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.

The origin of that quote is obscure. But it’s basically a restatement of a principle often used when attempting to separate historical truth from fiction: the criterion of embarrassment. The idea is that if you see something people don’t want you to see it’s probably true and when you see something that someone wants you to see it’s more likely to be staged or spun for your benefit.

Applying this to the two videos. It’s very unlikely that Clinton wanted anyone to see her having a hard time walking to the car. In fact it’s been reported that she forbade cameras from filming her. And the only reason we have a video is that a private individual filmed it on their phone. Thus by the criteria of embarrassment this is probably a true glimpse of what was going on. When you look at the second video it was obvious that she wanted cameras to be filming and wanted people to be watching. Does this mean it wasn’t actually happening? No, but it means that she (or her handlers) decided that this was something that should be seen. So while it was undoubtedly true, it’s also possible that it had less information content than the other video. Still if you want to enter it into the record as a fact you may, but it should be entered with the intentionality of the act understood. Clinton decided to appear in front of the media later that day.

What then, about the overheating and the pneumonia? This relates back to the criteria of embarrassment. Clinton’s doctor and staff is telling you what they feel comfortable telling you. There is certainly some embarrassment involved but less so than not saying anything. And the fact that there was some lag in mentioning the pneumonia means that at some point they did not feel comfortable mentioning it.

Finally the heat exhaustion and the pneumonia raise their own interesting points. If we turn again to trying to get at some facts is there anything to be extracted from those claims or more specifically the timing of those claims

I find the statements on pneumonia and overheating to be uninteresting when considered separately. It’s only when you consider them together that I something potentially useful emerges, but first we have to step back a bit. Clinton’s doctor says that she was diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday. And since the video of her collapse was posted, both Clinton and her staff have apologized for not mentioning the pneumonia diagnosis sooner. Obviously if she was diagnosed on Friday, then Clinton was aware of it, but it also sounds like some members of her staff were aware of it as well. If everyone was aware of it, when the video and other news of her difficulties on 9/11 came out, why didn’t they immediately say “She has pneumonia.” Instead, in the immediate aftermath the story was that she had merely overheated.

I understand that when someone get’s this nitpicky they are in danger of starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist. But when you’re trying to extract facts from spin, dissections like this can be pretty valuable. And what we might be seeing here is one of those instances where you get a view of some facts before the spin machine has a chance to take over. Also as Taleb said a few days after the incident:

It is as irrational to reject all conspiracy theories as it is to accept them.

With that in mind, let’s get a little bit nitpicky. As I said, in the immediate aftermath of Clinton’s troubles and the video, no one offered up the information that she had pneumonia. But at this point a few days out, most people probably don’t even remember that pneumonia didn’t come up till later, or if they do they assume that the pneumonia diagnosis was a clarification which followed quickly after the explanation that she overheated. In reality it was many hours after the fact that they announced that she had pneumonia. Clinton collapsed at around 9:30 that morning. They announced she was overheated at 11:00. She appeared in public in the second video around 1:00. The pneumonia didn’t come up until 5:00. (This is a good, if partisan, breakdown of the timeline, but the NYT confirms the key fact about the pneumonia not coming out until 5:00.) This timeline takes us back into the realm of facts. But once again we’re left with the question of what to do with these facts.

As an aside, it’s perfectly fine if you’ve decide that Hillary Clinton could be in a vegetative state and you would still vote for her over Trump. But if, for whatever reason, you have decided that Clinton’s health is a factor in your decision on how to vote, perhaps even the deciding factor, then trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on is important. And even if her health isn’t the deciding factor, and something else is, you will still face the same challenges getting to the bottom of that issue. Particularly given the incredibly polarized nature of today’s media and politics.

But returning to the timeline. If lots of people knew that Clinton had pneumonia as early as Friday, why wasn’t that the first explanation offered? I understand that’s a question which is impossible to answer, just as viewing the video doesn’t definitely answer the question of whether Clinton is healthy enough to be president. So we’ve managed to tunnel down to the level of facts, but having reached there we may be no closer to a decision than we were before, and we probably have no choice but to wade back into the “spin zone.” However at least we have some facts, so that when we do wade back in we’re better prepared to decide which spin might actually contain an element of truth. Presumably we’ll be particularly attentive to that spin which accepts the same facts as we do, and we should reject out of hand any spin that denies the few things which we’re certain are factual.

Of course once you’re back into the spin zone it becomes even more difficult. For example the first thing you might want to do is get a doctor’s opinion. This is a health issue after all. Obviously there’s Clinton’s doctor, and whatever they say shouldn’t be discounted. But under the criteria of embarrassment you may nevertheless decide to set it aside, or even if you don’t it’s perfectly understandable to seek a second opinion. This is another point where people might stop reading, since if you choose to discount Clinton’s doctor then you’re, by definition, putting forth a conspiracy theory, the theory of a conspiracy between Clinton and her doctor (and probably others as well) to lie to the public. First, refer back to what Taleb said, second it’s not as if conspiracies to cover up presidential or presidential candidate’s health are without precedent. But as I said, maybe you just want another perspective. Certainly if you looked around and all doctors were unanimous in declaring that the symptoms Clinton had exhibited (going all the way back to the 2012 fainting episode, and perhaps even farther) were perfectly normal, then that would be a reasonably good sign that these health scares were overblown. What if, on the other hand, you found some doctors who were worried? What do you do then?

This is where the wading into the spin becomes so problematic. If you’ve done what you could to uncover facts, you’ve watched the video, and it doesn’t raise any concerns. You’ve uncovered the large gap between the incident and the first mention of pneumonia and you feel like you have a reasonable explanation for that. Then you might decide to completely ignore the doctors who have expressed concerns. And if that’s the decision you’ve reached, that’s completely reasonable. But what if, having seen the video and uncovered the time disparity you have a nagging feeling that it doesn’t add up. And then you come across a doctor, presumably more knowledgeable than you, who has these same misgivings? Should this be added into your own assessment of probabilities? Or should you ignore it because this doctor obviously hasn’t done an actual examination of Clinton? Being human it’s certainly going to be the first, but still you might want to look closely at the doctor, does he have any biases you should be aware of?

This exact thing happened to me, albeit before the incident on 9/11. Drew Pinsky, often known as Dr. Drew, who for many years was on Loveline with Adam Carolla came out with his misgivings about Clinton’s health. Okay so there’s a doctor, and he also thinks something might be going on there. (Once again to be clear I am not basing my vote on my assessment of Clinton’s health, I just think it’s an interesting exercise in getting at the truth. Whatever that is.) But what do I know about Dr. Drew? Obviously I’ve heard of him. I saw a couple of episodes of Loveline, several months ago I listened to his interview on WTF. But beyond that I don’t know. Is he a notorious conservative who will say anything? Does he have a long standing feud with the Clintons? It can be hard to tell after the fact because of course the minute he offers his opinion, not only is that opinion tossed into the partisan battlefield with one side rallying around it and the other side attempting to blow it up, but Dr. Drew himself is forced onto the battlefield and forced to take sides. He may have been completely apolitical before this, but suddenly if he doesn’t want to be completely alone against a fairly furious attack he has to pick some allies.

As you can see anytime someone does offer a definitive opinion, even if backed by expertise, it get’s swallowed into the partisan maw. So where does that leave someone who’s still trying to figure out the truth about Clinton’s health? To further complicate things, it should be pointed out that neither side wants you to succeed. Even if one side is more correct than the other they are both trying to push the pendulum as far as they can. One side want’s to convince you that there’s a 95% chance Clinton will be dead by Election Day and the other side wants to convince you that Clinton had the mildest form of pneumonia possible, barely worthy of the name and other than that she has the stamina and intellect of a 25 year old.

I wouldn’t blame you if, after all this, you threw up your hands and decided to give up on the whole enterprise, or if, as is far more common, you picked a side at some point in the past and decided to just believe whatever that side was saying.

But if you’re still determined to dig. And once again recall that your vote, particularly in the presidential race, almost certainly doesn’t matter. So that even if you do arrive at a firm, unshakable position, that you’re basically King Canute commanding the waves. If despite this, you still want to continue, then I offer my final piece of advice.

One of the things that you’re naturally going to be inclined to do, and which you’re going to be pressured to do, is make a firm and final decision. In the case we’ve been examining you’re going to be asked to declare once and for all that Clinton is hiding something, or alternatively that she is not. In fact people are going to want you to go even farther and not merely declare she is hiding something, but toss in decades of misdeeds by the Clinton’s as well, or alternatively, demand that in addition to vouching for Clinton’s transparency about her health, that you add in a declaration that Trump is a misogynistic moron. You should resist this impulse and this pressure. Nothing is certain. What you should really be doing is adjusting your probabilities, not trying to find some firm and final answer. This doesn’t carry the certainty of deciding that everything is fine and there’s no reason not to vote for Clinton. But remember that you can’t command the waves, and contrary to how the story of King Canute is normally used these days. The King knew that, and the point of the whole exercise was for him to show the limits of his power, just as we need to be aware of the limits of knowledge.

With this in mind let’s return to an examination of the recent comments by Dr. Drew. If you dig into things there are some elements which move the needle in one direction and some elements which move it in the other direction. As an example of something which makes Dr. Drew less credible you have to of course include that he evaluated her without access to her records and without any kind of examination. Not only is the information he’s relying on partial and potentially misleading, but it’s a borderline violation of medical ethics.

As an example of something which adds to his credibility, if you look at what he actually said, he’s not only commenting on Clinton’s health but her medical care. When he says that some of the medications she’s receiving are no longer recommended, then not only is that a statement devoid of politics, but it’s also very specific and detailed, something you could probably check if you were so inclined.

Obviously there’s a lot more than just these two, but in the absence of a smoking gun, deciding on a probability and adjusting it as new information comes in, is the best anyone can do, particularly with the incredibly low signal to noise ratio of today’s journalism

I fear, having reached the end that perhaps this isn’t as useful as I hoped. But of course there are no easy tactics to uncover the facts. Still, hopefully the criteria of embarrassment was something useful to add to your cognitive toolkit. And finally, remember:

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.


Is It Finally Time to Start Thinking About Voting Third Party?

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Having spent the last several posts in a discussion of politics I thought it might be worthwhile to do one more and break on through to the other side as they say, but I promise this will be the last post for awhile on the topic. And for this last post I’d like to talk about voting. Obviously this is the key way we participate in politics as citizens of the United States. Which is not to overlook the people who attend caucuses, or go door-to-door with a local candidate, or even run for office, but not only are such people rare, they probably already have a pretty good idea how they want to vote. I think they could nevertheless benefit from what I say here, but it is still primarily directed at people whose highest engagement with politics is voting. Of course, we haven’t even touched on the significant percentage of people who don’t even do that, despite the impassioned pleas of celebrities and the desperation of political parties, and in the case of members, the Church itself. (I would be curious to know what percentage of temple recommend holders vote.) I actually don’t blame people for not voting. It’s exceedingly rare that a single vote makes a difference, and economically when you consider the opportunity cost it definitely seems like a waste of time.

Still we are urged to vote, and I have actually seen one vote make a difference. It was a local bond issue, and I voted against it. Had I voted for it, the vote would have been tied. So one vote can make a difference, though it hardly ever happens, and if it does, only in smaller elections.

Of course while being strongly urged to vote, the Church does not, despite the fear-mongering of its more radical opponents to the contrary, tell us who to vote for. They leave that to the individual, perhaps secure that we’ll do the right thing, but what is the right thing exactly? That’s what I want to explore, and I’m not confident that I’ll reach any definitive conclusions but perhaps in the act of exploration we’ll uncover some wisdom.

There are many methodologies for picking who to vote for, some obviously better than others. To get us started let’s look at one of my favorite, but most narrowly useful methodologies. Voting for people you know. Given that we are technically a republic not a democracy, in most cases you don’t get to decide what happens you only get to decide who get’s to decide what happens. And if that decision maker is someone who you can call on the phone and actually talk to, that substantially increases their utility. Lobbying is built around a very similar concept, which is why it’s so popular, even if we believe the defenders that it merely provides access not influence. For this reason, I’ll confess that this is the method I use first when deciding who to vote for. In addition to giving me a marginally greater say in the workings of government it’s also quick. Many of the methods we’re going to discuss require a lot of study and might still yield an unclear result. Not this one. As I said it’s not something I can draw on very often, and on some occasions, such as local elections, I might know both people. Thus, whatever the benefits of this method it is not universally applicable, which requires that we have additional methods to draw on.

Certainly if we can take any political lesson from the scriptures it would involve the great harm caused by unrighteous leaders. Of course most of the leaders in question are kings, and as of 1783 we don’t have one of those. But I would certainly expect that if someone demonstrably wicked was running for office that you wouldn’t vote for them. I imagine there are many people on both sides in the current election who feel like there is some demonstrable wickedness going on in the presidential race, but I’ve always had a hard time determining how righteous someone is. Without knowing their heart, evaluating their righteousness is at best inexact and at worst might result in labelling good evil and evil good. More commonly any such an attempt is subjective, and prone to an overweighting of some things and an underweighting others. For example is it better to have an adulterer or an embezzler as a leader? I would probably say it would be better to have an adulterer, but isn’t adultery a more serious sin than embezzling? Which sins do we tolerate? If we aren’t willing to tolerate a serious amount of lying then it’s going to be hard to find anyone to vote for.

Lately we have had access to more LDS candidates, most notably Mitt Romney. Perhaps if we just had LDS members to choose from at all levels that would solve the problem? Unfortunately I don’t think so. The two most prominent Mormon politicians are Romney and Harry Reid, and you are unlikely to find someone who would vote for both of them. Furthermore, at the local level you will frequently find that two LDS people are running against each other. Finally, having a religious test strikes even co-religionists as distasteful.

By this point you may be wondering when I’m going to talk about the method of just voting on the issues, well in essence this is just a very watered down version of trying to judge someone’s righteousness. And it sounds great in theory, but in practice there are hidden difficulties. First it requires you to get out of the political my team vs. your team mentality I described in a previous episode. And once you really start looking at the issues and thinking deeply about them you’ll find that it’s only very rarely that a candidate lines up exactly the same as you do on every issue. Often you can totally agree with them on one issue and find their stand on another issue to be completely repugnant. Or what’s worse their stand on an issue may be unclear. And that doesn’t even take into account the strong possibility that they’ll say one thing while campaigning but do something entirely different once they’re actually elected.

Confronted with the difficulty of trying to track dozens of issues, uncovering not only the candidates position but your own feelings about it, and then further attempting to prioritize all those positions in some fashion, many people give up and decide to simplify things by becoming single issue voters. If you’re only focused on one thing then your research is greatly simplified. If all you care about is whether someone is pro-life you don’t have to listen to their foreign policy speech. While this may simplify things it can also leave you in no better position than you were before. For instance in a two party system you can easily end up in a situation where both candidates have the same position on an issue. They may disagree or agree with you, but it hardly matters because you’re left in a situation where despite having a very firm position on an issue, you don’t have any way of differentiating. They’re both great on your issue or they’re both horrible.

Of course there are more than two parties, and that’s what I’ve been building towards, and it’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important to get out of the my team vs. the other team political headspace that’s so prevalent. Yes, it’s almost certainly true that if you don’t vote for Clinton or Trump in this election then you have wasted your vote, in the sense that your candidate, be it Stein or Johnson or whoever, can’t possibly win regardless of whether you voted for them or not. And it can be difficult to watch the Republican-Democrat football game and not get caught up in it, to even realize that there’s another option. But I think if you are going to follow the advice of the brethren and vote you should really consider all of the candidates. Once you do, and further once you give up on the idea of wasting your vote, choosing a candidate becomes far less objectionable, and frankly more straightforward.

Now I am not going to get into dissection of the platform of the Libertarian Party or the Greens, or even the Party of Socialism and Liberation. What I am going to address is the argument that if you don’t vote Republican or Democrat that you have wasted your vote. To begin with, in practice, unless an election comes down to a single vote you have wasted your vote regardless of who you vote for. But of course voting goes beyond merely deciding the outcome of an election, it is also a way to express your point of view. A somewhat crude way, but it’s undoubtedly true that once a winner has been determined, the next question is to ask by how much they won. If someone wins by 0.2% (or loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College) they have a substantially different mandate than if they win by 23%. And of course 23% is a landslide. It’s a shellacking. It’s a pummeling.

If Clinton or Trump were to achieve that level of victory it would be historic. People would be talking about it for a long time, just like they talk about Reagan beating Mondale. But here’s where it gets interesting that 23% margin of victory I just barely mentioned actually comes from Nixon beating McGovern. Does anyone talk about that anymore? Particularly given that just a couple of years later Nixon resigned?  

My point is that if you vote for one of the two major parties your vote is going to get lost in the flood of all the other votes. And even if your vote helped Nixon to the fourth biggest margin of victory in history (and the biggest in the last 50 years) in two years it might all be forgotten. But when we turn to third party candidates the “flood” is more of a trickle and so it takes a lot fewer votes to make an impact. People are still talking about Nadar’s run in 2000 and he only ended up with 2.75% of the vote.

If you know that your vote is not going to make the difference in the actual outcome of election. That you’re only left with two reasons to vote. You can either vote because it’s your duty or because you want to send a message (or possibly both.) It doesn’t necessarily matter what message you’re trying to send. If you’re a Trump supporter perhaps, looking at the polls, you might want to make sure he doesn’t get slaughtered in a fashion similar to Mondale, or Goldwater. If you’re a Clinton supporter perhaps you think she’s got it in the bag, but you would love to make Utah a swing state.  But if you are going to try and make this statement with one of the two major parties you have to look at how much of a percentage your candidate has to get for a statement to really be made. In almost all cases your vote is going to make more of a splash if it’s part of the 2.75% than if it’s part of the 50%.

In saying this I am not saying that you can’t vote for one of the two major parties, I only suggest that if there is a third party which matches your ideology more closely that you should definitely consider voting for them. That is not a wasted vote. And if it really is our duty to vote and if it really is something the brethren want us to take seriously shouldn’t be be looking for the truly best candidate regardless of their chances of winning?

Interestingly the church structure itself bears some interesting parallels which might even point in the direction of a third party. First when people are called to a position in the Church it has very little to do with seniority. We’ve all heard of cases of bishops who are in their 20’s or Stake Presidents who are in their 30’s. When you look at the two major parties do you ever get a sense that a lot of times the candidate is just the one who’s turn it is? That’s certainly the case with Hillary in this election and I think it was the case with Romney and McCain in the previous elections. If we look past the obvious candidates when calling people to serve in Church, how much more should we do the same when looking for a presidential candidate?

And further there’s the process of sustaining people. You may think of raising your hand to sustain someone as voting for one of the two parties. Most of the time that appears to be the only choice available, but if you really feel strongly you do have the option to raise your hand and oppose a calling. I don’t recommend it unless you really do have misgivings (and I certainly think those people who are doing it at General Conference are misguided) but, the point I’m trying to get at is how impactful that is. If you’ve ever been in a local meeting where someone raised their hand to oppose a calling, then it’s a situation people are still talking about. It’s the same way in the presidential elections. When you break with the pack and vote for a third party people notice. And yes there’s a lot of pressure to not do it (another parallel) but, I would say that in elections you shouldn’t let that stop you.

In case it’s not clear the primary methodology I recommend (after voting for people you know) is to vote for the best candidate, regardless of the party. I know it seems like a radical idea, but it shouldn’t. In the Book of Mormon, Mosiah 29:27 we read that:

And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.

I personally think we’re fast approaching that point if we haven’t already, and it’s possible that we are already at the point where if we stick with the two major parties then we have no choice but to choose iniquity. And then aren’t we partially culpable for that choice?

To be honest this episode did not start out as a full-throated defense of third parties, though that does appear to be what it ended up as. I will say that personally I have never voted for one of the two main presidential candidates. I say this not to boost, but more to point out that it has been a long-standing obsession of mine. I do think we need greater third party participation in the whole process. I am pretty fed up with both the Republicans and Democrats. And If you’re not, if you have thought deeply about the issues and Trump or Clinton is your preferred candidate, then vote for them with a clear conscience and my blessing, but if you are planning to vote while holding your nose perhaps it would make more sense to look at one of the third party candidates before you do. You might find someone who makes you hold your nose a little bit less. And rather than wasting your vote you’d be sending a message at least as clear as whatever message you might send by voting for a Republican or a Democrat.

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One final voting methodology as a bonus for people who’ve read this far. If you have a system of judicial retention like we do in Utah, and I’m honestly not sure how widely this practice is used, then you should always vote NOT to retain any of the judges (unless you know them personally, see my first point). The reason for this is that for the most part judges are always retained with over 90% of the vote, and so your vote not to retain will have no impact for any judge who’s even halfway competent, but if there is a judge out there who isn’t getting 90% or at least 80% then they really should go, and by voting not to retain them you can help out that process. We had a situation just like this many years ago, in this case I had heard of the judge in question, but because I was using this method it didn’t matter whether I had heard about him or not, I helped get him off the bench. Of course this also relates to my general bias against incumbency, but we’re already pretty far into things so I’ll save that for another time.