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If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now?

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When I was growing up, television was a big deal. Not like impeachment is a big deal, but more like how screen time is a big deal, and in fact worries about screen time are the offspring of worries about kids watching too much TV. But even so worries about TV were different. These days you’ll see recommendations for limiting screen time to two hours a day. When I was a kid, there was a time when I was allowed to choose an hour of TV a week, and we would make out a TV schedule at the beginning of each week. (Imagine something similar being done with screens now). To be fair, I could also watch the TV my siblings selected, which added in a few more hours. And I think if my parents decided to watch TV I might be allowed to watch that as well, but all told I think, at best, I averaged an hour a day. 

(Readers might be curious what I spent my hour on, as I recall Nova and Cosmos were big, but I also loved Robotech.)

An hour a day doesn’t sound much different from the two hours of screen time currently being recommended, but there were other, potentially larger differences as well. We mostly only ever had one TV growing up, perhaps two by the time I was in high school, and the spread among my friends wasn’t much different. There were definitely a couple of them who had zero TVs, and a few that might have had four or possibly five. But I don’t remember any of my friends having a TV in their bedroom, and, in fact, such a thing was viewed as the ultimate abdication in parenting, or at least the most extreme proof you could offer that a child was spoiled. This meant that TVs were in public, well-trafficked locations. It was very difficult to watch TV without your parents knowing about it. (Your best bet was to wait until they had entirely left the house.) 

Another big difference was what was available on TV. We never had cable, so there were only seven stations to choose from, three networks (eventually four) two PBS stations and some local station. And nothing these stations showed was particularly racy. Certainly there was no nudity and definitely no swearing. Despite this there were still shows we weren’t allowed to watch, like Love Boat and Three’s Company. Now there are a lot of things that are like TV (streaming, YouTube, etc.) and the level of choice and the amount of content is orders of magnitude greater. When I was a kid, my parents had pretty much heard of and formed an opinion about every show on TV, now such a thing is inconceivable.

I could go on from here and talk about interactivity, or how niche things can be, or the explosion of pornography but my point is not to document current conditions (which most people are familiar with in any event) but to set the scene for anyone who’s too young to remember a time before the internet. This is important because I’m going to be discussing Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Which was written during the time I’m talking about (1985), the pre-internet era when television was ascendent. I’d like to start this discussion by quoting the entirety of the book’s forward because it may be the best opening ever for a book of social commentary:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Not too long ago I came across this quote and immediately decided I had to read the book, and not necessarily because Postman was correct on every particular—for example I think we’re being ruined by both desire and fear—but because as he points out, understanding the current world is a lot more about understanding Huxley than it is about understanding Orwell. That it’s more about the explosion of options than their limitations. More about a fracturing of society, than it’s unification under a totalitarian rule. And while I do think Orwell was extremely prescient about meaning coming down to a fight over language, I think Huxley came closer to predicting that the biggest issue in that fight is the deluge of speech, not a single codification of it, as with Orwell’s newspeak

All of this may be true, but at this point you’re probably wondering what Postman actually contributes to Huxley’s original diagnosis, but more than that, you may be wondering how Postman’s analysis of the problems with TV hold up in the age of the internet and social media. Let’s start with what Postman adds to Huxley, which is mostly to add Marshall McLuhan into the mix.

McLuhan is famous for his aphorism that “the medium is the message”, and Postman is a long time fan of his, though he claims that he actually came to this conclusion while studying the bible as a young man, in particular the Second Commandment:

I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. [emphasis original]

From all this Postman derives his central claim, that the dominant form of communication in his day, TV, was worsening the quality of US culture. That by habituating people to expect that everything would be entertaining we were “amusing ourselves to death”. In making this claim, he was less concerned with “junk television” and more concerned with adding entertainment to more serious endeavors like news and education. To his view, “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health, 60 minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame Street are.”

The common domain inhabited by these more serious endeavors was the concept of epistemology, that branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the origins and nature of truth. Cheers and the A-Team never claimed to be dispensing truth, but that’s exactly the endeavor 60 minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are engaged in. And Postman’s claim is that dispensing truth via the medium of television is different than dispensing it via the medium of print. Here’s how Postman lays it out:

With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations… like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial. 

Obviously I can’t get into all of his arguments, and in fact what I really want to get to is a discussion of the epistemology of social media and the internet, but I think it will be easier to have that discussion if we’ve covered the epistemology of the previous dominant mediums first, and at this point some examples might help.

When print was the dominant medium, then all rhetoric had to fit in with the expectations of that medium. Thus even when people gave speeches they followed the general format of a book or a very long article. The classic example that everyone has heard of is the Lincoln Douglas debates (available on Audible by the way, highly recommended). These debates lasted three hours. One person would have an hour then the other person would take an hour and a half and then the first person would have half an hour for his final rebuttal. Can you imagine anyone listening to a three hour debate on anything in this day and age. And what’s interesting is that the three hour format was the abbreviated version. Previous to this they had engaged in debates lasting seven hours. From this Postman observes:

What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory? 

For one thing it’s attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. 

All of this is pretty remarkable to imagine, in this day and age. When the timeframe of our political debates are all measured in minutes, not hours, and this is true even when the field has been narrowed to two competitors. But beyond a remarkable attention span Postman argues that the dominance of print led to, and in fact required a better epistemology.

I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

On the other hand, Postman argues, none of the above is true once television becomes the principal means of communication. First, as already alluded to, television has vastly shortened attention spans. Postman mentions that “the average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds”. This has apparently not changed much since then, even when talking about the news where the average shot length in 2019 is 4.8 seconds. Postman claims all of this:

…called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.

Which takes us to the next epistemological change brought on by TV, that to a large extent the degree to which something is entertaining is the degree to which people consider it worthwhile, and by extension, true.

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows…we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” We accept the newscaster’s invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say…A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads.

I imagine for many people all of the above is self-evident, and that even for those that are still resistant, if we can at least agree that different messages are easier to deliver depending on the medium they’re delivered in then we can turn to the real question: Which messages are easiest to deliver over the medium of the internet and social media? And does this result in the disproportionate selection of harmful messages? Or as I put it in the title: If we were amusing ourselves to death in the 80s, what are we doing now?

Unfortunately Postman died in 2003, so he isn’t around to answer that question. On the off chance that he wrote something more germane to the question in a later work, I also read Technopoly, one of his final books, and the last one I thought would bear on this question. Technopoly is a fine book with many interesting ideas, chief among them the idea that by needing to apply discrete values to everything that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. But because so much of society is driven by technology we inevitably reduce things into a form that’s easily digestible by computers, and in the process we lose much of the potential “landscape”. That in the end we actually forget that there might be something outside of giving a letter grade, or beyond the four choices available on a multiple choice test.

That said, I came away with the distinct feeling that he was trying to write about a movie he’d only seen the first couple of minutes of. And that, while he had interesting things to say, he was forced to make far too many assumptions. And, most of all, he had nothing new to add to this particular question, so it looks like our best bet is to tackle it by extrapolation. 

Postman argues that what we should be mostly concerned with is the epistemology of a given medium, and the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the medium of social media is “fake news” in all of its many guises. (One of which may be truth disguised as falsehood.) Not an encouraging beginning no matter how you look at it. That said, to simply say that the current media environment merely creates an even worse epistemological environment is a cop-out. Things are far more complicated than that.

As we’ve seen, Postman was a big fan of long form printed content, and I would argue that among some groups this sort of content is going through a renaissance. The internet and social media are fairly text heavy. There is a lot of long form blog-style content out there that seems very popular. And, finally, there’s the popularity of podcasts, and while these are not exactly printed content, they have to be considered closer to being a book than a TV show.

Initially all of this would seem to be cause for optimism, but remember it’s complicated. First, while there may be a lot of new “readers” I think they still represent only a small fraction of the total population. Secondly, even if we just consider people who get their information primarily from the written word, you’re still looking at a huge number of very diverse sub-groups. I know that even before the advent of mass communication (Postman points to the invention of the telegraph as the start of it all) there wasn’t much unity, but there was still a lot more of it than there is now. Back then you might have the people who read the New York Times vs. people who read the New York Post. Now people aggregate at the level of individual blog fan-dom. And I dare say, despite the discipline imposed by textual arguments that each of these blogs has a slightly different epistemological framework.

Further, while there are certainly some whose preferred medium is text, perhaps even more than there were a decade ago, there are still a large number of people who get their “truth” from the TV. But even this medium is very different and more diverse than it once was. The prime example is the numerous people who get all of their information from Fox, and not just in the tuning in at 6 and 10 fashion of the past, but who spend hours watching it. Similarly, there are also people who largely watch only MSNBC or CNN, and beyond that are the people who acquire the bulk of their worldview from a handful of YouTube channels.

There are serious downsides to all of the foregoing, but at least those epistemologies might be said to lead to an ideology that’s coherent even if it isn’t desirable, and if something is coherent we might at least be able to engage with it. But I would argue that the majority of people can’t even summon this level of focus and are actually mired in the modern version of what Postman called the “peek-a-boo” effect. On TV it was most visible as part of the news, You might hear a story about some incomprehensible tragedy which would immediately be followed by a commercial for laundry detergent, or perhaps it would be time to cut to the weather, or sports. Whatever else might be said about the modern world, the typical social media feed has dialed this up to 11, where in a single glance you might see an appeal for donations towards the most recent global tragedy, a cute baby picture, and a vitriolic partisan rant. 

In other words, rather than having a single dominant medium with an associated epistemology, the modern world would appear to be suffering from severe epistemological fracture. And while, somewhere in all of it you might find epistemologies that are better than what existed during the height of television, or perhaps ones that are even superior to the epistemology of the printed word. They are being overwhelmed by hundreds if not thousands of epistemologies that are far worse. And, unfortunately, the medium of the internet and social media seem designed to privilege the bad ones, and have proven to be far more successful at incubating conspiracies than midwifing truth. 

So what is the answer to the question posed by the title? If we’re not “amusing ourselves to death” what are we doing? That’s a tough question. I said above that when Postman tried to grapple with things in his follow-up book, Technopoly, that it felt like he was trying to review a movie he’d only seen the first few minutes of. But I don’t feel I’ve seen the whole movie either. In fact I have the feeling that there’s a major twist that has yet to appear. I guess if I had to take a stab at it, I would title the current book on the subject:

Media Darwinism: Epistemology Red in Tooth and Claw!


I doubt my fan base is big enough to support its own epistemology, but I hope that if it ever does that I can at least beat out TV. If you’d like to help make that happen consider donating, epistemologies aren’t cheap, and they’re definitely not covered by my HMO.


Immigration, Caplan and Buckets

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One of the books I read and reviewed in October was Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan. In that review I asserted that it was possible completely open borders is a great idea, when you consider the world as a whole. But that you’ll never get people to agree to it because, like Communism, it requires a level of selflessness which most humans simply don’t possess. There are actually lots of reasons for this, but I paid particular attention to the idea that almost no one would vote for unlimited immigration if they thought it was going to reduce what they got paid. And that further, this wasn’t just some irrational fear (although that would probably be sufficient by itself), but that even using Caplan’s own numbers, this was likely to happen.

When I posted that review in various places, including to Caplan’s Twitter account everyone accused me of being an idiot (okay maybe the language wasn’t that strong) and ignoring the Arithmetic Fallacy. In the interest of full disclosure I did understand the Arithmetic Fallacy, but I admit to not fully understanding the totality of their argument. Now that I do, I’d like to revisit things. 

To begin with one thing that no one seems to argue about is that the average GDP of the US would drop. Most scenarios have it being cut in half. The Arithmetic Fallacy comes into play when you assume that this means that the average salary of current workers would also be cut, though perhaps not by half. In reality the salary of current workers could go up. Here’s the example Caplan uses in the book:

Average native US income before open borders: $50k

Average foreign income before open borders: $5k

Average US income after open borders: $40k (down from 50)

Average income of original workers after open borders: $60k

Average income of new workers after open borders: $20k 

I never questioned this math. I always understand how the fallacy works. But this is a fairly simplistic version of it. For example it assumes an equal number of current workers and immigrant workers, but it could be a lot more or a lot less. Caplan seems to imagine that the more the merrier, because the secret of mass consumption is mass production, but it’s not clear how those numbers affect things in practice, particularly if they increase very rapidly. But that’s a minor quibble, my big issue is with the way that he sticks current workers and new workers into two entirely separate buckets. Because, while the Arithmetic Fallacy illustrates that the incomes can go up for everyone, while having the average go down at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will. Caplan argues that we don’t have to worry about that possibility because current workers will always be ahead of the new immigrants. That’s the part I didn’t fully absorb when I read it through the first time. 

Let’s take his example of NBA players and preschoolers. He starts the example by asking us to imagine a room full of NBA players with an average height of 6’7”, and then asks us to imagine that a class of preschoolers enter. The average height of the room drops, (say to 4’10) but the pre-schoolers aren’t making the NBA players shorter.

This is obviously true, but if the NBA players represent current US workers, (which they do) and the preschoolers represent immigrant workers (which they also do) and height is a proxy for GDP (again, that seems to be what he’s going for) then while the preschoolers don’t make the NBA players shorter, he is claiming that the presence of the preschoolers metaphorically makes the NBA players taller, and vice versa, just by being in the same room. I understand his argument for saying that this is the case for GDP even if it’s not the case for height, but you can already see where the analogy breaks down pretty quickly. But it is useful because it illustrates one of his central assumptions, that under open borders there will be two buckets of workers: the original workers and the new workers or the NBA players and the preschoolers. 

NBA players aren’t threatened by preschoolers, that would be ridiculous. Even if we’re just talking about height and not ability with basketball, the preschoolers are never going to be called on in place of an NBA player, the very thought is risible. And certainly an NBA player is never going to be mistaken for a preschooler. Accordingly it would be just as ridiculous for the current workers to be worried about being interchangeable with the new workers. Just as NBA players will always be in a separate category as far as height, current workers will always be in a separate category as far as income. Current workers will definitely be in the bucket with the average income of $60k, not the bucket with the average income of $20k.

This assumption of there being two buckets is what I have a problem with, because it seems entirely too neat and clean. “The average salary of the US is going to go down, but don’t worry because as a current worker you’re always going to be above average.” But why would this necessarily be so? Certainly it’s not a law of nature. Caplan offers a few reasons for why this would be. Current workers are more skilled, have a better grasp of the modern world, and above all they are native English speakers. To this I could also see adding a better network, and more beginning assets. But however great these advantages are it doesn’t feel like they’re unassailable or permanent. It would appear to me that the buckets are more permeable than Caplan lets on. 

One reason for thinking this is the book itself. While from an income perspective Caplan seems to regard the divisions as relatively unchanging and immutable. From every other perspective his argument seems to be the opposite, that immigrants aren’t that much different from the people who are already here. That within one generation their English is almost as good as the people who were born here, that culture takes centuries to “spread by persuasion, but only one generation to spread by immersion”, and that “the average immigrant is [only] microscopically more liberal than the average native.” So if they’re so similar on most of these metrics, why would the be so dissimilar in the salaries they can command? Why would the immigrant average be ⅓ that of the native worker? And how is that none of the natives, no matter how low-skilled, never end up in the lower paid bucket? Actually, I’m not suggesting that this is Caplan’s claim, but before I get to that discussion let me propose a different metaphor. 

Imagine that instead of talking about NBA players, preschoolers and their differing heights, that instead we use the example of adults and teenagers and their relative earning potential. Say we have a company that only hires people over 18, and after a policy change they’ll hire anyone 14 and older. And that after this change, the company can use teenagers to double its workforce.

 

This would appear to be a much better analogy than Caplan’s. To begin with I imagine that there are two very clearly defined buckets when you’re talking about teenager salary vs. adult salary. And it’s also possible to imagine that mostly Caplan is correct, that the teenagers make more by working in an adult workplace, and the adults are more productive if they have teenagers around to offload stuff to. But the gap between the two is far more permeable than the gap between NBA Players and preschoolers. You can imagine right out of the gate that at the lower end of the adult skill range that you might have lots of teenagers that also have that level of skill. That 17 year olds are pretty similar to people between 18 and 21. But, perhaps most importantly, teenagers grow up and with each passing year the difference between the teenager bucket and the adult bucket narrows.

I suspect there’s also issues of supply and demand at the lower level of skill. That if you have a janitor making 30k a year, that adding a bunch of teenagers, all fighting for the same low-skilled jobs, lowers that to maybe 15k a year, even if the teenagers increase the salary of the engineers at this company by quite a bit. 

I also suspect that it increases the salary issues at the upper end as well. If you have some high paid developer making twice as much as a younger developer, but who’s actually less productive (say more skills, but less willingness to work 60 hour weeks) the fact that you’ve now got a deluge of young people all looking to be developers has to factor into that.

Perhaps I’m wrong about the last two points, Caplan would seem to be arguing that I am, fair enough, but what he does argue, unmistakably, is that the average salary of the company will be cut in half. Is he also saying that despite this massive reduction in average salary that none of the adults currently working at the company will end up in the same bucket with the teenagers? Will end up with one of those salaries that caused the average to be cut in half? Even if we look ahead five years? Or ten? 

(One mechanism whereby this could happen is ageism. The parallel for immigration would be racism, which I assume Caplan is against.)

I assume that this is not Caplan’s claim, if it is, well then I guess the math works out, but I think he’s wrong. If it’s not his claim, then the question becomes how many adults end up in the “teenager bucket”, or rather how many current workers end up in the immigrant bucket. Let’s review his numbers. 

Average native US income before open borders: $50k

Average foreign income before open borders: $5k

Average US income after open borders: $40k (down from 50)

Average income of original workers after open borders: $60k

Average income of new workers after open borders: $20k 

Is there a cohort of low-skilled American workers who were in the $50k bucket, but, after immigration, end up in the $20k bucket? Is there a cohort of current workers whose salary is going to drop in an open borders world? Caplan talks about how current workers are “normally going to be managing and training the new arrivals.” How many adults do you know that aren’t fit to train or manage anybody? Could that be the cohort I’m talking about? If we’re agreed that there are some people who are, unfortunately, going to be below average, and when the average salary drops their salary drops as well, then the next question is how many? 

The answer to that is unclear, but I’m willing to bet that the number would be significant, and more importantly, even if the number isn’t significant, that a huge number of people are worried about this very thing, and probably understandably so. If you doubt this latter assertion I direct your attention to the 2016 election.

Pulling all of this together, if someone is opposed to immigration because they think they might make less money, then it’s only reasonable to call them irrational if that never (or very rarely) happens. Otherwise I think it’s a rational fear. If a reduction in salary happens to some people, but is unlikely to happen to him you may call him a pessimist. But once again, he is not being irrational. In his own way, he’s hedging against the small chance of a very large harm. Particularly in light of the fact that we still live under capitalism where money is pretty central to everything.

None of this is to suggest that open borders isn’t a terrific, world changing idea for the vast majority of people. Or that it isn’t a fantastic moral good which all men aspiring to any degree righteousness should support. But I am suggesting that it would not be unreasonable for some people to conclude that they would be voting against their own interests by supporting it. 

This is where the selfishness I talked about in my original review comes into play. And the reason I connected it to communism. In both cases people are promised a world much better than the one they currently live in, if they can just abandon their baser emotions of greed and selfishness. Now it’s reasonable to ask whether communism failed because of these baser emotions or whether it failed because it lacked the means to effectively produce the right goods and services, or whether it failed because Stalin and Mao were particularly ruthless tyrants. But the fact that it expected people to abandon their baser emotions certainly didn’t help. 

It’s also reasonable to ask what degree of abandonment is required. In theory you might argue that communism requires a complete and total abandonment of the baser emotions of greed and selfishness, while open borders only requires a small abandonment of these emotions, which are in any case irrational. And perhaps this difference will be enough for Open Borders to succeed where communism didn’t, but I suspect that it won’t be, and I suspect that Caplan’s keyhole solutions (restricting benefits to citizens, delaying citizenship, charging people to enter) have a much better chance of changing people’s mind that telling them that they’ve fallen prey to the Arithmetic fallacy. But given that this is the territory we’re fighting over it is worth trying to get to the bottom of the question: how many people are legitimately entitled to that fear, and how many people are truly being irrational?

As far as I can tell from the book Caplan is arguing that all or very nearly all of these people are being irrational. That if everyone in the US knew the facts that they would embrace open borders, both on humanitarian grounds but also because it would add trillions of dollars to the economy and raise everybody’s wages.

My argument has been laid out in this post. Are there other people arguing that Caplan is wrong as well? As it turns out there are. 

Garett Jones, Caplan’s colleague at GMU, published a working paper arguing more or less the same thing I am.

How would Open Borders—a policy of unlimited immigration—change the wages of current residents of the United States? To answer this question, I begin by running the same quantitative experiment that Caplan runs on page 131 of his graphic novel Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. This experiment presumes that the only two drivers of national income per capita are national average IQ and an unexplained productivity residual.The unexplained productivity residual plays a key role in the case for Open Borders, and I critique that residual. I use the same constant returns to scale framework as Caplan, in which the migration of every human being to the United States would increase global output per capita by about 80%. I then estimate that in the benchmark model, where IQ’s social return is much larger than its private return, the per-capita income of current U.S. residents would permanently fall by about 40%. This is not an arithmetic fallacy: this is the average causal effect of Open Borders on the incomes of ex-ante Americans. This income decline occurs because cognitive skills matter mostly through externalities:because your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, as I claim in 2015’s Hive Mind. Therefore a decline in a nation’s set of average cognitive skills will tend to reduce the productivity of the nation’s ex-ante citizens.

I was going to essentially end with this but I just barely saw Caplan’s rebuttal. And here’s where it gets a little bit tricky. Wading into any long standing argument, let alone an argument between two colleagues, runs the risk of missing all manner of important points which by this point are part of the assumed and unspoken foundation of the argument. Nevertheless despite this risk I’m going to dip my toe into things, mostly because I think it reveals some very interesting things about Caplan’s argument and my problems with it, but first Jones’ argument.

As was mentioned in the quote I included, Jones wrote a book in 2015 called Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own. (If you’re curious, here’s a review.POST) And as you can tell from the title of his book, his argument concerns the IQ of the entire nation, which, Caplan conceded, would probably be lowered under Open Borders. And since, according to Jones, the income of individuals depends almost entirely on the average IQ of the nation as a whole, this leads to his claim that the “per-capita income of current U.S. residents would permanently fall by about 40%”. I’m sure I’m vastly over-simplifying his argument, but since I’m mostly interested in Caplan’s response to that argument, I don’t feel there’s much point in getting deeper into the complexities. 

Caplan’s has an interesting response. First he points out that Jones largely agrees with him about the overall increase to global output, pegging it at 80%, but that in order for this to happen, while still decreasing the income of current residents by 40%:

Garett argues that more than 100% of the gains will go to immigrants! So even though open borders nearly doubles the production of mankind, it reduces living standards of the current inhabitants of rich countries by a massive 40%. [Emphasis original]

First off, and maybe I’m missing something. Is there any possibility that the gains and losses are distributed unequally? That, as I argued above, some of the current workers will drop from 50k to 20k, a reduction of 60%, which is more than Jones’ 40%. While many or maybe even most will see their salaries actually go up? This seems like another example of Caplan having two very well defined buckets. With gains being distributed equally to each bucket. But gains could be unequally distributed to the buckets and within the buckets. But beyond all that, here the debate takes a surprising turn. Caplan continues:

How is this possible?  Drawing on earlier work, Garett insists that the personal payoff for IQ is modest.  1 IQ point raises earnings by about 1%. Since current U.S. IQ is about 11 points above the world average, the current citizens of rich countries will end up earning roughly 60% of what they now earn.  In other words, Garett’s concern is that under open borders, income will be too equal for current residents of high-IQ countries to maintain their standard of living.

The surprising bit, is that as a retort to Jones, Caplan starts arguing for the importance of individual IQ and that gains from it are probably significantly higher than 1%. If you think that the natural consequence of this is greater inequality across the board, then you’re not alone, that was also the thought that occurred to me and Caplan agrees:

Would IQ have a big effect on personal economic success under open borders?  Would there be high inequality under open borders? If you answered Yes to both questions, you should be on my side. [emphasis original]

I would answer yes to both of those questions, and as hard as it may be to believe I am largely on Caplan’s side, but having answered yes, I then have to wonder if there’s large amounts of inequality and IQ has a large effect on success then why does it not follow that some of the current workers with below average IQ would end up in the below average/immigrant/20k salary bucket rather than the 60k average salary bucket?

I realize that it’s really way too late to bring in the idea of a normal distribution, and that also salary isn’t a normal distribution. (Though it’s more of one at the low end than the high end.)  But to put it another way, if someone is three standard deviations below the mean, and the mean drops, it’s conceivable that their salary is going to drop as well.

To conclude what has ended up being a much longer and more rambling post than I initially intended. My argument was never with Caplan’s moral or economic claims, and I am personally in favor of revising immigration policy around the keyhole solutions Caplan advocates. It is probably politically impossible even so (and definitely impossible without such measures) and one of the things that makes it difficult is that, similar to communism, it’s advocates expect that people will be able to shed a host of baser emotions like greed and selfishness. The argument that such baser emotions are irrational, is going to be largely ineffective even if it were true, but I’m not sure it is. There’s certainly ample room for uncertainty.


Perhaps you’re also uncertain about whether to support this blog? Well may I suggest a keyhole solution? Start with a dollar a month. You know donation is the humanitarian thing to do.


The End of Productive War

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As I mentioned in my last post I just finished War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris. As I mentioned in the review he ends up combining a lot of other books I’ve read into another history of progress and at times it seemed like he wasn’t covering much in the way of new territory, but he did introduce me to one new idea, which I thought was pretty interesting: the idea of productive war. Though I should also mention here, at the beginning, that he also acknowledges the existence of destructive wars as well. He doesn’t think all wars are productive

In Morris’ view productive war is war which consolidates nations and people into larger units with greater scope for cooperation, and, according to the central claim of the book, less chance of violent death. Morris’ assertion is that the chances of someone dying violently is in large part based on the size of the community they belong to. And that it’s an inverse relationship, the bigger the community the smaller the chance. So, for a member of a small tribe of hunter-gatherers their chances of dying violently was between 10 and 20%. If, on the other hand, they were a citizen of the Roman Empire or Han China then their chances of dying violently were in the 2-5% range, and for someone living in a modern, developed nation their chances are around 1%. 

Accordingly as wars of conquest created larger communities, deaths went down, and beyond that as trade and commerce expanded, living standards got better as well. So while empires had to begin with a series of bloody wars in order to be created, in the end, through these productive wars they created zones of stability within the borders of the empire where everything was better. This has progressed on down through the ages until now we no longer have regional hegemons, we have global hegemons (Morris actually calls them globo-cops), first with the United Kingdom and then with the United States. Of course in between those two hegemonies there was the cold war where the Soviet Union and the US vied for dominance. And it is also in this period where we start to see the beginnings of the problem I want to talk about.

Historically, when two civilizations competed, eventually one of them triumphed over the other. When that happened the victorious empire absorbed the losing empire and created a new larger empire. Think of Rome and Carthage or even the United Kingdom and India. But lately such absorption, or it’s less brutal offspring, colonization, has fallen out of favor. When the US won the cold war we didn’t absorb Russia and create a new, expanded empire where cooperation, trade and lower violence flourished. Nope, we basically left them alone (though some would argue we wrecked their economy and then left them alone.) 

This is not how it has generally worked historically. Generally when the victors conquered, they Conquered! And we certainly could have done that, particularly at the end of the World War II. (Though I’m not saying it would have been easy.) But we didn’t. By not doing that was World War II less productive in the sense Morris describes than it could have been? Is it possible that over a long enough time horizon that we might actually put it in the destructive column? To come at things from another direction, if gobbling up vanquished foes is no longer an option, how do we expand the zone of cooperation?

Morris asserts that having a globo-cop/hegemon works much the same way, but does it? Sure, a US hegemony definitely contains some elements of the imperial cooperation of the past, but, first, no one would look at current events and say that things were going well with Pax Americana. And second there’s a big difference between ensuring the continuance of global trade or acting as a policeman when nations get out of line and entirely absorbing a nation and its culture. 

Modern morality has made this sort of absorption unthinkable. The US was the first empire to (mostly) eschew colonies. And since that time the idea of colonies and colonization has only become more taboo. Arguably there has been no shortage of American force projection, but it definitely doesn’t lead to colonies, nor is it practical in places much larger than a small failed state. It’s impossible to imagine the US invading and pacifying China or Russia in the same way that Rome pacified Gaul or the British pacified India. Meaning that, as the tide of US power flows out, it reveals entirely intact nations with more lingering animosity than lingering desire-to-compromise.

And, if some nation did want to go back to the “old way” of doing things and start absorbing other countries into a Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, like the Japanese of World War II, then that becomes a lot more difficult in a world where nukes exist. There was a time when you might have imagined India conquering and reabsorbing Pakistan. It was unlikely but not inconceivable, but with nukes as part of the equation that will never happen. Or it will happen, which is even worse. Meaning the good guys won’t do it for moral reasons and the bad guys are welcome to try, but it’s likely to end in mushroom clouds. 

The way productive wars used to work is that there would be an initial, short-term spike in deaths, but that would be followed by eventual assimilation leading to integration and cooperation which raises the standard of living for everyone in the new empire. This sort of thing is no longer possible between two nuclear powers because there won’t be any assimilation after the initial spike of deaths because there won’t be anything after that initial spike.

I don’t want to overstate my case. I suppose it is possible to imagine a limited nuclear exchange, where there is still something left of both the conqueror and the conquered, but if this is the best case scenario, we’re in a lot of trouble.

More likely the presence of nukes and the reluctance to colonize might lead to a situation where unity actually starts heading backwards. If a part of a nuclear armed nation manages to secede while hanging on to some of those nukes, is there any scenario where the mother country would go to war to reclaim its lost territory if it knows those nukes might be used? Meaning that if nukes continue to spread we may end up with more countries and less cooperation.

All of this is to say, that the historical process of unification through the means of productive wars which Morris mapped out in the book appears to have stalled. We may have run out of steam right before the final sprint to the finish (a unified world).

Thus far we’ve assumed that achieving unity and cooperation can only be accomplished by means of productive war. And that seems to be Morris’ thesis, but might there be another way?

Certainly most people hoped that international cooperation would grown through peaceful means. That was the goal of the original League of Nations and the current United Nations, but is there anyone who still thinks that the UN will eventually create the level of cooperation we’re talking about? A true world government? Certainly I don’t. From where I sit the UN appears to be getting weaker with each passing year. Indeed, this decline makes a certain amount of sense. In the aftermath of World War II even the most bellicose nations could see the need for an international body to resolve disputes in a less bloody manner. But after 70 years without a great power war, the need for something like the UN is less and less obvious.

In the absence of nations voluntarily unifying, you could imagine that US influence continues to grow until we have a de facto world government. Or at least you could have imagined that at the end of the Cold War. Lately the idea seems laughable. At a minimum we would need some sort of motivation. As I pointed out in a previous post, external threats seem to help. Would Rome have been Rome without Carthage? How much of what the US did was because of the USSR? (space race anyone?) But at this point it seems that regardless of how Russia and China behave our taste for empire is gone, and it’s not even clear that we can keep the “empire” we have, to say nothing of continuing to expand it in the way Morris imagines. 

Which leaves us with a couple of possibilities:

As I mentioned in my review of the book, the possibility Morris favors is that we’ll pass smoothly from an American hegemony to an AI singularity. That Pax Americana will become Pax Technologica. Here’s how Morris describes it:

Everything will hang on the relative timing of the shift from the Pax Americana to a Pax Technologica and the mounting difficulties that the globocop will face—if current economic trends continue—in doing its job. I suggested earlier that in the 2010s and probably the 2020s too, the United States will remain largely unchallenged, but as the 2030s, 2040s, and 2050s go on, it will find it harder and harder to overawe rivals. I also noted that the majority opinion among the futurists is that merging with the machines will reach the Singularity stage in the 2040s. If all of these guesses are right, we perhaps do not have too much to worry about. The world will become increasingly troubled, polarized, and tense as we head through the 2020s, but the globocop will remain strong enough to handle the stresses. As we enter the 2030s, the globocop will be feeling the strain, but it will by then be pulling back anyway as the Pax Technologica begins to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving; and in the 2040s and 50s, just at the point that the globocop ceases to be able to cope, the world will no longer need its services. All will be well.

It would be nice if “all” was truly “well” and things proceeded exactly as Morris describes, but I think he underestimates the number of things that need to go “right” in order for this to happen:

  1. America has to maintain the peace until an AI or something similar is ready to take over. Morris estimates they’ll be able to do that until sometime in the 2030s or maybe a little later. Given current events I’m not sure I’d agree with him that the US is “largely unchallenged” even now, and I’m even more doubtful that will be the case over the next decade.
  2. Pax Technologica, whatever it’s form, has to be ready to step in as soon as the US starts “pulling back”. Morris has said it will “[begin] to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving” in the 2030s. This also seems far too optimistic, particularly since we appear to be headed in the opposite direction. Thus far, our best guess is that machine learning and AI are actually making problem-solving of all strips harder.
  3. Perhaps technology will get better and it will switch to lessening rather than creating conflict. That’s still a long way away from replacing everything that goes into making America the lone superpower. Which includes, among other things, the $639 billion dollars we spend on defense. To replace that we not only need the singularity, we need a rather impressive singularity. 
  4. Morris says that the “majority opinion” is that we’ll reach the “Singularity stage” in the 2040s. This is by far the most optimistic of his predictions. Even Kurzweil, who’s optimistic to the point of being delusional, is saying it won’t happen till 2045. Perhaps in 2013, when the book was written, the majority opinion was the 2040s, but these days most experts are predicting later than that. And these are not predictions of “When will AI be able to take over as the world’s super power?” But more along the lines of, “When will AI be able to replace human surgeons?” (Average answer: 2053)
  5. Which takes me to my final point. What does it mean to “take over”? As I pointed out, Morris appears to have a very specific idea of what that means, and it’s very different from what most people imagine when they talk about AI. But even if we end up with an AI exactly as powerful as Morris hopes, and it happens soon enough to step in for Pax Americana before it collapses. He’s ignoring the whole field of AI risk, which makes the very salient point that we can’t be sure a superintelligent AI will be benevolent. 

If we reject the Pax Americana Pax Technologica transition for the reasons I just listed, and we accept Morris’ thesis. Then that tosses us back into the realm of war. We’ve currently got a globo-cop keeping that war at bay, but many people, including Morris, think we’re getting near the end of that. Meaning that the other possibility remaining to us is actual war. Actual war is bad enough in the short term, particularly since, for all the reasons I’ve laid out, this actual war is unlikely to be one of the ones that’s eventually productive. We’re much more likely to see destructive wars, similar to what followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Morris doesn’t spend much time on this second possibility. Probably because he thinks it’s unlikely to happen. In many senses despite his different outlook he’s still very much in the same school of thought as Steven Pinker. And both appear to believe that the arrow only points in one direction. In particular Morris claims that the 500 years of European colonial expansion from 1415 to 1914 were the most productive wars in the history of humanity. That Hitler was something of an aberration, and that in any case since that time we’ve had the long peace, which is further evidence that we’re in the final act and there will be no more destructive wars. And indeed, the finish line does seem really close, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to cross it. In fact for all of the reasons I mentioned above it feels like the very progress that has gotten us to this point won’t work for the final five yards.

One of the frightening things Morris points out is that a period of destructive wars often follows a period of constructive wars. That a particularly confident nation will conquer all of the surrounding territory unifying it into a larger area where trade and cooperation flourish, but that at some point the nation/empire(/ideology?) runs out of steam. Whether this is because of exhaustion, over-expansion, bureaucratic bloat or something else, the empire can no longer defend all of its territory. When that happens, whatever unity it achieved is lost to the destructive wars which inevitably follow as a consequence of this exhaustion. If Morris is accurate and we just finished 500 years of constructive wars, then even if we didn’t have nukes and an aversion to expansion through colonization it might be time for the pendulum to reverse itself in any case. Also, while it seems difficult if not impossible to have constructive wars if nukes are involved, they’re perfect for destructive wars.

All of this would mean that Pinker and Morris are wrong. (And indeed I’ve asserted that very thing.) And I’d rather not jam a second book in here, right at the end, but I just started reading Only the Dead by Bear F. Braumoeller which was written as a direct refutation of Pinker’s thesis, going so far as to say that it may end up having the opposite effect from what he intended. In support of this claim he includes an excellent quote from one of the reviews of Better Angels:

[T]here is something deeply unsettling about the argument of this book. While I began reading without either smug comfort in my own circumstances or indifference to the violence that remains, by Pinker’s final sentence on page 696 it was impossible to muster any other reaction. Indeed, I want to suggest that Pinker’s book produces the type of reaction that conceivably could stop this important trend dead in its tracks. A world of elites and foreign policy decision makers well-schooled by Pinker in the causes of the decline in violence would be a world unmotivated to work to sustain it.

The logic laid out in the quote seems straightforward enough, but Only the Dead goes on to cite studies which show that as nations become less willing to go to war they actually end up going to war more often. I’ll go into this more when I get around to reviewing it, but add everything together and we seem unlikely to have seen the end of war. And when it does return it appears unlikely to be productive war either, even if we can look past the terrible near term costs.

To be fair to Morris the book was written in 2013, and a lot has changed since then. The election of Trump has made a lot of things written beforehand seem quaint and even naive. Which is not to say that things are that much worse now then they were in 2013, just that we appear to have had significant movement on the catastrophe track without that much movement on the singularity track. This is important, because Morris, unlike Pinker, acknowledges that there will be war. He just thinks having a globo-cop can keep those wars productive. He’s also more realistic than Pinker about how long the US can serve in this role. Where his optimism is equal to or greater than Pinker’s is with what comes after. And it all hinges on the next couple of decades.

Morris hopes that the 2030s will be a decade where the US can still mostly “overawe” its opponents while at the same time “every year will see more [technological] change than happened in the whole period between the 1980s and the 2010s.” And that’s what brings us the Singularity. That rather than descending into destructive war, we’ll narrowly thread the needle between all the potential catastrophes. As I said this is what Morris hopes will happen. I hope it happens this way too, but I would bet a lot of money against it. Anyone want to take me up on that bet? We’ll know who’s right in just 10-20 years.


You have to wonder if there’s any similarity between war and blogging. Is there also a productive phase of blogging? Do bloggers eventually get exhausted? Perhaps running out of things to say? Does the blogging then become destructive? Was my blogging ever productive? If you think it was or still might be, consider donating.


Review- Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond

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Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

By: Jared Diamond

512 pages

Format: Audiobook w/ physical copy for reference

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you want a new framework for thinking about current problems in the US and the World, you should read this book.

Also, this book is going to be part of the “conversation” for a while and if you want to be part of that you should read this book.

Representative passage:

I agree that these concerns cannot be lightly dismissed. On the one hand, throughout my life, in each decade there have been reasons to consider that particular decade as posing the toughest problems that we Americans have ever faced — whether it was the 1940’s with World War Two against Japan and Nazi Germany, the 1950’s with the Cold War, the 1960’s with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War that lacerated American society, and so on. But even when I tell myself that we should be suspicious because every decade has seemed at the time to be the one offering the most cause for anxiety, I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010’s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety.

Thoughts

The structure of Upheaval is very simple. When individuals are in crisis there are a set of a dozen or so factors that determine whether or not they will weather that crisis. Diamond takes these factors and applies them to nations in crisis. He does this first by using them as a lens through which to view past crises in Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany and Australia. Then he moves on to applying the factors to crises he feels are currently underway.

The first question one has on encountering this structure is, “Does that even work?” Or more formally, “Can you profitably apply something designed to treat individuals in crisis to nations in crisis?” As you might imagine the answer to that question is unclear, and many people have dismissed the book because of that. The current top review on Amazon gives the book two stars and describes the problem pretty well:

I found Upheaval to be largely an exercise in loose analogies and long narratives with few testable hypotheses. While pleasant reading it is not the epochal work the author intended.

I agree with basically everything the reviewer says, but as you’ve already seen, my rating is much higher, and it all has to do with that word “epochal”. Arguably Diamond’s best known book, Guns, Germs and Steel was epochal, and expecting the same thing out of Upheaval isn’t entirely unwarranted, but it does seem like a pretty high bar. In contrast. I prefer the word I used earlier when framing the question, “profitably”. Yes, I agree that this structure is not epochal, but is adding it to our chest of tools for discussing the health of nations a net positive? That is are we better of using it than not?

As I’ve said there are valid criticisms to be made. The evidence is almost entirely anecdotal, it appears unfalsifiable (he offered no example of a nation who failed at the crisis point because they ignored the factors), the data set is very small, etc. And despite all of these weaknesses I would say that, yes, we are better of using it than not. If there was some theory of national crisis and decline which lacked one or more of these weaknesses I would gladly switch to it, but as far as I can tell there isn’t. This is not to say there aren’t other theories of national crises and decline, but I’m unaware of any that do better on these measures, and most do a lot worse.

Of course, even if we decide that it’s worthwhile to use Diamond’s list of factors, we still might not agree that there’s any nation in crisis for us to use them on. Earlier in the Representative Passage section I quote Diamond as saying, “I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010’s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety.” But there are definitely people who disagree with that. (In fact I’m not sure I agree with it. At this point I’m far more anxious about the 2020’s.) Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, which I’ve frequently mentioned in this space makes nearly the exact opposite argument, that things are better than they’ve ever been, and he makes this argument about not only the US but the whole world. Precisely two of the places Diamond identifies as definitely in crisis. Which takes us to the second argument Diamond is making, that there are numerous current and developing crises where his methodology can profitably be applied. As someone who has done a lot of this myself I’m at least as interested in seeing what Diamond identifies as crises as I am in his methodology for dealing with them. Additionally, it’s helpful to have some examples in mind before going through his list of factors. So let’s start with the various crises Diamond has identified, beginning in the US:

First, and in Diamond’s opinion, “the most ominous” current crisis is the decline of political compromise and civility. I would agree that this is definitely one of the more worrying trends, though I disagree that the 2010’s are objectively worse than the late 60’s/early 70’s. That said, I definitely don’t like the way things are headed. In other words, I basically agree with Diamond and my sense is that we’re far from alone in worrying about this. Though you might wonder what kind of counter argument exists. I checked my copy of Enlightenment Now to see what Pinker had to say, and there wasn’t much. He did talk about the divisions between right and left. And seemed to indicate that greater reliance on reason and superforecasting were the answer, but I don’t see much to indicate that there’s a broad-based trend in this direction, or that divisiveness isn’t as bad as people think. All of which is to say, I feel pretty confident that Diamond has identified an actual crisis which appears set to only get worse.

The other three US crises are not quite as compelling (which Diamond himself admits). The second potential crisis is voting, particularly the US’s very low voter turnout. Here I am less inclined to think this is a crisis, and if it is, then it’s probably related to the first crisis and shouldn’t be considered separately. The third potential crisis is socioeconomic inequality, here I’m more sympathetic, but I also admit there are several important caveats. To begin with, whatever worries this should engender, they’re going to be operating on a much longer time horizon than the issue of declining political compromise. Also this is something Pinker speaks to fairly extensively in Enlightenment Now, putting together a pretty convincing argument that inequality is not as big of a concern as most people think. I’m not sure I agree, but it at least appears to be something where there are compelling arguments on both sides. Diamond’s fourth issue is the decline of overall social capital. That the nation as a whole is becoming less cohesive, this once again appears closely related to the first issue, and doesn’t require a lot of additional commentary.

I’ll be honest, the US crises Diamond comes up with are a little underwhelming. Not only are they all fairly similar, but I think Diamond overlooks several other potential crises related to advances in technology. This is not to say that the things listed by Diamond aren’t genuinely concerning issues, just that I’m not sure they have the same heft as the past crises he profiled, for example Germany recovering from World War II or Finland staying independent from the Soviet Union when a dozen other nations were unable to. But from a discussion of US crises he turns to crises facing the world, and given that the US is still the most powerful country in the world, a crisis for the world is essentially also a crisis for the United State. He comes up with another four crises that are world wide. And again, seeing what he identifies as a crisis is at least as interesting as his explanation for how to deal with them.

The first worldwide crisis he identifies is the possibility of nuclear weapons being detonated in anger. Here we’re definitely on the same page, as you may remember I did a post on this very thing not that long ago.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, he then moves on to a discussion of climate change. Out of all the crises he mentions this seems to clearly be the most intractable, and the one where novel ways of thinking are most needed. We’ll see in a moment whether Diamond ends up providing that novelty when we arrive at his list of factors

Third on his list of worldwide crises is global resource depletion. For a counter argument to this we don’t even have to turn to someone like Pinker, things like the Simon-Ehrlich Wager provide a ready made retort to the idea that this is a crisis, let alone an acute one. Tying this into the last point, I think most people are far more worried about the CO2 created by fossil fuels than the idea that we might run out of them. Certainly all of this could be a problem, and maybe even one which can be dealt with by nations acting in concert, but there’s a lot of evidence that even if it is, it’s not our biggest problem.

Finally he brings up global inequalities in living standards. I don’t think anyone denies that inequalities exist and are extreme. The question is, does extreme inequality equal extreme harm? And if it does, how do you solve it without making the previous two problems worse? Resource consumption and carbon emissions by people in developed nations are at least an order of magnitude worse than those in less developed nations. It’s hard to see how you reduce inequality without increasing both emissions and resource usage.

You can probably see where the US is a major actor in all of these crises. Putting all of them together we have eight example crises where we can apply Diamond’s factors and see where they take us. I do not intend to offer 96 separate observations, particularly since most of the factors end up working out similarly regardless of the crisis. Also I am assuming that somewhere in that list of eight is something you are genuinely concerned about. And I would ask you to keep that in mind as we go through Diamond’s 12 “Factors related to the outcomes of national crises”:

  1. National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something
  3. Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved
  4. Getting material and financial help from other nations
  5. Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems
  6. National identity
  7. Honest national self-appraisal
  8. Historical experience of previous national crises
  9. Dealing with national failure
  10. Situation specific national flexibility
  11. National core values
  12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints

To remind you of what I said in the beginning, we have to take it somewhat on faith that Diamond has not only correctly translated these factors from the personal to the national, but that they maintain similar utility when expanded to this level as well. But, once we do, each of them provides an interesting jumping off point when talking about the nation and the world.

1- National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis: This one is interesting precisely because Diamond’s first US crisis is a lack of consensus. Which means we may be dead right out of the gate. When Diamond gives examples of past national crises that have been successfully overcome, I can’t recall any example where the nation didn’t get this first step right, and indeed everything would appear to follow from it.

2- Acceptance of national responsibility to do something: For the worldwide crises Diamond mentions I think we do better on point 1, but then stumble as soon as we get to point two. I imagine just about every nation is worried about nukes and climate change, but accepting responsibility has been a lot harder. Even when we look at the European response to climate change, which is about as good as it gets, it’s far too anemic to really make any significant difference.

3- Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved: This factor relates to dividing things that are working well from things that need to be fixed. Marshalling your strengths to combat your weaknesses. And once again the problem comes from the fact, in the US, we don’t merely disagree about what should go where, we have exactly opposite views on placement. To take just one example, one side identifies immigration as a strength, the more the better, and one side identifies it as the central problem which needs to be solved. This doesn’t merely apply at the national level. As I just pointed out, one way to solve inequality is for people from poorer countries to move to richer countries, but if that increases their carbon footprint then that makes climate change worse. The solution to one problem makes the other problem worse.

4- Getting material and financial help from other nations: Needless to say, we should hope this factor ends up being unimportant. Since there are really no countries in a position to materially help the US, and definitely no other planets in a position to materially help the entire world.

5- Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems: This is another factor which may work great on a personal level, and even pretty well on a national level, but which is entirely impossible at the level of the world. And in fact it’s why I continually come back to Fermi’s Paradox. In theory, we should have other worlds to use as models, but for some reason we don’t and the implications of that should be frightening. Beyond all that it’s unclear how much the US can use other nations as models either, our size, culture and power make our problems somewhat unique.

6- National identity: Here the US does a little bit better, even so, the argument could be made that one more part of the fracture involves questioning exactly what that identity is. From the perspective of the world I think, at best, even if you could come up with an identity, that it would be particularly weak, and easily swamped by the various national identities.

7- Honest national self-appraisal: Much of what was said about the last few issues applies here as well, but I will admit that I don’t have a strong sense for whether we’re currently engaged in honest national self-appraisal, or if all of the conflict and divisiveness and debate going on is actually avoiding the issue. And, yet again, moving from the US to the world would only appear to make this problem worse.

8- Historical experience of previous national crises: At least at the national level I think this is finally someplace where it might be possible to engage with this factor in a useful fashion. That said I see no evidence that we are. If anything I think we’re bringing up crises that were previously solved (or at least shelved) and making them into a new crisis. (For example reparations for slavery.) At the world wide level there might have been past crises, but I think most of them were military in nature, thus I’m not sure how much past experience helps with our current issues. Which is to say if we end up with another Hitler I think the world is ready, outside of that, not so much

9- Dealing with national failure: Here at last I feel like we’ve arrived at a point with some nuance. Nations may frequently fail on their first attempt to fix a problem, or fail in other areas. How they react to these failures can say a lot about whether they will eventually find success. Has the US already failed? Does Vietnam count as a failure? How did we deal with that failure? Is the nation as a whole teachable or is part of the problem? Will the US only engage in a major course change when our failure is impossible to ignore? At a worldwide level has the world failed? Can we recover from a failure that is truly worldwide, to say nothing of learning from it?

10- Situation specific national flexibility: Occasionally crises require flexibility, occasionally they require rigid adherence to a well-defined set of principles. It appears easier to rigidly adhere than to be flexible and many of the examples of nations successfully negotiating a crisis involved extreme flexibility. One fantastic example of this is Meiji Japan. I am not detecting any great degree of flexibility when I consider the worldwide response to crises, and that goes double for the US.

11- National core values: This is different than a national identity, and speaks more to religion, and virtues like honesty. I once again think the key problem, and the reason why Diamond is so alarmed is that the chief crisis currently afflicting the US is one which precisely undermines all of the tools nations normally use to deal with such a crisis. And beyond that we can add this to the long list of factors where a particular tool appears entirely absent at the level of the entire world.

12- Freedom from geopolitical constraints: Finally we reach the one factor where the US actually has significant strength (though, it should be mentioned, even this has been diminished). In dealing with it’s crises the US doesn’t have to really worry about whether Canada will approve. Or whether Mexico might take it as an opportunity to invade. It doesn’t even have to worry very much about Russia or China (as current tariffs demonstrate). As the most powerful country it has wide latitude to deal with any crisis in just about whatever manner it sees fit. But this is the very last step. All the power in the world can’t help you if you don’t know how to apply it. From a worldwide perspective, all I will say is does the world have zero geopolitical constraints or all the geopolitical constraints? I suspect the latter.

It would appear that there are significant reasons to wonder whether any of the factors can be used by the US or the world to overcome the crises Diamond identifies. And you might imagine that this would end up being a strike against the book. And perhaps for some people it is. But for me it’s one of the things I like about it. Pinker says there’s nothing to worry about. Diamond says there may be something to worry about and the tools we have for dealing with it would appear to be inadequate. My own position is much closer to Diamond’s and similar to most people I enjoy reading things that I agree with.

Criticisms

As I mentioned in the beginning, one of the biggest criticisms of this book is that you probably can’t take something that was designed for individuals and usefully apply it to nations. I disagree with this, I think there is some utility, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is mostly because every other system is even worse, not because Diamond’s framework is outstanding. Also as you can see from my rundown of the 12 factors, even if they are useful, most of them seem hard to apply to the US and the world.

Also like many individuals he ends up with a somewhat incoherent policy on immigration. For example he talks about how Japan’s declining population is a good thing because it will lessen the resource crisis they’re having, but then goes on to suggest (as many people do) that Japan needs to admit more immigrants. Won’t that deplete their resources even faster? I pointed out a similar conflict between inequality and climate change.

Finally as has been mentioned this is not Guns, Germs and Steel, and if you come expecting something like that you’ll be disappointed. It is nevertheless a perfectly interesting and useful book, if you’re not expecting something revolutionary.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

It might be possible to identify the factors that go into helping a nation successfully navigate a crisis, but even if it is, we’re still probably in a lot of trouble.


Among the many factors for having a successful blog is almost certainly some amount of money. I’m not sure what the other factors are, but I suspect that whatever they are I could do better. If you want to at least help with the factor I have identified consider donating.


The Top of the Curve

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I’ve been playing this game called Hexcells Infinite. It’s kind of like minesweeper, but with at least a half dozen ways of indicating how many “mines” there are in a given cell. The way play generally progresses is with long pauses of thinking interspersed with fairly rapid clicking once you figure something out because that initial insight cascades to reveal a bunch of nearby “mines”. It’s quite an enjoyable game and if you’re looking for something casual with a playtime of between 5 and 20 minutes I’d recommend it (there are actually three editions: normal, plus and infinite). But that’s not why I bring the game up. I bring it up because the manner in which it plays is an example of a very, very tiny S-curve.

What’s an S-curve? It’s a curve that looks kind of like a flattened “S”, it starts out nearly horizontal, turns up into something that looks exponential and then flattens out again at the top. Just as my hexcells game play starts with not much activity as I think, before going through a burst, then gradually tapering off as I run out of obvious moves. Anywhere positive feedback loops battle with constraints you’ll see S-curves, and they’ve been a topic of frequent discussion recently (at least in my corner of the internet).

As far as that discussion goes, I’m probably somewhat late to the game, but I think thus far people have mostly been focused on smaller S-curves, perhaps not as tiny as the one I experience when playing Hexcells, but fairly small nonetheless. I want to go in the exact opposite direction and focus on the possible existence of very large S-curves. And, in particular, whether we’re near the top of any of those curves.

Energy

One of the points which has been made in other spaces is that if you combine a series of S-curves that combination looks very much like exponential growth. For example, take something like Moore’s Law, which is the exponential growth in the number of transistors that can fit in a given space. At first glance this may seem like one curve, but in reality it’s a bunch of S-curves stacked on top of each other.  You might have an S-curve associated with transistors and then another S-curve around advances with integrated circuits. Farther along there’s the S-curve related to various methods of lithography, and cpu architecture. But as each advance followed immediately on the heels of the last one, there was never a time for the Moore’s Law graph to reach the top of any given S-curve and flatten out. Though perhaps that’s finally about to happen.

My point in bringing this up is not to talk about computer chips, but to point out that something similar happened with energy. If you look at a graph of worldwide energy use, you’ll see a similar vaguely exponential curve, but you’ll notice that within that curve you have various smaller S-curves, sources of energy which start off small, grow really fast and then level off. First there was wood, then coal, then oil. And for a long time there was a lot of attention being paid to the inevitable leveling off of oil, or peak oil as it’s commonly known. Though, of course, just like with processors there was every reason to suspect that another S-curve would come along and keep the overall energy curve pointing up. Initially nuclear power seemed very promising as a candidate for this next innovation, but then it mostly stalled. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who you ask, something else came along, fracking, and a new curve started. There’s also, of course, renewables, which could easily be a blog post on its own.\

As I mentioned previously in this space energy production has been growing at somewhere north of 2%/year for centuries, basically through the stacking of the S-curves I’ve been talking about. This growth has been fundamental to the world we now live in, and it’s unclear what happens if that growth stops, but it’s probably bad. And when we tie all of the above together there are many reasons to think that we may be facing exactly that possibility. That we have reached some sort of inflection point. For example here are some of the questions I’m pondering:

1- Do we still have to worry about the S-curve of peak oil. Or is it now an S-curve of peak natural gas?

2- As I pointed out, much of progress seems based on maintaining a certain rate of energy growth. What happens if the technology is there, but the political will isn’t? For example with nuclear power, and possibly fracking.

3- Related, if fracking is problematic even without its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and nuclear is problematic despite its lack of the same. How does climate change factor into the continued use of certain sources of energy? So far it doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact either way.

4- In the past new technology was implemented as soon as it was feasible, with little regard to public opinion or politics. This is no longer the case. How does this new reality interact with our reliance on continual progress? Or with the diffuse harm that comes from technological innovation? (i.e. it’s one thing to demand 100% renewable energy, it’s quite another thing to actually make that switch.)

Antibiotics

I would offer up antibiotics and another example of a big S-curve. One that appears to definitely be plateauing out recently. I would also argue that unlike previous examples it’s less obviously a composite of lots of smaller S-curves. Yes, new antibiotics have been developed (though that process is getting harder and harder) but my impression is that most of the upward slope is entirely due to just having antibiotics available in the first place (i.e. penicillin) and that subsequent classes of antibiotics allowed us to hold our ground, but didn’t bring any big jump in effectiveness. All of which is to say that there is not some metaphorical nuclear power equivalent waiting to save us once antibiotics are no longer effective. We have one tool and we’ve already extracted most of the benefit.

Obviously I am not the first person to point this out, but my broader contention is that we may be reaching the top of a lot of our big S-curves and our effectiveness at dealing with the diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics could be indicative of how we deal with the other S-curves as they plateau out. So far the signs are not encouraging.

Manned Space Exploration

Manned space exploration has been in the news a lot lately. Not only is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up next month, but both SpaceX and Blue Origins have announced plans to send humans to Mars. And then of course there’s Trump’s very… interesting(?) tweet from a few days ago:

For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!

Where does all of this put us as far as an S-curve for the manned exploration of space? I would argue that we’ve already experienced an S-curve, one which plateaued awhile ago. Remember the description of S-curves we started with. It begins with a positive feedback loop. When you’re talking about the Apollo missions this is a little vague, but obviously competition with the Soviets was a big part of it. After an initial burst things taper off as you run into constraints. On that end things are not vague at all, the constraints of manned space exploration are legion, particularly when you’re trying to do it at the government level.

That last bit is key, I would argue that we have run through the governmental S-curve already and that we’re at the beginning of a new S-curve, the manned exploration of space by private entities. In this new stage we’ll see some more innovations (like reusable rockets) but eventually even Musk and Bezos will run out of places where they can economize and improve, and things will reach another plateau. We’ve seen S-curves which stack one after the other and give the impression of continuous exponential growth. This, on the other hand, is an example of two curves with a long gap in between. Also once the current private entity fueled curve plateaus it’s unclear when or in what domain another one will start. And what’s even more uncertain is whether that will happen before or after we have a long-term sustainable presence somewhere other than Earth. My bet would be that it will definitely be before, and that there is no smooth path to the stars, or even Mars.

Scientific method

At last we finally arrive at the S-curve that worries me most of all, the S-curve of scientific discovery. For decades if not centuries it has been more or less an article of faith that scientific progress would continue to increase in essentially an exponential fashion, and indeed by some measures it still is, for example scientific output, measured in terms of scientific papers, doubles every nine years. But are all of those papers just as impactful as Einstein’s On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies? Definitely not, meaning that at best the number of scientific papers is a very rough proxy for scientific progress, not a direct measure of it. But even if you disagree, and argue that the ever doubling number of papers means that scientific progress hasn’t slowed down, there is absolutely no law that says that it never will. And many reasons to think that it’s already happening.

Not too long ago I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It was just before I started reviewing everything I read, but maybe I’ll go back and pick that one up, because it was truly a great book. One of the things that was striking is how amazingly fruitful the pre-war years were for physics. Everywhere you turned people were uncovering new things, the structure of the atom, the existence of neutrons, the discovery of fission. (George Gamow also noticed this leading him to write the book Thirty Years that Shook Physics). All of this is a classic description of the bottom of the S-curve. As discoveries and scientists feed off one another it produces a positive feedback loop of understanding.

These days, we’ve got far more scientists working on things, publishing, as I mentioned far more papers, but the discoveries of the last 30 years have been much less consequential. All of the laws of physics where things are unchanging and easy to replicate, have largely been uncovered, or will require spending billions of dollars on a new particle collider. It’s pretty clear that all of the places where the scientific method was easy to apply have been mined out. That we have picked all of the low hanging fruit. The S-curve is starting to plateau as we bump up against various constraints

In part this is because much of science has moved on to experiments about human physiology and behavior, where there are numerous constraints. It’s difficult to establish control groups, things aren’t unchanging, and there are vast differences between individuals, meaning that instead of groundbreaking discoveries that shake our understanding of the universe we get small discoveries about how we just have to assume a “power pose” and it will immediately make us more confident. Worse than the smallness of these discoveries is the fact that 50% of the time they fail to replicate (like the research about the power pose). That sounds a lot like a plateau to me.

Tying all of this together, we have this idea that progress is a smooth curve moving ever upward towards a better and better future, and indeed this has been the case for the last few decades and in some cases for the last few centuries, but as I pointed out a couple of times, the bottom of an S-curve is indistinguishable from exponential growth. It’s only as you get farther along that the difference is apparent. And I would argue that we’re finally reaching the stage where it’s clear that most of the things we’ve come to expect from progress aren’t exponential, that they won’t grow forever, and that in fact we’re nearing the top of a lot of S-curves which have been powering civilization for a long time. And as they start to plateau it’s unclear what will happen

This is not to say that progress is over, even if most things should be viewed as an S-curve instead of something that grows exponentially, there are lots of S-curves remaining, and we’re still at the bottom/high growth part of many of them. But it’s unclear how much comfort this should give us. Saying that while we may be close to peak antibiotics, we’re nowhere near peak Facebook, is not particularly reassuring.

Undoubtedly lumping all trends under the heading of an S-curve will turn out to be too crude, some trends will end up being more complicated, and some really will turn out to essentially grow forever. But just as undoubtedly some of the trends that have powered the modern world over the last few hundred years are S-curves, and they will plateau if they haven’t already. How we will deal with these plateaus? These changes in direction? Will the process be smooth and uneventful or catastrophic? For a long time we’ve essentially been able to innovate our way out of the problems we’ve created, but we’re coming to a time when we’ll no longer be able to count on that.


I know that at least some of my readers love nothing more than proving me wrong. Well if you were to look at donations, they also resemble an S-curve. This is a chance to prove me wrong, make it grow exponentially!


Books I Finished in May (With One from April)

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The Collapsing Empire

By: John Scalzi

384 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: C+

Who should read this book?

If you like Scalzi, particularly his sense of humor, you should read the book. If you like Wil Wheaton you should listen to the audiobook, he does a pretty good job (better than his work on Ready Player One.)

If you’re offended by swearing you should definitely not read this book.

If you’re only going to read one science fiction book, it definitely shouldn’t be this one.

Representative passage:

“You threw him into space?”

“Yup.”

“And he didn’t die?”

“We only threw him out a little bit.”

Thoughts

I’m not a huge Scalzi fan. That said the plot was interesting enough that I’ll probably finish the series. His world building was vaguely interesting. I did like this more than Old Man’s War.

Scalzi is, or at least tries to be funny. If his style of humor clicks with you, then you’ll probably enjoy the book quite a bit, if it doesn’t then his whole schtick get’s kind of grating. He’s kind of the science fiction version of Cards Against Humanity, if you like playing that game, my guess is that you’ll like the book.

This is not great science fiction a la China Miéville or Neal Stephenson. But as light diverting science fiction it does okay.

Criticisms

When I was in high school I wrote a few cheeky science fiction and fantasy stories, where all the characters had one trait turned up to 11, and nothing was particularly serious. That’s what this book reminds me of. That or perhaps high quality fan fiction. Which is to say the writing feels like something a well edited high schooler would write.

Books I would read before this one:

There is a whole universe of books I would read instead of this one:

If you’re looking for light pulpy action, read the Expanse series.

And, if you’re just looking for something funny, for heaven’s sake, if by some miracle you haven’t read Douglas Adams, do that!


Porcelain: A Memoir

By: Moby

416 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If you like Moby’s music and you like biographies, you should read this.

If you’re interested in the nitty gritty of how someone goes from being all but homeless to a massive success you should also read this book.

Representative passage:

It represented a world I didn’t know, the opposite of where I was—and I hated where I was. I hated the poverty, the cigarette smoke, the drug use, the embarrassment, the loneliness. And Diana Ross was promising me that there was a world that wasn’t stained with sadness and resignation. Somewhere there was a world that was sensual and robotic and hypnotic. And clean.

Thoughts

The autobiography is a weird medium. It’s always going to risk descending into narcissism, and while it’s far more intimate than the biography, it risks being much less objective as well. This book, however, manages to comes across as both very intimate and surprisingly objective.

On top of all that, Moby is actually a great writer (and a good narrator), with interesting stories and a refreshing charm. I particularly liked the story of him starting out, living in a warehouse in New Jersey, commuting into New York (hiding in the bathroom because he didn’t have the money for a fare) and just dreaming that one day he could live in New York and maybe release a few dance singles.

Criticisms

Not many, other than the fact that “autobiographies by contemporary musicians” is kind of a niche genre, and I’m not sure how much of an appeal it has for my typical reader.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

That a lot of things go into being successful: passion, timing, luck, talent, persistence, etc. And that even if you have all those things, it’s going to be hard.


Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI

By: John Brockman (Editor), Various

320 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

If you’re really into the philosophy of AI and you want lots of different perspectives, you should read this book.

I would not, however, recommend it to anyone as an introduction.

Representative passage:

I see the Possible Minds Project as an ongoing dynamical emergent system, a presentation of the ideas of a community of sophisticated thinkers who are bringing their experience and erudition to bear in challenging the prevailing digital AI narrative as they communicate their thoughts to one another. The aim is to present a mosaic of views that will help make sense out of this rapidly emerging field.

Thoughts

Like many people I’m fascinated by AI, and when I heard about this book, I figured why not? And in the end it turned out to be a perfectly adequate collection of essays by brilliant individuals, but nothing particularly special. None of the essays jumped out at me, and I don’t recall any genuinely new insights into the issue. Steven Pinker’s essay may have been the most interesting because his view was the most contrarian, but even there, it was mostly all stuff I had heard before.

The book also engages in a weird framing device with everyone keying off a 70 year old book. The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, which I guess helps constrain the discussion, but also makes it even less accessible, and gives it an air of pretension. “If you were a brilliant individual, like me than of course you’d be familiar with this out of print book, and would have realised long ago Norbert Wiener’s uncanny prescience.”

Criticisms

My biggest criticism is that I’m not sure what the point of the book is. It’s not an introduction, nor is it breaking any exciting new ground. It’s neither as in-depth as a book like Superintelligence nor as accessible as any of a hundred other pieces. It’s perfectly adequate and frequently interesting, but it’s overarching theme is both far too diffuse, and at the same time incredibly narrow.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

AI can be connected to a lot of different academic fields. Not all of those connections are going to be interesting.


Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick (Reviewed earlier in separate post.)


The Inevitable Apostasy and the Promised Restoration (Religious)

By: Tad R. Callister

484 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and you enjoy reading books about religion, then I think you’ll enjoy this book.

If you’re not LDS, then there are two other groups of people who might benefit from reading this book:

  • People who are curious about theology in general, particularly early Christian doctrine, for which it provides a good overview.
  • Someone who is favorably disposed to Christianity, but is unsure which denomination to align with.

Representative passage

The early Christian writers taught that the preaching of the gospel to the dead was not limited to the Savior’s few days in the spirit prison. The Shepherd of Hermas informs us that the apostles and others followed the Savior to the spirit world after their respective deaths…

Thoughts

This is a very exhaustive comparison of modern LDS theology with early Christian theology, and I came away from it very impressed not only by the author but by the staggering number of ways in which LDS doctrine lines up very well with early Christian theology, and where both share very little resemblance to historical Protestant and Catholic doctrine. Which definitely speaks to some sort of Apostasy, thus the title of the book.

In particular I thought the chapters examining how teachings and ordinances of the early Church were changed or lost, with new ones taking their place, were especially interesting. Not only was this the meat of the book, but it seemed to draw in the most quotes from the early Church Fathers, which gave things quite a bit of heft

Criticisms

This is one of those books that is very persuasive, but you have to wonder what a book written from the other side would look like. Is it possible Callister is overselling some pieces of evidence and ignoring others? It feels pretty comprehensive, but it’s also clearly written from a perspective which is biased towards the LDS church.

Additionally, he ends up with a list of 13 pieces of evidence and each get a chapter, and essentially equal weight, but not all pieces of evidence are equal. For example the idea that there would have been no Dark Ages without the apostasy, seems far more speculative than some of the other evidence he offers.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Most of what seems unusual or even blasphemous about LDS doctrine, turns out to have at least some support, and in many cases a lot of support, in the writings of the early church fathers.


The City & The City

By: China Miéville

336 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read other stuff by China Miéville and enjoyed it, you should read this book.

If you’ve been meaning to read something by China Miéville, this is a good place to start.

Finally, if you like hardboiled detective stories, or more literary science fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Representative passage:

How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border.

Thoughts

It’s hard to talk about The City & The City without explaining the central conceit of the novel. And for that I’m going to just be lazy and steal from Wikipedia:

The City & the City takes place in the fictional Eastern European twin city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens (and the threat of the secret power known as Breach), they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully “unsee” (that is, consciously erase from their mind or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city – even if they are an inch away. This separation is emphasised by the style of clothing, architecture, gait, and the way denizens of each city generally carry themselves. Residents of the cities are taught from childhood to recognise things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is called “breaching” – a terrible crime for the citizens of the two cities, even worse than murder.

As interesting and provocative as these ideas are, at its heart The City & The City is basically a hardboiled detective story, and in that respect it succeeds admirably with fantastic characters and great interactions between the characters.  Miéville is also known for his intricate settings and this is no exception, it felt both very alien, very Eastern European, and very deep all at the same time. The conceit of the two cities which exist both in entirely the same space and entirely separate was well-crafted and deftly explored. For those who decide to listen to it as an audiobook, I thought the narration was perfect, and definitely added to the Eastern European vibe.

All of the above being said, The City & The City suffered from a major Teen Wolf problem…

In the movie Teen Wolf, Michael J. Fox turns into a werewolf in the middle of a basketball game, and once it’s clear that he’s really good at basketball, everything continues kind of as normal. Which is to say the national media doesn’t show up. He’s not subject to extensive medical tests. It doesn’t make everyone question everything they once knew, etc. The movie doesn’t shy away from the consequences of him being a werewolf within his friend group, and to an extent his high school, but it completely ignores any consequences outside of that. But if you look past all of that Teen Wolf is a perfectly fine movie.

In The City & The City something very similar is happening. You have a novel which is set in our world, and as far as you can tell everything is the same in this world except with respect to these two cities. And similar to Teen Wolf, the novel does a great job of describing the consequences this has on the citizens of the two cities, and on the laws and customs, but it almost entirely ignores the consequences this arrangement would have on the broader world. This is fine, and sometimes art requires a suspension of disbelief, but The City & The City asks for more than that, which takes me to…

Criticisms

Without going into too many spoilers, the big problem I had with The City & The City was that I felt like it altered what I was disbelieving near the end of the book, which had the effect of destroying the suspension. I suspect, and in fact I know, that other people were not nearly as bothered by this as I was, but this is not their review it’s mine. And this shift detracted quite a bit from my overall enjoyment of the book.

I can be a little more clear if I spoil things a little bit. If you don’t want to be spoiled skip the next paragraph.

Connected to the problem of changing what the novel asked me to disbelieve, the novel gave every indication that it was going to be one of those books where there would be a big and exciting reveal at the end about the nature of the weirdness which existed between the two cities. So as I read it, that’s the bucket I put it in, and I was excited for that reveal, but it turns out it really wasn’t in that bucket after all

Books I would read before this one:

In the very narrow niche of the New Weird movement, I’m not sure there is a book I would read before this one. I certainly prefer other writers like Stephenson to Miéville, but within his little domain he’s clearly a master. I guess I might put Perdido Street Station ahead of this book, mostly because it’s more Miéville-ly.


13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning

By: Spotted Toad

152 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

I haven’t really followed Spotted Toad’s blog, but if you do, then I imagine you might want to read this book.

If you’re interested in the Teach for America program, and want to get a sense of what it was like from the inside, then I would read this book.

Representative passage

In practice, of course, the accused kid very well may have been better off doin’ nuthin’ than doing his work. Doing your work means writing things down; in middle school at least, a practice that for many kids more-or-less assures that their full attention is focused on forming or copying letters rather than on the topic of discussion or relevant thoughts. For many kids keeping them writing keeps them quiet enough to assure a simulacrum of learning in the classroom, but may at times prevent actual learning from taking place

Thoughts

I picked this up on a whim after seeing it mentioned on Steve Sailer’s blog. He described it as an “elegantly oblique memoir”. When I read that description, I think skipped past the word “oblique”. And I picked it up hoping for more of a tell-all behind the scenes account of modern teaching. There was some of that, but mostly it was somewhat sweet stories of kids and teachers doing what they could. Some of them would succeed and some would fail, with probably more kids in the latter category than the former. There is a lot of insight in the book about the problems of modern education, but the insights are more poetic than pragmatic.

Criticisms

Most of the stories were quite good, but none were really incredible. Also the book was very episodic, and I would have preferred a tighter connection between chapters and clearer themes that got built up over the course of the narrative.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book

That the problems of education are many and complicated, and that teacher quality should not be very high on the list.


Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

By: Casey Cep

336 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If you’re a fan of Harper Lee and/or True Crime, you’ll enjoy this book.

If you want to be on the cutting edge of what the intelligentsia are reading this summer, this is a good book for that. (It’s been covered by The Economist, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR, plus a host of local papers.)

Representative passage:

It took a few telephone calls, but finally Lee agreed to sit with Capote for the interview and meet the photographer Harry Benson near Capote’s apartment at the UN Plaza. The old tree-house friends walked around Second Avenue, talking in what Benson remembers was an almost private language, sweet and loving, like siblings. A lot had transpired between the two of them by then, including no small share of envy and anger and disapproval, but there was no mention of any of it that day: gray-haired now and moving more slowly, the pair walked around New York together as if it were the old, familiar courthouse square. Lee had turned fifty that year, and Capote fifty-two, but they could summon their childhood as if it were yesterday. A kindergarten teacher had whacked Capote’s hand with a ruler for reading too well, Lee remembered to the reporter, a small episode but one that said plenty about the lives of brilliant misfits in their small southern town. It was in that interview that Lee said of them, evocatively and enigmatically, “We are bound by a common anguish.”

Thoughts

I was in that category of people who like both true crime and Harper Lee. And while I normally pick up books and sit on them for months (if not decades) I grabbed this one and listened to it almost immediately.

The book is composed of two halfs, one half tells the story of Rev. Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who almost certainly murdered numerous relatives in order to collect life insurance on them. The second half tells the story of Harper Lee, and particularly her attempt to create a second novel from the story of Maxwell.

Both stories are great. Though I think I preferred the story of Harper Lee. These days the fact that she only wrote one book is a piece of trivia, or an interesting fact you might bring out if To Kill a Mockingbird ever comes up. At most, it occupies a role as a somewhat nebulous cautionary tale about the dangers of sudden fame, but for Lee the struggle to write a second book occupied more than 50 years of her life. (Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird, so it doesn’t count.) You can pack a lot of regrets, missteps, sorrow and alcohol into 50 years. And Lee did just that.

Criticisms

This is essentially two books, and you imagine that a more skilled writer, rather than having two halves, one for Maxwell and one for Lee, could have figured out a way to interweave both stories into a cohesive narrative. But maybe it just illustrates one of the lessons of the book: The perfect is the enemy of the good, and that it’s better to have the book we got then to never get a book at all.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Writing something really great is hard. Doing it again is even harder.


The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (Incerto)

By: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

176 pages

Format: Print

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

If you’re a Taleb completist you should read this book.

If you like pithy quotes, then you also might want to check out this book.

Representative passage:

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one.

Thoughts

I am a huge fan of Taleb, I have even gone so far as to call myself a disciple of Taleb. Antifragile and The Black Swan are tied for my favorite non-fiction books of all time. Fooled by Randomness is incredible, and while I found Skin in the Game a little cantankerous I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I have pre-ordered the forthcoming deluxe collection of all his books (which he calls the Incerto) and I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival at the end of July. As you can imagine, from all of the foregoing, I am very biased towards being favorably disposed to anything Taleb writes, and despite that I would have a hard time recommending this book.

The book is a collection of aphorisms by Taleb, and while some are real gems, others, honestly border on the juvenile. This was my second time reading the book. The first time I read it, I did so like I would any other book, straight through over the course of a few days. This is not what Taleb intended. He recommends that you read no more than four aphorisms in one sitting and preferably, that you select them randomly. I did not go that far, but I did read one page a day for 148 days. That did improve the book, and I certainly got more out of it, but it did not elevate it to the level of his other books. But I did pick out quite a few gems using this method, for example:

The twentieth century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the twenty-first will be that of the technological one.

On the other hand, for an example of something which bordered on the juvenile we turn to…

Criticisms

When he says something like this:

I suspect that IQ, SAT, and school grades are tests designed by nerds so they can get high scores in order to call each other intelligent.

It kind of reminds me of Ogre yelling Nerds! And of course it’s not just nerds he has a problem with, anyone who’s followed Taleb for any length of time knows that he doesn’t like economists and academics much either. This is on full display in The Bed of Procrustes. A few examples:

There are designations, like “economist,” “prostitute,” or “consultant,” for which additional characterization doesn’t add information

Academics are only useful when they try to be useless (say, as in mathematics and philosophy) and dangerous when they try to be useful.

We should make students recompute their GPAs by counting their grades in finance and economics backward.

Having read all of the rest of his stuff, I understand the underlying point, but given that his philosophy is so often the opposite of conventional wisdom I think it only sinks in with quite a bit of explanation, which is precisely what you get in the rest of his books. But shorn of that explanation and reduced to a sentence or two, it risks coming across as petty or pointless.

As I said there are some gems, but I think you’re better served by reading his other books than trying to find them here.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

I will let Taleb provide the final word

If my detractors knew me better they would hate me even more.


Given that this is the first time I’m trying a dump of book reviews I’m very interested in feedback. Would you prefer them to be split up? Should I add anchor links to allow you to quickly jump to a review? Should I exclude certain genres of books? Also, I should point out, if you donate, whatever suggestions you make? I have to follow them.


Potpourri of Abortion Commentary

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Two posts ago I did a long one on abortion, in particular the new anti-abortion laws which had recently been passed by Georgia and Alabama. It was not my intent to return to the subject so soon, but I got a fair number of comments, both here and via email that seemed to require a more in-depth response, and so rather than replying in the comments where very few will see it, or via email where only one person would see it, I thought I’d make a post out of it. (We’re still in a position where not many people will see it, but I get a post out of it.) I’m going to bounce around a lot, so be warned.

1- Abortion, the Sex Recession, and Fertility Rates

To begin with one of my readers made the connection between a previous post where I talked about young men having less sex, and making abortion illegal. His theory was that the cost of raising a kid is greater than ever, and that this is already exerting a downward pressure on sex and intimacy. If this is the case, then what happens when you no longer have the option of abortion? Won’t that make things even worse, he reasoned, causing still more men to go their own way, and yet lower fertility?

On its face this theory seems reasonable. To begin with, one of the major theories for declining birthrates is the expense associated with children. In particular children have gone from being an asset (additional very cheap labor to help you work the farm) to a liability. And yes, kids are more expensive than ever, though the perception of that expense is worse than the reality. BLOGThis website seems to indicate that in inflation adjusted terms the cost of raising a child was 203k in 1960 compared to 233k in 2015. That said, I think there’s a valid argument to be made that the real massive increase has been in time and attention, and other less quantifiable costs. For one thing, it generally takes two incomes to cover things now, where in 1960 one income was sufficient.

Still, when you bundle all of this together how much of an impact does it have on the sexual activity rate of young men? My sense is that the problem is not that there are plenty of women who are willing to have sex, but young men are declining because it might lead to a pregnancy, and that pregnancy might lead to a child, and that child would be really expensive. Rather, my sense is that the chief obstacle is step one, finding a woman in the first place. And while there has been some tightening of abortion availability even before the recent flurry of laws, it seems hard to imagine that this is what’s behind the tripling of young men under 30 who aren’t having sex over the last ten years.

The reader also pointed out that downstream of all this was the issue of fertility, where I have also expressed concerns. And there are some interesting questions to consider in this arena. What will Georgia’s fertility rate look like if the recently passed law survives the inevitable legal challenges? Does it go up because of all the births which otherwise would have been ended by abortion? Or does it go down because they’ll be even less sex now that the danger of an unplanned pregnancy is greater. Or as my reader said:

It’s not hard to envision all kinds of delicious dysfunction later in life where, in a white hot heat of frustration and rage, the parents tell the unwanted child that they exist only because “UNFORTUNATELY we lived in GEORGIA! The government made me keep you!”

In any event, these are questions I would be interested in the answer to. Of course that will only be possible if the law isn’t struck down and we have the data to make a comparison, which for my money is a consideration which should actually carry some weight in this whole debate, though, to be clear, not very much. If all this happens, I’m not sure what I expect to see. It was never very easy to get an abortion in Georgia, so I’m not sure that the law would make an appreciable difference in terms of fertility. On the other hand, as I pointed out, I don’t think the unplanned pregnancy consideration is much of a factor in young men not having sex, but maybe it’s a bigger deal than I think.

The key point is that there is a lot going on with fertility, how much sex people are having, and morality in general. It would be interesting to consider an alternate world, of absolutely enforced Catholic morality: no birth control and no abortion. What does the fertility rate look like in this world? Is it dramatically lower than our current world because almost no one has sex? Because they know that if they do there’s a good chance they’ll end up saddled with a child? Or is it dramatically higher because all of the kids that were avoided or aborted in our world now exist? I don’t know. I suspect the latter. But in this day and age I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong either.

2- Slippery Slope Arguments

The reader who emailed me brought up one more subject, which I’m including because I think it is something I could do better:

I noted the difference between your slippery slope response with respect to transgender protections–“Where does it end??”–versus a very relaxed stance about the admittedly vanishingly small number of women who would actually be imprisoned for life for getting an out-of-state abortion.

It is very easy to fall into a trap where you apply the slippery slope argument when it’s convenient, but then go on to ignore it when it isn’t. But I think looking at the specific examples of transgender protections and women who might be imprisoned for out of state abortions illustrates some of the criteria I hope to apply when making that particular argument.

To begin with, we have actually experienced what happens when abortion is illegal. We can look back to the 60’s and early 70’s and see whether there was a slippery slope back then. Were there large numbers of women imprisoned, only to be freed by Roe v. Wade? Did the states where it was illegal resemble A Handmaid’s Tale? As far as I know neither of these things happened the last time abortion was illegal, which inclines me to believe that they won’t happen the next time it’s illegal either. I do have some concerns that the nation can’t survive much more drama in this area, which is a whole other issue. But if it can, then not only do I foresee nothing resembling A Handmaid’s Tale, I also think Roe will be reinstated in some fashion even if the pro-choice side does achieve a temporary victory at the Supreme Court. (My prediction is that if Roe is overturned that it will be reinstated within 10 years, assuming that the repeal doesn’t trigger some political black swan.)

On the other hand, when we look at the changes we’re making to accommodate transgender individuals, it’s historically unprecedented. In spite of this, there is still a good chance that we’ll end up in some sort of equilibrium, that there will be no slippery slope. But given that we have no experience in this area, I think the we need to take the slippery slope argument more seriously than in the previous example. A lack of data makes it harder to know which outcome to expect, and I think the vast majority of things I talk about fall into this category. To put it another way, it’s taken over 45 years for the first significant challenge of Roe to emerge, and even if it somehow manages to succeed, it’s mostly just going back to conditions we already have experience with. If there is a slope in this area, it’s not a very steep one. On the other hand there are several measures of transgender trends that look essentially exponential.

If I had said there’s a slippery slope towards an increasing number of late term abortions that would be more interesting, and more controversial. There have in fact been academic papers arguing that post-birth abortions should be legal as well, but I think people’s opinion about this has remained pretty static, though I might be tempted to argue that the pro-choice side is moving towards later abortions at about the same speed as the pro-life crowd is moving towards overturning Roe.

3- Bodily Autonomy Leading to a Lack of Support

Moving on, a comment from Mark made a couple of intriguing points, to start with he points out that a principle of absolute bodily autonomy may have some unintended side effects:

I saw some guy talking about how he knocked up his girlfriend. She asked him what he thought about whether she should continue the pregnancy or have an abortion. He was proud to report he told her the whole thing was none of his business and he wasn’t going to try and influence her decision one way or another.

He was proud that after participating to create a difficult situation for her, when she craved counsel and support the most, he abandoned her?

This is an interesting and believable second order effect of the push for women to have absolute right over their pregnancies, one which probably deserves further examination. Also it might be useful to imagine all the ways in which men might react, based on their various ideologies:

  • Selfish Progressive: Demands woman get an abortion because he doesn’t want to risk having to pay child support.
  • “Enlightened” Progressive: As above. Maybe with the addition of offering to pay for the abortion if that’s her choice.
  • Compassionate Pro-life: When asked, advises her to keep the baby, offers marriage, and help.
  • Fire and Brimstone Pro-life: Tells her she’s going to go to Hell if she gets an abortion, perhaps abandoning her when she suggests it’s an option.

I’m sure there are probably more than that, and those that I’ve listed are also something of a caricature, but if we agree with Mark’s point that the “guy” in question shouldn’t have abandoned the girl, which of the other three would pro-choice advocates recommend? Presumably none of them. So if the abandonment approach isn’t ideal, what is the ideal approach, again, from a pro-choice perspective? I’m genuinely curious.

4- Showing Insufficient Concern For the Women Involved

This is the area where the criticisms were the most justified. To begin with, as you can probably guess the unintended effects of absolute bodily autonomy was not Mark’s primary point, but it does lead into it:

With abortion I feel like there’s all this oxygen wasted about whether or not the State should allow/endorse/fund it. And the real tragedy is that the debate keeps people on both sides from supporting women in making difficult choices. If a woman has an abortion she’s either condemned to burn in hell, or she should be applauded for dealing with the inconvenience.

But this isn’t like the decision to buy a new cell phone, and it’s not as morally straightforward as whether to strangle defenseless old ladies. (Hint: don’t strangle old ladies.) The decision will have lasting consequences either way, and pretending there’s no decision here, or that the decision is less impactful than, say who you marry, doesn’t just ignore the problem, it is the problem.

This is a reasonable criticism of most abortion commentary but particularly my own, and it’s closely echoed by that leveled by another commenter, Andrew:

Your proposed punishment seems like you think abortion is akin to a luxury purchase. You also admit that for all practical purposes the laws we’re talking about will criminalize all abortion and yet you have stated your moral position isn’t absolute. This seems a strange take. I don’t think I have a counter to something that seems so conflicted.

Other than saying you want mercy shown to women who have abortions illegally, you seem to have no thoughts on how abortion or lack of abortion availability impacts the mothers, families and by extension, society at large. Moral stances without thought for practical impact is folly.

There’s a lot going on in this comment, much of which I will get to in a second, but as he does point out, other than when I said, “I would want the greatest possible mercy shown to [the] women [having the abortions].” I didn’t spend any time talking about how enormously consequential the decision is, as Mark points out, or about the potential impact of abortion restrictions on pregnant women, their families and society, as Andrew mentions.

I should have talked more about that, and it should be a part of any discussion of abortion. I understand that these are real individuals making a very difficult decision. In fact as an illustration of how difficult that decision is, it’s interesting to note that while there are many behaviors which used to be completely off limits for depiction by TV and movies, but which are now depicted sympathetically or even positively. For example, things like divorce, teenage sex, adultery, drug use, etc. Actual abortions are still rarely depicted, and when they are, almost without exception, they’re framed as being very sad and awful. (I understand the movie Obvious Child is an exception, but I’ve never seen it. And I’m not aware of any other exceptions.)

On top of all this, I’m definitely libertarian enough to recognize that having the government insert itself into a difficult decision makes that decision way more difficult, and onerous, and terrible. So both Mark and Andrew are saying that I should have talked more about some other aspect of the abortion controversy either instead of, or in addition to the things I did talk about. And I agree, as I said, that’s a reasonable criticism, of not only discussions of abortion, but of most discussions period. The question is, after taking that criticism into account, what should I have done differently? How should I have talked about things?

5- General Principles of Discussion and Practicality

Let’s turn again to Andrew’s comment, since he brings up both things I could have done better, and places where I’m going to stick to my guns:

Your proposed punishment seems like you think abortion is akin to a luxury purchase.

He’s responding to a suggestion of mine that even though I am in favor of abortion providers being punished that I didn’t say anything about the severity of the punishment (in an earlier comment he accuses me of wanting to “bring down the hammer”.) The suggestion I made was that you could imagine abortion carrying $1000 fine, which would be large enough to act as a deterrent, but small enough that safe abortions, if really necessary, could still happen. But of course the point is not to get into the weeds of a he said/she said argument about this tiny point, but to examine whether I could have done better.

In this case, I will freely admit that I screwed up. It is fine to toss out a quick example to clarify things, but in my haste to come up with something which fit, I ended up proposing a scenario which is completely unrealistic. There is no conceivable scenario under which abortion doctors are lightly punished for abortions in what are essentially pro-life states, and then go on to continue operating in spite of these light punishments. Even if the law worked that way. (And here I think both of us could have done better, speeding carries a fee, is it considered a luxury purchase?) The polarization is too great. And given that polarization is my primary villain I ended up weakening my central point rather than strengthening it.

Moving on:

You also admit that for all practical purposes the laws we’re talking about will criminalize all abortion and yet you have stated your moral position isn’t absolute. This seems a strange take. I don’t think I have a counter to something that seems so conflicted.

Indeed my moral position isn’t absolute, but I don’t think there’s any conflict, because the laws aren’t absolute either. Despite what Andrew says the laws in question don’t criminalize all abortions, they only criminalize all abortions in Alabama and (effectively) Georgia. This is an important distinction, but one I think most people, perhaps including Andrew, overlook because they feel that there is one correct way of handling the abortion question, and that we should just implement that “correct way” across the entire nation. But I would argue instead that it is precisely because this is a super contentious issue where absolute morality is difficult to arrive at which means we may not be able to have a one size fits all policy.

In fact, at the risk of coming across as insufferably arrogant, paradoxically it’s humility that seems most missing from discussions of abortion, moreso even than the concern for women facing that difficult choice, which I mentioned previously. People are fixated on this current battle and deciding things permanently and for all time. But it takes humility and maybe a dose of realism to admit that this is not going to happen. That Alabama and Georgia are ***not*** everywhere. That the abortion issue doesn’t need to be decided ***for all time*** in May of 2019. That yes, any delay in deciding means bad things might happen, but also that a lot of people are making the credible argument that bad things have been happening since 1973. That the pro-life/anti-abortion crowd is not going to go away, and that this issue is not going to be decided once and for all, anytime soon, which takes us to Andrew’s final sentence:

Moral stances without thought for practical impact is folly.

As you can guess, based on what I just said, I don’t think I ignored the practical impact at all. Though I may have been looking at practical impacts at different level. As I said, I should have spent more time talking about the actual human cost of abortions. The difficulty of the decision, and the way in which the actual women facing it end up being abandoned by both sides of the issue, but I’m also going to argue that it’s entirely possible that other people spend too much time in this area, and ignore the fact that abortion is an incredibly thorny moral issue with no easy answers, which was the central point of that previous post.

And of course if we really want to discuss what’s practical, then practically I can’t imagine that I have any impact on the debate; I can’t imagine any laws will be passed or overturned based on my writing; and I’d be extraordinarily surprised to find out that I’d prevented even a single abortion. And even though all these things are undoubtedly true, I think the larger discussion, and the small part I played in that discussion is important. Whatever I might have implied, I’m glad for the comments that were made. And in the end I hope I contributed something useful however tiny that contribution might be.


This is more acknowledgement of error than I usually engage in (though still far less than what would be expected). If you’d like to support that sort of thing consider donating.


Horses, Rollaboards and Nukes

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Recently I’ve been working my way through the Iliad (the Richard Lattimore translation as recommended by Harold Bloom). And as I’ve been doing so, I noticed something I hadn’t on my previous read-through, something having to do with…horses.

Horses are mentioned a lot in the Iliad. One of Homer’s frequently used epithets is “breaker of horses”, but he also talks about “horse tamers”, and “horse drivers”. And of course everyone knows about the Trojan Horse, though, to be clear, that doesn’t make an appearance in the Iliad. But it wasn’t the fact that there were horses which caught my attention, it was the fact that no one rode those horses, the horses are used exclusively to pull chariots. On some level I may have already known this, but it was only on this recent read-through that I paused to consider the implications of this fact.

I’m no expert on the history of horses, but I did some digging and this is what I found. While horses were domesticated no later than 2000 BC and probably as early as 3500 BC, the earliest evidence for them being ridden in warfare is from around 850 or so BC. (The Trojan War, or at least the event that we think of as the Trojan War is generally considered to have happened around the 11th or 12th century BC.) And evidence that horses were ridden even outside of warfare before then is suggestive, but mostly inconclusive. I find this interesting for a whole host of reasons, but primarily for what it says about how long it can take for the full utility of a new technology to become apparent, even in the realm of war, where it’s a matter of life and death.

Those that have spent any time studying the Mongols (and if you haven’t I could not recommend the Hardcore History series on the Mongols enough) will know that before the harnessing of gunpowder the ultimate military unit was the mounted archer, particularly once the stirrup was invented. And yet by the time the Mongols used them to such devastating effect, horses had been domesticated for thousands of years. Bows which could be used from horseback had existed for almost as long, and while stirrups were a recent invention there is nothing about their construction which kept them from being invented much, much earlier. So why did it take so long? And is there anything which is currently just sitting around waiting for a slight improvement before it entirely changes the world?

As for the first question, while riding horses is baked into our psyche now, I’m sure that the first time someone suggested getting on the back of something alive, which could buck you off without any warning, seemed pretty crazy. Also if you’re mostly using horses to facilitate archery it would seem logical that a stable platform like the chariot, with a 360 degree field of fire was much better than trying to do the same thing from horseback. Also even something which seems obvious can take a long while to develop. The classic example of this is wheeled luggage.

I’m not sure when it would first have been useful to have wheeled luggage. You obviously want a reasonably flat surface that’s free of mud and horse crap. But once that’s in place, and perhaps even before then, you could imagine something like a traditional steamer trunks with wheels built into one corner being easily wheeled from place to place. But even if flat surfaces were uncommon and horse crap all too common, it certainly would have come in handy by the time of World War II, and particularly in the immediate aftermath as commercial air travel took off. And yet the first time someone actually put wheels on luggage was 1972 or, as has been frequently pointed out, after we landed on the Moon. Further, this was not the wheeled luggage most of us are familiar with this was the typical old style suitcase with a strap you could pull, and which tipped over all the time. The rollaboard style didn’t come along until 1991! This is despite all the necessary technology existing for decades before hand.

There are certainly other examples of this sort of thing, but you can see that even over very long periods (centuries in the case of horses, decades in the case of wheeled luggage) obviously innovative improvements can elude us. And it doesn’t seem to be important that it’s a matter of life or death (horses) or if it’s something that millions of people could notice (luggage). It can still be overlooked for a disconcertingly long time.

To return to my two questions, I’m not sure why certain innovations take so long, there are obviously lots of potential theories, but the fact is that they do. And as far as the second, if I knew of a slight improvement that would change the world I should be out there raising capital rather than writing this blog. That said I do have what I think is a good (or perhaps awful) candidate, though unfortunately it’s not the kind of thing you raise money for. That candidate is… nuclear weapons.

I’ve blogged before about nuclear weapons, and they’re definitely something I frequently worry about, but a combination of my observation about the Iliad and a recent Bloomberg article by Tyler Cowen brought the subject back to the top of my list. Combining all three of these sources together we come up with the following list of reasons why I think nuclear weapons should still be humanities number one concern (which is Cowen’s position as well.)

1- Just as it took a long time to figure out the “killer app” (literally) for horses, it could be that we haven’t yet figured out the most effective way to use nukes. For example, I personally think there are probably methods of just threatening to use nukes that could be horribly effective in the hands of an aggressive nation. (Look how far Hitler got on nothing but aggression and confidence with nations who had no appetite for violence.)

2- If it potentially takes many man hours before a novel way of doing things is uncovered, as in the case with luggage, we don’t actually have all that many “nuke man hours”, however you choose to define that term. This is good in general, but may be bad if it leads us to believe we’ve ruled out or accounted for all of the possible scenarios for nuclear weapons to be used.

3- Cowen points out that every era has their recency bias. In the immediate aftermath of World War II and during the Cold War people were very worried about war because we had just one. Now that we’re experiencing the Long Peace, people don’t worry about that anymore. Now they worry about banks failing because of bad mortgages. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we worried about terrorism. In each of those cases our worries were based more on what sprang to mind than on what the true probabilities were.

4- Following from the above Cowen goes after Steven Pinker, and makes an argument I’ve also made. Those who paint a rosy picture of a future without nuclear war have to be right every single year, while those who worry about it only have to be right once for all their worry to be justified and for all the optimism to seem fantastically naive. Or as Cowen says it:

Yes, the arguments for optimism often appear stronger than the arguments for pessimism, and indeed they are. When it comes to nuclear weapons, however, the arguments for pessimism only have to be true once — and that is likely to happen sooner or later, no matter how positive the general trends

5- Cowen’s final point is that, as with all technology, nukes are becoming “easier and cheaper to build” and beyond that other improvements are being worked on, like hypersonic delivery systems. These are also things I’ve talked about before but it sounds more impressive coming from Cowen.

6- Related to the above, ICBMs, particularly solid fuel MIRVs (Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles) are basically impossible to defend against, and if there is any wiggle room, hypersonic missiles will definitely get rid of it. Absent the ability to mount a successful defense we can only deter through the promise of retaliation, but that means we need to be willing to retaliate, and that we can’t make any mistakes in this area, which if history is any indication is harder than you think.

7- Additionally, as nukes become easier and cheaper to build more countries are likely to acquire them, which means that the bipolar game of deterrence which got us through the Cold War is going to increasingly become a much more difficult multipolar game. And this doesn’t even take terrorist nukes into account, which is an entirely separate massive threat.

8- Despite all of the above, people appear to have stopped worrying about nuclear weapons or nuclear war. In every way that matters nuclear weapons are at least as dangerous as they have always been, and in many ways much more dangerous. But the amount of attention and worry they attract is lower than at any point since their invention. Consequently, vigilance is much lower than in the past, and there’s much less effort being put towards related diplomacy, treaties and other activism.

I think, as always, the key problem is the people have a very narrow time horizon. Is there going to be a nuclear war in 2019? I’m 99% sure there won’t be. But it’s not just a question of 2019, or 2020, or 2025. Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. They’re not a danger for the rest of the decade, or the rest of the century, they’re a danger for the rest of forever.


The Iliad goes into a surprising amount of detail when describing death. On the other hand, I have assiduously avoided describing someone getting “struck in the chest near the nipple, and the point fixed itself in his lungs”. If you appreciate that, consider donating.


The Unwinnable Battle Over Abortion

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I.

Last week one of my friends called me up. This was surprising. The nature of our relationship is such that I normally call him, not the other way around. Accordingly I asked him to what I owed the pleasure, and he said he was calling to yell at me about the Georgia “fetal heartbeat” abortion law. I responded “Oh, joy…” and he proceeded to basically do just that. To be fair there wasn’t much literal yelling, but there were a lot of very strong declarations about how horrible the law was, the horrible things it would bring to pass, and the horrible people who were responsible for it all.

I defended myself as best I could, particularly given the fact that I had never expressed support for that exact law to anyone, let alone this friend. Also I hadn’t really been following the story, so I was largely going off his description of it. A description which had been significantly colored by his biases and the biases of most of the reporting. By this I’m not trying to imply any significant mendacity, rather I’m merely pointing out that he got all of his info from people who are predisposed to be absolute in their defense of a woman’s right to an abortion, and that he is similarly predisposed. Also I’m not trying to imply that his worries were unfounded, or that the bill doesn’t have some significant weaknesses. It does, and since he appointed me, as his token (pseudo) conservative friend to defend it, I figured I might as well give it a shot. If nothing else, there was a significant amount of bafflement on his side, and perhaps I can at least help resolve some of that.

II.

I should probably start by clarifying my own views on abortion. I believe that there’s a moral continuum. On the one end abortion takes the form of a morning after pill, which I am libertarian enough to believe should be entirely legal and easily available. On the other end the closer you get to the moment the baby is ready to be delivered, the closer abortion gets to just being infanticide, and to being indistinguishable from murder. Draw a line between these two points (though it’s probably some kind of curve) and you can visualize the morality of abortion at every point in a pregnancy. Depending on one’s views on the value of female autonomy vs. the value of the unborn at some point the value of the former will outweigh the value of the latter. Before that point abortion is undesirable but allowable, after that point it should indeed be illegal, or at least legal only under certain circumstances.

I think on some level, this continuum applies to most people, though I doubt they think of it with quite this level of detail, and, of course, the current battle isn’t being fought by most people, it’s being fought by the true believers at either end of the spectrum, and for them there’s basically a cliff. On the one side, abortion is wrong from the moment the zygote is implanted in the walls of the uterus and on the other side there’s been a recent push in a couple of states to make abortion allowable basically up to the moment that the baby has left the mother. Now I know that post-viability abortions are very rare, and I’ll be returning to that point, but they do happen, and there has been a push recently to make it even easier for them to happen.

To continue unpacking my personal views, I am also in favor of the typical exceptions that are always listed: rape, incest, and the health of the mother. Though, I can also see where those could be abused and act as a loophole to get an abortion when you might not otherwise be allowed to. Which is more about the nature of what happens with exceptions than the nature of abortion.

Pulling all of this together, if it were entirely up to me (and it’s not, nor should it be) I would make sure that there was plenty of education about birth control, and that all the different forms of it, including morning after pills, were easy to obtain, and then, once all of that was in place I would make the legality of abortion a state-level issue, with the exceptions mentioned above. And where abortion is illegal, I would want the greatest possible mercy shown to women, with all enforcement directed at abortion providers. Even if some of these elements were not present, I would be fine living in a state that decided abortion should be illegal. Which I guess makes me pretty pro-life, albeit with a libertarian slant, and also endowed with the realization that the sexual revolution did happen and, perhaps unfortunately, the genie is already out of the bottle.

III.

Given this essentially pro-life stance, you may wonder why, as I said previously, I hadn’t been following the story of the Georgia abortion law, but this is where we get into the last piece of my stance on abortion. I am on record as predicting that Roe v. Wade will not be overturned, and that specifically Chief Justice Roberts will join with the four liberals in upholding it. (Experts agree with me.) Which means that it doesn’t matter what kind of law Georgia passes, federal judges will put a stay on it (as they already have to a similar law passed by Kentucky). From there, it will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court and they’ll decide that it’s an unreasonable restriction. Meaning that while there is currently a lot of excitement around the bill, that eventually it won’t amount to anything.

And here is where we bring my friend back into the picture, since, at the time of his call, I wasn’t able to speak very knowledgeably to the specifics of the bill I offered this latter argument as justification for why he shouldn’t worry about it. To which he retorted, “Only if Ginsburg doesn’t die!” And yes, if Ginsburg dies, that would definitely throw a wrench into things, and it’s clear that her health isn’t great, but I think it’s equally clear, based on the Kavanaugh hearings, that if she does die, and Trump is still president that the Democrats will do everything in their power to stop Trump from appointing another justice. What those actions might be is beyond the scope of this post, but recall that they have the House, which means they have the power of the purse, and you shouldn’t underestimate what they can do with that. Also at this point the “blood in the streets” option is also probably on the table. And that takes me to my biggest worry about Roe being overturned, not that the legality of abortion will go back to being determined at the state level, but that the insane divisiveness which already exists will get turned up to 11, and whatever the chances of “blood in the street” are if Ginsburg dies, that they’re at least double that if Roe actually gets overturned.

Accordingly, one of my biggest worries is one I’ve mentioned before, that issues like abortion are going to be so divisive that eventually people are going to start resorting to violence, and that once that violence starts, I’m not sure where it ends. But as I’ve already talked about that let’s get into a discussion of the actual Georgia law.

IV.

After a high level discussion of the new law, which as I said, is the only level I could engage at, my friend proceeded to list all of the horrible things that were specifically part of the new law. Women thrown into jail for miscarriages, charged with second degree murder. Women being charged with murder for getting an abortion in another state. People who drive the women to get an abortion (in or out of the state) being charged with conspiracy to commit murder, etc.

At the time of the call I was out for a lunchtime walk, so I didn’t have access to the internet (or rather I was talking on my internet connected device.) But when I got home I quickly looked up the actual text of the bill. I should mention at this point that it’s surprising how few of the articles, particularly those that are critical of it, link to the actual law, for example the NYT article I linked to at the beginning includes no link to the actual bill.

Reviewing it I very much expected to see all of the penalties my friend described, and I was surprised to discover that in fact none of what he said was in there. No murder penalties, no mention of conspiracy, none of that. So what was going on? Well, the primary thing the Georgia law did, other than the six week cutoff, was define a fetus/unborn child to be “person” under the 14th Amendment. And then, if an unborn child is a person, there are a whole host of other laws which kick in. If unborn children are people then an abortion is 2nd degree murder. In other words, the opponents of the law are arguing that while the law doesn’t mention any of these penalties that they flow as a natural consequence from declaring that the unborn are people. That under the law all miscarriages are now possible cases of 2nd degree murder.

Given that only 34% of voters can name all three branches of government, what are the chances that the average person upon hearing about the horrible penalties of the law realize that they are not actually written into the law itself? But only a possible consequence of declaring an unborn child to be a “person” under the 14th Amendment. (If you’d like to see someone from the left arguing that these penalties definitely will be applied see here. And if you’d like to see someone on the right arguing that they definitely won’t see here.) All that said, I will admit that it’s reasonable to ask, why did they invoke the 14th Amendment?

I can think of several possibilities:

  1. They did it precisely in order to be able to apply these penalties. They want to charge women who have an abortion with 2nd degree murder, and they want to immediately suspect all women who have miscarriages of the same thing.
  2. Bringing in the 14th Amendment has nothing to do with the mothers or their unborn children. It’s actually about something entirely different. For example, the bill does mention including the unborn in “population based determinations” perhaps what Georgia is really hoping for is another seat in congress.
  3. They actually didn’t think through the consequences. The 14th Amendment has been used to expand rights for lots of different groups, including being used in the recent decision which legalized same-sex marriage, and tossing it in sounded good. But, by doing so, they failed to realize that if they declare fetuses to be people that abortion is 2nd degree murder.
  4. They did think through the consequences, but they were far more focused on the hundreds of thousands of unborn who are aborted every year than they were on the women who might have an abortion. That, basically, they feel like abortion is an enormous crime, and after 46 years of Roe v. Wade, they are desperate to see it overturned, also, similar to what I just said, the 14th Amendment seems like a promising avenue to accomplish this. As far as the penalties, they are either planning to deal with that after they see what the courts say, or they feel that they are already covered by pre-existing laws (which is what the conservatives are arguing.)

Without attempting to put words into the mouth of either my friend, or the bill’s opponents, my sense is that they are both sure that it has to be possibility number one. That the bill is a malicious and premeditated attack on women. That the people who supported and voted for this bill are not trying to “save lives” they are looking for the best way to punish women who have the temerity to violate their puritanical views on morality, and that applying the 14th Amendment to fetuses is the best way to accomplish this objective. This seems unlikely, and in a minute I’ll look at why I think that is.

Number two also seems unlikely. Doing anything with abortion laws is such a messy business that it’s hard to imagine that anyone would think that it’s the best way to accomplish some unrelated goal, regardless of what that goal might be.

Number three would appear to be strictly superior to number one just on the basis of Hanlon’s Razor (Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.) And for that reason alone I wouldn’t discount it as the best explanation for what happened. As I’m sure my friend would/will point out, this explanation doesn’t absolve the lawmakers from the responsibility of considering the possible consequences of declaring an unborn child to be a person, and of being more clear about what sort of punishment (or lack of punishment) they envisioned. And I would have to agree, but I also think it’s more important to look at what they intended to do, rather than what they forgot to do.

Once we honestly try to imagine what they intended then I think it’s clear that their intention was to use the 14th Amendment as part of an overarching strategy for increasing the chances that this law won’t be struck down by the Supreme Court. Maybe they did it without considering all of the potential consequences. Maybe they saw the consequences, but didn’t want to risk diluting the bill, by adding anything extraneous (possibility four). Regardless, I think it’s clear that whatever their reasoning their primary focus was stopping the abortion of unborn children, not punishing the women who had those abortions. Though I expect that assertion to be controversial, given that, in many respects, it represents the crux of the abortion debate.

V.

One common complaint among the vociferously pro-choice is that those who oppose abortion don’t actually care about the unborn, that they are mostly men, entirely motivated by a desire to punish those women they see as being immoral. And even if concern about the unborn is in there somewhere, that it’s still largely driven by animus towards women, and if some abortions are prevented as a side effect of this animus, they’re fine with that, but it’s not their primary goal. I seem to remember my friend making an argument very much along those lines. Given that there is no gender split in the debate over abortion and that the most ardent pro-life activists seem to largely be women, the narrative of a movement entirely driven by misogyny seems false on its face, but beyond that, as is so often the case, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, gave the definitive response to this argument back in 2013, and I would urge you to read his entire post on the subject. But if you don’t have time here are the salient points:

  • Many people make the argument that if pro-life Christians truly cared about stopping abortion they would support much greater access to birth control to prevent pregnancies in the first place. But this assumes that, philosophically, they’re consequentialists. That a lesser evil is okay, if it leads to a greater good. But Alexander points out that Christians aren’t consequentialists, and that only about 10% of all people are consequentialists. As you can imagine this particular distinction gets pretty deep in the theological/philosophical weeds, which is one of the reasons why I recommend the original post.
  • Given that fetuses, particularly the later you get in a pregnancy strongly resemble human beings, except for location, you would be very surprised if abortion didn’t end up being a very fraught moral issue, and you would be even more surprised to find that no one was bothered by it. So if all of the normal pro-lifers just want to oppress women, where are all the people who are bothered by doing something which strongly resembles killing a human being? Or as Alexander says:

In short, in order to believe [this] thesis, we would have to accept both that a hundred million pro-lifers who claim they believe in rights for fetuses are lying, and explain the absence of about a hundred million pro-lifers we would expect to find merely by the difficulty of the moral dilemma alone.

  • Alternatively, one might argue that when pro-life individuals argue against abortion that they’re actually signalling their morals, that deep in their heart of hearts that they don’t really believe that abortion is wrong. This gets into the weeds of what it means to “really want” something. And even if we accept that there might be something disingenuous about their support, what makes the oppression of women less disingenuous? How do we know that they “really want” one thing but not the other?
  • Even if you steelman the argument, as some of the commenters do, into “Pro-lifers just want to force women who have sex to bear the consequences for their supposed misdeeds”. Alexander points out that this still amounts to basically the same thing. Our legal system is based on the idea of forcing people to bear the consequences of their action, particularly if we can’t mitigate those consequences without bringing harm to someone else. Given that pro-life individuals feel that a fetus is a “someone else”, then everything about his point still stands.

Alexander tosses in other things like the genetic fallacy, the principle of charity, and even a study showing that birth control may not reduce the number of abortions, but the key point to take away from all of this is that abortion is an enormously complicated moral issues where a lot of values conflict, and it is entirely understandable and even predictable that someone, probably a large number of someone’s, would end up thinking that abortion is akin to murder. And if that’s the case then it’s also entirely reasonable for them to think that millions of babies being aborted is akin to millions of murders being committed. And once you’re there, you could imagine that for these people the Georgia law doesn’t seem all that bad. And I understand that there are people on the opposite side of this issue, as I said it’s a place where two of our most cherished values, freedom and life collide in a spectacular fashion. And, at the end of the day, there doesn’t appear to be some easy or philosophically obvious way to resolve this collusion, so what are we going to do?

VI.

The Georgia bill is one attempt to resolve this collusion, and I understand that there are a LOT of people who think that, as attempts go, it’s horrible. Particularly the part where an innocent women who just had a miscarriage might end up going to jail, so let’s talk about that for a minute.

We have lots of laws where innocent people are occasionally, and unfairly punished. We have lots of stories of bad things happening, that we wish didn’t happen because things are one way rather than another. And I would argue that many of these bad things happen because abortion is legal, even if you assume that society should be reasonably pro-choice. For example there is widespread agreement that abortion after the first 20 weeks is different than abortions before then, and that partial birth abortions are particularly abhorrent. (In fact 65% of people think abortion should be illegal after the first 13 weeks.) And yet they still happen, despite the fact that at 20 weeks you’re very close to the point where the baby can survive on its own outside of the womb and under any reasonable system of morality you’re edging towards infanticide. But, over and over again, you’ll hear the justification that such abortions are rare. Most recently Samantha Bee pointed out that abortions at or after 21 weeks comprise only 1.3% of all abortions. Is the other side allowed to make the same argument? That it’s very rare for a woman to be charged with 2nd degree murder for travelling to another state to have an abortion, or that it’s okay because only 1.3% of all miscarriages result in the woman mistakenly going to jail?

I don’t know what the numbers would end up being, certainly if you look back through history, it does happen. Woman went to jail for miscarriages. And I think that’s awful, and as I already said we should show the greatest amount of mercy to the actual women. But if the Georgia law is not struck down by the Supreme Court how common would this sort of thing actually be? One story can certainly be sensational, and a woman falsely imprisoned for abortion when it was just a miscarriage, makes a heck of a story (much better than the story of a 23 week old fetus). But we can’t make and overturn laws based on one bad story.

The larger point is that of course there are tradeoffs. Of course bad things are going to happen, really no matter what we do. The current system brought us Dr. Gosnell, how many falsely imprisoned women is he worth? 100? 20? 5? 0? I understand where you’re coming from if your answer is zero, though I suspect you might be biased. But, also, you should realize that for a lot of people the answer is definitely not zero.

VII.

In the time it’s taken me to write this, other laws restricting abortion have been passed, including the one in Alabama which criminalizes all abortion except where the mother’s health is at risk. And the Alabama law also includes a steep prison sentence for abortion providers of up to 99 years. As I have said, the Georgia law is not the one I would have passed, and that goes double for Alabama’s. But once again the same two points I brought up with respect to Georgia’s law also apply to Alabama’s law. First, both of these laws are moves in a larger game. The people who crafted Georgia’s law thought that referencing the 14th Amendment was a good idea. In Alabama’s case the move was to craft a law the Supreme Court couldn’t ignore. In both cases they want the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade and they want to increase the chances of it being overturned.

Secondly, if anything, the Alabama law even more clearly demonstrates that some people do really view abortion as essentially murder, and if it is, having an exception for rape or incest doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, many individuals on the pro-choice side have used the rape and incest exception as proof that pro-life people don’t care about the unborn they just don’t want women having sex. Alexander had a particularly good answer here:

If some anti-abortion people want to relax their sacred beliefs out of deference to the trauma of people who have been raped, I am totally going to let them do it without attacking them or pillorying them for their kindness or accusing them of secretly hating women (if they do, they are doing a very bad job of it).

But I think most of this is just political compromise anyway. X proposes an anti-abortion bill, Y tries to drum up opposition by saying “But what about rape victims?!” (who are less than one percent of abortions), and X tries to head off the objection and restore support by saying “fine, no abortion for anyone except rape victims”. It’s a good political strategy and it would be surprising if people didn’t use it.

(As a side note, if you’re curious like me, apparently abortions in cases of rape and incest combined only represent 1.5% of all abortions.)

VIII.

At this point, I assume that many people are wondering, “Why now?” And “What happens next.” The first question is obviously easier to answer than the second. Kavanaugh, and a conservative Supreme Court is why it’s happening now. Though I think there are also reasons beyond that. A columnist in the Washington Post opined that extremism on the other side, in New York and Virginia, paved the way for extremism in Georgia and Alabama. While I think this earlier extremism also has its roots in Kavanaugh’s appointment, I would also not underestimate how big the New York and Virginia laws were for the pro-life crowd. But I think there are some reasons which pre-date Kavanaugh, but which may be more subtle. As with so many things I think technology has played a role.

For example, here’s an article that appeared last year in The Atlantic, Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost. It talks about ultrasounds, fetal pain, neonatal surgery, and premature babies surviving after earlier and earlier births. All of these are things which have gradually and cumulatively made fetuses seem more like babies and less like the sort of thing you can dispose of if they’re inconvenient. And none of these technologies are going to become less impactful as time goes on and many of them will become even more salient in the ongoing debate. Just a few days ago there was the article, We’ll Grow Babies in Artificial Wombs “In a Decade”. What happens when the technology exists to, in place of an abortion, move the fetus to an artificial womb? What does the debate look like then?

Which takes us to the discussion of what happens next. With many progressive issues there has been a clear trend, where even if a state passed a reactionary law, all you had to do was look at the trend line to know that in 5-10 years it wouldn’t matter. Same sex marriage is a great example of that, support went from 37% to 62% in 10 years. But abortion is not like that, the country has essentially been split 50-50 for the last 20 years, and arguably the trend is towards being more pro-life. Also, as I pointed out previously, the support by gender is pretty evenly split as well. This isn’t an issue where there are obviously a class of victims who all feel universally harmed by it. This is an issue, where as I’ve been trying to point out, there are real and difficult questions. There no clear situation where one group is oppressing another. There is no easy answer.

Of course even if support for the two sides has remained relatively constant, the intensity of that support has increased dramatically. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to imagine a situation where both points of view can coexist peacefully. I said earlier that a repeal of Roe v. Wade could be a “blood in the streets” moment, but I wonder how many people actually understand that all it does is move it back to the level of the states? It doesn’t make abortion illegal across the entire US. And I also wonder if, after the initial shock of the repeal, we might end up in a better place. Yes I imagine there might be some sorting with people leaving Georgia and Alabama (and maybe New York and Virginia), but might that not be a good thing? Might it be the only thing that can solve an issue that shows no signs of going away and every sign of getting more and more divisive?

I’m sure there are people who imagine that all they have to do is hope that Ginsburg doesn’t die, weather the next 20 months between now and the election, and that everything will go back to “normal”. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s apparent that the abortion issue is not going away, people aren’t becoming more progressive on this issue and technology isn’t going to help. We have a situation where two groups of people genuinely see the world in two entirely incompatible ways. We can seek either greater understanding or greater separation, but if we don’t do either of those things then we’ll eventually end up with greater violence.


I said a couple of weeks ago that I would have shorter and longer posts, this is definitely an example of a longer post. What did you think? Did it make you want to donate?


Review: Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

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I read a fair number of books. Under the old system of posting ~3500 word essays (Posts? Diatribes? Jeremiads?) once a week, very few books made the cut for a discussion of that length. But now that my writing/posting is looser I’m thinking I’ll do more reviews. In fact I think I’m going to try to review all the books I read in this space. It will still be somewhat rare for a single book to get a post all to itself, I’m planning to toss most of them into an end of the month round-up. Also, I should mention that many years ago I came up with a book review format, which I quite liked, so I’ll be dusting it off and using it in this space. And while I just said that most books will not warrant an entry all to themselves, this one does:

Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

By: David Frye
304 pages
Format: Audiobook with physical copy for reference

Rating

A-

Who should read this book?

If you like history, particularly sweeping thematic examinations of history which cover thousands of years all at once, you should definitely read this book.

You should also read this book if you want the entire backstory of the current debate over walls and border security. It may not change your mind, but you will end up with the deepest context possible for the issue.

Representative passage:

As Rome went, so went the provinces. For nearly three hundred years, Roman cities had given little thought to protecting their citizens, relying, just as Aristides said, on faraway troops and eventually border walls to hold the frontier against the warlike peoples massed outside. Some cities, mostly the older ones, had outgrown their ancient walls. Others had never had any walls at all.

In the whole of world history there had never been an experiment as grand as that of an empire composed mostly of unwalled cities. By leaving so many towns undefended, the Romans had adopted a comprehensive approach to local security—hundreds of miles of border walls and other barriers designed to create a massive impenetrable shield over all Western civilization. In the aftermath of the third-century invasions, that all changed: the emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) implemented a program to fortify the suddenly insecure cities of the western provinces. It was the last great construction boom of a city-building empire, and it was an act that repudiated every Roman belief in what a city should be.

With due deliberation, the wall builders dismantled those splendid, open cities that their fathers had created in earlier more confident days. Buildings in the paths of the new walls were razed. Some were torn down simply to provide stone. In the rush to fortify the cities, the relentless chisels of the laborers broke apart tombs, temples, columns, baths, theaters, and amphitheaters. They tore friezes, relief sculptures, and capitals from their settings, using the bigger blocks for masonry and crushing the rest for rubble. Many an inscription, once intended to ensure immortal glory, was wrenched from its proper place to rest ingloriously among the bricks, masonry, and concrete of a rampart.

Thoughts

Everywhere I look I see examples of people who have essentially no historical knowledge, and what little they do “know” is worse than the ignorance, because it’s a complete misinterpretation of actual history. The chief value of Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick is that it takes one specific subject where deep historical misinterpretation and ignorance exists and shows conclusively how it was misinterpreted and what the facts actually are. As you might guess from the title that subject is the building of walls.

One of the most common ways for history to be misinterpreted is to give far too much weight to recent history, and far too little to more ancient history. I’m sure that on some level this sort of ignorance has always existed, but I suspect that it’s much worse now than it’s ever been, particularly on the subject of walls. As you might imagine from a history book “Walls” starts with the very oldest wall (built around 2000 BC in Syria; no one knows much about it;) and moves forward to the present day. I’m going to take something of the opposite approach and start out by covering the modern views and misconceptions of walls, before going back to a (brief) discussion of historical walls.

It probably goes without saying that if you bring up the idea of a wall today, people’s minds immediately jump to Trump’s “big beautiful wall”, and given that association, people either hate the idea or love it. And it’s unfortunate that this is as far as most people get when considering the idea of a wall. But for those that do go farther they don’t go much farther. Mostly they journey to 1991 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I think it’s safe to say that the Berlin Wall has a horrible reputation. And for most of the people who do make it this far back in history, that’s enough. The Berlin Wall was bad and therefore all walls are bad. The point that there’s a world of difference between a country building a wall to keep people in and building a wall to keep people out gets brought up again and again, with, as far as I can tell, no discernible impact. Here’s what Frye had to say:

For the time being, however, the Wall…has firmly attached itself to our historical memory. In modern debates on walls, the Berlin Wall figures in almost every utterance. It is the universal example, perpetually at hand, perpetually tossed into discussions of barriers with which it had absolutely nothing in common.

The Wall shed its former role as a symbol of communist oppression and acquired an entirely new image in a foggy-minded popular imagination that remembered the Wall but couldn’t quite recall who’d built it or why.

The Berlin Wall had always had impeccable timing—making its grand appearance at the height of the Cold War and bowing out in spectacular fashion to bring the Cold War to its conclusion. It would now embark on its second career with similar timeliness, returning to the stage as a symbol of all border walls, just as they were about to make a reappearance around the world.

(Emphasis in the original)

As I’ve said the misinterpretation of the Berlin Wall is unfortunate, but if it had never existed, I’m not sure the current (low) opinion of walls would be very much different, because only a few decades before the Berlin Wall there was the Maginot Line. For those who might be unfamiliar with the Line. It was a series of fortified bunkers and gun emplacements (the French called them ouvrages) guarding the border between France and Germany. The Line was finished in 1939. Which would have been excellent timing if the Germans had not merely gone around it. Unfortunately, the French considered the Ardennes Forest to be “impassable” and they didn’t fortify their border with the Low Countries either. The Germans proved that the forest was eminently “passable” and beyond that they’ve never much cared about the sovereignty of the Low Countries.

The fall of France came swiftly, and it was with equal rapidity that the Maginot Line joined the Great Wall in that growing list of symbols that compose our mental shorthand when thinking about walls. For the next fifty years, at least, writers could speak of a “Maginot Line psychology” when dismissing some misplaced faith in the power of sanctuary. Historians applied the term retroactively. The great Persianist Richard Frye spoke of Sasanid Persia’s “Maginot Line mentality” when describing its system of walls. Arthur Waldron compared the Great Wall of China to the Maginot Line.

Perhaps, if the French had been wise enough to extend the Line (it’s possible they would have done just that had they been given more time) it’s story and place in history would be entirely different. As it turns out, when the Germans did decide destroy the Maginot Line, that despite being able to attack it from both sides, and using aerial bombardment and artillery, they were unable to destroy or capture a single ouvrage. The defenders eventually surrendered only when their food started getting low and when ordered to by the French commander in chief.  A World War II where the Germans never made it across the borders of France would have been a very different war from the one we ended up with.

But, as you may have gathered from the quote, no discussion of walls would be complete without considering that zenith of historical wall-building, the Great Wall of China. It’s very fashionable these days to dismiss the Great Wall as a staggeringly expensive and deadly failure. And from there to go on to dismiss all walls, ever, but this may be the greatest misinterpretation of all.

To be clear there were a lot of negatives to the Great Wall of China and historical walls in general. They were deadly for the workers. They were horribly expensive. Unless they stretched the entire length of the border you could go around them. Also they were only as good as the men who guarded them. If a general could be bribed, (as one was in an oft-repeated story about the Great Wall) then it didn’t matter how secure they were. And yet in every region of the world (New and Old) and in every historical era walls kept getting built, despite all of these costs.

I don’t have the space to get into all of the numerous historical examples. To discuss the difference between the wall-less Spartans and the wall-building Athenians. To review all of the many Chinese walls which predate the Great Wall, stretching all the way back to 800 BC. For that you have to read the book. I will only offer up the falling observation. You have a choice between only two conclusions. One, that despite all of their weaknesses, and despite the enormous cost in blood and treasure, that walls provided a significant net benefit to the kingdoms and nations which constructed them. Or, two, that nearly all civilizations, throughout all of history were seized with the same irrational wall-building madness. Pursuing damaging and misguided policies again and again despite the evidence.

This takes us to the current misinterpretations plaguing the debate over walls. Apparently, there are a significant number of people who believe in conclusion two. In fact in the link I gave earlier about how the Great Wall was a staggeringly expensive and deadly failure, the author includes a quote from Arthur Waldron (the person who also compared the Great Wall to the Maginot Line) who suggested, “There was a cheaper solution, as it turns out, which was to simply do some trade with the Mongols.” I’m not sure the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the Sack of Baghdad would agree. In any event, whether they’ve actually adopted conclusion two, or if their historical thinking extends back no further than the Berlin Wall, in the West all the current talk is about building bridges not walls. (This is only in the West by the way, everywhere else a Second Age of Walls has begun. Lead by Saudi Arabia which has already built a wall longer than the one proposed by Trump.)

Frye had this to say on the subject of bridges:

“Good fences make good neighbors” experienced early retirement. In its place came the untested phrase “Build bridges not walls.” If nothing else, the new slogan seemed designed to give military historian fits. Throughout history, bridge building had been recognized as an act of aggression. Since at least the time of Xerxes bridging the Hellespont, Caesar the Rhine, or Trajan the Danube, bridge building had preceded invasions, enabling troop movements across natural barriers, and as late as the twentieth century, military uses had figured prominently in the thinking behind the bridges of Germany’s autobahn and the American interstate highway system. None of this was enough to slow the rise of a hot catchphrase. The slogan showed up on T-shirts, wristbands, and banners. It became a popular hashtag on Twitter. Protestors chanted it. Politicians invoked it. Even Pope Francis paraphrased the sentiment.

The arguments are fierce, and I think all sides could use the benefit of a historical perspective. “Walls” definitely provides it.

Criticisms

As I just mentioned Frye buttresses his argument that walls are still important by talking about all the walls which have recently been built. He points out, that in terms of length, there are more border walls than they have ever been. But what he doesn’t really talk about is how these walls have a significantly different purpose than past walls. They are not designed to keep out invading armies, they are designed to keep out immigrants. This is a big enough difference to have deserved more commentary than he gave it. While I basically agree with the points he made, the possibility certainly exists that modernity has changed things in a way that makes walls less useful. Of course the opposite is also possible, that technology has made them more useful, and while he does spend some time on that side of things, as a whole, the discussion of how modern walls might be different from ancient walls is lacking.

Beyond that my only other criticism is that he has this whole argument that one of the reasons people dislike walls is become of primitivism. That they have an idealized vision of a freer, more primitive state where there are no walls. As he points out this vision is entirely incorrect, but I’m not sure that it plays a very big role in current anti-wall sentiment, and although he didn’t spend that much time on it, the time he did spend could have better been spent elsewhere.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

How important have walls been in the history of civilization? Few civilized peoples have ever lived outside them.


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