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The Cholesterol of a Healthy Society

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A couple of months ago I had breakfast with one of my blog readers and frequent commenters, Mark. At the time he mentioned something interesting, which has been percolating in the back of my mind ever since. He said that medicines get approved by the FDA based on claims that they will accomplish some terminal good. Say, for example, lowering the number of deaths due to heart disease. On top of that they will also probably toss in a general reduction of related adverse health events, like heart attacks. But when they provide data to the FDA in support of these claims it won’t be data on deaths or heart attacks it will be data on how the medicine reduces LDL cholesterol levels.

They do this for several reasons. First, cholesterol is easy to measure, and so that data is consequently easy to provide. Second, the pharmaceutical companies are reasonably certain that atherosclerosis contributes to heart disease, and that high LDL cholesterol contributes to atherosclerosis. Meaning that their claim actually has two parts. They claim that their medicine reduces LDL cholesterol, and that lowering your LDL cholesterol reduces your risk of heart disease. They are able to provide data backing up both claims, but what they don’t provide is data that shows “Our medicine reduces heart disease.” This is all fine, and working as intended, and, in fact, it’s the way I would want it to work. But, and this was the key point mentioned by Mark, after the drug is approved, the company should, at some point prove that it does actually reduce heart disease, not just LDL cholesterol. And the problem is that they generally never get around to that.

From the perspective of a patient, say someone with genetically high cholesterol, say me, for instance. The way this plays out is, you go in for your annual check-up (as I did this week) and get your cholesterol tested (ditto). Upon discovering that it’s high, the doctor prescribes a statin, because he knows that if I take a statin every night before bedtime, that my cholesterol will probably go down. Now, he will also ask whether any relatives have had heart problems, and he’ll look at other risk factors, but mostly he’s reacting to the fact that I have high cholesterol.

This all makes a certain amount of sense, and obviously my wife is very much in favor of me taking the medicine my doctor prescribes. But there’s a lot that the doctor doesn’t know. He’s only making an educated guess at my personal risk of heart disease. And he can’t say that if I decline to take statins that I will definitely have a heart attack. But he’s pretty sure there’s no downside to taking them. Of course, I’m being unfair by talking just about how it works with a single person, but even if we make it more broad, we still don’t fully understood how statins effect atherosclerotic plaques, nor is it clear whether statins do much of anything for someone as young as me, with a low risk of a having a heart attack in the next 10 years. For example this paper:

The current internationally recommended thresholds for statin therapy for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease in routine practice may be too low and may lead to overtreatment of younger people and those at low risk.

The general point I’m trying to get at is that all of us, not just doctors, are quick to substitute something easy, for something that’s more difficult. For doctors it’s substituting reducing cholesterol for reducing deaths from heart disease. It’s easy and cheap to measure cholesterol, it’s expensive and difficult to measure long term mortality from heart disease. Also, remember that the drug has already been approved, meaning even if it wasn’t difficult the pharmaceutical companies have very little incentive to conduct such studies.

Now if these substitutions mostly worked, with only a few minor errors here and there, that would be one thing, but in reality the opposite appears to be true. Health advice is constantly being overturned, or reversed. (As very humorously illustrated by this great Funny or Die Video.) And it’s not improbable to assume that 20 years from now we’ll find out that long term statin use causes some previously unsuspected negative outcome. It’s also possible that the dangers will be more subtle. Perhaps because cholesterol is easy to measure, and change, we’ll ignore paying attention to markers which are harder to measure, but ultimately more meaningful?

As I mentioned this idea has been on my mind since Mark introduced me to it. And just recently I realized that we may be doing the same thing when we assess the wellbeing of society. At the highest level, analogous to deaths from heart disease, we want a society that’s healthy. But of course deciding if a society is healthy is even harder than deciding if an individual is healthy. Right off the bat we run into conflicting standards for what constitutes health. As I’ve mentioned in the past my standard is survival. Just like the doctors don’t want their patients to die, I think it’s reasonable for society to also target deaths, and I extend that to targeting births as well. Other people disagree with this, and claim that we should be aiming for happiness instead. Fair enough, we’ll use that standard for the moment. Let’s assert, for now, that a happy society is a healthy society.

But how do you measure happiness? There are lots of studies which claim that Scandinavian countries are the happiest, but it turns out that it depends on what question you ask. An article in Scientific America claims that there are actually four ways to measure happiness:

Most commonly, you ask people to value their lives on a 0 to 10 scale. This is the method which gives us the aforementioned results of Scandinavian countries on top.

Alternatively you can ask how much positive emotion people experience, in which case suddenly Latin American countries are on top.

On the flip side of that perhaps you’re more interested in preventing negative emotions than you are in encouraging positive emotions, so you look for the country with the least depression. In that case Scandinavian countries do very poorly, but under this measure Australia looks pretty good.

Finally, we can look at the number of people who feel like their life has “an important purpose or meaning” in which case you’ll find countries in Africa at the top of the ranking. And it turns out that religion plays a fairly significant role in the creation of meaning.

Even if we assume that a happy society is a healthy society, it’s still difficult to determine what makes a society happy. In the same fashion that it’s hard to determine exactly how statins effect atherosclerotic plaques, but probably harder. However, and this was my recent insight, in the same way that doctors have decided that targeting cholesterol is the best way to mitigate heart disease, lots of people have decided that targeting material well being is the best way to create a happy society. To put it simply (maybe too simply, but close enough): as long as a nation’s per capita gross domestic product is rising the nation is healthy. Furthermore anything that contributes to that rise is good, and anything which detracts from it is bad.

As you can imagine there are lots of problems with this approach. First, as I just pointed out, there are various standards of happiness. Increasing material well-being through the mechanism of increasing the money possessed by the average individual, seems to mostly target the first one, while being only marginally connected with the other three. And even there we’re still assuming a chain of causation, very similar to the one I described for statins and heart disease, only longer.

1- Increasing per capita GDP means everyone has more money (i.e. the increase is evenly distributed.)

2- People will use this money to acquire possessions and experiences, they value.

3- Materially valuable possessions will turn out to have psychological value as well.

4- All of the foregoing will produce happiness.

5- Asking people to rate their life value on a scale from 0-10 will produce an accurate measurement of the happiness produced in step 4.

And if we decide to broaden things beyond the first metric for happiness we end up making two more connections which are even more questionable.

5- The quantifiable measurement of happiness from step 4, really is the best way to measure happiness. (Better than the other three.)

6- Happiness is the best way to measure the well being of a society.

In the same fashion as heart disease you would hope that people would move past focusing on whether someone has more or less money (i.e. cholesterol tests) and follow this chain all the way to the very end. But in a similar fashion I don’t know that they do, at least not in any systematic fashion. It’s always more straightforward to stick with things that are easy to measure than it is to figure out what really contributes to a society’s well being. It’s easy to assume that if we’re trying to ensure the well being of society that ensuring each individual’s material well being is probably close enough, particularly if you’re a materialist. (And I realize philosophical materialism is different than the common definition of materialism.) But there’s more and more evidence that material well being doesn’t produce happiness to say nothing of overall well being. In particular I think the connection between material well being and psychological well being is especially tenuous.

I have spent a lot of time in this space covering my concerns about psychological well being, and you might think there’s not much left to say, but I came across an article recently that speaks quite directly to the issue of psychological well-being, and to a lesser extent the larger issue of societal well being. It was titled The Happiness Recession, and it opens as follows:

In 2018, happiness among young adults in America fell to a record low….

We wondered whether this trend was rooted in distinct shifts in young adults’ social ties — including what The Atlantic has called “the sex recession,”…

Human beings find meaning, direction, and purpose in and through our social relationships with others. We’re happiest when our ties with others are deep and strong. And the research tells us that the ebb and flow of happiness in America is clearly linked to the quality and character of our social ties

So we investigated four indicators of sociability among today’s young adults—marriage, friendship, religious attendance, and sex—in an effort to explain the “happiness recession” among today’s young adults.

I’ll get to what they had to say about each of these four areas, but first notice that material well being doesn’t even come up. Possibly because the situation is analogous to a patient who’s cholesterol is fine, so we’re not worried about that risk factor, but it turns out they smoke. Or possibly the situation is analogous to discovering that we’ve been targeting cholesterol all this time and really we should have been targeting four different things, that cholesterol doesn’t matter at all. In any case regardless of whether the recommendations were wrong or just incomplete, it appears that we need to broaden our treatment regimen, and look into different “medicines”.

The first thing they suggest looking at is marriage. It’s interesting that marriage is not an example of a measurement that’s difficult to make, it’s almost certainly easier to tell if someone is married than it is to determine what their financial situation is. Determining the happiness of their marriage is another matter, and I’m sure it’s a factor, but even without accounting for it The Atlantic reports that:

…married young adults are about 75 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not married, according to our analysis of the GSS, a nationally representative survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. As it turns out, the share of young adults who are married has fallen from 59 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 2018.

As I said, marriage is easy to measure, but perhaps, if there is a problem, it’s less easy to correct. Especially in an age where any suggestion that you’re interfering with someone’s autonomy, particularly in the realm of sex and relationships, is met with violent pushback. As a result it’s one of those things that conservatives talk about all the time, but which gets no attention from the left. (Or perhaps it gets negative attention?)

It can be dangerous to talk too broadly about what a group of people does or doesn’t believe or how they might behave, so in the interest of specificity, at this point I’m going to bring in Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. Which I “reviewed” previously in this space. As you may or may not recall Pinker set out to create the definitive work showing how great things are currently and how they are likely to only get better, and when I talk about an overemphasis on material progress I largely have him and people like him in mind. In support of my assumption I went back to the book to see what he had said about marriage. It was entirely possible that he mentioned its role in wellbeing and had different data showing that it wasn’t decreasing as much as claimed or that the effect of a lower marriage rate was overstated. As it turns out the word marriage doesn’t even appear in the index. (Note that Louis C.K. and Jainism do, lest you think that perhaps it isn’t comprehensive.)

The Atlantic next moves on to religion. Where they say:

Faith was the second factor. Young adults who attend religious services more than once a month are about 40 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not religious at all, according to our analysis of the GSS. (People with very infrequent religious attendance are even less happy than never-attenders; in terms of happiness, a little religion is worse than none.) What’s happening to religious attendance among young adults today? The share of young adults who attend religious services more than monthly has fallen from 38 percent in 1972 to 27 percent in 2018, even as the share who never attend has risen rapidly.

I confess that this decline is less than I expected, but it’s still declining and the trend shows no signs of reversing itself anytime soon. And once again the decline of religion is something conservatives worry about obsessively, but which Pinker and company actively celebrate. (“Decline of religion” does appear in the index of Enlightenment Now, where it points to more than a dozen laudatory references under the heading of secularization.)

Religion is also something which has next to nothing to do with material well-being, and may in fact be the exact opposite. Once again, in our attempts to improve societal well being are we sure we’re measuring and treating the right thing?

From there The Atlantic moves on to friendship. And here the news is actually good:

The third factor was friendship. The effect of seeing friends frequently is less clear than that of marriage or religion, but young adults who see their friends regularly do seem to be about 10 percent more likely to report being very happy than their less-sociable peers. Friendship among young adults, though, is not on the decline; in fact, since 2006, contact with friends is up. Lack of friendship, then, is not likely to play a role in declining levels of happiness. Indeed, it may be that rising social time spent with friends in recent years could be buffering young adults from the declines in institutions such as marriage or religion, as friends stand in place of other relationships or forms of community.

As I said the news is good, but there are a host of caveats here. First as compared to the 40% increase in the number of people reporting they were happy attributable to religious attendance and the 75% increase from marriage, friendship provides a bump of only 10%. Thus whatever the “buffering” effect of friendship it would appear entirely too small to make-up for the other trends. Also even if it was up to the task, it then becomes a single point of failure. Where previously most people had marriage, religion and friendship in their life, and therefore two things to fall back on if any one of these three failed. Now, by relying solely on friendship, which appears unequal to the task in any event, we risk having nothing to fall back on if friendship should happen to fails. If this failure mode was unlikely, then perhaps we wouldn’t worry, but instead, on top of everything else there’s an epidemic of loneliness, with millions of men reportedly having no close friends.

I should also mention that once again that the word “friend” does not appear in the index for Enlightenment Now.

The final element covered by The Atlantic is the sex recession. Of which much has been said both here and elsewhere, probably because it’s so alarming, and this article was no exception. As part of their coverage they built a counterfactual to see if they could tell how much each element contributed to the reduction in happiness, as far as sex they found:

…changes in sexual frequency can account for about one-third of the decline in happiness since 2012 and almost 100 percent of the decline in happiness since 2014.

This is another illustration of how steep the trend is and how recent in origin, which makes me hope that it’s very temporary because if it continues for very long at all the impact will be nothing short of catastrophic. Also, though at this point it probably goes without saying, there is no reference to sexual frequency in Enlightenment Now.

The point I want to leave you with is that there are a lot of people like Steven Pinker, who think society is healthy, and point to material well being (essentially per capita GDP) as the best measure of that healthiness and also the best thing to target if there’s a problem. But it’s worth asking if that’s all there is to it. To ask how solid the links are between the various steps I listed above. If perhaps there’s some other measurement of happiness, like marriage rate, or religion or even frequency of sex which might be a more accurate measure of societal well being? Or at least need to be considered as part of a more holistic assessment. Now I know I’m simplifying Pinker’s argument to a certain extent, but also remember that in over 500 pages on how great things are going he never mentions marriage or sexual frequency, or for that matter loneliness and he only mentions religion in a negative context, despite the apparently powerful influence all of those have on people’s happiness.

To return to comparing societal health to individual health, which is actually easier to understand? I can only assume the answer has to be individual health. And yet how often have doctor’s ended up giving the wrong advice? Should that not make us more humble when it comes to making declarations about what makes a society healthy? Especially when we’re discussing the long term effects of some new, entirely unprecedented norm? Norms which seem to be proliferating at a truly staggering rate?

I not only have high cholesterol, I have high blood pressure, though they both appear to be mostly genetic. Nevertheless they could mean my early demise. If that happens and you haven’t donated, you’ll feel bad. If you want to avoid that click here.

2020 and the Quest to Defeat Trump

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It’s been nearly five months since I last did a post about the current political landscape. I’m not sure if that represents admirable restraint or if that’s five months when I could have been building my audience by hitching my wagon to the tasty and never-ending Mueller gravy train. But Mueller illustrates a big reason why I didn’t do any posts on current politics. I didn’t have the time or energy to feel satisfied that I truly understand what’s going on, and as things become increasingly polarized it becomes harder and harder to do that in any event, and that’s assuming that I’m satisfied with calling my subjective opinion the truth. It’s basically impossible to get at The Truth.

That said the end of the Mueller Investigation and the delivery of the report was interesting. I got the feeling that there were a lot of Trump haters out there who really felt like it would finally provide the stake they could drive into Trump’s chest which would, at last, kill him for good.  When it didn’t, when the report (or at least Barr’s summary, see what I mean) concluded that there had been no collusion, and when no indictment of Trump was forthcoming, there were a lot of people who were very disappointed. And even more people who refused to give up. Including people like Rachel Maddow, who was actually called out by Slate for her descent into increasingly feverish paranoia:

The Howard Bealeization, or Glenn Beckifaction, of Rachel Maddow is a reminder that partisan paranoia has bipartisan appeal. Maddow is right to question the summarizing of a 300ish-page report into four measly pages, to insist on transparency, to challenge the motives of the Trump-friendly AG—and she’s not alone in doing so. But for Maddow, every piece of information remains a clue that might take down the Trump empire. There is no adjustment for how the report has been widely received, no skepticism about what the report might actually contain, just cockamamie connections, the feverish belief that every single thing we don’t know is the all-important fact, that the smoking gun of collusion is out there, and that, yes, Robert Mueller is still going to swoop in and save us.

I remember when I was much younger I was also entranced by “cockamamie connections” though back then the connections all involved the Clintons. And, as recently as the last election, I was unsure what would come out of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails or whether she was in as good a health as she claimed. Which is to say there’s a lot of unknowns out there, all with some potential to excite wonder and suspicion. And it’s very easy to take those unknowns, run them through you biases and come out the other side with some potential theories, some of which probably sound pretty reasonable. In fact it may be that one of the larger problems of our era is how much easier it is to make and disseminate these theories. But that’s a topic for another time.

While the reaction to the end of the Mueller investigation was interesting and probably worth much further discussion, the true reason for bringing it up is that I think the feverish paranoia it illustrates is going to be a large factor in the run up to the 2020 election, which is the true subject of this post.

As usual, it’s a pretty safe bet that the winner of the 2020 election will be either Trump or whoever ends up with the Democratic nomination. Accordingly I’ll be spending most of my time discussing the current and potential Democratic candidates, but before I get to that I’d like discuss some possible long shot options where the next president isn’t Trump or the Democratic nominee.

First off, it seems highly likely that Trump will end up with a primary challenger. Bill Weld, the former Governor of Massachusetts, and libertarian Vice Presidential candidate in 2016, has formed an exploratory committee (if announcing your candidacy is the wedding, an exploratory committee is the engagement). And several other people, including John Kasich have expressed interest. Though the list of people who have publically declined is far more extensive.

I have long predicted that Trump would face a primary challenger, but that doesn’t mean I think they’ll succeed. At the moment the political prediction markets are giving Trump an 85% chance of getting the nomination, and the next most likely candidate after him is Mike Pence at 6%. Which, I assume, represents people who think Trump will be impeached? (If so it didn’t drop as much as I would have expected after Mueller.) But beyond the prediction markets, though it’s something I’ve never entirely understood, Trump has the Republican base pretty well locked up, or at least locked up enough that it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat him in an election composed entirely (or mostly) of Republicans. Based on all of this I have very little hesitation in predicting that Trump will be the Republican nominee for 2020. In other words a primary challenge to Trump would be very interesting, but I believe ultimately unsuccessful.

Another possibility, once again a long shot, would be a serious third party contender. So far, for example, it looks like Howard Schultz is likely to run, though it’s unclear at this point how successful we should expect him to be, so far his polling numbers are pretty low. But he is a billionaire, which counts for a lot, and has Democrats worried enough that they’re apparently begging him not to run. This is understandable, not only does his money allow him to mount a significant challenge, but perhaps more importantly, some polling (albeit asking about a generic independent vs. a generic democrat) suggests that he could pull away five Democratic votes for every vote he pulls from (presumably) Trump. One might wonder why Shultz, who identifies as a Democrat and mostly has very similar positions, would run for President. Particularly knowing that one very likely outcome would be to throw the election to Trump? That’s a great question and it bears a lot on the discussion of the Democratic field in general, but before we get to that I’d like to example one final longshot possibility.

Potentially the most worrying possibility would be if Trump were able to mess with the election in some fashion. You could imagine a variety of ways for him to use the executive branch to do this, ranging from voter suppression of varying legality all the way up to an emergency declaration which postponed the election. I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of the paranoid left, but my sense is that there’s a fair amount of worry about something like this. If, as Slate claims, Maddow is descending into feverish paranoia, then one can only imagine what’s happening among truly hardcore leftists.

Whatever their fears, I imagine they’re almost certainly overblown. Trump’s use of an emergency declaration to build the wall will be a good preview of what he can and can’t do with the power of the presidency, and so far nothing much seems to be happening. Also it’s instructive to look at what leaders in far more repressive countries can get away with. Which is to say, even in places like Turkey and Russia they still hold elections. No, if Trump is still going to be president in 2021, I don’t think it will be because he manages to rig the system. It might be because of a third party spoiler, but I’ve already predicted that won’t be the case either. No if Trump wins it will be because of who the Democrats nominate. So let’s finally turn our attention to that discussion.

According to Wikipedia there are currently 19 people who have either declared or formed exploratory committees (see above) who have also either held public office, been included in at least five national polls, or who have received substantial media coverage. That seems like a lot, now to be fair, there were 17 Republican candidates in 2016, but we’re still over a year and a half from the election, and there’s still plenty of time for more people to toss their hat into the ring. In fact as I write this a new candidate, Eric Swalwell, announced his bid, just last night. I’m not entirely sure why there are so many candidates, perhaps because there’s no clear front runner? The 2016 Democratic primary offers some proof of that. Back then, Hillary was the presumptive nominee and we only ended up with six candidates. Though one would think that Biden would be the front runner. Speaking of Biden…

I’m guessing that if I asked you to list all 19 candidates or even 12 of the 19 that you’d probably have a hard time (without cheating) but I’m pretty sure you’d come up with Joe Biden. But this is all a trick question, Biden isn’t one of the 19. He hasn’t officially announced his candidacy or formed a committee. He’s listed, along with seven other people, as having expressed interest. (All eight are presumably a big enough deal to be taken seriously.) Meaning we could end up with a field of 27! But you can be forgiven if you thought Biden had already announced his candidacy given the amount of attention he’s getting. Or course most of that attention has been around accusations that he “inappropriate touched” certain women.

Thus far seven women have accused Biden of making them feel uncomfortable. One question which always comes up in these situations is, “Why now?” I imagine that part of the reason is that once the first accusation is made it becomes easier for other women to come forth, because they know they’re not alone. That still leave us with the first accusation. Why did Lucy Flores come forward at this point in time? The incident she described (which as far as I know Biden has not denied) happened in 2014 and even if it took the #MeToo movement to make it acceptable to call out such behavior, that’s been going on since October of 2017.

Given all this, it would only be natural to suspect that it has something to do with the election. It’s always possible that it doesn’t, but that definitely wouldn’t be the way to bet. To be clear, I’m not questioning the truth of the accusation, just it’s timing. But, if derailing BIden’s nomination played any part in Flores’ decision to come forward, she would be part of a large group of people who don’t want Biden to be the nominee. He’s far too moderate.

I spent a long time observing the widening split on the right between centrists, moderates and neo-cons on one side and the tea party, paleocons, nationalists and eventually the alt-right on the other. And just as 2016 was the full realization of that ideological split among the Republicans, it’s really starting to feel like 2020 will see the full realization of a similar split among the Democrats, between centrists and third-wayers on one hand and socialists and progressives on the other. If so perhaps these (true) allegations are part of that.

In the past, on both sides, schisms like this have been put aside in the interests of winning. So why is this different? As far as anyone can tell the Democrats want to defeat Trump more than they’ve wanted anything in their whole lives, and according to the polls Biden is the person best positioned to do that. This may be true, but those polls reveal something else: every democratic candidate beats Trump. While the lack of a clear front-runner goes part of the way to explaining the size of the field I think Trump’s perceived vulnerability is also a major factor. Returning to the 2016 primaries, on the Democratic side of things, back then everyone figured that in order to keep the White House in their hands they were going to have to nominate a well funded moderate. On the Republican side, while Clinton wasn’t necessarily perceived as weak, it was clear firing up the base with a non-moderate was a very viable strategy. Even so all of the early front-runners were also well funded moderates.

Going in to 2020, it appears the Democrats can nominate just about anyone and they’ll beat Trump. Which means there are many, particularly those farther left in their politics, who feel that they don’t need to compromise in order to win. That it’s finally their chance to elect someone with a truly revolutionary vision, someone like Bernie Sanders who coincidentally currently tops betting on the prediction market.

You might dismiss Sanders as an anomaly. Perhaps he’s attracting so much attention because he did well in 2016, but that just moves the question backwards in time. Why is Sanders, who’s been a public figure since 1991 able to drum up all this nationwide support recently? Is it in spite of his radical agenda or because of it? It’s incorrect to say that this split only started in 2016, it’s been around forever, but certainly 2016 was evidence that it was starting to widen in a more consequential way. And once again I see lots of parallels between what happened on the right and what’s happening on the left.

In my first post of the year I predicted that populism was going to an increasingly powerful force in the developed world, and I think it’s fair to say that Sanders is a populist. Further, populism was certainly a factor in the election of Trump. This is the trend that connects them, and as it gets stronger the split between populists and the rest widens in both parties. As we saw in the beginning, speaking of Maddow and feverish paranoia, there are lots of trends which start on the right side of the fence, but most of them don’t stay there. In fact given that populism is naturally more at home on the left than on the right, it’s entirely possible that it will end up being a far greater force when all is said and done. Which takes us back to the Democratic field.

In 2016 there was one Democratic candidate with a truly radical agenda, this time there’s significantly more. Though before we get to the numbers, in the interests of fairness I imagine something similar will happen with the Republican field in 2024. In the same way that the current Democratic field contains lots of individuals with positions very similar to Sanders, the 2024 Republican field will most likely contain lots of individuals with positions similar to Trump. As I said it’s a trend affecting both sides of the aisle.

To quantify that trend: among the Democratic primary candidates at least a dozen support some form of single-payer healthcare. Another 15 support the Green New Deal. Most have not expressed an opinion, but of candidates which have, over 80% support expanding the Supreme Court. Eleven support tuition free public college. Essentially everyone but Biden wants nationwide legalization of marijuana. And finally, there’s the issue of reparations for slavery.

Reparations is something of a microcosm of just about everything that’s going on in politics right now, and is worth examining in more detail. To being with, here again,  Biden is the outlier. He is the only one who is definitely against the idea. Looking at the rest of the field, there are seven listed as unknown, another six who partially support the idea, and finally an additional six who fully support it. In other words a clear majority supports some action on reparations, and while it’s possible that’s as high it will ever go, I’m guessing it will increasingly become an issue where the candidates have to take a stand, and that some of those seven currently in the unknown column will come out in favor of at least partial reparations.

Beyond the striking level of support for the idea there’s the issue of how recent it is. I realize that there were limited reparations during and after the Civil War, and that a bill calling for a committee to study the issue was first introduced in 1989, and has been introduced at every legislative session since. But the idea certainly hasn’t been mainstream. Some people point to a 2014 Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates as reopening the debate, but even Obama didn’t think anything was going to come of it and told Coates, that politically it would be much easier to implement some sort of universal poverty reduction program. But then, starting this year interest skyrocketed.

Much of my worry about new progressive ideas comes from lack of data. When a subject goes from “0 to 60” in the space of 100 days, it’s difficult to know how seriously we should take it an d what kind of legs it will have. It could be a flash in the pan, a slow, but powerful trend, or the dominant issue of our time, surpassing all others. This is important because the range of outcomes is so large. It could end up fizzling out entirely, it could get stuck in a committee, or it could end with actual money being allocated. And here is where it has the potential to get really crazy. Once you’re talking money, estimates can get as high as $60 trillion dollars!

Beyond the newness of the issue and the fervor it has generated, it also promises to be incredibly divisive for the country as a whole. I know that many candidates are just proposing that a committee be formed to study the matter, and on its face that sounds unobjectionable, perhaps even laudable. But what are the chances that this committee, if formed, will end up recommending that no money be paid out? I would say that it’s not zero, but it’s very, very close to that. And once some amount of money has been recommended, then people will start arguing that justice demands that it be paid out. Any predictions on how your stereotypical poor white Trump voter will react to that? That’s where the divisiveness comes in. Now to be clear maybe that shouldn’t matter, maybe paying out reparations would be so empowering that no matter how divisive it is we should push ahead. In the same way that it was worth the death of 600,000 soldiers to end slavery, maybe it’s worth anger and even violence in order to correct this latest injustice. But will it? Would it be the end of racism, and racial preferences?

One of the best arguments I’ve heard for reparations is that it’s essentially just a civil lawsuit. If someone does something bad to you under the law you’re entitled to sue them for damages. This is fairly well-trod territory and it’s a system that actually works adequately if not perfectly. But one key feature of the lawsuit process is once it’s been decided and damages have been awarded, you can’t bring the same complaint before the court again. Is that how reparations would work? That once paid out racism and race relations would be solved? If so I am all for it, but I suspect that’s not what would happen. I think we would end up with a country even more divided by racial identity than it is now, without much to show for it.

I’m basically out of space and I still haven’t covered how you would determine who gets reparations and who doesn’t (a problem Native American tribes are struggling with in determining the distribution of casino profits.) Further afield I haven’t talked about the strange power Ilhan Omar seems to be exercising over the Democrats, or my weird excitement for Andrew Yang. And then there’s parallels which could be drawn between the Democrats and the UK labor party, who made Jeremy Corbyn their leader and who still aren’t in power despite the total debacle that is Brexit.

The key point I wanted to get across is that while there is a good chance that the Democrats will select a moderate who will easily beat Trump, I see lots of early signs that they might not. To repeat, the most visible moderate, Biden, hasn’t even entered the race yet! This is obviously what ended up happening to the Republicans and look where it got us. Yes, Trump won, but that’s precisely what I’m getting at, there are currently individuals in the Democratic Primary who I think would be as bad or worse than Trump. Perhaps you don’t think that’s possible, fair enough, but let me put another way. They might not win. In fact, it’s looking like the only way the Democrats can lose is by nominating someone less electable than Trump, and that may be exactly what they end up doing.

When I did a DNA test it came back with 0.01% Sub-Saharan ancestry, which, if accurate, would almost certainly imply that one of my ancestors was a slave, so if you think reparations is a good idea, you could start with me.

What Is Going On?!?!?

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A couple of weeks ago I ended my post Low Doses of Harm with a quote from a concerned dog owner. The owner was voicing their opposition to a proposed halal butchery by arguing that just walking by it would put their dogs in an unsafe environment. Boonton speculated in the comments that I shouldn’t take this concern at face value. That this individual was just “posing”. Which is to say that the argument they were making for pet safety was just a cover for their real concern which was probably more about not liking slaughterhouses or maybe Muslims.

This is certainly one possible explanation for the statement. As shocking as it might seem, people do lie, and furthermore they use those lies in a cunning fashion to disguise their true motivations. Which in this case may have been something other than making their dogs feel safe. Accordingly, Boonton argued, while it’s true that you would not have heard this argument at a city council meeting 50 years ago, that it’s nevertheless not an example of something new and strange, but rather an example of something which has been going on since humans first developed language, and not a cause for any particular concern.

As I said all this is possible, but even if it’s the case that the concern for their dog’s safety is a cover for something else, it’s interesting that this was the lie they choose to tell. A good lie has to sound plausible, it has to fit the expectations of the people you’re telling the lie to. And apparently the idea of their dogs being in an unsafe environment just from walking past the butchery was either exactly how they felt, or close enough to how people are expected to feel in this day and age that it passed without being obviously ridiculous. As even Boonton admits concerns have changed, and change can be good or bad.

Indeed, I have mentioned the quote from the dog owner, and the story behind it, to many people outside of my blog readership. And all of them found it both believable and extreme. Part of why they found it to be believable was that it was an example of a problem they were already concerned about. Now I know I just described confirmation bias. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that there’s a problem. What’s interesting furthermore is that several of the people I told had no problem with even fairly controversial examples of so-called “political correctness”, but nevertheless viewed this as “going too far”. When I questioned them more closely it seemed to come down a dislike of treating pets in a fashion similar to children. Also a couple of people brought up the problem of fake service animals.

In other words there are several possibilities:

There’s Boonton who argued that it wasn’t a problem at all.

There’s the people I just described who feel like this story does match a real problem they’re seeing, but that it’s a narrow problem. One that could perhaps be solved by a few additional laws, and a slight change in the culture. Or maybe it’s a problem that will continue to get worse, but other than becoming increasingly annoying, there’s no point at which it becomes catastrophic.

And then, there are people like me, who want to see everything as part of a larger trend. A trend like safetyism, or of people declining to have kids and putting all of their energy and affection into their pets, or of increasing selfishness (it doesn’t matter how many people would benefit from the butchery, it would inconvenience me). I freely admit that there is a failure mode in which people attempt to connect too much together, and that seeing the fall of civilization in a complaint over a halal butchery might be the silliest position of all.

Certainly there are people who see vast conspiracies based on small pieces of evidence. Though I would argue that there is a difference between something requiring the conscious coordination of more than about a dozen people. (Say arguing the moon landing was a hoax.) And emergent cultural trends that move society in a negative direction, but, that aside, it is worth asking am I just a low-grade conspiracy theorist?

I have talked to a few conspiracy theorists at some length about the various conspiracies they champion, and without exception they seem especially fixated on a handful of items they just can’t get past. For one 9/11 truther I talked to it was the collapse of WTC 7. Another gentleman, who believes the Moon landing was faked, considered the automated tracking shot of the final capsule liftoff proof positive of shenanigans. It just felt unquestionably fake to him. (I did look into that, it sounds like it wasn’t easy, but nothing about the explanation struck me as implausible either.)

I personally don’t believe in any big conspiracies, which is not to claim that there aren’t conspiracies. I think there are, but to be successful they need to operate at a much smaller scale than the ones that get all the press. That said, despite not sharing any of their beliefs, conspiracy theorists and I do have one thing in common: we see certain things in the world that absolutely convince us there is something deeper going on. These are things I can’t reconcile with a rosy picture of the future. And the point of this post is to examine some of these things. Stories and data I’ve come across recently that convince me that there is something big happening behind the scenes. Things that I can’t get past. Things that make me confident that the narrative that everything is better than it’s ever been is wrong, or if correct, only temporarily so.

As I pointed out in the beginning as I relate these examples you have three options. First, like Boonton in his comment from a couple of weeks ago you can decide that there is nothing especially unusual about the story. That at best it’s a different expression of something which has been happening for a long time (like lying about our true motivation), but definitely nothing to be alarmed about. Alternatively you can decide that the things I’m talking about do point to a real problem, but a minor one. A problem which will either correct itself in time or which is correctable with only small adjustment to customs and/or laws. Finally you may view things in the same light as I do, as strong evidence for a negative trend which seems likely to get worse, and in the process cause severe problems.

I’m going to start with the story that gave me the idea for this post. A couple of months ago I came across an article in Slate about the practice of puppy play. And I’ll put in a warning, if you’re easily offended, you might just want to skip to the paragraph that starts “The next example”.

Here’s how Slate describes puppy play:

When at their leisure, some queer people socialize and sweat it out at LGBTQ badminton games. Others enjoy hearing a reading at the local queer bookstore. And for still others, the best way to spend free time is rolling around on floor mats with each other while wearing puppy masks, collars, and tail-shaped butt plugs, barking and sniffing like real pups. Known as pup play, this is a brand of BDSM role-play where people imitate adolescent canine behavior in order to get off. When done with other pups, it’s considered a “mosh,” and it happens regularly at leather bars all across the country. For some, pup play is just for Saturday nights. But could the fetish lifestyle offer more than just a good time?

As I said, reading this article was the genesis of what eventually became the post you’re reading. Specifically the idea that I could look at something and think, “Well if that isn’t evidence that something is seriously wrong with the world I don’t know what is.” While at the same time not being entirely clear on what made it so alarming. I mean sure it fits into the general category of sexual activities that have nothing to do with procreation. But it’s not like the total fertility rate of homosexual men was all that great to begin with. The angle where they pretend to be dogs is also unusual, but I was already familiar with furries before reading the article, so that wasn’t anything particularly new or shocking either.

I think a big part of it was how matter of fact the article was. You can imagine the same story being written up on Breitbart or some similar culturally right-wing site in a breathless revelatory fashion, with lurid descriptions of:

tail-shaped butt plugs

outfitted in leather puppy masks, which are called “hoods” in the scene

[their] three-page fetish family chart

There are the two alphas…who are the leaders (similar to a drag mother in a drag house…

a handler (a figure who, elsewhere in the scene, typically “owns” and protects his pups).

one omega pup, Pup Arco, a submissive who services the pack in exchange for protection from unwanted attention within the community;

And yet, if you haven’t guessed, those are all quotes from the Slate article. Additionally consider the source. Slate is not some niche LGBT focused publication. It’s basically the internet’s version of Time or Newsweek. I suppose, you could make the argument that it’s a little bit edgier, but it’s still effectively, a general interest magazine.

All that said, I expect that, similar to what happens with conspiracy theorists, that there will be many people who will dismiss the visceral concern I experienced as meaningless, and not see any problem with the activities described in the article. Still others might view it as a minor problem, one which revolves more around cordoning off adult activities from children, than any prohibition of the activity itself. But for me, it is not an exaggeration to say that the article appeared like an Old Testament prophecy come to life and proclaiming that the end was near. It’s safe to say I definitely had a “What is going on?!” reaction.

The next example, which I have mentioned before, is the stunning number of under 30 males who aren’t having sex. (It’s nearly tripled from 10% to 28% in the last decade.) I’m not going to spend as much time on this one because I’ve already covered it, in fact I ended up making a bet the last time I discussed it. But you can once again see the same thing at play. There are certainly people who are going to think that this is no big deal. In particular they may see widespread pornography as a perfectly acceptable substitute for sex. I think this is profoundly misguided, but once again it’s territory I’ve covered in the past. But the point is, there is an argument to be made that there’s no reason to be alarmed by this statistic. Some might even welcome it as a positive step along the lines of defanging the patriarchy. Who knows.

Beyond that there are those who certainly see this as a problem, but not a catastrophic one. My sense, in fact, is that most people would say that the biggest problem is avoiding the radicalization of these involuntary celibates (an issue we’re already struggling with). And if we can avoid that, that there’s very little else about this trend which should cause any concern.

And then of course there’s me (though I assume I’m not entirely alone). I find this increase, particularly over such a short time, to be extremely alarming. But maybe it shouldn’t be. The Japanese have arguably been dealing with a similar situation in the form of what they call Hikikomiri. These are individuals who at some point while growing up decide that they’re going eschew all social contact and seek extreme isolation, even confinement. Which one presumes also includes foregoing sex. As of 2010 the estimate was that there was 700,000 of these individuals, with another 1.55 million on the verge of becoming Hikikomiri. Of course there are ways in which this comparison fails. The Hikikomiri have an average age of 31, and are fairly evenly split between the genders, while we were talking about men under the age of 30. On the other hand whatever is happening with the Hikikomiri appears more severe. But the larger point is that so far Japan hasn’t collapsed, and in fact seems to be doing pretty well.

I guess we’ll see. In the past young men with nothing to do have fueled a lot of social unrest and even revolution, but perhaps all of their energy is being channeled into video games. Which once again would seem to be cause for concern, but maybe I’m making too much out of the vast and precipitous increase in sexless young men. Still, this is another case where I think we should all be asking, “What is going on?”

Part of the problem with the increase in involuntary celibacy, is that men seem to be taking it in the teeth on a lot of fronts. And I know that there are valid cases to be made that women and minorities, etc. have been taking it in the teeth for most of recorded history, but one would hope that progress isn’t a zero sum game where for one group to do better another group has to do worse. But you may be wondering what else I’m talking about, where else is something bad happening to men or at least disproportionately to men? Well, to move on to our next example: drugs. The opioid epidemic seems to hit men much worse than women. For instance, if you look at overdose deaths from opioids it turns out that men are twice as likely as women to die from an overdose. But that fact is alarming only because so many people are dying.

Have you seen a graph showing the spike in deaths from synthetic opioids? It’s genuinely insane. Essentially it went from 3,000 in 2013 to 30,000 in 2017. That’s a 10x increase in four years! If that rate continued basically the entire country would be dead less than 15 years from now. Obviously it’s not going to continue at this rate, but what rate is it going to continue at? Even if it leveled of instantly that’s still pretty bad.

This enormous spike in deaths from synthetic opioids would be bad enough if that’s all we had to worry about, but overdose deaths from heroin and prescription opioids might also still be climbing, or maybe they’ve levelled off at a mere 15,000 deaths a year, each. (And yes I’m being sarcastic.) It’s too early to tell, but on top of the opioid problem, although you can’t overdose on marijuana, the CDC reports that deaths from synthetic cannabinoids tripled in a single year between 2014 and 2015. I couldn’t find more recent numbers, but it does seem like a problem that’s likely to get worse given reports in other sources that synthetic use and associated reports of illness therefrom surged in 2018. Finally it turns out that meth has come roaring back, with overdose deaths from that drug increasing 18-fold in this decade, which is not as bad as the synthetic opioid increase, but it’s not great either. Finally it turns out that there’s been a big spike in overdose deaths from cocaine as well and 15,000 people a year are also dying there as well.

Just as I was putting the final polish on this, I came across a unified chart with overdose deaths from all of the drugs I just mentioned (other than synthetic cannabinoids). Eyeballing the start date in 1999, I’m going to say that there were 10,000 overdose deaths. The number for 2017 is 89,000. That’s a 9 fold increase over less than 20 years, across a broad range of drugs. I ask again, “What is going on?!”

As long as we’re on the subject of drugs, I was actually considering doing a whole post on them, but I have no idea what to do about the problem. Most people agree that the War on Drugs has largely been a failure, though it also feels like it hasn’t been quite as “warlike” since maybe the Obama election? Which corresponds to all the rises I’ve been talking about. So maybe it was working? Sort of? On the other hand there’s the approach of countries like Portugal, which decriminalized possession of drugs, and redirected resources to treatment. Which has long seemed like a good idea to me, but even so that policy has indisputably increased drug usage, and when you’re talking about drugs like fentanyl and meth, my guess is that usage rate and overdose rate are strongly correlated. Also, there are many ways in which the US is not Portugal.

Thus far we have sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Or rather a lack of sex, drug over doses and a weird fetishished version of rolling around like puppies. Perhaps I’m just an alarmed mother from the early 70s, rather than a low-grade conspiracy theorist. Either way, there is a big collection of potential things to be worried about, well beyond the three I just mentioned. But I understand if, looking at any example in isolation, you decide that it’s harmless; or worrisome, but easily dealt with. (Though there is always the chance that something is actually the tip of the iceberg.) All this said, while I do have some deep worries over isolated phenomenon, it’s really things in combination where I think we end up with a potential for catastrophe.

By way of illustration, as scary as fentanyl is, it’s really the fact that overdose deaths are basically up for all drugs, that worries me. And moving beyond that, drug overdose deaths are just one element in the broader “deaths of despair” category. (Another area where men are being hit particularly hard.) And once you start combining things together in this fashion it’s harder, for me at least, to shake the feeling that something big is going on.  

I suppose the point of this post is to be largely confessional. Specifically a confession that there is an element of emotion and visceral alarm to my worries about technology, progress and modern culture. I hope you believe me when I say I really want the future to be as great as Steven Pinker promises it will be. For that matter I want the present to be as great as people tell me it is, but when I look out on the world I see an increasing number of things that make me ask, “What is going on?!?!?”

As you may gather I feel like some things are moving in the opposite direction from what we would hope and expect. On that theme I’m going to go in the opposite direction as well, rather than asking for your donation I’m going to give away two $10 Amazon gift certificates to the first and last people who email me at wearenotsaved AT g mail and reference this message. How will I determine the last person? I guess you’ll find out.

The Overemphasis on Love and Tolerance (Religious)

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I’m not a huge fan of Paul Krugman, which is to say that I have significant criticisms of him, his politics, and of Keynesians in general. That said he has done something recently that improved my opinion of him. He’s been pointing out all of the many problems with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). I particularly liked the subtitle of one of his recent articles: “Trying to get this debate beyond Calvinball.”

Calvinball is a reference to Calvin and Hobbes, the greatest comic strip ever (this point is not up for debate) and in the strip the rules to Calvinball are made up as you go along, which in Krugman’s opinion is how it feels to debate MMT advocates. But, it was as I was reading Krugman’s MMT articles that I was reminded of something else he does. On blog posts where he gets into economic minutia he’ll put “(Wonkish)” at the end of the title to alert people to the fact that the post might not be for everyone.

All of the preceding has been my way of introducing something similar to my blog a “(Religious)” tag for posts that delve deeply into issues of Christianity, and in particular the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). And to identify posts which may be of less interest to any atheists who happen to be reading. That said, in this particular post, though much of my reasoning will be religious, I hope to touch on non-religious arguments as well.

The subject I want to talk about is: love. See I have a problem with love. One of my employees will often ask me, in an exaggerated fashion, when I decided to “Love hate and hate love.” Particularly when ask him to do something hard. But humor aside, I don’t hate love, however I do think we’ve put far too much emphasis on it, making it the ultimate value, above and beyond all others. In doing this we have stretched its meaning to the point where love, as most people practice it, is a long way away from its Christian ideal or even its humanist ideal. We’ve done this in many different ways, I’m going to start with the most obvious and then work back from there.

A year or so ago I mentioned an observation John Michael Greer had made to the effect that hate is to modern sensibilities what sex was to Victorian sensibilities, i.e. during the Victorian era sex was the root of all evil, today it’s hate. As he points out:

If you want to slap the worst imaginable label on an organization, you call it a hate group. If you want to push a category of discourse straight into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, you call it hate speech. If you’re speaking in public and you want to be sure that everyone in the crowd will beam approval at you, all you have to do is denounce hate.

First, he’s basically saying the same thing I am, if love has become the ultimate value, then hate (as its opposite) must therefore be the ultimate evil. But, beyond that, by tying it back to Victorian sensibilities, he’s making an additional point. The Victorians weren’t against all sex, they were against particular varieties of sex. In the final analysis it was exceptionally class-based. In the same fashion modern sensibilities aren’t against all hate (or in favor of all love.) They’re against certain varieties of hate. And it might be more accurate to speak about it in terms of tolerance vs. intolerance, which is part of what I mean when I talk about stretching the definition of love well beyond whatever Christian foundation it might have once had. Finally while acceptable sex was entirely based on class in Victorian times, now acceptable hate is heavily based on ideology. Even the mildest intolerance of the LGBT community is among the worst things you can be accused of. While flaming hatred of Trump and his supporters is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged.

(You can certainly see, for those who’ve been following along, how this ties back into my last post there is no safe level of intolerance. Particularly certain kinds of intolerance.)

This twisting of love and hate into tolerance and intolerance has been fairly well documented, and detailed at some length by better people than me. But it makes a good jumping off point for, as promised, bringing in religion. As I said people are increasingly making love into the ultimate value, and I think many if not most of these people justify this by bringing in Christ and Christianity. Some of these people are actively involved in an organized Christian church. Some self-identify as Christian, with varying levels of commitment, but with minimal actual church attendance. Others put forth love as the ultimate value with no real reference to Christ except perhaps as one wise person among many. And finally there are people who use their interpretation of Christian ideology as a club to beat up on Christians for being insufficiently tolerate, at least according to their completely subjective interpretation of it.

Given that everyone is referencing Christ and Christianity in some fashion, most of them pretty directly, what did Christ have to say about love? In particular what did he say about it being the ultimate value? Interestingly enough, just last Sunday, as I was sitting in church, the Sunday School teacher asked the members of the class what their core principle was, and someone said love. And in support of that offered up the phrase “God is love”. Perhaps even more interesting this was not the genesis of this post, it was just a happy coincidence, I had already started writing when this happened. But this phrase is a great place to start.

“God is love” seems pretty clear, it’s not even something like God commands us to love, or God values love, it’s God is love. And yet if it’s as important as all that why does this phrase only appear in one place in the Bible, 1 John chapter 4? If this is a critical part of Christianity you’d expect it to actually appear in one of the four Gospels, right? Also the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and are we sure whatever the original word was that it has the same connotation as the English it was translated into? That itself is a whole discussion I don’t have space to get into, but there’s a strong argument to be made that “God is self-sacrifice” would be closer to the original meaning than “God is infinitely tolerant.”

The next best piece of evidence for the importance of love is Matthew 22:36-40:

36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

38 This is the first and great commandment.

39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Once again we’ve got a strong prima facie case for love’s primacy within Christianity. But as far as I can tell most of the people pushing to make love the ultimate value aren’t pushing to make love of God their primary value. They’re skipping the first commandment and moving straight to the second (and given their actual behavior even this interpretation might be generous). But presumably the first commandment is first for a reason. That just as skipping the first step: “Turn on the oven” will be fatal to any attempt to bake, skipping “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind” is almost certainly fatal to exercising Christian love.

All of this is a problem even if people today are using love in the same sense Christ was when he issued the original proclamation in Aramaic. But I don’t think that’s the case either. Not only is there more sacrifice implied in the original, I would also argue there was a greater sense of commitment implied, and far less selfishness as well. Lots of people seem to have added a third commandment, “Love yourself above all else.” And I doubt very much that Jesus would recognize anything in the modern conception of self-love, which might be more properly labeled “self-actualization” as a part of his original injunctions.

If anyone thinks there’s a stronger case for the primacy of love in general Christian theology, I’d be happy to speak to it. But my sense is that most of the New Testament examples are going to be similar to the two I already gave. Outside of the New Testament, I’m probably not qualified to speak for all branches of Christianity, nor everything that has happened since 33 AD (or thereabouts). So, let’s turned to an area where I do feel somewhat qualified to hold forth: LDS theology.

The idea for this post actually came to me quite a while go as I was reading Alma 29. For any non-Mormons who may have made it this far. Alma is one of the major figures in the Book of Mormon (Alma is the longest sub-book within the Book of Mormon) and in Chapter 29, Alma mentions that if he could have “the wish of his heart” he would want to be an angel. What would he do if he were an angel and could travel the world and speak with a “voice to shake the earth”? He would preach repentance, not love.

Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

The word love doesn’t appear in the chapter. In fact if you compare occurrences of “repentance” to appearances of “love” in the Book of Mormon, you’ll find that the word love appears 60 times but the word repentance appears 92 times. Why is this important? Well first off, you would expect that Alma has a pretty good idea of what the world most needs to hear, and in his mind, if he could reach every soul, he would be declaring the need to repent not the need for more love. Now it’s possible that things have changed, and whatever was most important in Alma’s time is not what is most important in our time. That there’s no longer any need for people to repent, but that hardly seems likely…

Another place we might turn is the Articles of Faith. And while they don’t cover every nook and cranny of LDS theology, you would think that anything that’s really important should be included there. Turning to them the closest we get to the word love is “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” On the other hand, though it only appears once, repentance is on the list of “first principles”, right after faith.

We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

This emphasis on repentance is not just an LDS fascination. I think the evidence might be clearer, but even if we restrict ourselves to the New Testament you still have scriptures like Luke 24:46-47:

46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:

47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Similar to Alma, it’s repentance that gets preached among all nations, not love, and certainly not tolerance.

None of this is to say that love isn’t important, or even very important, but when you prioritize it above everything else, then you risk losing losing other important principles, particularly if those principles clash with your expanded and prioritized vision of love’s meaning. If love takes on the meaning of infinite tolerance (and to be clear I also think tolerance has its place) then what place does a principle like repentance have which has intolerance for sin baked right into the definition?

Perhaps I can make the importance of both love and repentance clearer by examining the ultimate goals of existence. In LDS theology the ultimate goal is to become like God, and in the process take on god-like powers and responsibilities. Another word for this is theosis. And while I’m not sure how comfortable I feel speaking about other branches of Christianity, I have it on good authority that Eastern Orthodox Christianity also espouses a doctrine of theosis.

Obviously a doctrine like theosis can take us into some pretty deep theological waters. So it might be helpful to look at how this works out in another area. In the past I have pointed out that once you assume mortal life is all about preparing intelligences to be gods that you end up arriving at a very similar position to people who are concerned with AI Risk. So what purpose would love serve in that context? The big worry behind discussions of AI Risk is that you’re going to end up with an AI who does things we don’t want it to do. But if it loves its creator (us) with all its heart, and with all its soul, and with all its mind. That would pretty much solve that problem. If it skips that step and just focuses on loving its fellow AIs, that’s not nearly as effective, and in fact might actually end up being the exact opposite of what we were hoping for. Beyond that, tolerance has very little value in this scenario. We need the AI to be perfectly moral before we can trust it. Tolerance, almost whatever form it takes, is at best unrelated and at worst the opposite of what we’re looking for.

There is, however, a place for repentance. Given the difficulties involved we might be very interested in allowing the AI to correct for past mistakes. And, in any event, we assume that when we move from considering AIs back to a consideration of human beings that God can afford to be far more charitable than we are. Not only allowing a greater latitude for repentance, but also a greater spirit of tolerance among all the various parties. But to be clear there’s nothing inherent in the scenario which requires infinite or even excessive tolerance in order for it to work.

At this point, in terms of Christianity, I don’t know that there’s much more I can say to sway those who are still undecided, and I may have already lost you with the detour into AI, but what about if we ignore religion? In the beginning I mentioned four foundations for prioritizing love:

  1. Christianity with organized religion.
  2. Christianity sans organized religion.
  3. Other religious or spiritual frameworks.
  4. As a club to beat up on Christians.

I think I’ve covered one and two, though I will add that I think two is objectively inferior to one on every metric, and not just from the standpoint of understanding Christian doctrine on love and tolerance.

As far as three, if someone claims that as their foundation, then I’d be curious which religious tradition they’re drawing on. I confess to not being an expert in all possible traditions, but my sense is that every religion of sufficient antiquity has a whole host of things it doesn’t tolerate. And that while altruism is a significant component of all religions, it is always altruism within a rigidly defined framework. Also I think if you trace most things back they’ll still end up intersecting with Christianity at some point.

As far as four, to begin with I think Christians should largely ignore people who accuse them of hypocrisy, since so much of it is done in bad faith, and also, to reiterate, even if we are engaged in a certain level of hypocrisy that just illustrates precisely why repentance is so important. But let’s say that although you’re an atheist who has nothing but disdain for Christianity, that you’re  still trying to make a good faith effort to live as well as possible. Where should you prioritize love? Insofar as love leads to cooperation, and cooperation makes things easier to accomplish I can still see placing a very high value on it, but whatever the modern definition of love, it doesn’t seem particularly good at fostering greater cooperation. For example, something I just saw on Twitter:

The average Republican and Democrat suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis.

Each side thinks it is driven by benevolence, while the other is evil and motivated by hatred.

This is just one data point, but I think it’s clear that if we’re trying to engender greater cooperation that whatever we’re doing is not working. That a focus on love and tolerance with a corresponding abhorrence of hate has, seemingly, only brought greater division.

I’ve pointed out how the case for a singular prioritization of love and tolerance is not supported by religion, but the case for tolerance is even weaker if you’re expecting salvation through science or human effort. Under a religious framework you could at least imagine that even if we get the balance wrong, say too much tolerance, or too little, that in the end, if there’s a God that he might still very well be merciful. But if you don’t believe there’s a God willing to excuse our mistakes. If you believe we have to succeed or fail entirely on our own merits. That, if we flunk the test, that there’s no great power to appeal to for mercy, then the issue of tolerance becomes very fraught indeed.

In the salvation through our own efforts scenario, there are right answers and there are wrong answers. And if the only right answer is to make it off the planet, then tolerating people who aren’t interested in that becomes a potentially fatal mistake. This is the same whether you think the right answer is a superintelligent AI, or massive carbon capture or a socialist utopia. And of course, this may be the reason why a greater push for tolerance has lead to a society that’s actually far more divided. If there is a God around to show us mercy then we can afford to be charitable to views we disagree with. On the other hand, if there is no God then we can’t afford that charity. We have to be right.

My main point is a religious one, but outside of that, something is clearly going on with love and tolerance, particularly the way in which modern tolerance can be so expansive, while at the same time being so incredibly narrow. To them I would repeat the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Finally, turning back to religion, I end by repeating my contention that self-proclaimed believers are increasingly minimizing the injunction to repent while stretching and distorting the admonition to love. To these people I will only repeat the words of the Gospel, specifically Matthew 4:17

From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

I appreciate your infinite tolerance for these lame donation appeals. But I appreciate your donations even more. I guess I could call those who don’t donate to repentance, but that seems intolerant, right?

Low Doses of Harm

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Last week we talked about chemotherapy. This week we’re going to talk about radiation, but not metaphorical radiation, actual radiation. And not even the radiation used in radiation therapy for cancer. We’re going to talk about the worst radiation of all, the radiation from nuclear weapons, or at least that’s where we’re going to start.

On August 6, 1945, Tsutomu Yamaguchi had finally reached the end of a three month long business trip to Hiroshima, and was finally ready to leave the city. After having to return to the office to retrieve something he forgot, he was walking near the docks when the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb. The shock wave from the explosion “sucked Yamaguchi from the ground, spun him in the air like a tornado and sent him hurtling into a nearby potato patch.” In addition the explosion “ruptured his eardrums, blinded him temporarily, and left him with serious burns over the left side of the top half of his body.” Afterwards he managed to make his way to an air-raid shelter where he spent the night, and the next day he set out again for his hometown of… Nagasaki, where he received further treatment.

Despite being heavily bandaged, he reported for work on August 9th, and was in the middle of describing the Hiroshima explosion to his supervisor when the Bockscar (I think this is the first time I’ve heard the name of the second plane) dropped another atomic bomb. Both times Yamaguchi was around 3 km from the explosion, but this time, being inside, he was not tossed around or burned, though he suffered from high fever and vomiting for a week afterwards.

Yamaguchi has been called the unluckiest man in the world, and it does sound pretty awful to have been present both times nuclear weapons were used in anger. But what’s interesting is that despite being relatively close to ground zero on both occasions, he survived to the ripe old age of 93. Which is not to say he didn’t have problems related to his exposure in the immediate aftermath, and even later in life, but despite being present at not one, but two nuclear explosions it didn’t shorten his life. Is this just a lot of luck later in life balancing out his initial unluck? Should he have died young, but just beat the odds? According to a paper published last year, no, he wasn’t lucky, the irradiation he was subjected to may have actually lengthened his life.

The paper I’m referring to is titled Low-dose radiation from A-bombs elongated lifespan and reduced cancer mortality relative to un-irradiated individuals. And its central claim is right there in the title, low-dose radiation (technically ionizing radiation, but I’ll be using just ‘radiation’ throughout) didn’t shorten the lifespans of those affected by it, it lengthened them. I imagine for most people this conclusion will be surprising. The reason for this surprise, and the chief villain of the paper is the idea that radiation is the worst thing ever, or what the paper describes as the linear no-threshold hypothesis (LNT). “Linear” meaning that the harm of radiation is always proportional to the dose, and “no-threshold” meaning that there isn’t any point at which it isn’t harmful. According to LNT, radiation, no matter how small the dose, is always harmful. There is no safe level of radiation, and certainly no beneficial level of radiation. As I said LNT is the chief villain of the paper and the authors describe it thusly:

Average solid cancer death ratios of… A-bomb survivors… were lower than the average for Japanese people, which is consistent with the occurrence of radiation adaptive responses (the bases for radiation hormesis), essentially invalidating the LNT model. Nevertheless, LNT has served as the basis of radiation regulation policy. If it were not for LNT, tremendous human, social, and economic losses would not have occurred in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident. For many reasons, LNT must be revised or abolished, with changes based not on policy but on science.

Elsewhere they describe LNT as “spurious”, with a “seriously flawed history”, and “no convincing [supporting] data”. Now I’m not an expert in this field, and it’s always possible that their conclusion is wrong, but I would bet that they’re right. For one thing, though I haven’t audited their data, it clearly shows that A-bomb survivors lived longer, on average, than a control group of Japanese who were nowhere near the bomb. But beyond that their claim rests on the assertion that LNT advocates neglected to consider hormesis, or what amounts, essentially, to biological antifragility. Not only am I a huge believer in hormesis (and antifragility) but as part of that I’ve seen lots of examples of people overlooking it. Which is to say, it’s not just with respect to radiation that people apply a linear no-threshold hypothesis, people apply it to just about everything that can cause harm. Creating the widespread belief that if something has been shown to cause harm at any level, that there is then no level at which it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that an overarching linear no-threshold hypothesis may be one of the defining features of our era.

There are many examples of this, most take us from the realm of biology to the realm of psychology, and I will admit that I’m making that jump somewhat casually, but I will return and shore it up. But first some examples, One is Brené Brown, who I talked about a few posts ago and who, as far as I can tell, takes an LNT stand on shame. That there is no level of shame which isn’t harmful. You also see it in schools where there is, in effect an LNT around bullying, or even unkind words. The #metoo era has brought it to interactions around sex, where there is no safe amount of discomfort for a woman to experience. Now to be clear, maybe there is no safe level in all three of these examples. I freely admit I don’t have any proof that there are safe or beneficial levels of shame, or bullying or discomfort. But there is significant proof in other areas, and here’s where I start to shore up that jump from biological to psychological. To do so I turn to The Coddling of the American Mind.

I have already touched on Coddling in a previous post, but upon reflection, particularly in light of some of my recent posts, I may not have given it the space it deserves. To begin with it’s a great book, and this is not just my opinion, I know several people who’ve read it and enjoyed it. This includes my daughter, who generally only reads Rowling and Green. Coddling has mostly ended up taking a position on the right in the larger culture war, but the authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are pretty liberal, and thus the picture they paint of today’s youth (the subtitle of the book is “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure”) is as objective as anything is likely to be in this day and age. At least in my opinion.

But we were talking about the linear no-threshold hypothesis. You would be surprised if they actually mentioned it, particularly by that name, and they don’t but they end up describing a nearly identical concept, that of “safetyism”.

“Safetyism” refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. “Safety” trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger. When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay “emotionally safe” while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient. The end result may be similar to what happened when we tried to keep kids safe from exposure to peanuts: a widespread backfiring effect in which the “cure” turns out to be the primary cause of the disease.

The emphasis is mine, and that sentence is essentially a restatement of LNT, only applied to all danger, not just the danger of ionizing radiation.

When I crossed over from talking about LNT as it applies to radiation to talking about LNT as a broader psychological and cultural phenomenon in the form of safetyism. I was actually making two assertions: first, that LNT or something nearly identical existed in this additional space, and that it corresponds to what Haidt and Lukianoff call safetyism and second, that safetyism is similarly “spurious”, with a “seriously flawed history”, and “no convincing [supporting] data”. I would hope that the broader existence of LNT/safetyism is more or less self-evident. If not I would ask you to give further consideration to things like microaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and massive public shaming over minor infractions. All things which are premised on there being no minimum acceptable level of discomfort.

This leaves us with showing that safetyism causes harm. I would think that Haidt and Lukianoff’s description of the feedback loop is a very good start. Beyond that, as might be expected, they bring up the hygiene hypothesis, which I discussed just a couple of posts ago, and where I further made the argument that there is probably a psychological version of it. At the time I hadn’t really considered the LNT angle, but you could certainly imagine that if psychological stressors work anything at all like immune system, and further if there is any mental hormesis, then an attempt to eliminate all emotional stress would cause analogous problems.

The key thing to consider, as I’ve been arguing from the very beginning, is that, in general, humans are antifragile. And we should be more suspicious of philosophies which claim that they aren’t than those which claim that they are. Haidt and Lukianoff agree, pointing out that the current push to identify and eliminate things like microaggressions, triggers, etc. represents a “fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and of the dynamics of trauma and recovery.” And that even if you actually are suffering from something like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “avoiding triggers is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment for it.” In support of this they include a quote from Richard McNally, the director of clinical training in Harvard’s Department of Psychology:

Trigger warnings are counter-therapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains PTSD. Severe emotional reactions triggered by course material are a signal that students need to prioritize their mental health and obtain evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies that will help them overcome PTSD. These therapies involve gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories until their capacity to trigger distress diminishes.

All of this is to say that there is a safe and even beneficial level of discomfort and even trauma. And this applies not just to normal individuals, but beyond that to individuals suffering from genuine, clinical, psychological trauma.  That when we deprive people, especially children, of this discomfort under the principle of safetyism that we do real harm. As Haidt and Lukianoff’s summary explains:

Children, like many other complex adaptive systems, are antifragile. Their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environments in order to configure themselves for those environments. Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.

Haidt and Lukianoff spend most of the rest of the book examining the current, unproductive way in which college students engage with ideas which challenge their beliefs, and it’s all very interesting, but I don’t have the space to go into it here. Also I think it’s a problem that’s been very well covered even for people who have never heard of Coddling or Haidt and Lukianoff. What I’m more interested in examining is where to draw the line on things like discomfort or radiation if we’ve decided that it’s a bad idea to draw the line at zero.

This is not the first time I’ve addressed the question, and in fact when I initially brought up “The Coddling of the American Mind” the title of that post was How Do You Determine the Right Level of Suffering? And my thought process then was largely the same as it is now. If some suffering is needed for healthy development how do you determine how much suffering to allow? Even if you just choose to ignore rather than allow, how do you do that? And do you ignore some suffering, but not others? How is that choice made? Would ignoring it be enough or do you end up having to intentionally causing suffering? Would any of this need to be legislated in order to work? If so how on earth would you pull that off? Replace suffering with trauma or even just challenges and the questions largely remain the same.

One big part of the problem is that up until recently we could do everything in our power to reduce suffering and there was still sufficient suffering built into existence for everyone to get their “daily recommended allowance”. Less than 50 years ago young men could still be drafted to go fight and die in a war. 40 years ago my parents could let me wander around in the wilderness for hours doing who knows what and no one thought it was particularly unusual (a story I told in that last post). But technology and progress have changed things. Now kids are always reachable with smartphones, and they generally don’t wander around outside anyway because they’re inside posting on social media or playing video games. And there are no more wars between the great powers, and no more need for a draft. People still fight and die in wars, but on a completely different scale. Interestingly, some people think this reduction is all because of the A-bomb.

Returning to the A-bomb, one of the reasons I started with radiation is that it’s an early example of dealing with rapid technological change, and its associated dangers, and it’s not an encouraging one. According to the paper I mentioned earlier, the linear no-threshold hypothesis traces its origin all the way back to 1927. This is important because it means we’ve had over 90 years to get the science right, and instead, if anything, we’re more frightened of radiation than ever. While at the same time the case for accepting the dangers of radiation is as strong as it’s ever been.  Of course, I’m mostly talking about nuclear power. I have made my case for nuclear power previously, so I won’t rehash it here, but obviously global warming plays into it. (Though perhaps not as much as you might think.)  And despite increasing fears of that from nearly all quarters, nuclear power generation declined, as a percentage of all power generation, from 16.5% to 9.5% between 1993 and 2015.

One might be inclined to blame this mostly on the Fukushima disaster, but that didn’t occur till 2011, and the decline was pretty steep already (which is to say that since global generation is increasing that nuclear generation in absolute terms has been basically flat since 2000.) Speaking of Fukushima, as was already alluded to in the initial quote, the authors of the paper feel that LNT created undue burdens not only in Fukushima, but also at Chernobyl. Claiming:

If it were not for LNT, evacuation would not have been necessary in Chernobyl or Fukushima.

Back in the post where I made my case for nuclear power I mentioned Chernobyl, and it’s worth revisiting that section:

It doesn’t take much searching to find articles talking in excited terms about the amount of wildlife found in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). One article declares that it’s a nature reserve. Another mentions that within the CEZ wildlife is flourishing. This was unexpected, in one article from National Geographic I came across, they quote a biologist who “studies Chernobyl” (one wonders if his studies have included a visit) as predicting that when the author of the article goes to Chernobyl that he won’t “see any roadkill in the exclusion zone—and would be lucky to hear any birds or see any animals.” Instead the author reports:

Walking along sandy firebreaks used as forest highways…we found the tracks of wolf, moose, deer, badger, and horses. I counted scores of birds: ravens, songbirds, three kinds of birds of prey, and dozens of swans paddling in the radioactive cooling pond.

The article goes on to report that in a study of 14 species of mammals one scientist found no evidence that any of those populations were “suppressed” within the CEZ.

I am sure that there are some health impacts on this wildlife and positive that the CEZ is not without its negative effects. I’m sure that if people were allowed to live there, that there would be higher rates of cancer, among other things. But, also recall, that this is the worst of the disasters, combined with the least cost and effort at cleanup.

One of the reasons I wanted to revisit that section is that I think I may have been wrong. I said that I was “positive that the CEZ is not without its negative effects.” I am no longer positive of that. It’s possible that just as low-dose radiation extended the lifespans of the Japanese A-bomb survivors that it has had a positive effect on the wildlife of Chernobyl, above and beyond just the removal of human interference. But because of the widespread belief in LNT, scientists assume that there must be some awful effect. So awful that one even claimed you would be lucky to spot any birds or animals, when the opposite ends up being true.

As I said unfortunately it’s not just with respect to radiation that LNT holds sway, it’s also present nearly everywhere you look in the form of safetyism, and one the reasons I’ve been bouncing back and forth is that both engender a similar level of panic.

Just yesterday I came across what may be, to this point, the most extreme example (though I’m sure in the future I’ll see something even more extreme). It came out of a story about a fight over building a halal butchery. The proposed site was nowhere near anything residential but it was near a lot of pet related businesses. And as a result, people pushed back on behalf of their pets. But really, it’s one comment that perfectly encapsulates what I’m talking about.

Knowing that my dogs may be walked by a business that holds chickens in a windowless room before their throats are slit while fully conscious does not make me feel that my dogs are in a safe environment.

Not only is this, objectively, ridiculous, but it perfectly illustrates the unwillingness to make trade-offs and compromise that Haidt and Lukianoff talked about. Earlier, I said I wanted to do two things. First I wanted to show that we are dealing with a cultural and psychological form of LNT, which has been labeled safetyism. Second I wanted to show that this absolute prioritization of safety is counter productive and harmful. Here, at the end, I think it would be useful to pull together a list from everything I’ve said thus far of the ways it’s harmful:

  1. It makes people unwilling to compromise, and given that compromise is essential for a functioning society, safetyism has contributed to the horrible political fracture we’re currently seeing.
  2. There’s a misallocation of resources. We spend time and money eliminating things which not only aren’t harmful, but which are probably beneficial.
  3. It creates a feedback loop. Safetyism leads to fragility, fragility means that much more attention needs to be paid to safety which in turn produces even more fragility.
  4. A certain level of stress, suffering, trauma, and/or danger is necessary for healthy development. Safetyism deprives us of that.
  5. By denying human antifragility it creates widespread fragility.

As I said, even if you’re entirely onboard with my conclusions, deciding how to increase suffering is a hard problem. But to borrow from that wisest of all sages, G.I. Joe, perhaps knowing that it’s a problem is half the battle.

I worry that referencing something like the G.I. Joe cartoon which only ran for three years in the mid-80s may be both horribly obscure and horribly out of date, but I also figure obscure, curmudgeonly stuff might be the definition of my niche. If you agree, or even if you just also remember G.I. Joe, consider donating.

Chemo as an Analogy & Analogies in General

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Recently I came across a striking quote from Tolstoy, “Religion is a philosophy which can be understood by anyone.” I think I would get rid of the “a”, and just say “Religion is philosophy which can be understood by anyone.” And it’s possible that since the original is in Russian, that this second version might be closer to Tolstoy’s actual intent. Though, in any case, it was actually the second half: “can be understood by anyone” which really struck me, given that it’s a point I’ve made myself on occasion. There are in fact a lot of philosophies out there, and some of them are pretty good, but not all of them can be understood by anyone. When I have made this point previously, I used rationality as an example. This is a philosophy I have significant respect for. But which, I argued, can only be understood and adopted by a select few, and this significantly diminishes its utility, and the utility of other, similarly arcane philosophies.

To put it in more concrete terms, let’s imagine that in a pre-philosophical Hobbesian war of all against all, that if you have 10,000 people that they will commit 100 murders. To combat this you come up with two philosophies: philosophy A which can be understood by 10% of people and philosophy B which can be understood by 90% of people. Philosophy A is 100% successful at stopping its adherents from murdering while philosophy B is only 50% successful. If we assume, for the sake of our example that you can only adopt one philosophy or the other then philosophy B is objectively better since it will reduce the murder rate to 55, while philosophy A will only reduce it to 90.

We might wish for more people to adopt philosophy A. You might try to make philosophy A easier to understand. But in the end, ease of understanding and adoption turns out to be just as important as how effective the philosophy is at preventing murder. Now, of course, this example is vastly over-simplified. For one, we are not restricted to choosing only one philosophy, we could have the 10% who understand it, follow philosophy A and another 80% follow philosophy B, leaving 10% who can’t understand either, which gives us a murder rate of 50. Which is better, but observe that it’s not that much better than the pure philosophy B approach of 55.

There are obviously many other oversimplifications inherent in this illustration. For example the idea that the philosophies can be implemented independently. That we can force people to adopt the best philosophy they can understand as if by fiat. When in reality philosophies end up in competition. Also simplifying things around the issue of murder, when in reality we expect our moral philosophies to lessen all manner of crimes. Conceivably a philosophy could be great at preventing murder while being bad at preventing, say, slavery. But despite all of this I would argue that the point it makes about understanding and adoption is both valid and critical. And further that, because of the simplicity of the example, we may in fact be understating the importance of actual adoption.

If we make the illustration more concrete and assume for the moment that philosophy A is atheistic rationality, while philosophy B is generic Christianity, then there appears to be very little evidence that atheistic rationality is twice as good at preventing murders. (The 100% success rate vs. the 50% rate in the illustration.) In fact there is considerable evidence, depending on how closely you want to tie people like Stalin and Mao to that philosophy, that it is considerably worse. That particular argument is not one I want to have right now, but I think, at a minimum it calls into question any argument that it’s better. In fact I would go further and argue that it’s unlikely we’re going to invent something that’s markedly better than religion at preventing all of the things which are widely accepted as crimes. Which means that ease of understanding, or as Tolstoy says, “a philosophy which can be understood by anyone” is the most critical feature. Which is why religion is so important.

Now, if, as in the illustration, two philosophies could exist comfortably side by side, and both were equally effective, than we might not care. But as I said, in reality there appears to be unavoidable competition between philosophies. For example, it would be hard to argue that atheistic rationality hasn’t significantly eroded the adoption level of organized religion. If it had replaced it with something equally effective that would be one thing, but it’s not clear that it has. Once again this is not an argument I want to have right now, rather I just want to point out that it may be difficult to have multiple competing philosophies all operating in the same space.

The final point I brought up related to how well a given philosophy deals with all possible examples of immorality, not merely one extreme example, like murder. And I think it’s in this space that those opposed to traditional religion would lodge their strongest objections. Even if most philosophies are roughly equal at preventing murder and theft. They would argue that traditional religion is much worse at protecting things like LGBT rights, or a woman’s right to choose. I bring this up to be fair to the people making these arguments. They are good arguments. But they are once again arguments I don’t want to have right now (though I believe I’ve addressed them at length elsewhere.) The point of this post is to discuss how important ease of adoption is when judging the value of a philosophy. (Also, I would point out as something of a parting shot that I think most of the issues where current philosophies are perceived as doing better than traditional religion end up being more complicated than it’s advocates claim.)

Everything I have discussed so far is partially a long-winded way of examining the questions: what should I talk about in this space? And how should I talk about it? As I have pointed out recently it’s very easy to come up with a clever analogy, tie it into some recent anecdotes, and call it wisdom. Whether it’s actually wisdom is up for debate, but it’s certainly not science. Is that a problem? Should I be more scientific? Should I dispense with analogies and make these posts as scientific as possible? Include footnotes to supporting journal articles, caveat everything with confidence levels, only talk about things where there’s a preponderance of evidence? There’s absolutely a place for that, and certainly things which claim to be scientific should make sure they’re actually engaged in science. But science brings a host of problems when you try and transform it into a philosophy for life and then slot it into the space previously occupied by religion.

Right as I was in the midst of writing these words I saw a tweet from Taleb which pithily summed up the problem:

If there is someone spreading statistical illiteracy & naive empiricism, it is @sapinker.

Statistics is hard.

Of course being a tweet it has to be part of some twitter feud, in this case it’s the long running battle between Steven Pinker and Taleb. But that also is part of the point I’m trying to make. Breaking out the points of the tweet:

  1. “Statistics is hard” – This is true not only of statistics, but all of science. And many people have followed the best advice of the scientific experts only to find out later that it was entirely wrong. Nutritional advice is a great example of this.
  2. “Naive empiricism” – Closely related to above many people naively champion what they claim is science, without understanding things like replication, second order effects, or the filters through which the scientific knowledge has passed before it gets to them.
  3. The accusation against Steven Pinker. If we choose to believe Taleb, that even Harvard professors engage in naive empiricism, then what chance does the bulk of humanity have in understanding and adopting a scientific philosophy? Even if we disagree with Taleb, it’s clear that in the absence of religion most people don’t turn to rationality and science, or if they do it’s selectively in confirmation of the biases they already have.

To sum all this up I think there is a real need for things that can be “understood by anyone”. My contention would be, particularly with respect to long standing religious injunctions, that they’re going to be at least as good if not better than any of the more modern philosophies which attempt to improve on morality by being more rational or scientific, because religion is easier to understand and apply. And this is why I’m going to continue to put forth analogies, speculative philosophy and other similar stuff. Yes, I may be wrong. (Which I have never been shy of admitting.) But I think it will be both easier to grasp why I might be wrong, and also easier to understand how I could be correct.

Accordingly, the foregoing basically amounts to a long strange defense of using analogies in my writing, while, furthermore, building to a discussion and dissection of one particular analogy, which I’m going to use as something of a stand-in for all analogies.

This analogy is something a friend of mine came up with. He brought it up recently in a conversation we were having about politics. He called it the chemotherapy analogy. When someone with cancer undergoes chemotherapy, everyone knows that some healthy, non-cancerous cells are going to die along with the cancerous cells. The hope is that they can eradicate all of the cancerous cells before killing the patient. (Question: Do you have to get every last cancer cell to prevent it from returning? This will be important later.) Thus a balance must be struck. Make the chemo too potent and you may unnecessarily kill more healthy cells than necessary; you want it just potent enough to sufficiently eradicate the cancer and no more.

The analogy part comes if we imagine that people or ideas could represent a cancer on the body of the nation (perhaps even civilization as a whole?) In eradicating the cancer we have to be careful about how aggressive we are. If we’re too aggressive we may not only “kill” some healthy ideas, but we might kill the patient. If we’re not aggressive enough then we still risk the death of the patient, but this time it will be the cancerous ideas that kill him/her, not the aggressive treatment. Initially this struck me as a useful way of looking at things, but in an attempt to be more thoughtful, rather than just presenting it, I thought I’d go farther and dissect it.

As I said I was initially struck by some of its strengths, so I’ll start there. To begin with you can never have too many analogies about the inevitable tradeoffs that come with any policy. Yes cracking down on certain forms of speech will almost certainly target people who should probably be silenced, but that crack down will also probably silence people who shouldn’t be silenced, people who have useful contributions.

The fact that cancerous cells are hidden among healthy cells is also a strength of the comparison, since bad actors are spread out among honest citizens. In cancer the ideal situation is to catch it early when it’s small and localized and the prognosis for a surgical excision of the cancer is still good. I think we hope the same thing can be done with dangerous people and ideas. That we can find a small cell of radicals and deal just with them in a surgical strike. Additionally although chemo does harm healthy cells it’s designed in such a way to be disproportionately harmful to cancer cells. In the same way while there is the possibility of unduly punishing the innocent, all of our methodology is designed around targeting cancerous people and ideas without harming the healthy. Tying this all together we could say that the methodology of treating cancerous cells and cancerous ideas bear a lot of similarities.

At some point, though, we have to move on from methodology as metaphor to deciding what constitutes our metaphorical cancer. Here I think the analogy becomes less useful. I am sure that there are people on the left who feel that white supremacists and their accompanying ideology is a perfect use of the analogy. You have something that started out as a tumor (the Confederacy) we tried to surgically remove the tumor (the Civil War), but we didn’t get it all. It continued to fester and metastasize until now it’s everywhere, and it’s only through the application of really aggressive chemotherapy that we have any hope of eradicating it. And yes occasionally this very aggressive chemo is going to target people it shouldn’t. (Though they would argue this is incredibly rare.) But it’s our only hope if we’re going to save the patient.

On the other side you could argue that excessive immigration is a form of cancer. Here we start with the premise that a certain level of cell division and renewal is healthy and expected, and that this represents the level of immigration where immigrants are eventually assimilated. But just as cancer occurs when cells start to divide uncontrollably, overwhelming the healthy initial cells, immigration can become a metaphorical cancer when the immigrants stop assimilating or when immigration starts to overwhelm the initially healthy patient. People who like this version of the analogy are not opposed to all immigration, but they are in favor of assimilation rather than multiculturalism while also feeling that there is a level of immigration which could be excessive. That in this version chemo might keep out some worthy immigrants but that it’s necessary because you can’t let in everyone who wants to immigrate to America, there are just too many.

Of course, there might also be disagreement in who the patient is. In the most recent example it’s clearly the United States. But in the first it seems like it could be equality and progress regardless of the country. And, as I reflect, I realize that there are people who were already using cancer or at least disease as an analogy, but with the patient as whole earth and humanity as the disease. As an aside, this latter analogy is interesting because it lends itself naturally to the idea that just as humans run fevers when they’re sick that global warming is a similar phenomenon with respect to the Earth. I’m not sure what the metaphorical chemotherapy would be in this example. Nor do I think, as a human myself, that thinking of humanity as a disease is particularly helpful.

I also wonder if the idea of cancer, which reproduces uncontrollably, wouldn’t take us in the wrong direction? In the past I have talked about Robin Hanson’s contention that the modern world represents something of a Dreamtime. That many of our habits and behaviors are profoundly non-adaptive. One example of this is the fall in reproductive rates. Which is to say our “cancer” may have nothing to do with out of control reproduction at all, but rather a long slow death spiral where humanity effectively gives up on reproduction. This takes us to my next question, what does it mean, metaphorically, for the host to die?

We know when an individual has died, but what does it mean for a nation to die? Surely even the most conservative can agree that we have already changed quite a bit as a nation, that we are not the nation we once were and that much of the change has been positive. Have we already died and been reborn countless times? And if so, is fearing yet another death silly? That said nations and civilizations do die, and it’s not very pretty when they do.

On the other side I could see where killing progress, which is presumably the driver of beneficial change, might seem objectively more worrisome, but I also have my doubts that the battle lines are so clearly drawn. Or that what we mean by “progress” or “progressive” today is exactly the same or exactly as efficacious as what those words once meant, say 50 or 100 years ago. But I am sympathetic to those for whom progress = a healthy society.

Still, to completely flip it around, it’s interesting to use the difference between healthy cell division and uncontrolled cell division as a metaphor. Is it possible that progress was once essentially healthy cell division, but that, as it became more extreme, it transitioned into some form of cancer? That rather than worrying about societal cancer killing progress, we should be worried that a modern conception of progress is the cancer? Before you dismiss this idea entirely, recall that however abhorrent conditions were in the past with respect to slavery, violence and equality, that they did not “kill” the patient. The claim that we need to use radical chemo on the patient to fight them now when all three are objectively better on nearly every metric, seems misguided. Recall that people die sooner than they would have otherwise because of chemotherapy all the time.

Having dealt with what may or may not be metaphorical cancer, I’d like to briefly take a deeper look at the treatment. I asked earlier whether we need to eliminate every last cancer cell or whether it was sufficient to beat it back to a certain level. I’ve always assumed that it’s impossible to get rid of every last cancer cell, that you merely needed to get it down to a level where the body’s natural defenses could stay on top of it. But I realized as I was writing this, that I wasn’t sure (nor was a Google search particularly illuminating). I bring it up because it feels like in the current culture war/metaphorical chemotherapy we’re engaged in that there is a contingent of people who believe we can’t allow even a single potential bad actor or bad idea to remain. This is perhaps where the metaphor is at its strongest, as we repeatedly see ideas that are largely benign if unfashionable set upon with the full fury of our metaphorical chemotherapy. And yes, perhaps these healthy cells have to be destroyed in order to also get the actual cancer, but I kind of suspect that they don’t. In fact, I would actually argue that if we do have a cancer it’s one of those slow-moving types that are better to leave alone because you’ll die of natural causes before the cancer kills you. Where the cure is worse than the disease. 

In the end what are we left with? Is there any wisdom in this analogy? Does it help us make the decisions required of us going forward? I think, as we saw, it’s an analogy that might be used by either side to make them feel more justified in doing what they were already going to do. Obviously that’s a point against it. Also as I made clear, there’s zero science involved in it either, in fact in my description of cancer I have probably distorted things rather than clarified them.

Still despite all of this, I think anyone who made it this far has a different way of thinking about trade-offs and tactics in the current culture war. And is hopefully less inclined to indiscriminately apply metaphorical chemotherapy. Perhaps they have also done some deep thinking they might not have otherwise done. If nothing else, coming up with reasons why I’m wrong. Finally the multiple possible interpretations may, in fact, be a strength. For myself, I think I’m slightly more sympathetic to those who see bigotry as a cancer which threatens the engine of progress.

To toss in just the tiniest amount of religion, there’s a reason Jesus taught in parables, and I would strongly contend that parables, analogies, metaphors, etc. are still useful. Plus at this point, I’m starting to feel like we can’t take anything off the table, particularly any tool which makes people and conflicts easier to understand, and hopefully empathize with.

Allow me to present the parable of the grateful blog reader, who came upon someone blogging in the desert and who gave him water, bound up his wounds, set him on his own beast, brought him to an inn, and donated.

A Psychological Hygiene Hypothesis?

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I talk a lot in this space about antifragility. For those who need a reminder it’s the idea that certain things get better/stronger in the presence of stress. For a really in-depth explanation see my post on The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb who discovered the idea. (In the same way that Columbus discovered America i.e. it is something which has always been there, but he brought attention to it and named it. And yes, I know that Columbus didn’t name America, but he did name the Indians.)

I am not the only person to discuss antifragility, and nearly any time someone does they bring up the hygiene hypothesis, because it’s such a great example of the principle in action. This includes me, but on previous occasions I didn’t go into it in much depth. I’m going to start this post by rectifying that.

The hygiene hypothesis, as originally formulated by David Strachan, speculated that a lower incidence of childhood infection translated into higher rates of hay fever and asthma. From the beginning Strachan noticed that family size was a factor as well, More brothers and sisters provided more avenues for childhood infection. But that still leaves the question of why a lack of childhood infections would map, later, to a greater incidence of hay fever and asthma?

Initially it was thought that it was mostly things like measles, the flu, and other childhood diseases that were the primary culprits, but then Graham Rook came along with the “old friends” theory. From Wikipedia:

Rook proposed the “old friends hypothesis” which some claim offers a more rational explanation for the link between microbial exposure and inflammatory disorders. He argues that the vital microbial exposures are not colds, influenza, measles and other common childhood infections which have evolved relatively recently over the last 10,000 years, but rather the microbes already present during mammalian and human evolution, that could persist in small hunter gatherer groups as microbiota, tolerated latent infections or carrier states. He proposes that humans have become so dependent on these “old friends” that their immune systems neither develop properly nor function properly without them.

Hay fever, asthma, and other allergies are products of overactive immune systems, and while the clinical details of the hypothesis would take us into the weeds of TH1 vs. TH2 cells and much more besides, I don’t think it’s over simplifying things too much to describe it this way: The immune system needs something to target, and in the absence of historically harmful agents, it ends up targeting non-harmful agents, like pollen and peanuts. In the case of peanuts this reaction can be so extreme that people with peanut allergies can die after ingesting them. To return to the principle of antifragility, the immune system is antifragile. It needs stress to develop appropriately. In the absence of sufficient stress it goes a little haywire. (Or maybe a lot haywire.) To quote from Rook, “Evolution turns the inevitable into a necessity.” In this case, harmful agents were historically inevitable, and in the end they became necessary.

I find it very interesting to review examples of what the immune system considers beneficial stress (at least according to the research):

  • Large families
  • Older siblings
  • Early daycare
  • Rural Living
  • Contact with animals
  • Poor sanitation
  • Parasitic worms
  • Absence of antibiotics
  • Non-western lifestyle

As you would expect this is a list of things mostly absent from modern life, and includes some things we’ve put a lot of time and money into banishing. It’s equally interesting to review examples of the kinds of conditions that can result from not getting enough of this stress (at least according to the research):

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Some types of depression
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Hay fever
  • Eczema
  • Asthma
  • Autism
  • Food allergies

This is a pretty nasty list, and as I already pointed out, some of the items on the list can be fatal. And if you’ve been paying attention you’re aware that most have been increasing recently. The questions is how recently. Thus far I have intentionally avoided mentioning the year that Strachan first proposed the idea, or the year when Rook amended it. But from my perspective this is one of the things that makes the hypothesis so consequential. To take a step back for a second, one of the big questions I keep returning to is how different is the modern world from the world of 50 or 100 or a 1000 years ago? The hygiene hypothesis would seem to indicate that it’s very different and that the difference is recent. The first formal proposal of the  hypothesis, by Strachan wasn’t until 1989, the year I graduated from high school. (Yep, it’s my 30th year reunion this year. I think I’m going to skip it.) And Rook’s amendment, wasn’t until 2003, and it’s gotten much worse since then. For example, the WSJ reported a 377% increase in severe allergic reactions to food just in the decade between 2007 and 2017.

Depending on who you talk to the modern world started in the early 18th century with the invention of the steam engine and the Enlightenment. Or maybe it was the late 19th century with the harnessing of electricity. Or perhaps it was the end of World War II when conflict between the great powers ceased. Or if we’re looking more in the area we’re concerned about. Perhaps it was when Pasteur solidified the germ theory of disease in the 1860s or when Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. But all of these things still happened a long time before 1989 to say nothing of 2003 or 2007. Why is it so bad now? I understand that people are not eager to go back to having tapeworms or cholera epidemics from poor sanitation, but as best I can tell the last cholera epidemic in the US was in 1911, which as you’ll recognize is significantly before 1989.

I’m not sure of the answer to this question, nor is it the intent of this post to seek that answer. It’s just one more alarming thing about the current state of the world. Also, while the hygiene hypothesis is exceptionally interesting all by itself, I’d like to see where that idea takes us if we’re willing to expand it a little bit. Because it’s not just the immune system which experienced inevitable stress historically, all aspects of our existence were subject to inevitable stress, and I’m wondering, if we start to view these other avenues of stress as necessary does it bring any insight?

I just finished listening to The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown. I picked it up because I started hearing her name everywhere all of the sudden. Which I’m sure is because I started looking for it rather than some dramatic increase in her popularity over the last month. But once my attention was drawn to her I was curious to see what she had to say. My initial take is that she’s very engaging and funny, full of charisma (the thing I listened to was her presenting a six part instructional course) and I can definitely see why people would be drawn to her. I’m also very interested in her take on the benefits of guilt, but still somewhat unclear how she draws a bright line between that and shame, which as far as I can tell is the worst thing in the world from her perspective. I’m certain that I should read more of her stuff before I make any further comments, also that’s not why I’m bringing her up. I bring her up because she said something that starting me thinking about this whole subject.

At the beginning of her presentation she tells the story of two families, brothers, each of which has a wife and a few kids. Unexpectedly there is a “very violent, traumatic event”, and one of the kids dies. Obviously all the parents, and the other kids are devastated by this. Over the course of the next few years each family sends one of their kids off to war. “One comes back, one doesn’t.” Then a year after that one of the brothers loses his house after the bank forecloses on it. She then goes on to say that the story is a metaphor for the nation as a whole. The first violent event was 9/11, which was followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Which was then shortly followed by the financial crisis of 2007-2008. That we are those families. That it has been “trauma after trauma for us.”

Brown places a lot of focus on scarcity, vulnerability and shame. This story, in addition to being a story of repeated trauma, is a story of increasing scarcity, or at least the perception of scarcity. She says that she started her research in 2001 and she has “watched scarcity, absolutely shift over this time.”

This whole thing really struck me because as disasters go 9/11 was kind of small potatoes. In the end 2,996 people died. Not to take anything away from the tragedy of those deaths, or the impact it had on those families, but I could list a dozen other disasters that are 100x or even a thousand times as bad. To just take one example, in 1976 somewhere between 250,000 to 650,000 people died from an earthquake in China. That was not even that long ago. How many people have even heard of that earthquake? And is there any evidence of permanent scarring in China? Not that I can see.

Turning to Afghanistan and Iraq, there were 6,713 US deaths. Those are also tragic, and kind of senseless, and it’s ironic that that total is twice as much as the number of people killed in 9/11. But once again, as wars go neither Iraq or Afghanistan has been particularly bad. And if that scarred us, how much more did it scar the actual Iraqis, where the low estimate for violent deaths is 151,000 against much smaller populations. And that’s just stuff that’s happened recently. You don’t have to go that far back before you start to encounter things like the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted for years and ended up killing over a million people. In fact, if you want trauma after trauma, then you should look at the Russians from the 1st World War up through the fall of the Soviet Union (and probably beyond).

Finally as far as financial crises and scarcity go, 2007-2008 was severe, but very short. Nothing as close to as deep or as long as the Great Depression. Unemployment hit 10% once, in late 2009. During the Great Depression it was above 10% for 10 years, with a high above 20%! And whatever scarcity we’re experiencing it’s nothing compared to the scarcity which exists in most of the less developed world, to say nothing of the scarcity which existed for most of recorded history.

Despite all of this Brown does have a point. As she goes on to say:

We are…The most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in history.

How is this possible? How is it that Brown and her audience can look back and see “trauma after trauma”? Why do things seem so awful and hopeless for so many despite the unparalleled abundance of modern life? When the actual chance of dying from any of the trauma’s she mentioned is almost infinitesimal. (Even for people in the military it’s still pretty low.) And yes the 2007-2008 financial crisis was pretty bad, but how many people literally starved to death because of it? How many homeless people died? How many of them died because of the crisis, who wouldn’t have otherwise? And how many of those are the kind of people who show up at a Brené Brown seminar or read a Brené Brown book?

You may have already guessed where I’m going with this, but what happens if we combine Brown’s observations with the hygiene hypothesis? If we start looking at beneficial stress beyond the realm of the immune system? If we start looking at all forms of stress? Is it possible that just as our immune system has started targeting benign agents in the absence of actual infections. That our psyche has started marshaling all of its defenses against anything negative no matter how slight, in the absence of true trauma? Reacting to things that would have been inconsequential historically by going into the equivalent of psychic anaphylactic shock?

I don’t know, I want to stress that this is just me speculating. Tossing an idea out there and seeing what it looks like when I’ve actually written it down. Also, a faithful reader of this blog, did just point out to me that science is not conducted by pointing out lots of things which confirm your hypothesis, it’s conducted by looking for things which falsify it. Though yet another reader pointed out that blogging has its own set of rules which are different than those of science. And if I were to say right now that this idea is obviously false because of X, it wouldn’t be a very interesting post. (Less so…) That said I am interested in any ideas for how this concept might be falsified. I guess if true trauma continues to decline without psychological issues getting worse, or if they actually started improving that would be one way. That certainly doesn’t seem to be the way things are going, but the trend could always reverse. So while I should and will pay attention to things which might falsify this idea, I am going to spend most of the rest of this post pointing out things which I feel lend support to this idea.

To start with there’s the subject of last week’s post. The hoax Jessie Smollett pullIs that possibly an example of this? It might be, but if it is, it appears that the immune system of the entire society over-reacting, not just the psychological defenses of a single individual. Though before we dismiss it there might still be an interesting parallel.

When I imagine the immune system I imagine white blood cells swarming a parasite (and I know that this is not one of the mechanisms involved in the hygiene hypothesis). It’s possible to imagine that shameful behavior is dealt with in a similar fashion by human society. A certain percentage of individuals are predisposed, by culture and genetics, towards recognizing and shaming certain behavior. Call them scolds. And maybe some other percentage are predisposed towards giving individuals, particularly allies, the benefit of the doubt. Call them advocates. In a setting where the average group size is 150, and the percentage is, say 2%, you have three scolds and three advocates. But now that social media has allowed the community to scale up to be the entire nation, you still have individuals doing dumb (or understandable) things, but rather than three scolds and three advocates, each individual now has thousands, if not millions of each. The body is nothing but white blood cells swarming some parasite.

Let’s turn to another possible example, this one at the individual level. The other day I was out to lunch with an old friend of mine and he mentioned that he was having financial troubles. He had been working as a chef, but finally the lack of opportunities for further advancement and the long hours were just too much and he had to quit amidst declining health. He got another job working at a big plumbing supply store, and he’s doing a lot better, but he’s not making as much money and his kids are in the expensive stage of life (i.e. teenagers). Both he and his wife agree that the obvious solution would be for her to start working, and his wife is willing, but she claims that her social anxiety prevents her from working most traditional jobs. She has made some attempts to find a job that would allow her to work from home, but has so far been unsuccessful. (I should mention at this point that I have altered details of this story to protect the identity of the wife.)

In the past there have been times and conditions where if you didn’t work you died, and people, presumably, never said during those times that they couldn’t work because of “social anxiety”. This leaves us with a few possibilities.

  1. Social anxiety is just an excuse, she doesn’t want to work for some other reason. She’s lazy, or she is secretly hoping her husband will divorce her, or something similar. This is certainly possible, but based on my conversation with her husband, and my slight acquaintance with her, I don’t think she’s “faking it”, but you never know.
  2. If she was really in danger of death or some other horrible consequence (e.g. homelessness) she would work, but absent that her anxiety is too powerful to overcome. If this is the case then it could be that social anxiety has always been present and it’s just the consequences of not working which have changed. That said, their situation is pretty dire, for example they will probably lose their house. (Though that shouldn’t make them homeless.)
  3. She really does have crippling social anxiety, and it wouldn’t matter how bad things are, there really is no way for her to overcome the pain caused by having to interact with lots of strangers in a professional capacity. It is literally incapacitating.

I’m not sure which it is, but I suspect it’s two or three, both of which present problems. Also, if this were the only person who claimed to be unable to do necessary and important things because of psychological issues then it wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but there are millions of people who receive disability benefits because of mental issues which render them incapable of working, and this number doesn’t even include people like my friend’s wife. Once again we have the same core issue. Under the hygiene hypothesis we reduced the number of harmful antigens, but that made some people less physically healthy rather than more. In this example we have reduced the amount of harmful trauma, but this has made some people less mentally healthy rather than more. To repeat Brown’s point:

We are…The most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in history.

The best example of all for this idea comes from the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. Which I discussed in a previous post. Speaking about the reaction of Londoners during the Blitz he said:

On and on the horror [of the Blitz] went, people dying in their homes or neighborhoods while doing the most mundane things. Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis. Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown ran as high as four million people, but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down…Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.

He then goes on to talk about the positive effects of war on mental health in general, including decreases in depression, suicide and even frequency of epileptic seizures. What might be considered an environment of poor mental hygiene produced improved mental health.

Interestingly enough, my dad recently read Tribe, and his conclusion was that despite being a very interesting book, that it wasn’t exactly scientific. I agree, and most of what I’ve written here hasn’t been especially scientific either, but I think there is something to this. That the negative second order effects of removing historical stress is an area which needs a lot more study. There is some stuff out there, for example a study claiming that growing up in an urban environment without pets increases vulnerability to mental illness. But so far whenever I hear people talk about the increased rate of modern mental illness as Brown does, their solution is always to reduce stress. In Brown’s case it’s to reduce the stress of shame (and maybe replace it with the positive stress of guilt? I’m not sure, but in any case more guilt is definitely not her focus.) Which is not to say it’s easy to identify and introduce positive stress. People with severe allergies have been known to infect themselves with hookworms. (Which worked by the way.) I’m not sure what the mental health equivalent of that is.

Whatever your feelings on the above. Humans are antifragile. We have survived thousands if not millions of years in environments of extreme stress and trauma, and yet now, it’s clear that less and less objective trauma is producing greater and greater reactions. And at some point we’re going to need to figure out why that is.

I’m taking next week off because I’ll be at Gary Con. But feel free to check out previous posts, for example the post I did on Tribe. And while you’re looking over the vastness of my writing, consider donating.

Twisted Incentives

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Last Tuesday, just after leaving for school, my son called me. Once you have kids driving, getting a call from them while they have one of your cars always creates a significant sense of dread, because there’s a good chance that something bad happened. Particularly these days when if it wasn’t something bad or urgent they would just text. On Tuesday this dread ended up being completely justified, my son had been t-boned on his way to school. Fortunately he was okay. He did say his side was sore from the airbag, and the back of his hand ended up with some abrasions, but luckily the other car hit right behind where he was sitting. If the impact had happened a half a second earlier it would have been much worse. So he was okay. Our 2006 Honda Odyssey, on the other hand, was definitely not. It was clearly totaled.

The accident took place within walking distance of my house, so after I got the call that’s what I did. Though actually, I ran most of the way. And of course, once I got there, the very next question, after determining that he was okay, is determining what happened. He said he was sure the light was green. When I later pressed him on how sure, as a percent, he said 80%. Okay, not 100%, but surely there are witnesses. There was one gentleman who had kindly stopped to check on my son and stuck around while we waited for the cops, but unfortunately he hadn’t seen the accident he had only heard it, and he couldn’t remember what configuration the lights were in. This is not really surprising, it’s interesting how bad memory truly is and particularly how bad we are at any kind of rational thought after something dramatic happens.

In any case, even though it had taken a few minutes for me to get over there, I still felt like we waited at least another five minutes for the cops to show up while we waited in the cold (it was in the low 20’s). When the cop did show up, everyone gathered. There was my son, the two people in the other car and two witnesses. And, unfortunately, the other four all said my son ran the red light. Case closed, right? Well, as far as the cop was concerned, that’s exactly what it was. My son was found to be at fault and given a ticket, and the whole thing goes on my insurance. But there a several things that don’t entirely make sense about the story the other people told.

When asked to describe the state of the lights the passenger in the other car said that it had been green for my son, but it had turned yellow and had been red for a bit when he went through the intersection. That would certainly make sense. It had been green, but my son got distracted and missed the fact that the light had changed. She also said she could see him coming from a long way away and he was going really fast. Okay, now things start to make less sense. If she could see him from a long way away it seems a little bit suspicious that they weren’t able to avoid him, though this was the passenger speaking, maybe the driver didn’t see him. But then, also, if they could see him from a long way away, then that implies that they were stopped at the light. So if that’s the case how did they get going fast enough from the edge to the middle of the intersection to hit my van hard enough to total it? (And knock it quite a distance as well…) Presumably they could have been approaching the intersection when the light turned green and had plenty of speed, but then how would they have seen him from a long way away? The buildings on the corner make it so you can’t see very far down the cross-street until you’re at the intersection.

You’re probably thinking that all of this is interesting but beside the point because there were witnesses, and they said my son ran a red light. Well first it’s important to remember that eyewitnesses are a lot less reliable than people assume. Second both of the witnesses were in the same car, so their opinion is not as independent as you might have first assumed. Finally, and most alarming, the two witnesses invited to the two people in the other car to sit in their car while waiting for the police. Meaning they had quite a bit of time to discuss things. Now, to be clear, I’m not claiming that they colluded (though they could have) it’s far more likely that they were all attempting to reconstruct what happened and that as they did that they were more likely to arrive at a narrative favorable to the other car. This may in fact have been the correct narrative, but the final result is that it’s not the four against one it initially appeared to be.

And this takes us back to the beginning, despite the inconsistencies in their stories there was no way that a cop was going to take the word of a teenage male driver over the word of four adults, so my son got the ticket. Also it’s not like I could cross-examine the other people either. Though maybe I should have tried. My son is still convinced he had the green light and when he discovered that there was a traffic camera at that intersection he figured it would vindicate him. Unfortunately the point of the camera is not to exonerate individuals wronged by the cops, it’s so you can get on the UDOT website and see what the traffic is like. Meaning it’s live feed only, it’s not saved anywhere.

There’s also a bank on that corner and I checked with them to see if they might have any cameras pointed in that direction. They do, but the framing is such that the light isn’t captured. Also they said I had basically zero chance of getting access to the recording. All of this is unfortunate because I really would like to know for sure one way or the other. Worst case scenario it leaves us with the situation that already exists. At best it could mean lots of money saved on my insurance, and a considerable boost in confidence for my son. So it’s annoying that I’ll never know. Though, I should mention the key point of the whole accident, because it ends up being the most annoying thing of all about it, far more annoying than never knowing. I had just replaced the engine on that van last month.

As I have mentioned before in this space it’s difficult to know what to do in a situation where the facts aren’t clear. And when that’s the case, far too often people default to making a decision based on their biases, treating ambiguous evidence as ironclad evidence, or frequently ignoring all the evidence which contradicts their decision. In the situation with my son, I still know there’s a good chance he ran the red light, despite the inconsistencies in the other stories. And in talking to him I think he’s aware there’s a good chance of that as well. My guess is that because of his biases he places that chance lower than he should. (I’d say it’s better than even that he ran the light, but I’m guessing he’d stick with his initial 80% chance that he didn’t.) But as I said this is a fairly common response.

As we finally move away from my son’s accident, I’d like to talk more about that last tendency I mentioned, ignoring contradictory evidence. This tendency is so strong that it often extends to discounting even a preponderance of evidence if it points in a direction which contradicts your biases. We’re seeing that play out as I write this in the case of Jussie Smollett. Though by the time this is actually published my prediction is that it will be clear to all but the most obdurate  that he staged the attack and the threatening letter.

For those that have somehow missed the story. On January 22nd Smollett received a threatening letter with some white powder inside. (The powder was later discovered to be aspirin.) Then early on the morning of January 29th he claimed he was attacked by two white men in ski masks who shouted racist and homophobic slurs and put a noose around his neck. The assault got a huge amount of attention (on the other hand, as of this writing the letter isn’t even mentioned in Smollett’s Wikipedia article) with numerous Democratic presidential nominees tweeting their support, along with lots of celebrities. But there were doubts as well. For one thing it happened at 2 am on one of the coldest nights of the year. For another, it seemed almost cartoonishly over the top. The attackers apparently shouted “This is MAGA Country!”, and they just happened to know that not only was he black, but that he was gay? And they also just happened to have a rope handy?

But of course this was not a story that could be viewed dispassionately, this is a story where you are almost required to believe one thing if you’re on the left, and quite another when you’re on the right. And now, even as it’s becoming nearly impossible to view it as anything other than elaborate hoax people are still registering their support of Smollett. This is unlike the story of my son’s accident, where you views on whether he was at fault probably have very little to do with your political leanings.

None of this is new or particularly original, even if you restrict yourself to just what I’ve written, to say nothing of the gallons of virtual ink that has been spilled elsewhere. And I actually do have a different point I’m working towards, but before I move on I would like to make one final observation about the mess we’re in. There are people who don’t immediately judge events by their political leanings. I hope I’m one of them, though I suspect I’m not as good about it as I could be. People who actually are trying to get at the truth, regardless of whether it fits their biases. But this turns out to be extraordinarily difficult. Look at how long there was uncertainty about the Smollett case and how long it took for the police to admit that the “trajectory of the case” had “shifted”. And the Smollett case is about as easy as it gets. There’s a single incident, involving at most three people, limited in time and space, with lots of video. Now take something like determining what did or didn’t happen as far as Trump and Russia, where there are dozens of players and potentially thousands of incidents. All of which is to say that being objective is a nice ideal, but very hard in practice.

As I said none of this is particularly original and if I were just one more person piling on Smollett I don’t think there would be much point in this post, but I’m interested in a related and slightly deeper issue. Assuming that he did lie about it, which seems pretty safe at this point, why did he lie about it? Why did he hire the two Nigerian brothers? The current theory is that he staged the attack because the hate mail didn’t get enough attention. But why did he want attention? Well there’s a theory that he was about to be written off of Empire, but it’s clear that lots of people want attention for its own sake, so this isn’t very mysterious. But why were other people willing to give incident so much attention? One answer is that this is the way politics works at the moment, but I want to look at it from a different angle. Why was this even an option for him? Why was there an incentive for staging an assault in the first place?

Over the last couple of posts I talked about how when systems have been going long enough eventually people start to figure out how to take advantage of them. That eventually no matter how sensible or ancient the rules are, if the incentive is great enough eventually those rules will be broken. In one post it was people taking advantage of weak spots in the constitution in the following post I talked about corporations taking advantage of modern technology and antitrust statutes, well I think the Smollett case is an example of people taking advantage of the framework of social justice.

And this is one of the reasons why many of the opponents of social justice have a problem with it. They certainly don’t have a problem with the idea of justice, and they’re even on board with “social justice” but they worry that these good ideas, when taken too far, can create a significant incentive for abuse. And when the abuse does happen they worry it will be ignored by social justice advocates, because the advocates don’t want anything to detract from the underlying good idea.

The general point I’m making is that it’s important to recognize what incentives people might have. Obviously I wouldn’t be nearly as suspicious of the story the people in the other car told about my son’s accident if they had no incentive to lie. And the same applies to Smollett, if there was no incentive to fake an attack, then the chances of it being fake go down. But clearly based on all of the attention it’s received there was a huge incentive. And to a certain extent the environment which generates all that attention is to blame. I get the impression that there are some people who think that Smollett got so much attention because his fake assault resembled actual assaults which did happen. If so, I’d be curious which assaults they’re referring to.

I understand that most people do not lie about being insulted, or assaulted, or raped. But if the incentive gets to be large enough some people definitely will. Another obvious example of this is the Rolling Stone article A Rape on Campus, the discredited story of a gang rape on the UVA campus. Yes, most people do not lie about being raped, but Jackie Coakley apparently did, presumably because there was some incentive to do so. There are also the more ambiguous cases. Was Christine Blasey Ford lying or was Brett Kavanaugh? I don’t know, I do know that both of them had a very large incentive to do so.

Now I realize that a big part of this whole discussion is that some people really want to believe that Trump supporters are capable of an attempted lynching in downtown Chicago or that some fraternity brothers are capable of committing a gang rape, or that the Clintons have had a bunch of people murdered, or that everything bad that happens to Trump is because of the “Deep State”. Which is symptomatic of a whole other problem, but for now I don’t want to dissect the incentives I just want people to realize that the incentives are there, and that certain people will act on them, regardless of whether it’s what we expect or whether it’s wrong.

It should go without saying that fewer people will act on incentives if there’s some punishment attached for doing so. This is why stealing is illegal. There are also punishments attached to giving false police reports. Though, apparently, that didn’t dissuade Smollett, and also he may be in the most trouble for the original letter, since that’s a federal crime. And, while it’s well known that stealing is a crime, my guess is that the penalty for lying to the police is less well known. But one assumes and hopes that whatever legal consequences Smollett ends up suffering that it will discourage people from attempting anything similar.

But what happens when there’s nothing illegal about following an incentive, just the disapproval of others? I think such disapproval used to be pretty powerful, particularly when there was a greater emphasis on community, and you’d have to encounter the same people and their disapproval for the rest of your life. Now with selfishness ascendent and the ability to find whole new groups to interact with, groups who may even applaud your choice, I don’t think disapproval is nearly as effective. (But, then again, even something being illegal isn’t entirely effective.) I’d like to close out by examining two examples of this.

First, there’s the behavior of male managers and executives in the #metoo era. From a recent article in Fortune:

A new set of findings from women’s empowerment non-profit LeanIn.Org and online survey platform SurveyMonkey reveal that, since the media reports of sexual harassment first emerged last fall, male managers are three times as likely to say they are uncomfortable mentoring women and twice as uncomfortable working alone with a woman. The hesitation to meet with women outside of work is even more pronounced: Senior men were 3.5 times more likely to hesitate having a work dinner with a junior female colleague than a male one–and five times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior woman.

There are of course a number of follow-up articles berating men for this behavior or assuring them that they have nothing to worry about. But the #metoo movement, whatever it’s accomplishments, however important it might be on net, has created some incentives, and male executives are following those incentives. I’m sure there are some who will read those follow-up articles and continue to mentor or return to mentoring, but some will not because the incentive to not do so is too great. Which is to say being accused of harassment has become so bad that they are incentivized to not do anything which might open them up to the possibility.

My second example is transgender athletes, where I think the incentives are even clearer and what disapproval there is, getting progressively weaker. This was brought to my mind recently by some statements Martina Navratilova made. I guess back in December she said some things about transwomen competing and after getting a lot of pushback, she promised to keep quiet until she had done some research. Just recently, she came back and said, “Well, I’ve now done that and, if anything, my views have strengthened.” Going on to say:

To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.

There’s a whole mess of stuff going on in with this statement, but for the purposes of this post I just want to focus on one thing. Is it conceivable that someone who doesn’t really suffer from gender dysphoria would nevertheless take hormones in order to “win everything in sight…earn a small fortune and then reverse his decision”? Well the only thing stopping them is people calling out the tactic and the instant criticism of Navratilova illustrates how effective that is. So the only thing left is determining whether the incentive exists. Could they win everything in sight? Well that’s a big topic I don’t have time to go into, but a search for transgender athlete wins should be enough to convince you that it’s a definite possibility.

As you might imagine athletics is not the only place where someone might be incentivized to switch genders, and there’s at least one case of a transwoman being put in women’s jail and then committing multiple sexual assaults. Once again, in the absence of anything to prevent it, this person followed their incentives. In the case of the prison it’s clear that this was a bad person, but there are lots of bad people, and some of them are going to do whatever they can get away with, and if we abdicate the responsibility of determining what that is, they’ll end up getting away with quite a lot.

What this all boils down to is that we need focus more on what people are incentivized to do, rather than on what they should do. Particularly given the fact that while progress and technology have only somewhat altered what we should do, they have dramatically altered what we’re incentivized to do.

I think when I do these closing pitches for donations that I’m trying to incentivize you to give me money. I don’t think the incentives I offer are very strong. Though I was just thinking of how it would be nice if the donations could pay for me to subscribe to all the paywalled news sites, since that doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing I would do normally, but maybe it’s the kind of thing a blogger “In search of the truth!” would do. If that seems like a reasonable ask, consider donating.

A New Sort of Monopoly

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Last week I mentioned that certain potential problems could only be solved at the federal level. The example I gave was social media, specifically Facebook, but it’s not just Facebook, traditionally stopping powerful companies in general has been something only the government can do. But before we get to that, in the last post I also briefly mentioned that one, unrealistic, possibility would be for the individuals themselves to cut themselves off from these powerful companies. Well, over the last several weeks Gizmodo reporter, Kashmir Hill, tried to do just that.

Hill decided to live, in turn, without each of the tech giants: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple, and on the final week she attempted to live without all of them. And as I pointed out, it ends up being pretty difficult, if not impossible. In fact that’s the title of of the article she wrote about her week without Amazon. I Tried to Block Amazon From My Life. It Was Impossible. So I guess we’ll start there. The Amazon week was particularly interesting because when most people think of Amazon they think, “I could easily go for a week without buying something on Amazon.” But that’s not the hard part of the exercise it’s going for a week without using AWS.

For those who don’t know, AWS stands for Amazon Web Services, it’s the Amazon cloud offering and it’s used by a huge chunk of the internet. (I use it for my business.) She didn’t include many statistics, though her subjective impression was summed up in the title of her article: It was impossible.

When I say a huge chunk, I think the best measure is that as far as cloud services AWS is 42% by revenue, which seems high, but not ridiculous. However when you’re used to 100% of the internet being available 100% of the time, 42% is huge, as people found out when it went down twice in 2017. And as the author found out when she tried to cut it out of her life.

But the title of this post and our eventual destination is a discussion of monopolies and 42% doesn’t sound like much of a monopoly. Maybe not, but one of the first points I want to make is that unlike some of the more traditional monopolies, the current tech monopoly is harder to see. You might notice that all of the oil refineries in your state are run by Standard Oil and sue them as Ohio did in 1892. Or that every single computer in the office is Widows, leading to that Microsoft antitrust action of 2001 but I think far fewer people understand how deeply embedded Amazon is in their life, even if they ignore the actual store. (Also it should be noted that AWS is where most of Amazon’s profit comes from.)

As an illustration of this mismatch in perceptions consider Facebook. If you were going to pick the company from her list which has been subjected to the most criticism recently, that’s who you would choose. And yet when it came time to cut Facebook out of her life it was relatively straightforward, nothing close to as “impossible” as cutting out Amazon. And, insofar as our level of concern should correlate with the difficulty of cutting something out of our life the animosity directed at Facebook might be misplaced.

Obviously Facebook engages in a lot of shady practices like data collection and distorting what people see in their feed. But if you think Amazon and Google aren’t collecting data you may be in for a rude shock. As a matter of fact Google collects more data than Facebook. And as far as distorting information have you ever done a search for “American Scientists” on Google? If you get a chance to do that, look at the images which are displayed along the top. The Google list of American scientists exercises, what I can only describe as, a significant amount of affirmative action. Of the first 10, eight are African American. (Einstein and Fermi are the other two). Compare this to Bing and it’s reversed, of the top 10, two are African American.

This might be a small thing. But I think it shows a clear ideological bias (one you might agree with, but a bias nonetheless) and given that Google has 93% of all search traffic, even small things can add up. And as long as we’re on the subject of what percentage Google controls of certain markets. Hill’s experience with cutting out Google was described as “screwing up everything” because 88% of all mapping applications (including Lyft and Uber) use Google.

In other words despite my sense that Google is less reviled than Facebook (I guess it could be the same, but I doubt it’s more). They’re far more deserving of it. They collect more data, they’re more ideologically biased and they’re more of a monopoly. But, because most of what they do is behind the scenes (similar to Amazon), people don’t notice how ubiquitous they are. Another example of a potential, yet subtle danger. Another example of how monopolies could exist but in a different form than we’re used to.

Okay, so a Gizmodo reporter tried to live without the tech giants and it was super annoying and the tech giants themselves do lots of suspect things on top of that annoyance. And yes they control vast swaths of the internet and by extension our lives, but that’s why they’re tech giants. Does this mean that something needs to be done? If so what?

I’ve already mentioned the word monopoly a few times, and we’ve now arrived at the point where we need to discuss what a monopoly is and why it’s bad. We have not reached the point where we label any of the aforementioned technology companies as monopolies, but we will.

Historically the most famous monopoly, which I already mentioned, was Standard Oil. But more recently, there was antitrust action against Archer Daniels Midland for conspiring to fix the price of Lysine and citric acid. In both cases the worry was that in the near absence of competition they could raise prices, rake in profits and harm the consumer, who would end up paying much higher prices than they would have otherwise. And currently high prices are considered to be the best standard for determining whether something is a monopoly or engaged in antitrust behavior, but Facebook is free, and so are most of the offerings from Google. Amazon charges money, but it’s certainly hasn’t used it’s position to raise prices. Accordingly, many would argue, they’re not monopolies. But it sure seems like they might be headed in that direction. Is it possible that by targeting prices have we mistaken the symptom for the disease? Or that this is too simple a way to look at things?

If the disease is harming customers, then it seems like there are probably many ways that can happen beyond just high prices. At a high level, economic theory holds that capitalism is good because competition works in something of an evolutionary fashion, with new innovative companies replacing old uncompetitive companies, what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”, going on to describe it as “the essential fact about capitalism.” Lack of innovation is another sign of customer harm, but that was covered by price as well. Since price is a signal of innovation, lower prices are a also good indicator that a company is innovative, while higher prices are a good sign that the company is not innovative or colluding to stop innovation. But once again price is just a proxy for what we’re really worried about, innovation, something which is not only good for customers, but good in and of itself.

Still even once we toss innovation in, it’s not clear that the tech giants are monopolies, since most of them got where they are through being innovative, and have largely continued to innovate. In the last post I talked about the life cycle of a democracy, well businesses also have a lifecycle and all of the tech giants are still in the early stages of theirs. Meaning that I would expect them to continue to be innovative for awhile. And once again this would lead many people to the conclusion that they are not monopolies. But is it possible both of these standards are overly simplistic? Is it possible that the tech giants represent new kinds of monopolies? When you read about the experiences of Hill do you come away thinking something unusual and alarming is going on? If so you’re not the only one.

Not that long ago, Lina Khan, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, published a paper, titled, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, where she discusses whether Amazon should be examined more closely by antitrust regulators. As you might have guessed the answer is “Yes,” but the route by which she arrived at that answer is the interesting part.

To begin with I didn’t realize that current antitrust doctrine views low consumer prices sufficient, by themselves, to deflect any antitrust accusations. And that this standard is a by product of the influence of the Chicago School of Economics, under whose influence a switch was made in the late 70s early 80s, at least according to Khan. Though when she discusses the individuals, their motivations and actions at the time it sounds believable to me. Specifically, the individuals in question, which included Robert Bork of Supreme Court nomination fame, argued against the idea of predatory pricing. The theory that large companies could use low prices to drive their competition out of business and then achieve a monopoly in the absence that competition. According to Khan:

Ward Bowman, an economist at Yale Law School, argued that the premise of predatory pricing laws was wrong. He wrote, “The Robinson-Patman Act [the prime example of such a law] rests upon a presumption that price discrimination can or might be used as a monopolizing technique. This, as more recent economic literature confirms, is at best a highly dubious presumption.

[Bork] described predatory pricing generally as “a phenomenon that probably does not exist” and the Robinson-Patman Act as “the misshapen progeny of intolerable draftsmanship coupled to wholly mistaken economic theory.”

As the writings of Bowman and Bork suggest, the Chicago School critique of predatory pricing doctrine rests on the idea that below-cost pricing is irrational and hence rarely occurs. For one, the critics argue, there was no guarantee that reducing prices below cost would either drive a competitor out or otherwise induce the rival to stop competing. Second, even if a competitor were to drop out, the predator would need to sustain monopoly pricing for long enough to recoup the initial losses and successfully thwart entry by potential competitors, who would be lured by the monopoly pricing. The uncertainty of its success, coupled with its guarantee of costs, made predatory pricing an unappealing—and therefore highly unlikely—strategy.

As with so many things we discuss in this space, the Chicago School critique was written before the internet changed everything. And it may not have been true even before then. The question of whether Standard Oil engaged in predatory pricing is still hotly debated. But that aside, how did the internet change the theory and practice of predatory pricing?

We’ll talk all about changes actually related to technology, but in the end it always comes down to dollars and cents. And here the key change is that investors in Amazon apparently don’t care about profit. There are lots of examples of this, including Amazon’s stock price going up after reporting a quarterly loss, and the tiny profits Amazon posts even when it is profitable, but I think one commenter put it best. “Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers.” At its core this is how Amazon can engage in, what was previously considered, irrational predatory pricing. They can afford to. But saying this is a little like an autopsy declaring that a person died from blunt force trauma. That may be so, but the difference between dying from slipping in the bathroom, and being beaten to death by a bat in a back alley is huge. Which is to say, why are investors willing to ignore profitability? Are they stupid or murderous?

In essence what the investors are doing is valuing growth over profitability. There could be a couple of reasons for this, they could be stupid, because five years from now some competitor will come along and Amazon will go the way of Sears or Myspace. Or more likely, they could be counting on Amazon to continue growing and get more and more profitable. Given that Amazon’s price to earnings ratio currently sits around 80 and that as recently as 2015 it was at 741 they appear to think that despite controlling nearly 50% of online retailing, that Amazon still has a lot of growing to do, and that something about that growth will make it largely immune from significant competition. In other words, the numbers indicate that investors are already pricing it as monopoly.

There are at least three reasons for this (and probably more).

First the marginal cost of online retailing is vastly lower than traditional retailing. And also benefits much more from an economy of scale. While not a perfect example imagine the differences in opening a store in a new area. Say that, hypothetically, Utah had a great firewall similar to China and they didn’t allow Amazon in. And then one day they change their mind. This would be a relatively trivial adjustment for Amazon, particularly if all of their shipping companies were already operating in Utah. Now imagine that Walmart had been banned in Utah and that ban had suddenly been lifted. It would take many years for Walmarts to be as common in Utah as they are everywhere else. This same thing applies to individual products, particularly digital ones. Now you might imagine that this would make it easy to compete with Amazon, but that’s not the case which takes us to our second reason.

Amazon like most of the tech giants enjoys a powerful network effect. It may be less obvious than the network effect enjoyed by Facebook, but it’s nevertheless a huge factor. If you’re going to sell something you need buyers, and if you’re going to buy something you need sellers. By creating a platform to connect the two Amazon has a gigantic advantage over someone starting from scratch, even if if the tech is easy, the marketing is fantastically difficult. I understand that if there’s only one seller network effects are not quite so great, but over 50% of items sold on Amazon are from third party sellers. There’s also the vast fulfillment network they’ve created. When Hill was attempting to cut Amazon out of her life she ended up buying something from EBay, only to discover when it arrived, a “Fulfillment by Amazon” sticker.

Finally there’s the customer data, that holy grail of the tech economy, and Amazon has a ton of it. (Though again, probably not as much as Google.) This data gives them an edge against any possible competition that is almost impossible to duplicate. Certainly no startup could duplicate it. Also as an aside it increases the potential risk, not only do customers have to worry about worse quality or higher prices, they have to worry about Amazon protecting their privacy as well. And remember this is all run by someone who’s had trouble keeping pictures of his privates, private.

When all of this is combined, it paints a troubling picture. To quote from Khan again:

For the purpose of competition policy, one of the most relevant factors of online platform markets is that they are winner-take-all. This is due largely to network effects and control over data, both of which mean that early advantages become self-reinforcing. The result is that technology platform markets will yield to dominance by a small number of firms. Walmart’s recent purchase of the one start-up that had sought to challenge Amazon in online retail——illustrates this reality.

The key phrase there is “winner-take-all”. If network effects and control over data self-reinforce, then there doesn’t appear to be any way for real competition to arise. Certainly the Amazon investors seem to be of that opinion, and I see no reason to disagree with them.

There is one objection I should address before we move on. However unassailable Amazon is by other online retailers, there are other tech giants. The competition between Microsoft and Apple is the stuff of legends and is still ongoing, Amazon and Google might not seem like competitors but if you’re looking to buy something, both of them really want you to come to them first. And the list goes on. Perhaps this is all the evidence necessary to dismiss any monopolistic concerns, but it doesn’t seem like it to me. Also as the Archer Daniels Midlands case showed, it’s a lot easier to collude when there’s only a few big players. And lest you think that the tech giants wouldn’t do that, they already did. They colluded to cap the salaries of tech workers. In the end it spread to such an extent that it affected over a million employees. Something to keep in mind.

You may still be unconvinced that Amazon and the rest are monopolies or well on their way to becoming such, but for the moment let’s assume that they are. Why is this bad? There is of course the danger of higher prices, or less innovation, which are non-trivial. But I’m less worried about the lack of tech innovation then I am about idea innovation. Specifically the marketplace of ideas envisioned as the primary reason for free speech. And here while there are some crimes to Amazon’s name, what’s most interesting/alarming is the recent trend of denying payment processing to people on the far right. (That was a Breitbart link, if you prefer here’s a Daily Beast link.) Finally beyond issues of censorship there is the general fragility of having a single point of failure, as people affected by the AWS internet outages and more especially people involved in data breaches have discovered.

Khan offers several solutions, but the one I find the most interesting is to treat the tech companies as similar to utilities and place them under common carrier obligations. And let’s be clear interesting does not mean good or preferable, it just means interesting. In particular I think it would be an interesting answer to all of those people who claim that only the government can restrict free speech and that private individuals and corporations should be able to do whatever they want. That becomes less true if the company is being treated as a utility. But I don’t have the space to go into that again, nor to examine the utility idea in more depth either.

To be clear I am mostly interested in how technology has changed the ways in which a company might discourage competition. And to be clear that’s exactly what every company wants. Companies are not pro-free market. Which is something I probably should have made a point of explaining earlier. I’m also interested in the ways in which technology makes being a monopoly easier, but also less obvious as Hill, the Gizmodo reporter discovered. As far as what should be done about it, here, as I mentioned, there are also interesting ideas, but I’m far less certain about what, if anything should be done. It is however one more piece of evidence for increasing complexity, and it remains an open question whether our institutions can keep up.

I’m hoping to build a monopoly in blog posts related to techno-pessimism with a large heaping of politics, religion, and Fermi’s Paradox. If you’d like to help with that consider donating. At least as long as my payment processing isn’t cut off.

Democracy on the Downhill

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There are a lot of reasons to write, but one of the biggest one’s for me, above even persuading others (assuming that actually happens) is the way in which it refines my thinking. The work of translating an idea from my head to being written in such a way that other people have some chance of understanding it clarifies it in a way that nothing else can. I experienced this phenomenon in my last post, when I finally articulated the difference between what I’m trying to do and the exhortations of your standard “prepper”. Though, as you may recall, I’m not opposed to that sort of preparation, but my focus is different. I’m focused on the more subtle dangers facing us. Dangers which are harder to see and thus more difficult to avoid.

As I pointed out in that last post some of these dangers are subtle because they come cloaked not as a danger, but as something beneficial. I gave the example of healthcare, which seems entirely unobjectionable but may be crowding out other spending with more long term benefits. In the most extreme case, you may remember a post from not that long ago where I talked about the Galactic Stomach Ache explanation of Fermi’s Paradox which hypothesizes that the reason the universe is silent is that inevitably life extension spending crowds out spending on everything else. And, as I mentioned in my last episode it may currently  be running as high as 100 to 1.

Healthcare spending is of course not the only subtle potential danger we face, there are obviously dozens if not hundreds of them, perhaps thousands if we’re especially liberal with what level of probability counts as “potential”. What are we to do about all of them? It would seem obvious that the first step is to identify them, which I’ve already spent a lot of time doing. But in this post I’d like to focus more on what to do about them once they’ve been identified.

I’ve already talked about preppers and that is of course a very good way of dealing with a certain class of potential dangers. And, to reiterate, I recommend it. But there are other classes of potential dangers where having a multiyear supply of food is not going to help you very much. Let’s take the potential danger of social media. And remember I’m saying potential danger, I think the jury’s still out. But if it does end up being dangerous, having a stockpile of food and ammo, or even a large stockpile of wealth is not going to help very much if your kids are being irreparably harmed by, say, Facebook. Okay, then what would help?

Certainly one option is to withdraw from society completely. Homeschool your kids. Stay completely off the internet. Live like the Amish (or join the Amish, do they accept converts?) But let’s be honest, this isn’t an option for most people. Perhaps it should be, perhaps people just need to be stronger. But it isn’t and they aren’t.

Yet another option is for the companies to police themselves. I know there are a lot of libertarians who not only think that this is the way that it should work, but that it’s the way it will work, after there’s enough outcry from the customers. But there are several problems with this option. One, as was so eloquently pointed out, we are not Facebook’s customers we are Facebook’s product, the advertisers are its customers, and there’s every reason in the world to expect that they like all of the questionable things Facebook does, since Facebook is almost certainly doing it for them.

Two, even if we are Facebook’s customers, they are interested in keeping us happy and healthy only insofar as that makes us more likely to give them money or in the case of social media, attention. If they can get more money or attention by making us less happy and healthy that’s what they’ll do. Witness the tobacco companies. And of course there’s evidence that social media is making us less happy, and that the more you use it the worse you feel.

Finally, even if Facebook and other social media companies were willing to police themselves. If this policing makes them less profitable, which seems like a reasonable assumption, then some other company will come along which foregoes this policing and subsequently out competes them. (This may have already happened. Have you gotten a notice in your email recently informing you that Google+ is shutting down? Or maybe you’ve heard of MySpace?) On the flip side of that, if the current market leaders refuse to police themselves it’s unlikely that more circumspect companies will be able to challenge that dominance. This is not to say there’s not a niche for such companies. DuckDuckGo will certainly survive as a company, but they’re never going to pass Google in search volume.

If withdrawing entirely from society and self-policing are unrealistic then what’s left? As much as it pains me to say this, I think all that’s left is the government. I’m very much in favor of the principle of subsidiarity (i.e. issues should be dealt with at the lowest level possible) but part of the problem with technology is that it increasingly creates problems which can only be dealt with at the very highest levels. Which would be bad enough, but technology also create problems difficult even for experts to understand to say nothing of the average voter.

All of this leads me to the true topic of this post: democracy. In the broadest sense democracy is our tool for solving potential problems like social media, and I worry it’s not up to the challenge. This is the point where someone will chime in with the observation that the US isn’t a true democracy, it’s a republic. And insofar as I am making a recommendation in this space (and I’m mostly not) it would be a recommendation to make things more republican (in the system of government sense not the political party sense) and less democratic (ditto), but I’m afraid that even this small adjustment is unlikely to have any traction. In fact I’m worried that America is “over the hill” and that the only question is: how quickly are we picking up speed? Allow me to elaborate:

There’s a famous quote about democracy from Winston Churchill:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

This is all true, democracy is a bad form of government, it’s just that unless Christ returns to personally reign, or until we invent the AI equivalent of that. It’s the best form of government we’ve got in this world of “sin and woe”. As it turns out Churchill was not the only person to recognize that, the founders did as well, and they adopted various strategies to deal with the problems of democracy. There are checks and balances, separation of powers, enumerated rights, etc.

I would argue that all of these strategies have worked pretty well, but as I already alluded to perhaps the greatest weakness of democracy is that it is only as good as its citizens/voters. In particular it depends on the knowledge of those voters. This is one of the reasons why we have the aforementioned republic as opposed to a true democracy. The voters only need to educate themselves about the candidate, not about every individual issue. But what happens when the system of voter education breaks? Or changes drastically? Arguably at least one of those happened in the last presidential election and possibly both. The results, according to many people, were disastrous.

I’m not sure I’d go that far. Trump is a joke of a president, but that will end at some point. I still have faith that an election is going to take place next year. And yes, he’s a joke, but I’m a little unclear on what he’s done that’s so cataclysmic. I suppose, particularly if you’re a deficit hawk, which I am, that his tax cuts could qualify, but as someone who’s self-employed and pays what seems like (excuse my language) a shit-ton in taxes it’s hard for me to get too worked up about that. Mostly it seems like Trump hasn’t done much of any lasting consequence other than placing two justices on the Supreme Court. Which brings me to the next point.

As I mentioned the founders were well aware of the various weaknesses of democracy, and the constitution contains systems for mitigating these weaknesses, but it was written 230 years ago, and it’s starting to show its age. And by that I am talking less about the document as written, and more about the ways people have figured out how to route around it. No matter how gifted the founders were, any system is going to have weak points that only become apparent over time as the ebb and flow of politics pushes against the limits of what’s allowed. Returning to Trump’s Supreme Court picks, In our day it’s become apparent that deciding what the constitution means is the most important role in government. This is why the Kavanaugh fight was so contentious. It’s why Justice Ginsburg’s health is constantly in the news. This is why a lot of people voted for Trump who otherwise wouldn’t have. Whatever his failings his Supreme Court nominees would be miles ahead of Clinton’s, for those people at least. There are obviously people who feel the exact opposite.

One would think it would have been obvious that under a constitutional system that the people deciding what that constitution meant would end up wielding considerable influence, but it wasn’t until 15 years after ratification that Marbury v. Madison came along and enshrined judicial review. Also I think it’s clear that the latitude exercised in constitutional interpretation over the last half century has been significantly greater than what was exercised previous to that point. Accordingly it’s not entirely surprising that in Federalist 78 Hamilton described the Judicial Branch as the “least dangerous” branch because it has “no influence over either the sword or the purse” and must ultimately depend on the Executive Branch to make its judgements effective.

I’m not sure what Hamilton imagined would happen if the Executive Branch started ignoring the Supreme Court, but I pretty sure if it happened today that the shit would hit the fan. (I guess it’s like they say, once you start swearing it’s difficult to stop.) Depending on who wins in 2020 we may get a chance to find out.

As I said, it may be that American democracy, such as it is, is beginning to show its age. Norms that have existed for a long time are being eroded. Weak spots in the system are being exploited, and it feels like we’re headed for a crisis. Something very similar occurred near the end of the Roman Republic. And it might be instructive, or perhaps just sobering, to look at that example.

Over the holidays I read The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan, the podcaster best known for his History of Rome series. It was a great book about a fascinating time in history, with, as Duncan points out, some possible lessons for our own time. One of those lessons concerned the gradual erosion of the Roman “constitution”, as people repeatedly did things that weren’t technically illegal, but broke with tradition.

What truly bound all Romans together, though, were unspoken rules of social and political conduct. The Romans never had a written constitution or extensive body of written law—they needed neither. Instead the Romans surrounded themselves with unwritten rules, traditions, and mutual expectations collectively known as mos maiorum, which meant “the way of the elders.” Even as political rivals competed for wealth and power, their shared respect for the strength of the client-patron relationship, the sovereignty of the Assemblies, and the wisdom of the Senate kept them from going too far. When the Republic began to break down in the late second century it was not the letter of the Roman law that eroded, but respect for the mutually accepted bonds of mos maiorum.

He goes on to give examples of individuals doing things which were technically legal but in violation of mos maiorum. Things like applying a permanent veto on legislation, serving more than one term as Consul or Tribune of the Plebs, not allowing things to come to a vote, etc. Now hopefully we’ve learned some things since then, like actually writing our constitution down, but given the debate over the second amendment, and the push to interpret the Constitution as a living document, I’m not sure how much it matters. Also the UK has an unwritten constitution and I don’t think they’re significantly worse off than we are on this point.

In any event it’s easy to see current examples of long standing conventions which are being ignored, and with increasing frequency. Examples in our own day include Merrick Garland and DACA, Obama’s executive action for Dreamers. But of course what counts as an example for you will probably entirely depend on your ideology. And it’s possible, even likely, that one side is more guilty of this than the other, but if the Roman example is any guide once one side violates an established norm the other side will quickly follow. I am convinced that if the situation had been reversed that Democrats would have also refused to vote on the Republican version of Garland. And, even if I’m wrong about that, now that it has happened I’m 100% certain they’ll do it in the future.

In addition to exploiting constitutional gaps, and the slow erosion of convention there is another weakness of an aging democracy which is becoming more and more apparent recently. This is one of those subtle dangers I warned about. This particular danger is not subtle because it’s hard to understand, but because it seems like a good thing. I’m talking about compromise.

As an example let’s turn to a recent blog post by a friend of mine. I mentioned this friend in a previous post and at the time he was running for office in British Columbia. He did not win, and, I assume in partial consequence of that, recently announced that he was done with compromising. I’ll let him explain:

In 2001, I decided to give progressive politics a try and for the next seventeen years, I subscribed to a utilitarian political project. By that, I mean that I stood behind organizations, electoral and non-electoral, that made sense in what is called the “hedonic calculus.” Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the authors of a particular theory of liberalism, argued that our choices should be based on choosing the course of action that causes the least harm and the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. So, I joined the NDP and worked to elect candidates who had a shot at winning with the policies that did the least harm and the most good.


But in 2018, this stopped working for me: the hedonic calculus of progressive politics failed. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I had rejected this calculus, I articulated its inherent problem: progressive politics articulates that which we can reasonably expect to be done, not what needs to be done. Every day that passes, the gap between these things widens. Now, in the second-biggest extinction event of the last four billion years, with human beings having killed half the life on the planet in my lifetime alone, what we can reasonably expect to be done is to kill the planet ten to fifteen years later than our current trajectory will kill it. It is little more than making sure that we pay ourselves $15/hour for murdering all creation rather than $11/hour.

To be clear he doesn’t use the word compromise, that’s my word, but I think it fits. Democracy is all about compromise. All about, as he says, “that which we can reasonably expect to be done, not what needs to be done.” He gives an environmental example, and part of the reason I used this example is that, for those of you who think I’m too conservative, it’s an example from an exceptionally liberal perspective, but which nevertheless illustrates the potential problem of compromise: If something absolutely needs to be done, then compromise forever allows a minority to keep it from getting done. Beyond his example of environmental apocalypse, the right (or at least those worried about the debt) have their own example. It’s clear that continual compromise may have slowed the growth of the debt, but if, in reality, it needs to eventually be paid off, or at least kept below the rate of inflation, that will never happen as long as the sides are compromising. The same applies if you have the opposite view and believe debts don’t matter, we’re never going to go in that direction either if we continue to compromise.

Two posts ago I talked about the metaphor of the transit system, where it doesn’t matter what train you get on when you’re in the main metropolitan area because they all follow the same route and all hit the same stops, but once you leave the central area one route heads north and another heads south. Compromise can be viewed as keeping the trains on the same route for as long as possible but the longer you go the harder it becomes. And as I’ve been pointing out our system has been traveling for quite a while, and it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the routes together. I don’t think it’s impossible, and there are lots of benefits to staying on the same route, but what if we really need to go north? What if any other route other than north “kills the planet” as my friend is claiming. If so then going east is somewhat better than going south, but eventually we still won’t get to where we need to go.

Back in October I told the story of Air France Flight 447 which had essentially the same moral. The plane was stalling and needed to dive to pick up speed, one pilot realized this, but the other pilot thought it needed to climb. The plane was designed to average out the two inputs, and as a result of this compromise the plane crashed into the ocean killing everyone aboard.

Earlier I compared what’s happening in our own very old republic to what happened at the end of the Roman Republic, but there is at least one crucial difference, and it’s one I keep coming back to, technology. And it’s this that makes my friend’s example so interesting. The danger he warns about is something that can only happen at a certain level of technology. The Romans didn’t have to worry about global warming, and while they did have monetary issues they were both more localized and more straightforward. It should go without saying that the worldwide 2008 crisis is unimaginable in ancient Rome. Primarily what the Romans worried about were other Romans, or hostile nations on their border, and in those cases compromise was nearly always a good thing. They could also, and frequently did, go to war.

Turning to our day things are completely different, but only recently so. We have the power to radically change all manner of things for good or for ill. If my friend is right (you can read my own views on global warming here) we have the power to kill the planet, and accordingly compromise, if it allows catastrophe to proceed, just more slowly, is no longer always or even mostly a good thing. And war, that other tactic beloved by the Romans, is now also unthinkable, at least between two countries with nuclear weapons.

Tying all of this together we have an increasing number of subtle dangers which can only be dealt with by government at the highest level, but the government we have is suffering from various weaknesses, some obvious, some due to the gradual erosion of convention and tradition. And even if we could overcome all that and compromise, this may do no more than slow down the apocalypse, and actually work against preventing it. Finally even if we thought war was a good idea (and it might be) that’s not an option either.

The world is in need of some serious repairs and all of the tools we would normally use to fix it are either old and worn down, ineffective, or might actually make the problem worse.

Ancient Rome is a very interesting place, but make no mistake I wouldn’t want to live there. For one thing there was no way to ask for donations to niche but otherwise brilliant blogs.