Category: Taleb

The Fragility of Efficiency and the Coronavirus

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I heard a story recently about 3M (h/t: frequent commenter Boonton). Supposedly, back during the SARS outbreak they decided they should build in some “surge capacity” around the construction of N95 masks. Enough additional capacity that they could double their production at a moment’s notice. It was unclear if they actually did that or if they were just thinking about it. And even if they had, it appears that the scope of the current crisis is great enough that it’s not as if this one decision would have dramatically altered the outcome. Still it’s hard to dispute that it would have helped. 

The question which immediately suggests itself is how would the market have treated this development? In fact imagine that there were two companies, one who took some portion of their profits and plowed them back into various measures which would help in the event of a crisis and one that didn’t. How do you imagine that the stock market and investors would price these two companies? I’m reasonably certain that the latter, the one who took the profits and disbursed them as dividends, or found some other use for them, would end up with a higher valuation, all else being equal. In other words I would very much expect Wall Street to have punished 3M for this foresight, particularly over a sufficiently long time horizon where there were no additional epidemics, but even in the few years between doing it and needing it.

What this story illustrates is that attempts to maximize the efficiency of an economic system also have the effect of increasing and possibly maximizing the fragility as well. And while, in general, I don’t have much to say about the Coronavirus which hasn’t been said already and better by someone else. I do think that this may be one of the few areas where not enough has been said already and where I might, in fact, have something useful to add to the discussion. 

To begin, I want to turn from examining the world we have to looking at the world we wished we had, at least with respect to the virus. And as long as we’re already on the subject of masks we might as well continue in this vein. 

As the pandemic progresses one of the big things people are noticing is the difference in the number of infections between the various countries. In particular South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have done much better than places like Italy and Spain. There are of course a number of reasons for why this might be, but there’s increasing anecdotal evidence indicating that the availability of masks might be one part of the equation. 

For example, Taiwan is very closely connected to China, and one might expect that they would have gotten the virus quite early. Probably before people really understood what was going on, but definitely well before the recent policies of social distancing really started to be implemented to say nothing of a full on quarantine, and yet somehow, they only have 235 infections, which as of this writing puts them below Utah!

There are of course numerous reasons for why this might be, but I’m more and more inclined to believe that one big factor is that Taiwan is a mask producing juggernaut. In fact as recently as a few days ago they pledged to send 100,000 masks a week to us. They can make this gesture (and I know 100k is actually just a drop in the bucket) because they’re currently producing 10 million masks a day! For a country that only has 24 million people. Meaning that while that won’t quite cover one mask per day per person it’s enough that if people avoid leaving the house unnecessarily and if some masks can be reused they have enough for everyone to be wearing one at all times when they’re out of doors.

South Korea is similar and the big challenge there was not that they weren’t producing enough masks, but to stop exporting the masks they were already making. Finally reports out of Japan indicate that about 95% of people are wearing masks. But more importantly reports were that even before the pandemic around 30-40% were wearing masks just as a matter of habit. Is it possible that this slowed things down enough to allow them to get on top of it once the true scale of the crisis was apparent?

As I was writing this post I did some research on the topic, but before the post was finished Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex came along, as he frequently does, and released Face Masks: Much More Than You Wanted to Know which is a very thorough examination of the mask question. What he found mostly supports my point, and in particular this story was fascinating:

Some people with swine flu travelled on a plane from New York to China, and many fellow passengers got infected. Some researchers looked at whether passengers who wore masks throughout the flight stayed healthier. The answer was very much yes. They were able to track down 9 people who got sick on the flight and 32 who didn’t. 0% of the sick passengers wore masks, compared to 47% of the healthy passengers. Another way to look at that is that 0% of mask-wearers got sick, but 35% of non-wearers did. This was a significant difference, and of obvious applicability to the current question.

On the other hand, when we turn to the US and Europe, in contrast to Southeast Asia, there is definitely not a culture of mask-wearing and even if there had been, most of those countries apparently imported masks from places like Taiwan and China (a point I’ll return to) meaning that when those countries stopped exporting masks there were even fewer available here, enough that people started worrying about not having even enough for the healthcare providers. Once this problem became apparent various authorities started telling people that masks were ineffective. A policy which has since been called out for not merely being wrong, but contradictory, counterproductive and undermining trust in the authorities at a time when they needed it most. 

For most people, myself included, it’s just common sense that wearing a mask helps, the only question is how much? Based on evidence out of the countries just mentioned, and the SSC post I would venture to say that they help quite a bit. Also they’re cheap. Particularly when weighed against the eventual cost of this pandemic.

We’ve all learned many new things since the pandemic began, one of the things I didn’t realize was how bad the SARS epidemic was and how much the current precautions and behavior of the Southeast Asian countries is based on lessons learned during that epidemic. And while it’s understandable that I might have missed that (particularly since I didn’t start blogging until 2016) the CDC and the federal government on the other hand should have been paying very close attention. In fact, you would have expected that they might have taken some precautions in case something like that happened again or worse, started in the US. (Though to be fair, we don’t have wet markets, if that is where it started. As if we didn’t already have enough conspiracy theories.) Instead the US Government’s response has been borderline criminal. (Other people have done a much better job of talking about this than I could, but if you’re interested in a fairly short podcast just about the delay of testing that avoids sensational accusations, check out this Planet Money episode.)

To continue using the example of masks, I think it’s worth asking what it would have taken for the government to have a one month supply for every single person in the country. Stockpiled against a potential pandemic. According to this Wired article, before the pandemic 100 disposable masks were going for $3.75, let’s be conservative and round up and say that masks cost 4 cents a piece. From there the math is straightforward: 330 million people X 30 days X $0.04, is ~$400 million dollars, or 3% of the CDCs budget, or less than what the federal government spends in an hour. Still, I’ll agree, that’s a fair amount of money. But remember that’s the absolute maximum it would cost. I’d actually be surprised if once you factored in the huge economy of scale that we couldn’t do it for a 10th of that or even a 20th of that. And it would presumably have been cheaper still to just buy the necessary machinery for making masks and then mothball it, with a “break in case of emergency” sign on the door. Once you factor in all the potential cost savings, it’s hard to imagine that this would have cost more than $25 million (in fact if the government wants to offer me a $25 million contract to make it happen for next time I would be happy to take it.) And when you consider that it’s probably going to end up costing the US over a trillion dollars, plus the expected odds of something like this happening, you start to wonder why on earth they didn’t do this and countless other things that might have come in handy. (A strategic toilet paper reserve? I’m just saying.)

When you consider all of the budgetary cuts that were proposed for the CDC, which have emerged in the wake of the pandemic, and which generally involved only tens of millions of dollars, it seems unlikely that even $25 million would be allocated just for masks, but why is that? With a federal budget of $3.8 trillion why are we so concerned about $25 million? (It’s the equivalent of worrying about $25 when you make $3.8 million a year.) I understand people who are opposed to government spending, heck I’m one of them, but this also seems like one of those classic cases where people balk at spending anything to prevent a crisis, while somehow simultaneously being willing to bury the problem in a giant mountain of money once the crisis actually hits. It would be one thing if we refused to spend the money regardless of the circumstances, but if recent financial news is any indication we’re obviously willing to spend whatever it takes, just not in any precautionary way. (Somewhat related, my post from very early in the history of the blog about the Sack of Baghdad. Whatever the federal government and the CDC were doing in the months leading up to this, it was the wrong thing.)

One assumes that this desire to cut funds from even an agency like the CDC, where budgets are tiny to begin with, and where, additionally, the cost of failure is so large, must also come from the drive for efficiency we already mentioned or it’s modern bureaucratic equivalent. Which I understand, and to an extent agree with. We shouldn’t waste money, whether it’s taxpayer money or not. But given the massive potential cost of a pandemic, even if one never emerged, it seems clear that this spending wouldn’t have been a waste. But how do we get to there from here? How do we make sure this drive to save money and increase efficiency doesn’t create priorities which are so lean that they can’t spare any thought for the future. How do we avoid punishing companies who exercise foresight, like the example of 3M? Or how do we ensure that governmental agencies are making reasonable cost benefit calculations which take into account the enormous expense of future calamities, and then taking straightforward precautions to prevent or at least mitigate those calamities?

One of the most obvious potential solutions, but the one that seems to generate the greatest amount of opposition, is the idea of increasing the price of items like masks during periods of increased demands. Or what most people call “price gouging”. Let’s return to the story of 3M and imagine that instead of price gouging being universally frowned on, that instead it was widely understood and accepted that if there was an emergency 3M was not only allowed, but expected to charge 10 times as much for masks. In that case they’re not just hoping to help people out when the calamity comes, they’re also hoping to make a profit. This is in line with the generally accepted function of business, and presumably stockholders might reward them for their foresight, rather than punish them for not being “efficient” enough. In any case maintaining a surge capacity for mask production would be a gamble they’d be more willing to take. 

Notice I said 3M, which is different from people buying up thousands of masks and then reselling them on Amazon. As a generalizable principle, if we were going to do this, I would say that people should be able to raise prices for goods they control as soon as they think they see a spike in demand. So if someone had started stocking up on masks at the first of the year before anyone realized what was going to happen then they ought to be able to sell them later for whatever they think the market would bear. This early buying would have been a valuable signal of what was about to happen. But once the demand is obvious to everyone then 3M should raise their prices (and profit from the foresight of building a second production line) and Costco (or whoever) should raise their prices. I understand that this is not what happens, and that it’s not likely to happen, but if you want a market based approach to this particular problem, this is it.

A governmental solution mostly involves doing the things I already mentioned, like relying on the government to stockpile masks, or to proactively spend money to prevent large calamities. Though you may be wondering how subsidiarity, the principle that issues should be handled at the lowest possible level, factors into things. Clearly state or even local governments could also stockpile masks, or give tax incentives to people for maintaining spare capacity in the manufacture of certain emergency supplies. But as far as I can tell subsidiarity was long ago sacrificed to the very efficiency we’ve been talking about, and thus far I’ve seen no evidence of one state being more prepared than another. Though speaking of tax subsidies, it’s easy to imagine a hybrid solution that involves both the public and private sectors. 3M would have faced a different choice if the government had offered a tax credit for building and maintaining surge capacity in mask construction.

You could also imagine that greater exercise of anti-monopolistic powers might have helped. If you have ten companies in a given sector, rather than one or two you’re more likely to have one company that bets differently, and maybe that bet will be the one that pays off. Additionally globalization has also been a big topic of conversation, and was one of the first effects people noticed about the pandemic. Hardware companies were announcing delays for all of their products because they are all built in China. But we also saw this in our discussion of masks. Most of the mask production also appeared to be in Southeast Asia, and once they decided they needed the masks locally the rest of the world was caught flat-footed. Of course, economists hate the sort of tariffs which would be required to rectify this situation, or even improve it much, and they also mostly hate the idea of breaking up monopolies, but that’s because their primary metric is efficiency and as I’ve been saying from the beginning, efficiency is fragile. 

Before moving on, two other things that don’t quite fit anywhere else. First, doesn’t it feel like there should be a lot of “surge capacity” or room to take precautions, or just slack in the modern world? Somehow we’ve contrived a system where there’s basically a car and television for every man, woman and child in America (276.1 and 285 million respectively vs. a population of 327.2 million) but somehow when a real crisis comes we don’t have enough spare capacity to do even as much as nations like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea? As I’ve already suggested, there are obvious difficulties, but doesn’t it feel like we should be wiser and better prepared than we have been in spite of all that?

Second, am I the only one who would have felt a lot better about the huge stimulus package if we weren’t already running a deficit of $984 billion dollars in 2019? This, despite supposedly having a great economy for the last few years? In any rational system you build up reserves during the good years that you can then draw on during the bad years. That does not appear to be what we’re doing at all. I hope the MMT advocates are right and the size of the US government debt doesn’t matter, because if it matters even a little bit then at some point we’re in a huge amount of trouble.

Which brings us back to our topic. If, as I’m claiming, all of the modern methods are unworkable, we might ask what have people done traditionally, and the answer for most of human history would involve families, and to a lesser extent tribes, along with religious groups. And I suspect that there are quite a few people who are gaining a greater appreciation for family at this very moment. In my own case, I have deep stocks of many things, but toilet paper was not one of them (an obvious oversight on my part). As it turns out my mother-in-law has a ton (not from hoarding) and so rather than show up at Costco at 7 am, or buy it on the black market I can just get it from her. And if she hadn’t been able to help me I’m sure that my religious community would have. (Just to be clear I still haven’t burned through the TP I had on stock at the beginning of things, I’m just laying the groundwork to make sure I don’t get caught flat footed.) This whole story is an account of surge capacity. Though it may not look like it at first glance. But think of it this way, when you need help, having a single child that lives on the other side of the country doesn’t do you much good, but when you have five kids, three of whom live close by, you have four times as many resources to draw on in a crisis, and potentially six times as many depending on what you need.

Going even deeper, friend of the blog Mark wrote a post over on his blog which I keep thinking about, particularly in relation to the current topic. He talks about redundancy, fragility and efficiency as it relates to biological processes. In other words, how does life solve this problem? He gives the example of building a bridge and compares how an engineer would do it versus how a biological process would. While the engineer definitely wants to make sure that his bridge can bear a significantly greater load than whatever they judge to be the maximum, beyond that his primary goal is the same as everyone else in the modern world: efficiency. The biological process, on the other hand, would probably build a bridge made up of dozens of overlapping bridges, and it might cover the entire river rather than just one stretch of it. In other words from an engineering perspective it would be massively overbuilt. Why is that? Because life has been around for an awfully long time, and over the long run efficiency is the opposite of what you’re striving for. Efficiency equals fragility which, as we’re finding to our great sorrow, equals death. 


I suspect that some of you are either already suffering financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic or that you will be soon, so rather than ask for donations, let me rather make an offer of communication. If anyone needs someone to chat with feel free to email me. It’s “we are not saved at gmail”. I promise I’ll respond.


Not Intellectuals Yet Not Idiots

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Back at the time of the Second Gulf War I made a real attempt to up my political engagement. I wanted to understand what was really going on. History was being made and I didn’t want to miss it.

It wasn’t as if before then I had been completely disengaged. I had certainly spent quite a bit of time digging into things during the 2000 election and its aftermath, but I wanted to go a step beyond that. I started watching the Sunday morning talk shows. I began reading Christopher Hitchens. I think it would be fair to say that I immersed myself in the the arguments for and against the war in the months leading up to it. (When it was pretty obvious it was going to happen, but hadn’t yet.)

In the midst of all this I remember repeatedly coming across the term neocon, used in such a way that you were assumed to know what it meant. I mean doesn’t everybody? I confess I didn’t. I had an idea from the context, but it was also clear that I was missing most of the nuance. I asked my father what a neocon was and he mumbled something about them being generally in favor of the invasion, and then, perhaps realizing that, perhaps, he wasn’t 100% sure either, said Bill Kristol is definitely a neocon, listen to him if you want to know.

Now, many years later, I have a pretty good handle on what a neocon is, which I would explain to you if that what this post were about. It’s not. It’s about how sometimes a single word or short phrase can encapsulate a fairly complicated ideology. There are frequently bundles of traits, attitudes and even behavior that can resist an easy definition, but are nevertheless easy to label. Similar to the definition of pornography used by Justice Stewart when the Supreme Court was considering an obscenity case,

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it(my emphasis)

It may be hard to define what a neocon is exactly, but I know one when I see it. Of course, as you have already surmised, neocon is not the only example of this. Other examples include, hipster, or social justice warrior, and lest I appear too biased towards the college millennial set, you could also add the term “red neck” or perhaps even Walmart shopper.

To those terms that already exist, it’s time to add another one: “Intellectual Yet Idiot” or IYI for short. This new label was coined by Taleb in just the last few days. As you may already be aware, I’m a big fan of Taleb, and I try to read just about everything he writes. Sometimes what he writes makes a fairly big splash, and this was one of those times. In the same way that people recognized that there was a group of mostly Jewish, pro-israel, idealistic, unilateralists, with a strong urge to intervene who could be labeled as neocons, it was immediately obvious that there was an analogous bundle of attitudes and behavior that is currently common in academia and government and it also needed a label. Consequently when Taleb provided one it fit into a hole that lots of people had recognized, but no one had gotten around to filling until then. Of course now that it has been filled it immediately becomes difficult to imagine how we ever got along without it before.

Having spent a lot of space just to introduce an article by Taleb, you would naturally expect that the next step would be for me to comment on the article, point out any trenchant phrasing, remark on anything that seemed particularly interesting, and offer amendments to any points where he missed the mark. However, I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to approach things from an entirely different perspective, with a view towards ending up in the same place Taleb did, and only then will I return to Taleb’s article.

I’m going to start my approach with a very broad question. What do we do with history? And to broaden that even further, I’m not only talking about HISTORY! As in wars and rulers, nations and disasters, I’m also talking about historical behaviors, marriage customs, dietary norms, traditional conduct, etc. In other words if everyone from Australian Aborigines to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon to the Romans had marriage in some form or another, what use should we make of that knowledge? Now, if you’ve actually been reading me from the beginning you will know that I already touched on this, but that’s okay, because it’s a topic that deserves as much attention as I can give it.

Returning to the question. While I want “history” to be considered as broadly as possible, I want the term “we” to be considered more narrowly. By “we” I’m not referring to everyone, I’m specifically referring to the decision makers, the pundits, the academics, the politicians, etc. And as long as we’re applying labels, you might label these people the “movers and shakers” or less colloquially the ruling class, and in answer to the original question, I would say that they do very little with history.

I would think claiming that the current ruling class pays very little attention to history, particularly history from more than 100 years ago (and even that might be stretching it), is not an idea which needs very much support. But if you remain unconvinced allow me to offer up the following examples of historically unprecedented things:

1- The financial system – The idea of floating currency, without the backing of gold or silver (or land) has only been around for, under the most optimistic estimate, 100 or so years, and our current run only dates from 1971.

2- The deemphasis of marriage – Refer to the post I already mentioned to see how widespread even the taboo against pre-marital sex was. But also look at the gigantic rise in single parent households. (And of course most of these graphs start around 1960, what was the single parent household percentage in the 1800s? Particularly if you filtered out widows?)

3- Government stability – So much of our thinking is based on the idea that 10 years from now will almost certainly look very similar to right now, when any look at history would declare that to be profoundly, and almost certainly, naive.

4- Constant growth rate – I covered this at great length previously, but once again we are counting on something continuing that is otherwise without precedent.

5- Pornography – While the demand for pornography has probably been fairly steady, the supply of it has, by any estimate, increased a thousand fold in just the last 20 years. Do we have any idea of the long term effect of messing with something as fundamental as reproduction and sex?

Obviously not all of these things are being ignored by all people. Some people are genuinely concerned about issue 1, and possibly issue 2. And I guess Utah (and Russia) is concerned with issue 5, but apparently no one else is, and in fact when Utah recently declared pornography to be a public health crisis, reactions ranged from skeptical to wrong all the way up to hypocritical and, the capper, labeled it pure pseudoscience. In my experience you’ll find similar reactions to those people expressing concerns about issues 1 and 2. They won’t be quite so extreme as the reactions to Utah’s recent actions, but they will be similar.

As a personal example, I once emailed Matt Yglesias about the national debt and while he was gracious enough to respond that response couldn’t have been more patronizing. (I’d dig it up but it was in an old account, but you can find similar stuff from him if you look.) In fact, rather than ignoring history, as you can see from Yglesias’ response, the ruling case often actively disdains it.

Everywhere you turn these days you can see and hear condemnation of our stupid and uptight ancestors and their ridiculous traditions and beliefs. We hear from the atheists that all wars were caused by the superstitions of religions (not true by the way). We hear from the libertines that premarital sex is good for both you and society, and any attempt to suppress it is primitive and tyrannical. We hear from economists that we need to spend more and save less. We heard from doctors and healthcare professionals that narcotics could be taken without risk of addiction. This list goes on and on.

For a moment I’d like to focus on that last one. As I already mentioned I recently read the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones. The book was fascinating on a number of levels, but he mentioned one thing near the start of the book that really stuck with me.

The book as a whole was largely concerned with the opioid epidemic in America, but this particular passage had to do with the developing world, specifically Kenya. In 1980 Jan Stjernsward was made chief of the World Health Organization’s cancer program. As he approached this job he drew upon his time in Kenya years before being appointed to his new position. In particular he remembered the unnecessary pain experienced by people in Kenya who were dying of cancer. Pain that could have been completely alleviated by morphine. He was now in a position to do something about that, and, what’s more morphine is incredibly cheap, so there was no financial barrier. Accordingly, taking advantage of his role at the WHO he established some norms for treating dying cancer patients with opiates, particularly morphine. I’ll turn to Quinones’ excellent book to pick up the story:

But then a strange thing happened. Use didn’t rise in the developing world, which might reasonably be viewed as the region in the most acute pain. Instead, the wealthiest countries, with 20 percent of the world’s population came to consume almost all–more than 90 percent–of the world’s morphine. This was due to prejudice against opiates and regulations on their use in poor countries, on which the WHO ladder apparently had little effect. An opiophobia ruled these countries and still does, as patients are allowed to die in grotesque agony rather than be provided the relief that opium-based painkillers offer.

I agree with the facts, as Quinones lays them out, but I disagree with his interpretation. He claims that prejudice kept the poorer countries from using morphine and other opiates, that they suffered from opiophobia, implying that their fear was irrational. Could it be instead, that they just weren’t idiots

In fact the question should not be why the developing countries had problems with widespread opioid use, but rather why America and the rest of the developing world didn’t. I mean any idiot can tell you that heroin is insanely addictive, but somehow (and Quinones goes into great detail on how this happened) doctors, pain management specialists, pharmaceutical companies, scientist, etc. all convinced themselves that things very much like heroin weren’t that addictive. The people Stjernsward worked with in Kenya didn’t fall into this trap because basically they’re not idiots.

Did the Kenyan doctors make this decision by comparing historical addiction rates? Did they run double-blind studies? Did they peruse back issues of the JAMA and Lancet? Maybe, but probably not. In any case whatever their method for arriving at the decision (and I strongly suspect it was less intellectual than the approach used by western doctors) in hindsight they arrived at the correct decision, while the intellectual decision, backed up by data and a modern progressive morality ended up resulting in  exactly the wrong decision when it came time to decide whether to expand access to opioids. This is what Taleb means by intellectual yet idiot.

To give you a sense of how bad the decision was, in 2014, the last year for which numbers are available 47,000 people died from overdosing on drugs. That’s more than annual automobile deaths, gun deaths, or the number of people that died during the worst year of the AIDS epidemic. You might be wondering what kind of an increase that represents. Switching gears slightly to look just at prescription opioid deaths they’ve increased by 3.4 times since 2000. A net increase of around 13,000 deaths a year. If you add up the net increase over all the years you come up with an additional 100,00 deaths. No matter how you slice it or how you apportion blame, it was a spectacularly bad decision. Intellectual yet idiot.

And sure, we can wish for a world where morphine is available so people don’t die in grotesque agony, but also is simultaneously never abused. But I’m not sure that’s realistic. We may in fact have to choose between serious restrictions on opiates and letting some people experience a lot of pain or fewer restrictions on opiates and watching young healthy people die from overdosing. And while developing countries might arguably do a better job with pain relief for the dying, when we consider the staggering number of deaths, when it came to the big question they undoubtedly made the right decision. Not intellectual yet not an idiot.

It should be clear now that the opiate epidemic is a prime example of the IYI mindset. The smallest degree of wisdom would have told the US decision makers that heroin is bad. I can hear some people already saying, “But it’s not heroin it’s time released oxycodone.” And that is where the battle was lost, that is precisely what Taleb is talking about, that’s the intellectual response which allowed the idiocy to happen. Yes, it is a different molecular structure (though not as different as most people think) but this is precisely the kind of missing the forest for the trees that the IYI mindset specializes in.

Having arrived back at Taleb’s subject by a different route, let’s finally turn to his article and see what he had to say. I’ve already talked about paying attention to history. And in the case of the opiate epidemic we’re not even talking about that much history. Just enough historical awareness to have been more cautious about stuff that is closely related to heroin. But of course I also talked about the developing countries and how they didn’t make that mistake. But I’ve somewhat undercut my point. When you picture doctors in Kenya you don’t picture somehow who knows in intimate detail the history of Bayer’s introduction of heroin in 1898 as a cough suppressant and the later complete ban of heroin in 1924 because it was monstrously addictive.

In other words, I’ve been making the case for greater historical awareness, and yet the people I’ve used as examples are not the first people you think of when the term historical awareness starts being tossed around. However, there are two ways to have historical awareness. The first involves reading Virgil or at least Stephen Ambrose, and is the kind we most commonly think of. But the second is far more prevalent and arguably far more effective. These are people who don’t think about history at all, but nevertheless continue to follow the traditions, customs, and prohibitions which have been passed down to them through countless generations back into the historical depths. This second group doesn’t think about history, but they definitely live history.

I mentioned “red necks” earlier as an example of one of those labels which cover a cluster of attitudes and behaviors. They are also an example of this second group. And further, I would argue, that they should be classified in the not intellectual yet not idiots group.

As Taleb points there is a tension between this group and the IYI’s. From the article:

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences.

The story of the developing countries refusal to make opiates more widely available is a perfect example of the IYI’s thinking that they know what someone’s best interests are better than they themselves. And yet what we saw is that despite, not even being able to explain their prejudice against opiates, that the doctors in these countries, instinctively, protected their interests better than the IYIs. They were not intellectuals, yet they were also not idiots.

Now this is not to say, that “red necks” and the people who voted for the Brexit are never wrong (though I think they got that right) or that the IYI’s are never right. The question which we have to consider is who is more right on balance, and this is where we return to a consideration of history. Are historical behaviors, traditional conduct, religious norms and long-standing attitudes always correct? No. But they have survived the crucible of time, which is no mean feat. The same cannot be said of the proposals of the IYI. They will counter that their ideas are based on the sure foundation of science, without taking into account the many limitations of science. Or as Taleb explains:

Typically, the IYI get the first order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains. In the comfort of his suburban home with 2-car garage, he advocated the “removal” of Gadhafi because he was “a dictator”, not realizing that removals have consequences (recall that he has no skin in the game and doesn’t pay for results).

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

With a record like that which horse do you want to back? Is it more important to sound right or to be right? Is it more important to be an intellectual or more important to not be an idiot? Has technology and progress saved us? Maybe, but if it has then it has done so only by abandoning what has got us this far: history and tradition, and there are strong reasons to suspect both that it hasn’t saved us (see all previous blog posts) and that we have abandoned tradition and history to our detriment.

In the contest between the the intellectual idiots and the non-intellectual non-idiots. I choose to not be an idiot.


Taboos and Antifragility

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As I mentioned in my initial post, this blog will be at least as much as about me being a disciple of Taleb as it is about me being a disciple of Christ. That probably overstates things a little bit, but I am a huge admirer of Taleb. And it is to his idea of antifragility that I’d like to turn now. My last post was all about the limitations of science. And as I pointed out, there are many ways in which people have placed too much faith in the power of science. True science is fantastic, but also very rare, and thus we end up with many things being labeled as science which are only partially scientific. Of course as I also pointed out much of the problem comes from using science to minimize the utility of religion. This does not merely take the form of atheists who believe that there is no God it also takes the form of people who feel that the principles of religion and more broadly traditions in general are nothing more than superstitions which have been banished by the light of progress and modernity. These people may believe that there is “more to this life” or that life has a spiritual side, or in the universal and unseen power of love. But what they don’t believe in is organized religion. In fact it seems fairly clear, that at least in the U.S., that support for organized religion is as low as it’s ever been. But I’m here to defend organized religion, and not just the Mormon version of it.

So what is the value of religion and more broadly traditions in general? In short it promotes antifragility.

Let’s examine one very common religious tradition: forbidding pre-marital sex. These days the idea of some kind of generalized taboo on sex before marriage is considered at best quaint and at worst a misogynistic relic of our inhumane and immoral past, at least in all the developed countries. As you might have guessed I’m going to take the opposite stance.  I’m going to argue that the taboo was universal for a reason, it served a purpose and that we abandon it, and other religious principles, at our peril. In this I am no different than many people, but I am going to give a different rationale. My argument will be that regardless of your opinion on the existence of a supreme being, there is significant evidence that religion and other traditions make us less fragile.

Before we get into the actual discussion of religion and antifragility there might be people who question the part of my argument where I assert that the taboo against premarital sex was universal and served a purpose. Let’s start with the first point, was the taboo against premarital sex widespread? For me, and probably most people, the existence of a broad and long-lasting taboo seems self evident, but when you get into discussions like these, there are people who will argue every point of minutia, no matter how obvious it may seem to the average person. To those people, yes there are almost certainly cultures and points in history before modern times where sex before marriage was no big deal, where in fact the concept of marriage itself might be unrecognizable to us, but examples such of these are few in number, and limited in scope. But rather than just hand waving the whole thing (which is tempting) let’s actually look at a couple of very large examples: Western Christianity (the term Judeo-Christianity would also apply) and China. Both of these cultures are successful both in longevity and influence and, as it turns out both cultures, though very different on a whole host of issues, both had taboos against premarital sex. Hopefully the Christian taboo against premarital sex is obvious to readers of this blog, but if you need more information on the Chinese taboo you can go here, here or here.

How is it then that these two cultures, so very different in other respects, both arrived at the same taboo? This takes us to our next point, whether the taboo served a purpose. A few people, somewhat mystifyingly, will claim that two cultures, widely separated in both space and time, just happened to arrive at the same terrible superstition, that it benefited no one and that it arrived and flourished independently in both cultures for thousands of years. This argument is ridiculous on it’s face, and I think we can safely dismiss it.

Other people will argue that both cultures had a reason, and they may in fact have had the same reason, but they will argue that it was a bad one. This explanation generally brings in the evils of patriarchy at some point, and the fact that it was a taboo in both cultures (actually far more than that, but we’ll just stick with those two for now) just means that male domination was widespread. Furthermore, because of our much greater understanding of biology, psychology and anthropology we can now, with the backing of science, declare that it was a bad reason. (Unless of course the science turns out to be flawed…) Furthermore we can not only do away with the taboo against premarital sex but we can also safely declare that it was evil and repressive.

The final possibility, for those who consider the taboo a quaint relic of the past, is to acknowledge it did exist, it was widespread, and there actually was a good reason for it, but that reason doesn’t exist anymore. They might go on to explain that yes, perhaps in the past, having a taboo against premarital sex did make sense, but it doesn’t make sense in 2016 or even in 1970. Historically people weren’t evil or superstitious they just didn’t know everything we know and have access to all of the technology we have access to. Things like birth control, and the social safety net, etc have done away with the need for the taboo. While this explanation sounds more reasonable than the others, at it’s core it’s very similar to those other two views. All three still eventually boil down to an assertion that we’re smarter and more advanced than people in the past. It’s just a discussion of how and by what degree that we’re smarter and more advanced.

The immediate question is how can you be so sure? What makes us better than the people that came before us? And how can you be confident that there was no reason for the taboo, or that there was a reason, but that it was bad?  The most reasonable of the explanations requires us to be confident that whatever purpose a taboo against premarital sex served, that progress and technology have eliminated that purpose. Not only does this throw us back into a discussion of the limits of science, but this also requires us to put an awful lot of weight on the last 50-60 years. By this I mean that if we have eliminated the need for the taboo we’ve done it only fairly recently. The sexual revolution is at most 60-70 years old in the US, and it’s even more recent in China (continuing to stick with two cultures we’ve already examined.) Which means that in that short time frame we would’ve had developed enough either technologically or morally to eliminate the wisdom of centuries if not millennia. And this is what I mean by putting a lot of weight on the last 60-70 years.

To review, as you might have already gathered, I have a hard time believing that there was no reason for the taboo. For that to be the case multiple cultures would have to independently arrive at the same taboo, just by chance. I also have a hard time believing that the reasons for the taboo were strictly or even mostly selfish or misogynist. That discussion is a whole rabbit hole all by itself, so let me just reframe it. If the taboo against premarital sex was bad for a civilization than other civilizations which didn’t have that taboo should have outcompeted the civilizations which did have it. In other words at best the belief had to have no negative impact on a civilization, regardless of the reasons for the taboo, and more likely in an evolutionary sense (if you want to pull in science) it had to have a positive effect. Of course this takes us down another rabbit hole of assuming that the survival of a civilization is the primary goal, as opposed to liberty or safety or happiness, etc. And we will definitely explore that in a future post, but for now, let it suffice to say that a civilization which can’t survive, can’t do much of anything else.

And then there’s possibility number three. The taboo was good and necessary up until a few decades ago when it was eliminated with the Power of Science!™ There are in fact some strong candidates for this honor, the pill being the chief among them. And if this is your answer for why pre-marital sex no longer has to be taboo, then at least you’ve done your homework. But I still think you’re being overconfident and myopic. And here, at last, is where I’d like to turn to the idea of antifragility, in particular the antifragility of religion.  Taleb arrives at his categories by placing everything into three groups:

  1. Fragile: Things that are harmed by chaos. Think of your mother’s crystal, or a weak government.
  2. Robust: Things that are neither harmed nor helped by chaos.
  3. Antifragile: Things that are helped by chaos. Think about the prepper with a basement full of food and guns. Normally speaking he’s just wasted a lot of money, but if the zombie apocalypse comes, he’s the king of the world. It should be pointed out that often things are antifragile only relatively. In other words everyone’s life might get worse during the zombie apocalypse, but the prepper is much better positioned in the new world than he was in the old relative to all of the other survivors.

Like Taleb, we’ll largely ignore the robust category since very few things are truly robust. Though as you can see it’s a good place to be. What remains is either fragile or antifragile. For our purposes time is essentially equal to chaos, since the longer you go the more likely some random bad thing is going to happen. Thus anything that is fragile is just not going to exist after enough time has passed. A weak government will eventually be overthrown, and your mother’s crystal will eventually get dropped. Accordingly anything that has been around for long enough must be antifragile (or at least robust), particularly if it has survived catastrophes fatal to other, similar things. Religion fits into this category. Government’s may fall, languages may pass away, nations and people may be lost to history, but religion persists.

Returning to look specifically at the taboo against premarital sex, I would argue that it’s been around for so long and is so widely spread because it promotes antifragility. How? Well I think it’s longevity is a powerful argument all on it’s own, but beyond that there are dozens of potential ways a taboo against premarital sex might make a culture less fragile. It might decrease infant mortality, better establish property rights, create stronger marriages with all the attendant benefits, increase physical security for women, promote better organized communities, or create better citizens. (That’s six, I’ll leave the other six as an exercise for the reader.)

If the taboo does make the culture which adopts it less fragile, then have we really eliminated the need for that it in the last 50 years? Or to put it another way is our culture and society really that much less fragile than the society of 100 years ago or 1000 years ago? I’m sure there are people who would argue that in fact that it is, but this mostly stems from a misunderstanding of what fragility is, assuming they’ve even given much thought to the matter. As I said in the last post so much of what passes for thinking these days is just a means for people to feel justified in doing whatever they feel like, and they haven’t given any thought to the impact on society, or consequences outside of whether their beliefs allow them to do what they feel like. That said, if pressed, they would probably assert that the world is less fragile, particularly if doing so gives them more cover for ignoring things like religion and tradition. But is it true? Taleb asserts that the world isn’t less fragile, it’s less volatile. Which can be mistaken for a reduction of fragility, particularly in the short term. Allow me to give an example of what I mean, continuing with the example of premarital sex.

One of the problems of premarital sex is that it leads to out of wedlock babies and single mothers. In a time before public assistance (or what a lot of people call welfare) having a baby out of wedlock could effectively end a woman’s life, or at least her “prospects”. On the other hand it could be handled quietly and have little actual impact. The child could be adopted by a rich relative, or it could die in the street shortly after being born.

A great example of what I’m talking about is Fantine and Cosette from Les Miserables. Initially the two of them have a horrible time, Fantine has to spend all her money getting the horrible Thénardiers to take care of Cosette, and instead they mostly abuse Cosette. Fantine eventually has to prostitute herself and dies from tuberculosis, but not before Jean Valjean agrees to take responsibility for Cosette, which he does and while it’s not a perfect life, Jean Valjean treats Cosette quite well. This is volatility. You get the lowest lows one one hand or potentially a great life on the other hand. In this case the outcome for a child is all over the place, and individuals are fragile, but society is largely unaffected, in large part by having taboos and other systems in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the first place.

That was then, now we have far more single mothers and absent some angry old white men, most people think that it’s not a problem, or that if it is we’re dealing with it. Certainly very few single mothers are forced to the drastic steps Fantine had to take. While I’m sure there are single mothers who resort to prostitution I think that if you were to examine those cases there is something else going on, like drugs. There are also probably fewer children being taken in by wealthy relatives. Most single mothers do okay, not fantastic, but okay. In other words you have a decrease in volatility. As I said, many people mistake this for a decrease in fragility, and indeed the individual is less fragile, but society as a whole is more fragile, because a huge number of those single mothers rely on a single entity for support, the government.

At first glance this seems to be okay. The government isn’t going anywhere, and if EBT and other programs can prevent the abject poverty that characterized previous times, that’s great. But whether you want to admit it or not the whole setup is very fragile. If the government has to make any change to welfare then the number of people affect is astronomical. If Jean Valjean had not come along it would have continued to be horrible for Cosette, but it would only have affected Cosette. If welfare went away literally millions of mothers and children would be destitute. And of course they would overwhelm any other system that might be trying to help. Like religious welfare, or family help, etc.

There’s no reason to expect that welfare will go away suddenly, but it is a single point of failure. I’m guessing that very few people in the Soviet Union expected it to disintegrate as precipitously as it did. Of course there are people who think that welfare should go away, and it may seem like that’s what I’m advocating for, but that’s a discussion for a different time. (Spoiler alert: unwinding it now would be politically infeasible.) That said it’s indisputable that if congress decided to get rid of welfare legislatively it would be less of a shock then if one day EBT cards just stopped working. Which is possibly less far fetched than you think. The EBT system goes down all the time, and people can get pretty upset, but so far these outages have been temporary, what happens if it’s down for a month? Or what happens if it becomes the casualty of a political battle. Thus far when government shutdowns have been threatened there has been no move to mess with welfare, but that doesn’t have to be the case. The point is not to predict what will happen, even less when it might happen, but to draw your attention to the fact that as one of the prices for getting rid of this taboo we’ve created a system with a single point of failure, the very definition of fragility.

In the short term if often seems like a good idea to increase fragility, because the profits are immediate and the costs are always far in the future (until they’re not). We’ll talk in more detail about antifragility, but the point I’m trying to get at is that in the long run, which is where religion operates, antifragility will always triumph. Does the a taboo against premarital sex make society less fragile? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else.

Is our current civilization more fragile than people think? On this I can unequivocally say that it is. I know people like to think it’s not, because the volatility is lower, but that’s a major cognitive bias. The fact is, as I have pointed out from the beginning, technology and progress have not saved us. Religion and tradition have guided people through the worst the world has to offer for thousands of years, and we turn our backs on it at our peril.

For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and bejudged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!

Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!

Yea, wo be unto him that hearkeneth unto the precepts of men, and denieth the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost!

2 Nephi 28:20-26