Tag: <span>Trump</span>

Infrastructure, Trump and the Hoover Dam

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In 1912, over the course of 11 months, the Anderson Memorial Bridge was built over the Charles River in Boston, connecting Boston with Harvard Square. 100 years later, in 2012, the government decided to repair the bridge. Those repairs have so far taken four and a half years and cost $26.5 million at last count, and that is not a final tally, they are still working on the bridge. In other words, repairing this 232 foot long bridge has taken at least five times as long as building it in the first place, and while I couldn’t find the original cost, I’m confident it’s also costing more as well (even if you adjust for inflation). This is not an isolated example. You don’t even have to leave the city of Boston to encounter another legendary example of cost and time overruns, the Big Dig, which took twice as long and was three times as expensive as originally planned. Is Boston just bad at infrastructure, or is this a problem the entire nation is grappling with? There’s certainly reason to to believe that it’s a nationwide problem, not just something unique to New England. On top of that there’s evidence that our infrastructure costs much more than similar infrastructure in similar countries.

But I’m jumping ahead, there is actually another question we should be asking first. You may be wondering what that question is. But more likely you’re wondering why we’re talking about infrastructure at all. Well, sometimes we have to put on our big boy pants and talk about stuff that, while mundane, is actually super important. We can’t spend every blog post talking about cool stuff like nuclear apocalypse, or artificial intelligence. Sometimes we have to look at the boring stuff. Though I’ll do what I can to make it less boring.

But back to the questions. Before we ask whether we’re any good at building infrastructure these days, we should be asking how bad our current infrastructure is. If our current infrastructure is fine, and we don’t need to build much in the way of new infrastructure, and the need for repair is infrequent, then it may not matter how good we are at building and repairing infrastructure. But of course this is a trick question. All right thinking people believe that our infrastructure is horrible and we should spend lots of money on it. In fact, despite not agreeing on nearly anything else, both Trump and Clinton (not to mention Sanders and Rubio) had plans to rehabilitate the American infrastructure. Of course Trump won, so whatever infrastructure improvements that actually happen will be carried out along the Trump model, which has some interesting quirks, but before we get into that, it might be useful to look at how bad the infrastructure really is.

One of the most commonly cited measurements for the quality of our infrastructure is the Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. For some reason the last report is for 2013, but in it the US got a D+. This sounds pretty bad, though to be fair that’s up from the last report which gave the US a D. There’s also the question of what that D+ really means, if it gets down to an F does the country’s infrastructure spontaneously collapse into rubble and dust? I hope not.

The story of how the infrastructure got to this point is one of those fascinating tales where a lot of factors ended up working in combination. I can’t possible cover all the factors, but there are a few that I find particularly interesting.

To begin with, general infrastructure, and in particular infrastructure maintenance, is one of those things that lends itself to being put off. If you’re looking to cut your budget as a municipality or a state then infrastructure maintenance is an easy place to cut. For one, there’s very little immediate impact. As I joked about above there’s not some point where roads start spontaneously disintegrating, though presumably if you go long enough you might have a bridge which spontaneously collapses. (Though thankfully that’s pretty rare.)

It’s not hard to imagine how constantly putting off or lowering the priority of maintenance could lead to poor infrastructure, but it’s also useful to place it into the larger category of things which increase fragility. Fragility being a major interest of this blog. As I have already pointed out in previous posts, fragility comes from taking small, limited profits. In this case the savings you realize from forgoing annual maintenance. The problem is that forgoing or shortchanging annual maintenance, creates the risk that you’re going to end up with a large unbounded loss. In this case a bridge collapse. Further complicating things, maintenance does not have a large built in political base pushing for more spending. Of course that all changes when something catastrophic actually happens. At that point there will be a huge outcry, but it will be too late. The damage has already been done, and most of the people responsible for shortchanging maintenance will have already retired.

Another thing to consider is the fact that most infrastructure is hidden. When you say the word infrastructure, most people think of roads, but that’s only one of the 16 categories the American Society of Civil Engineers tracks. The other 15 categories consist of areas like ports, levees and dams which the average person has very little opportunity to stress test on a day to day basis, unlike roads. One category which is a particularly good example of this is water. We all expect water to come out when we turn the tap, but some water mains are over 100 years old, and I’m sure we all know someone who has a story of a water main breaking at the worst possible time, for example on Thanksgiving. (I know someone who claims this has happened to him twice.) But even in a situation like that, most people are too busy cursing to think about governmental underinvestment in infrastructure.

It takes something like the crisis in Flint Michigan to make people realize how bad the problem is. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of Flint, but to briefly review, Flint switched its water supply, and in the process failed to realize the need to add corrosion inhibitors to the new supply. Without that lead leached into the water leading to the exposure of thousands of people (at least 6000 of them children) to extremely elevated levels of lead. It may have also lead to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease which killed 10 people. In other words it was bad, and there’s plenty of blame to go around, but for our purposes I want to draw attention to the role played in the disaster by 100 year old lead pipes. No lead pipes, no lead exposure. Flint had 100 years to fix this problem and they didn’t. But of course this is a problem that no one fixes. It is not unique to Flint. In fact there are vast numbers of 100 year old lead water mains spread out all over the country.

Of course it’s not just water mains that are old, lots of our infrastructure is showing it’s age. The real infrastructure boom in the US was after World War II, which means that many of the bridges and roads and schools and power lines were built 50-60 years ago. Of course just because something was built 50-60 years ago doesn’t mean anything by itself. To take an extreme example the Pyramids were built 4500 years ago and they’re still standing. But this is where we come across one of the more fascinating stories in this whole saga. The story of reinforced concrete. It’s an interesting sidenote to the entire infrastructure crisis. And if you’ll forgive me this slight diversion, I think it’s worth delving into.

Concrete, by itself, holds up pretty well, the Roman Pantheon is made out of concrete and it’s still around after 1,900 years, so why should we be having problems with our current reinforced concrete after only 50 or 60? Well, perhaps ironically, it’s the reinforcement that’s the problem. Reinforced concrete is reinforced by steel. Steel is mostly iron. Iron rusts. Thus you have a situation where buried in every reinforced concrete structure is a slowly ticking time bomb. And it can blow up in a couple of different ways. It’s easy to see how a structure designed around new steel will bear less weight once some of that steel has been eaten away by rust. But the rust also causes the reinforcement to expand (by up to four times) which breaks away concrete, weakening the structure and letting in more water. Yet another hidden weakness in our infrastructure, and one that’s particularly hard to repair.

You may be getting a pretty good sense of why the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a D+ on infrastructure, but beyond saying things are bad it’s hard to know what to do with a D+ grade, obviously it’s subjective to a certain extent. Fortunately in addition to the letter grade they provided a dollar figure which is hopefully more concrete (get it? Concrete… Infrastructure?). The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the estimate that $3.6 trillion needs to be spent before 2020. To give you a sense of scale the entire federal budget for 2015 was $3.8 trillion. So if we could just have one year where we suspend all Social Security payments, temporarily lay-off the entire military, avoid paying interest on any bonds and route all that money to infrastructure we’ll be okay. But if we don’t? Again this is the part that I’m unclear on, but maybe running some numbers will clear things up.

I mentioned the federal budget, but, of course, much if not most of infrastructure spending takes place at the state and local level. If we add in their budgets we get a figure of somewhere in the $6.6 trillion dollar range for annual spending. So it’s not quite as bad, but if we take the $3.6 trillion recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013 and divide it up over seven years (2014-2020) we get just slightly more than $500 billion per year. This is about 8% of all government spending for a given year, or to put it in different terms it’s about what the Federal Government spends on the military every year. So it’s a lot of money.

The next step in the analysis would be to look at what we actually are spending. If we need to be spending $500, how big is the shortfall? As best I can tell we’re spending somewhat north of $400 billion once state and local spending are included. Which means we’re missing the American Society of Civil Engineers target by about $100 billion per year.

Hmm… I started this section by wondering if running some numbers would clear things up, and I’m not sure that they have. I can see several different arguments. One might argue that a 20% shortfall is not that big of a deal, and our infrastructure is probably mostly fine. It should be mentioned, since I haven’t already that the American Society of Civil Engineers is not necessarily a neutral third party. They definitely have a stake infrastructure spending. In other words it’s not inconceivable that the $3.6 trillion I started with is inflated.

On the other hand I can see making an argument that the $400 billion we are spending puts out all the short term fires and buys enough infrastructure to keep things from completely collapsing, but it’s the extra $100 billion which would help you get out in front of things. An example of this argument might be the LA freeway system, which by all accounts is constantly under construction and constantly expanding, but you never hear someone say that after this last bit of construction that everything moves smoothly. It’s a constant traffic jam and all the new construction ends up being just enough to keep the entire system from collapsing into a parking lot.

At this point I’ve spent so long talking about how bad the infrastructure is that you’ve probably forgotten the original question: Are we any good at it? But if we accept that the US infrastructure is in bad shape, then the next, obvious question is what should be done about it, and if the answer is, as Trump, and all right thinking people agree, throw a lot of money at it, it’s useful to ask how effective that will be. Interestingly Obama was in a similar position when he was elected in 2008. Before he even entered office he had proposed an $800 billion stimulus package targeted at “shovel ready” projects. In other words, when Trump proposes a big round of infrastructure spending, it’s important to remember that we’ve already been in this position and it might be instructive to look at how it turned out the last time it was tried.

After being elected Obama had no problem getting the stimulus package passed, and it was signed into law in February, shortly after his inauguration. Only after it was passed was it discovered that “shovel ready” was something of an exaggeration, a point that Obama himself admitted later in his first term. So the first lesson we should take from this is that just dumping a bunch of money into infrastructure and getting immediate results is harder than it looks.

Another takeaway from the 2009 stimulus is how underwhelming it was. As I’ve said $800 billion was spent (and to be fair, if you look at the bill it was spread out all over the place) and yet what great infrastructure projects can we point to as a result of this $800 billion? In the past spending on infrastructure got us stuff like the Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system, the Erie Canal, the Three Gorges Dam (no, wait that’s China). But what did we get out of the 2009 stimulus? Or perhaps more appropriately what should we have expected to get? I mentioned the interstate highway system as an example of impressive infrastructure from the past. It had a total cost of $119 billion dollars. This was the finally tally in 1996, so I would assume that those are 1996 dollars (which would be $183 billion today) but it’s possible that since the interstate system took decades to build that those are not all 1996 dollars. Regardless it’s clear that the 2009 stimulus should have been able to build something equivalent to the interstate highway system perhaps several times over. Unless I’m overlooking something massive, I presume that it did not do that. I also mentioned the Hoover Dam, which cost $49 million at the time, and $700 million in today’s dollars. As I mentioned above the 2009 stimulus was spread out over a lot of different areas. But it was the equivalent of well over 1,000 Hoover Dams. I assume that as part of Obama’s stimulus we could have squeezed out at least one project of a similar scope, but yet, I’ve seen no evidence of anything which fits the bill.

Again, I ask the question, are we any good at building infrastructure? I think the answer is we aren’t, though perhaps we used to be. Does this mean Trump’s proposals are doomed? Well perhaps not doomed, but I can guarantee that it’s going to be harder and have less eventual payoff than any of the proponents of the plan think.

And here at last we tie this whole subject into the theme of the blog. Is it possible that it’s not just something wrong with infrastructure, but something wrong with us? Have we lost the ability do really impressive things? Is this evidence of a civilization in decline? For the answer to that I’ll turn to a concept I haven’t mentioned since my very first post: catabolic collapse.

Lots of people imagine that there will be some dramatic event which will cause the complete collapse of civilization. Before the event, normality, after the event and in an instant, a cannibal wasteland where only your stockpile of guns and ammo stands between you and a giant stewpot. Other people imagine that things will go on pretty much as they are, only possibly better. My position is that neither of those is very likely, though both are possible. A full scale nuclear exchange could still result in the former, or, on the other hand, maybe we have reached the End of History and things are just going to get better from here on out. My position is that over the next several decades will experience something in between.

As I said the term for this is catabolic collapse. It uses metabolism as an analogy. There are two types of metabolism, anabolic and catabolic. As something of an oversimplification, in an anabolic state you’re building reserves and muscles, in a catabolic state the reverse is happening, you’re spending your reserves and breaking down muscle mass to use it as energy. Applied to infrastructure the analogy is that when we’re in an anabolic state we’re building new infrastructure, but in a catabolic state we have to consume some infrastructure (or more accurately stop maintaining it) to support the critical infrastructure. Just as in a famine your body might consume muscle mass to keep your heart working.

This is all straightforward enough, but how does a society go from an anabolic state to a catabolic state? Imagine that a society has a certain level of productivity. A large chunk of this productivity has to go into maintaining what we already have. It’s easy to see this process at work if you look at the federal budget. In any breakdown of the federal budget you’ll see a giant category labeled mandatory spending. This is money we’ve dedicated to fulfilling promises which have already been made, and to maintaining the status quo. Of course even when we look at the, somewhat inaccurately named, discretionary spending, there’s not a huge amount of wiggle room there either. No one’s just going to decide to one day eliminate the Navy. Which means that as far as new stuff goes we either have to go deeper into debt or raise taxes. Our resources do have a limit and the maintenance budget just keeps growing. Reduced to the level of infrastructure it’s very similar. We have a certain amount of resources to dedicate to infrastructure and a big chunk of that goes to maintaining what we already have and if there’s anything left over we can build new infrastructure. So far so good, but what if the resources available for infrastructure aren’t even sufficient to maintain what we already have? If that happens we enter a catabolic state. And unless the resource limitation is temporary we start down the road to catabolic collapse.

One of the problems with detecting this and doing something about it is that it can sneak up on you. For example, just because you’re building new infrastructure doesn’t mean that catabolic collapse hasn’t started. As I already mentioned, new stuff can be built at the expense of maintaining the old stuff, until of course the old stuff breaks and then you’re faced with having to conduct costly repairs and find money for new stuff as well. It’s only when that pinch occurs that catabolic collapse really becomes apparent, and even then you can expect a lot of denial.

Are we in catabolic collapse? Are the resources available for infrastructure less than the cost of maintaining what we already have? For the answer to that question it’s important to know what we mean by maintenance. And for this I’d like to turn to the story I started with. The story of the Anderson Memorial Bridge. That bridge repair has taken so long and been so costly in large part due to our expanded definition of maintenance, an expanded definition that brings on expanded costs. This expanded definition includes ordering special bricks to preserve the historical character of the bridge, additional permits, the bureaucracy, safety requirements, etc. etc. All of which didn’t exist when the bridge was first built in 1912. And the trend is to add even more “maintenance” of this type in the years to come. Is all this indicative of a robust and growing nation or more indicative of a nation whose best days are behind it? In other words, when all is said and done we’d all like to put on more muscle, but when you’re old and tired sometimes it’s just easier to sit in your recliner and yell at the TV.


Is This Election Different?

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When I started this blog I mentioned politics as one possible subject, but lately it seems to be the dominant subject. With the election of Trump perhaps that’s unavoidable. I have already said that I don’t know if everything will be okay, though I pointed at some early indications and structural factors which I thought looked encouraging. That was a couple of weeks ago, and you wouldn’t think that I’d already be changing my mind, but I am. In fact, I’m starting to get the feeling that everything won’t be okay.

First I should emphasis that this feeling is very nascent. Just a hint that things may be developing in a way I didn’t expect. Which ironically is exactly what you should expect. As I repeatedly emphasis you can’t predict the future, so, to resort to a cliche, you should expect the unexpected. Part of the reason why these developments are unexpected is that they arrive from an unexpected source. Allow me to explain. I, along with most people in America, expect to be surprised by Trump, but the feeling I’m describing has very little to do with Trump’s actions. So far he’s acting about as I figured. He’s appears to still be running his own Twitter account and making remarks that probably strike a majority of people as not being very presidential. He’s put forth some divisive figures for high level appointments (Bannon and Sessions being chief among them). Most of what he talked about on the campaign trail is still out there, though some of it has been softened, at least a little bit. In other words I see no reason, yet, to modify the assessment I made of Trump in my election post. Trump is not the reason I’m starting to think that things might not be okay. But the opposition to Trump is another matter.

Now this may sound like I’m opposed to any opposition to Trump, which I suppose if taken to it’s logical conclusion would mean that I’m a Trump supporter. Neither of these are true. I’m not opposed to opposition, I think having a vigorous debate has all manner of benefits, including better decisions, and clearer thinking in general. And if you have any doubts you can refer back to the two posts I did on freedom of speech. In other words, I think my full-throated support for freedom of speech is unambiguous.  And insofar as the opposition to Trump falls under the category of free speech, I support it. To the additional question of whether I’m a Trump supporter, I would describe my approach to Trump as more zen. There are things which happen that are beyond our ability to change. Who gets elected as president is one of those things. And freaking out about it has as much utility as freaking out about the weather. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t buy an umbrella.

Having come this far you may be confused. I seem to be simultaneously saying that the opposition to Trump worries me, but that also opposition is a healthy expression of freedom of speech. The resolution of this paradox is that I’m not talking about what’s happening right now I’m talking about the direction I fear things are headed. And I’m talking about when opposition moves from speech to something more concrete.

Obviously I considered the possibility that Trump might win, I would have bet against it, but the chances seemed great enough that I tried to model what it might be like. One obvious place to go when you’re attempting to understand something is to draw on past experience. And in this I was in luck. I had already lived through a time with a very unpopular conservative president who was hated by the left. His name was George W. Bush, and when I considered what the Trump presidency would be like, particularly what the liberal reaction to it would be, I figured it would look similar to opposition during the Bush presidency. It would be nasty, it would be everywhere, it would be filled with outrageous claims, and he would be the butt of basically all of the late night jokes, but after taking all of that into account, he would still be acknowledged, even if reluctantly, to be President. I should add, before continuing, that much of the criticism of Bush was completely justified, though sometimes the amount of criticism he drew for any given item appeared inversely proportional to the actual harm.  

Returning to the most recent election, it appears that things may be playing out differently. Now of course in all of this I’m trying to compare the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election with the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. Not only is there the problem of distance, distortion and memory, but also in 2000 there was no Facebook, so what I consider a difference in the message my in fact be a difference in the medium. All that said, I don’t recall anyone urging people not to normalize the Bush presidency. (Of course at this point in 2000 no one was quite sure who would be president.) In 2000 people were mad about things, definitely, and there were certainly calls to get rid of the electoral college or to try and flip an elector or two. The same calls are happening now (though Hillary would need 38 faithless electors as compared to the three that Gore needed) but there is also lots of rhetoric of a kind I don’t recall hearing in 2000. Back then my feeling was that people accepted the result, they weren’t happy about it, given the chance they would have loved to impeach Bush, but they agreed that he was president, and treated him as such. I’m getting a different vibe out of things today. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

The first thing I came across which offered a hint to this difference was an article in Slate. It wasn’t critical of Trump, it was critical of Clinton, and not of how she ran her campaign, but of how conciliatory her concession speech was. The article didn’t stop there, it moved on to calling the speech dangerous and even went so far as to say that Clinton might mainly be remembered, “more than anything else, for the toxic, dangerous, and deceptive concession speech she delivered on Wednesday.”

Wait, what? Her concession speech is going to be more important than being first lady? Senator from New York? Secretary of State? While I suppose that’s possible I think we may have wandered into the realm of hyperbole. And when you’re getting that level of outrage about Clinton, you can only imagine how the article writer feels about Trump himself.

As a source for this claim the author drew on the opinions of a Russian dissident, author of a previous article titled, Autocracy: Rules for Survival. The basic claim of both articles is that Trump is a tyrant in the making who will dismantle the judiciary, muzzle the press and turn the police into virtual death squads, and that only by continuing to fight him tooth and nail and most of all by refusing normalize him, that is treat him as a normal president winning a typical election, is there any hope.

I’ve mentioned the word “normalize” now a couple of times and this appears to be the favorite term for describing what we definitely should not be doing now that the election is over. Again, I could be misremembering or overlooking things, but this feels qualitatively different than when Bush was elected. I certainly don’t remember anyone criticizing Gore when he finally conceded for being too nice. And a search around the terms “george bush” and “normalize” brings up hardly anything, while doing the same search on Trump brings up all the articles I already linked to plus thousands more. In other words, in answer to the question posed in the blog title, this election is starting to appear qualitatively different than even the hotly contested 2000 election.

But what are people hoping to achieve when they warn against any attempts to normalize Trump? And how is this different than the derision and hate that Bush was subjected to? This is where we start to get into the realm of speculation, and as I’ve have said, it’s just a feeling, I could easily be wrong, but it also represents a hypothesis, something that should be kept out and occasionally compared against reality to see if the events and facts which have developed in the interim support this theory or are pointing in a different direction.

In any case, as I read it, when people caution against treating either Trump or his presidency as normal they are make a judgement call that he is so bad that extraordinary measures are called for. Extraordinary measures like seceding. I already mentioned the idea of California seceding in my post about the election, but in this context it seems like yet another way that this election is different. Of course, you might retort, that Texas was talking of seceding long before California and mostly in response to Obama (though they did pre-emptively bring up the threat again as a possible response to Clinton winning.) This fact doesn’t make things better, it makes things worse. And opens up the idea that it’s not just the election of Trump that is different but that things are moving in an alarming direction, possibly even in the absence of Trump.

So, yes, I think it’s safe to say that this election is different than the 2000 election. Trump’s presidency will be more divisive and uglier than Bush’s and it’s becoming apparent that the level of push-back and rage is greater than any modern election. Of course the divisiveness and outrage is not greater than in any previous election. Perhaps when I mentioned the potential secession of Texas and California your mind already went in this direction, but if you’re looking for a more divisive election I would direct you to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Indisputably that election was more divisive, but comparing this election to the election of 1860 should not bring any comfort, and in fact this is the situation that has been gnawing away at the edge of my consciousness.  

Libertarians are fond of talking about how every law ever passed is ultimately enforced at the end of a gun barrel. In a similar fashion at some point if two groups just can’t agree, then, ultimately, the issue is going to be decided by force. Oliver Wendell Holmes, perhaps the best known of all the Supreme Court justices, said as much:

Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy but force.

Historically this is how it has been. All important issues have ultimately been decided by the shedding of blood. Recent history is an anomaly, and not even much of an anomaly if you consider what’s currently taking place in Syria. However if we restrict ourselves to just the US, we still only have to go back as far as the Civil War, before we see the roll of bloodshed in deciding between two inconsistent worldviews.

Insofar as things aren’t decided by bloodshed, it’s because we have replaced that idea with the idea of settling issues through the will of the people and the rule of law, but if you decide that this time, with this election, that you’re no longer going to follow the system (and I’m aware that Clinton won the popular vote, but recall that’s not the system) then you’re implicitly opting to decide things by force. Perhaps you disagree, and think that this one time you can ignore the results of the system, achieve the desired outcome of keeping Trump from being President, and that everything will be fine. If this is what you’re thinking I would say that at best this line of thinking is delusional and at worst it’s deadly. Things are decided either by force or by the rule of law, there’s not some hidden third option. If you abandon the rule of law than, you’re choosing force, even if you don’t realize it.  Which is not to say that this automatically means a second Civil War, but you’re definitely entering into uncharted territory, where at a minimum things are going to be decided by the threat of force.

You may counter that civil society is already only maintained by the threat of force. However, by making laws which restrict and codify the use of force, we greatly minimize its use. Which is not to say that force isn’t sometimes, or even often, used in an inconsistent and unfair manner. The rule of law isn’t perfect, but it’s vastly preferable to the alternative methods, particularly when you’re talking methods which have historically been used for deciding who is going to be king (or in our case president).

To return to the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote are we dealing with two groups who both want a different kind of world? Do we have Texas secessionists on one side and California secessionists on the other? Does the election of Trump mark the beginning of a permanent split between those two worlds? These are the thoughts I’ve been having over the last couple of weeks.

You can judge for yourself whether there’s anything to worry about, whether we’re seeing the beginning of a great schism or whether things will eventually normalize over the objections of a vocal minority. In case it’s not clear, my own opinion is that it’s far too early to tell, though some of the trends are worrying.

For the rest of the post I want to focus on what to do if this is in fact what’s happening. What are the current remedies if we’ve finally reached a point past which no compromise is possible? If our current course is leading us to either a giant secession crisis, or worse still a second Civil War, is there some way to avoid that?

As usual I offer the caveat that individually there’s very little we can do about politics or the weather, and probably the best course of action is to make sure you have an adequate stock of umbrellas. That said it’s still a subject worth discussing.

To start let’s examine our options if we decide that our highest value is to keep the country together. This was basically the thinking during the Civil War so there is some precedent for it. If this is what we decide then we have three possible strategies.

The first strategy is that of the status quo. Sure there are currently some disagreements, and some anger. But perhaps rather than looking all the way back to the Civil War, a better example is the Civil Rights Era. And a better analogy for the 2016 election is the 1968 election, the last time a third party candidate won any electoral votes. Times seemed pretty tumultuous then as well. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and the country was convulsed with race riots. It appeared that the gains made by the 1964 Civil Rights Act might be overturned, and yet, even though Nixon was elected President the country stayed together, the wounds eventually healed and we made it through. Under this strategy, perhaps you agree that things look ugly, but you don’t think any major changes need to be made. Everything will eventually work itself out, the rule of law and compromise will eventually win out in the end

But what if you pursue this strategy and it doesn’t work out? The rifts keep widening, things get worse. States vote to secede, and the country starts breaking apart. This brings us to our second strategy, if you can’t keep things together by the normal methods then the only other alternative is to keep things together through force, and just like in 1861 you go to war. In other words this isn’t exactly a different strategy, but an extension of the status quo, let’s-keep-everything-together strategy. Which further means that if the initial, trust-in-the-status-quo strategy doesn’t work out then you might very well find yourself in a situation where bloodshed is the only option. I would hope that there would be no bloodshed, but if you really are intent on keeping the two worlds together, whether your goal is to preserve the union or to dictate a set of laws and policies to an unwilling minority, then eventually it will come to bloodshed.

If you have doubts about the status quo, and if you don’t like the idea of a second Civil War, then you probably aren’t thrilled with either of the first two options, and you may be eager to hear what the third strategy is for keeping the country together. I’ve already said that there are two ways to decide something, you can decide things through the use of force or you can decide them via a system of law. If we reject force then we have to do something about the system. Right now the system is dominated by the federal government. The bulk of the tax burden is determined at the federal level, as is environmental regulation, discrimination laws, the legality of abortion and same-sex marriage, not to mention educational standards, healthcare and entitlements. In that list there’s a lot for California and Texas to disagree about, but what if there wasn’t. It’s interesting and ironic that so much is determined by the “federal” government, because under a truly federal system you would expect most of the aforementioned issues to be decided at the state level, which would allow California and Texas to be different, but that’s not the case.

An argument about whether federalism is actually dead, is beside the point. Whether federalism has died or just evolved, the point is not to argue semantics, but to figure out ways in which Texas and California could both exist in the same nation without Texas seceding if Clinton is elected and California seceding when Trump get’s elected. And more importantly to keep the country together without having to resort to force. I know that for many people the idea of allowing individual states to make their own environmental regulations, their own decision on same sex marriage, and their own labor laws is terrifying, but is it more terrifying than going to war in order to just have one standard for all those things? I personally think that, when the total number of deaths is taken into account, it may have been a mistake to not just let the South secede, but if we were going to have a big war over something at least the elimination of slavery was a cause worth fighting for. Are the issues which divide us today similarly important? I’m personally not willing to have my son’s fight and possible die in a war to keep either California or Texas in the country. And I assume a lot of people feel similarly.

This brings us to the final possible strategy. The strategy to pursue if preserving the USA isn’t your highest goal. This strategy might be most usefully described as the right of exit. If California wants to leave, then let them, same with Texas, same with New Jersey. Obviously this may mean that some people aren’t as happy being in Texas as they once were when the Texas was obligated to follow all the federal regulations. They should have a right of exit as well. I don’t know that the right of exit has a corresponding right of entry (a topic which is already controversial), but I assume that it would work itself out. Of course this would be an experiment on a massive scale, and who knows what would happen, though Europe may provide a preview of this process if things continue to head the way they’ve been.

Of all the strategies I think a return to a greater degree of federalism and state autonomy would work out best in the long run. Not only is this what the founders had in mind, but I think it provides the best trade off between joining the two different kinds of worlds, while avoiding most of the chaos occasioned by a completely break up of the United States. That said of all the possible strategies I’ve described it may be the most difficult to actually implement. Rolling back the trend of a century is unquestionably more difficult than just maintaining the status quo, and probably more difficult than the other two options as well.

This post has engaged in a lot of speculation, and as with many things I write about hopefully none of this will happen. Hopefully, the status quo will work, Trump will be a great president, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns. If I had to guess, I think we’ll survive the Trump presidency without having to worry about a second civil war, or states seceding, or whether we should have been trying to restore federalism this whole time. But even if we do, I don’t like the direction things are headed.


I Don’t Know If Everything Will Be Okay: My Thoughts On the Election

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You may be familiar with the website Cracked. I spend more time on it than I should, and I definitely have a dysfunctional relationship with it. Sometimes I think it’s the worst clickbait site out there, more information free than even Buzzfeed. Other times, while still annoyed by their tendency to split test their titles until the most sensational, least accurate title wins out, I think they might actually have some interesting articles. This may seem like a strange way to start a post about the election, but it’s going somewhere.

In the wake of the election Cracked had an article, titled Dear White People Stop Saying Everything Will Be Okay (though by the time you get to it it may be titled “Five Reassuring Things White People Say (that are pure B.S.)”). And in case you didn’t know it, I am white. And I’m going to follow this injunction. I’m not going to tell you that everything will be okay. How could I possibly know that? In fact the theme of this blog is that things are not going to be okay (and certainly that they’re not going to be okay in the absence of God, for my non-religious friends this is the first and last religious reference.) If you want to be told that everything will be okay I would point you at the recent article from Wait but Why. If you’d rather stick with someone who has no illusions about his ability to predict the future you’re in the right place.

To be frank, Trump could end up being a horrible president. He could not only be as bad as people thought, he could be worse. He could be the person most responsible for the eventual destruction of the planet, whether through a full on exchange of nukes with Russia, or something more subtle. But, once you start talking about things that could happen, then in the end Clinton also could be and do all those things, in fact there are credible arguments that Clinton could have been even more likely to do some of those things.

We just don’t know. We guess; we estimate; we might even create models to predict what will happen, and coincidently enough, we just got a great example of how models and predictions can be wrong, really wrong. So the first thing I want to talk about is the pre-election predictions, because everyone recognizes that they were wrong, and yet now, both people who are enthusiastic about the election and people who are devastated by the election are making pre-presidency predictions, without recognizing that these predictions are even more likely to be wrong than the pre-election ones. At least the predictions about who would win the election were based on lots of data and dealing with a very narrow question. On the other hand, how Trump will be as president is a huge question with very little data. So yeah, I’m not going to say that everything will be okay because I don’t know, and neither does anyone else really.

As I said remembering how wrong the polls were can help us have some perspective on how wrong we might be about a Trump presidency (and remember we could be wrong in either direction). I should pause before I discuss the predictions and, in the interest of full disclosure, mention that there is definitely some schadenfreude going on here, not because I really wanted Trump to win, but because as someone who is constantly pointing out the difficulty of predicting the future, when someone smugly does just that and ends up being really wrong, it does give me a certain amount of validation. In any event my favorite example of being really wrong is is Sam Wang from the Princeton Election Consortium, who gave Clinton a 99% chance of winning the election. This is bad enough, but then outlets like Wired and DailyKos decided to double down and not only hail the genius of Sam Wang, but dismiss Nate Silver as an idiot. Now of course Silver was wrong as well, but he was a lot less wrong. To take a more limited example Matt Grossman of Michigan State said that Clinton was ahead by 19 points in Michigan, a state that Trump won. This wasn’t months ago, this was a week before the election. (Perhaps, one clue that it was wrong should have been the fact that in the same poll Gary Johnson was getting 11% of the vote.)

In their defense people like Wang and Silver will argue that the polls were not off by that much. Nate Silver posted an article about how if only 1 person in 100 had switched votes Clinton would have easily won. What this amounts to is that the polls were off by 2%, which is not that much, and the sort of thing that could slip in unnoticed, and be due to any of a 100 different factors operating in isolation or in combination.This is totally fair, but it doesn’t matter if the polls were only off by 0.1% or if Trump’s margin of victory was only 537 votes. (As was the case with Bush, another person who won the election but lost the popular vote.) He still gets 100% of the presidency. Most things are like this, a tiny error in some part of our calculations can still have huge consequences. In this sense it doesn’t matter if the odds of a Clinton presidency were 65.1% or 65.2% the key thing was for them to be right about who would actually win, and everyone (or at least mostly everyone) was wrong about that.

Before leaving our discussion of polling I’d like to point out one final thing. Yes, a tiny switch in the voting and the nation would be having a very different discussion right now, but as Andrew Gelman, a noted statistician, points out there are two ways to view the election. The first way to view it, is as the probability that Trump would be president given what we knew Tuesday morning. The second way is to view it as the probability that Trump would be president given what we knew when the race first started. Under the first view Trump’s victory was not that unlikely, despite what Sam Wang said. Under the second view it was fantastically unlikely. Gelman points out that a lot of the shock people are feeling is based on still being stuck in the second view, the probability of him going all the way.

Being stuck in the second view obviously causes problems, but for the moment I’d like to look at how we got from here to there. How did something which seemed so unlikely when Trump first announced his candidacy (One commentator said he was more likely to play in the NBA finals than win the nomination) end up being our reality on November 9th?

Obviously this is not the first attempt at an explanation, pundits have had essentially no other job since Trump entered the race than explaining and/or dismissing his rise, but I’d like to focus on two explanations which I don’t think got much play, but may be more significant than people realized.

I know a fair number of political junkies and as you can imagine there was a lot of discussion in the aftermath of the election. One comment in particular jumped out at me, from one of my more liberal friends, he mentioned that there is a history in the US, going all the way back to the revolution, of saying “Screw you, I do what I want!” And that’s what this looked like to him. In response I pointed out that in order for that to happen that someone had to be trying to tell them what to do, and in my opinion that was one of the overlooked factors. All the individuals telling people how evil they were for even thinking about voting for Trump. Everyone seems to agree that Clinton lost some voters when called half of Trump’s supporters a basket of deplorables, but what about when the Huffington Post decided to add the following to all of their articles:

Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

Did that hurt or help Trump? And is it possible that the net effect of Joss Whedon getting all his rich friends together to record a video (which I enjoyed by the way) was to create more Trump voters, while convincing no one new to vote for Clinton?

I am not saying that any one of these things was enough to push the election to Trump, but together, to borrow a term from the other side, they created a climate of badgering, smugness and disapproval. Was it enough to swing the election? Hard to say, but as we saw above it was very close, so if this hectoring created any net Trump voters (particularly in the state of Pennsylvania) then it may very well have been what pushed it over the top. I think it certainly created the nucleus of hard-core supporters that got him the nomination and kept him in the race.

I said that this didn’t get much play, and that was true before the election. Now that the election is over lots of people are pointing it out. So far I’ve seen articles about the Unbearable Smugness of the Press, another commentator saying Trump was elected (and the Brexit happened) because people were tired of being labeled as bigots and racists, and finally Reason Magazine saying that Trump won because political correctness inspired a terrifying backlash. Perhaps you feel that Trump, and anyone who voted for him, is racist, and that regardless of whether it’s going to cost Clinton the election, it’s still important to point it out, that’s certainly your right, but in the long run it might be more effective for your candidate to win.

The second explanation I’d like to look at might be called the, “what’s good for the goose” explanation. And this goes beyond the election into the presidency, but let’s start with the election, in particular voting as a racial block. Much has been made of the fact that 53% of white women voted for Trump, despite his apparent misogyny. And some are even saying that because of this obvious racism that white women sold out the world. But at the same time you read about people who are shocked that Latinos didn’t vote in greater numbers and that up to 29% of them may have actually voted for Trump. But then another article comes along and assures us that no, it’s okay, Latinos did vote as a block and only 18% of them voted for Trump. This is not new of course, minorities have been voting as a block for a long time. It’s expected, but it was also expected that whites wouldn’t vote as a block, but why?

I’m not going to get into whether it’s right or wrong to vote as a racial block, it’s one of those intersections of a lot of different principles (charity, justice, equality, etc.) where things get really muddy. But no one should be surprised if after decades of urging blacks and latinos to view the election in terms of race, that at least some whites start viewing it in terms of race as well. And you don’t even have to imagine some grand conspiracy for this to happen. Most people vote based on their perceived self interest, not on what’s best for the world, and it’s not inconceivable that these interests will align in a way that looks racial, even if that race is white.

This gets into the subject of those tactics, which seem great if your side is the only one using them, but aren’t so great when the other side starts using them. And here we move from talking about the election to talking about Trump’s presidency.

Regardless of your opinion on whether Trump will make a good president or a bad president. It is certainly true that recent developments will make him a more consequential president than he might otherwise have been. I already talked about how dangerous the temptation is to restrict free speech because not only is it the best protection against a bad leader, but you can create tools to use while you’re in power which then backfire on you when you’re out of power. There are lots of examples of expanded executive powers which fit this model. Dan Carlin of the Common Sense and Hardcore History podcasts talks a lot about this. He’s particularly worried about surveillance powers and executive orders. I’m more interested in the Supreme Court. There are a lot of things where liberals couldn’t wait for public opinion to catch up and so they relied on the courts to change them, but now that the court has done that, they can reverse it, and they can do it even if, in the interim, public opinion has caught up.

Also, with the Supreme Court acting more and more as the de facto rulers of the whole country, I know that there are a lot of Republicans out there who voted for Trump just because they didn’t want Clinton appointing four justices. That was their single issue, and they ignored or held their nose about everything else.  Combine this with Dan Carlin’s list of concerns, and a federal bureaucracy that’s more powerful than ever, and if Trump is going to be a bad President he’s going to have a lot more tools at his disposal than he otherwise would have. In short, people arguing for limited government weren’t always doing it because they’re jerks. (I mean sometimes they were, but not always.) They may have genuinely recognized the danger and the fragility that comes from too much centralization.

As I’ve said, I don’t know what will happen under a Trump Presidency. He could be good, he could be horrible, he could be worse than horrible, but before ending I’ll run through what I think might happen in a half dozen different areas:

First, let’s start with immigration. This is one area where Trump took a lot of heat and got a lot of support. I have seen some Trump defenders say that he’s going to walk back some of his more extreme comments when he’s President. And if you look at his plan for the first 100 days it does appear that he might be doing that, at least somewhat. There is no mention of deporting everyone who’s here illegally or banning all Muslims (the word Muslim doesn’t appear anywhere in the plan). Combine this with the normal difficulties of getting things done in Washington and  his immigration policy may be less draconian than people feared.

Second, another place where people are scared is LGBT rights. Despite the expansion of executive power I don’t know that there’s a lot he can do here outside of getting the Supreme Court to undo the blanket legalization for same sex marriage. (And remember that all the Supreme Court can do is send it back to the states, where, one could argue, it should have been in the first place.) Also from what I can tell Trump’s social conservative urges are nearly non-existent. Certainly nothing about this appears in his plan for the first 100 days nor was the idea that prominent in his campaign. That said if he manages to appoint four conservative justices there’s no telling what they might do. But of all the Republicans in the primaries I think Trump was the most socially liberal.

Third, people also seem to be worried about whether Trump will keep abortion legal. This is another area where Trump doesn’t seem to have strong feelings, but a court with four Trump justices could still reverse Roe vs. Wade (and once again remember this just moves it back to the states.) For whatever reason this strikes me as more likely. For one, Roe v. Wade is considered a poorly constructed ruling even by some people who support it, plus it appears to have been bubbling to the top more in the last few years. Despite all this I still don’t think it’s going to happen, but I think we’ll actually see a substantial challenge.

Now that we’ve covered the relatively mundane topics, topics where there’s almost certainly going to be some noise made, we can move on to what we might term black swans.

In the fourth position, and our first black swan is something which is definitely going to make some noise, the question is whether it’s going to go anywhere. I’m talking about California seceding.  What was once the cause of a few thousand hardcore supporters is now being seriously considered. The consensus is that to do it cleanly would require a constitutional amendment. But historically it’s far more common for a nation to break apart through bloodshed and war than through a vote, though I doubt the Californians have the stomach for that, but probably neither do the rest of us. When I consider the difficulties I think more likely than either a specifically Californian Constitutional Amendment or war would, be an amendment making it easier for any state to leave. Or alternatively a new Constitutional Convention, which is actually something provided for in the Constitution.

For numbers five and six we’ll finally deal with the two greatest fears cited by opponents of Donald Trump: dictatorship and nuclear war. I’m not sure how to evaluate the possibility of a dictatorship. I mean obviously it is possible, I just don’t immediately see how to get from here to there, but I’ll see what I can come up with. Let’s start with the premise that dictatorship requires some kind of force, and while force can be applied without guns, eventually if you really want to get someone to do something guns are going to enter into the equation at some point. So who has guns? Obviously the military does, also in the US there is a vast stock of guns in private ownership, and then there’s the police. But if it came to it private gun owners (if unified) are a bigger deal than the police, but the military is a bigger deal than them all. Thus, to exercise force you need to control one level and the levels above you need to be sidelined. For example it’s sufficient to control the police if both military and private gun owners are uninvolved, which is, broadly speaking, the situation we have now. But if someone controls the military it doesn’t matter how many cops or private citizens oppose him. And Trump does, sort of, control the military now, but he can’t just immediately declare martial law, the military would tell him to go suck it. He needs an excuse. Perhaps the War on Terror. Perhaps the war against California after they secede. But regardless of the excuse it has to be a big enough excuse to derail the normal process of elections. And that’s where I have a hard time seeing how to get from here to there. But perhaps I just lack imagination on this front.

As far as Trump controlling the nukes. This worries me too. If the worry is just all out nuclear war with Russia, he actually worries me slightly less than Clinton did. The other possibility for all out war is China and here he’s kind of a black box, though it’s widely understood that China prefered Trump, for whatever that’s worth. Where Trump concerns me more is in the area of using tactical nukes, say in the Middle East somewhere. I this front I’m not sure what warnings or consolation to offer. I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

And of course that’s the primary advice I have, wait and see. There should definitely be some red lines even for those people who think Trump is the greatest thing since sliced bread. But these red lines should always be there for every President. And by red lines I mean acts by Trump that should cause us to take to the streets with signs and shouting and if necessary, man the barricades. Red lines like if he starts abusing the power of military, or if he starts censoring people, or if he tries to pack the Supreme Court, or most especially if he tries to start messing with the election. Of course there are a lot of small steps between where we are and General Trump, Dictator for Life, Beloved and Eternal Leader. And it’s important that, unlike the frog, we don’t allow ourselves to be slowly boiled. But based on what I’ve seen on social media and the news since Tuesday I have no doubt that there will always be people willing to call out Trump the minute he tries to raise the temperature.


The Value of Free Speech

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to watch Sesame Street. As I recall it was in black and white, probably because the entire world was still black and white back then. It could also have been because we were poor. In any case, one of the recurring features of Sesame Street was one of these things is not like the other. It even had a song to go with it, which I can easily recall without any effort, such is the power of childhood indoctrination. I would assume that most of my readers are familiar with the segment, but for those who aren’t, the way it worked is they would show four things and three of them would be similar and one would clearly be different. An example might be a chalkboard with three “2”’s and one “W” or an alarm clock next to a knife, fork and spoon. I assume you get the idea or, like me, saw Sesame Street as a child. If not, it’s too late because we are about to play “One of These Things”!

Of course to start with I need to provide you with the “things” (I’m going to cheat somewhat an only provide three things.)

1- Russia

2- United States of America

3- China

And to really get us in the mood here’s the song:

One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn’t belong,

Can you tell which thing is not like the others

By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which thing was not like the others?

Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?

If you guessed this one is not like the others,

Then you’re absolutely right!

Did you guess the USA? If so then, as promised, you’re absolutely right! I know this edition of “One of These Things” was not quite as obvious as the alarm clock and silverware, but also we’re not six anymore either, so hopefully we can expect some deeper thinking. But why is the United States the odd man out? Why is our country the one thing that’s not like the others? On the surface the answer is easy, perhaps even trivial, Russia and China are authoritarian states ruled by a single individual. The USA is a not. (Unless Trump wins and all of the most extreme fears of the anti-trumpers come true.) But why is this? Or more importantly how did it come about?

I think you’ll find that on paper the actual governmental structure of the other two countries is not that different from that of the USA. Russia and China both have elections and they both have legislatures. Russia has the Duma and China has the National People’s Congress. They both have what amounts to a Bill of Rights. Russia has the Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen and the Chinese have their Constitution which has sections on Democracy and Minority Rights. They both claim to have an independent judicial system, charged with impartially interpreting the law. Russia’s is modeled on the German and French system, while China’s contains protections like the right against self incrimination, and the suppression of evidence which was obtained illegally.

If the difference isn’t in how the government is organized perhaps it’s somewhere else. Maybe the US has a better economy? That’s possible, but China has, or shortly will pass the US as the biggest economy. And if you’re more focused on per capita GDP, Saudi Arabia is basically tied with the US on that measure but they’re actually more authoritarian than China and Russia. The US, China and Russia all have a strong militaries and nukes to boot, so that’s not a difference. It also can’t be the size of the country, or the number of people, or the latitude. So what is it?

If you remember the end of my last episode then you already know where this is headed. I would argue that a large part of the difference comes down to the level of free speech (and free expression in general) in each country. If we look at the World Press Freedom Index we find that the USA is 41st out of 180 countries while Russia is 148th and China is 176th! I think 41st is still disappointing, but it’s obviously a lot better than 148th or 176th.

It is not lost on me that this could be a chicken and egg question. Which came first the authoritarianism or the speech restrictions? Or perhaps more accurately I could be confusing correlation with causation. Restrictions on speech could accompany authoritarianism without necessary causing it. We’ve definitely seen it come about even in situations where freedom of expression was relatively unrestrained. As far as I can tell the time between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin assuming power was a time of relatively free expression (unfortunately the index I was using only goes back as far as 2002, at which time Russia ranked 121st out of 139). But even if speech restrictions don’t cause authoritarianism it’s indisputable that they perpetuate it. And that’s what I really want to get into.

As I said, I’m not entirely sure how good freedom of the press and freedom of speech are at stopping bad things from happening. I would argue that they’re a lot better at uncovering bad things once they have happened. Take the current election as an example. I should mention that I try to be objective here at “We Are Not Saved”, but it’s possible I’ve picked on Clinton more than Trump, so we’ll pick on Trump for awhile. At this point there is a large group of people worrying that Trump is going to be bad news if he gets elected. People are using the term fascist and even comparing him to Hitler, and yet as just a few days ago Trump was polling slightly ahead of Clinton in at least one national poll. In other words despite these warnings there are a lot of people who still think he’ll be a better president than Clinton. And you know what, it’s hard to tell what kind of President he’ll be until he actually is President. Campaigning is a lot different than actually being in office and it’s hard to say what kind of president Trump will be (in fact I think it’s particularly hard with Trump.) All the people who are sounding the warning could be right, and he could be terrible, or he could surprise everyone. But if he does become president and he is terrible, we’ll hear about it (oh boy, will we hear about it). But only because we have free speech and freedom of press. In short, you would hope free speech would be some protection from even electing potential dictators, but even if it isn’t, it has a, potentially, still greater role, that of uncovering and deterring the authoritarian impulse after an election has happened.

For the moment let’s assume Trump is the second coming of Hitler. Or that he at least aspires to be. How does he go from wanting to be Hitler to actually being Hitler. The first step is getting elected President. And while it would have been nice if free speech had prevented that, for the purposes of our argument we’re assuming that it didn’t. But just being made President doesn’t make him Hitler, he has to start doing evil things, and if he starts making all the Muslims wear crescent moon armbands, we’ll hear about it, and presumably do something. The best way for him to get away with doing evil stuff is if we don’t hear about it.

It may be overly simplistic to say that free speech is all that prevents Trump (or anyone) from becoming Hitler, but that’s only because speech itself is so complicated. Setting aside the difficulties of keeping people from finding out about Trump’s Hitlerish acts, if it were possible and people actually could be kept in the dark it would be very effective in suppressing dissent. It’s true that in addition to the protection of free speech that we also have Congress and the Supreme Court to protect us. But as I mentioned above Russia and China also have legislatures and courts and it hasn’t prevented Putin or Xi Jinping from being authoritarian. Also, closer to home, we’ve discovered that it’s relatively trivial to gridlock Congress, and with the next President possibly appointing four new justices, I’m not so sure the Supreme Court will be of much help either.

Additionally don’t forget the vast expansion of executive power which has happened over the last century or so, and the President’s unique influence over the military. (Particularly since congress was cut out of the process of declaring war.)  You may be thinking that I am saying that Trump could stage some sort of military coup. While anything’s possible that seems pretty unlikely, but I have much more confidence in the ability of free and open speech to keep him in check than relying on every member of the military to remember their oath to the constitution, or in Trump’s inability to use the military in some other way to boost his popularity. Recall that Putin boosted his approval ratings both by using the military in Chechnya and in his recent annexation of Crimea.

Perhaps the example of the aspiring Hitler has convinced you of the importance of free speech, or perhaps you were convinced already. However, it is almost certain that however important you think speech is that it you don’t believe that it should be entirely unrestricted. Most people, at a minimum, would argue for a ban on child pornography, and I am no exception. But this still leaves us needing to draw a line somewhere between speech that prevents a second Hitler, and child pornography. Where should that line be drawn? A lot depends on the value provided by certain forms of speech and expression. Child pornography provides zero value and causes incalculable harm (to be honest it makes me uncomfortable even typing the words.) While preventing a second Hitler is one of the more valuable things that we can do, as it prevents incalculable harm.

At first glance one straightforward way to approach the problem would just be to figure out at which point the net benefit of speech is negative and draw the line there. Unfortunately while that may appear to be a straightforward solution it is anything but. For one thing, as I already mentioned, logistically it’s very hard to do, particularly in the age of the internet. That said, it’s not impossible. I think censorship by the Chinese government has been more effective than the Information Wants to be Free Crowd would like to admit. Of course that effectiveness has only been possible through a huge degree of centralization, something most Americans would strenuously object to if for no other reason than its potential for abuse (which the Chinese have more than adequately demonstrated.) But for the moment let’s move past the logistical difficulties and just focus on the thorny problem of determining the ultimate value of any given bit of speech

I hear a lot of people arguing that as the internet has increased the quantity of speech that the quality of speech has declined. As the saying goes, on the internet, no one knows that you’re a dog and all opinions seem to carry equal weight. People like to point to the good old days when Walter Cronkite would soberly report the evening news in an objective and dispassionate fashion, with none of the fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, speculation or innuendo of the internet. And yet, this doesn’t seem to have worked all that much better. To put things in context, Walter Cronkite became the evening anchor at CBS in 1962 and yet in 1964 we had the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, one of the more egregious examples of the government misleading people, a cover up with arguably very serious consequences. And yet as far as I’m aware no major news outlets of the day managed to uncover the truth, which was that no attack had occurred and that Secretary McNamara had distorted the evidence in an effort to get Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

I can’t say for certain how the Gulf of Tonkin would have played out in this day and age, but I think it’s safe to say that an accurate assessment of what happened would be out there somewhere. And it might even have been pretty easy to find. On the other hand there would have been a lot of false and misleading speculation as well. And even if an accurate description of events had been out there and easy to find, you still would have to recognize that it was the truth, sifting it out from all the other theories which would have emerged. My sense of the situation, therefore, is that we are more likely to have access to accurate information, but only because we have access to more information, both true and false. Therefore one question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is better to have the truth out there somewhere, but buried in a thousand blogs and a million Facebook posts, or is it better to not have access to the truth at all?

Let’s turn from examining how free speech played out (or didn’t as the case may be) in the age of Cronkite to examining how it played out in the age of the internet, using the example of the Clinton email controversy. You may from this assume that I’m done picking on Trump, but in reality you could use any scandal or controversy as an example. I use the email controversy because it’s the biggest item of news at the moment and it represents a real free speech issue with some people arguing that FBI Director Comey is a hero and other people casting him as a villain.

For the purposes of our thought experiment let’s further assume that the email controversy would not have come out in the age of Cronkite. Obviously I can’t say that for sure (though they didn’t have email, so that’s one argument) certainly Watergate came to light and resulted in the resignation of Nixon, but I think the fact that Johnson and McNamara were able to cover up the Gulf of Tonkin, arguably far more serious that anything people have even imagined Clinton doing, leads me to believe that there is a good chance that Clinton’s email issues would not have come out at all. Plus, once again if you can’t imagine a scenario under which Clinton’s email issues would not have eventually seen the light of day, pick one of the other dozens of controversies and scandals that have come out in this election and surely out of all of them one or more would not have come out in the pre-internet era. In other words if you’re uncomfortable with using Clinton’s emails, then use the scandal of your choice as an example.

This leaves us with four possibilities with respect to Clinton’s email controversy, and more particularly their impact:

1- The accusations will cost her the presidency but they shouldn’t.

2- The accusations will cost her the presidency and they should.

3- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

4- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency but they should have.

When we examine these possibilities it becomes clear that only the first reflects a situation where too much free speech was the problem. Here the accusations should not have kept her from the presidency and yet they did.

The second possibility is a triumph of free speech. This is free speech working as intended, the accusations reflected something bad enough that she shouldn’t have been president. And that’s what happened.

The third possibility would have to be taken as evidence that people can handle all the free speech we have and then some. That despite the enormous coverage given the controversy, people correctly intuited that it shouldn’t keep her from being President.

The fourth possibility is hard to view in any other way than as a failure caused by too little free speech. If the accusations should have cost her the presidency but didn’t, then why didn’t they. Probably because the true extent was never known.

Of course speaking of never knowing, while we will know on November 9th (unless something crazy happens) whether Clinton is President, we may never know if the accusations flowed from something serious enough to disqualify her from the presidency.

Out of all these possibilities only number one is an example of there being too much free speech, but of course that’s also the one that Clinton supporters probably find most alarming. In fact if Trump does win this will almost certainly be the explanation that many people offer. That the email controversy and in particular the latest revelations, cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

For many of these people the true tragedy will not be that Clinton lost, but that Trump won. And given their fear and loathing of Trump it will appear, in retrospect, that restricting his speech and the speech of his supporters would have not only been justified, but patriotic, particularly if they think that too much free speech was the problem. Of course as always we have to ask who would have implemented these restrictions? And how can we be sure that they wouldn’t be abused, either now or later? To return to the subject of my last episode, Facebook and Twitter could have applied speech restrictions and it would have been legal, and it may, if Trump ended up as bad as they feared, have saved the country. Surely this justifies a few restrictions?

But look back to where we started this episode, to the key difference between Russia, China and the USA. Free speech is our best protection against authoritarianism and that includes Trump’s. Any weakening of it, even in service of what appears to be noble goals, makes it that much easier to get rid of free speech entirely when it becomes inconvenient. The fact that censorship and authoritarianism go hand in hand is not some weird coincidence. It’s only by eroding free speech that authoritarianism can flourish. Therefore any erosion, however legal, however justified, can make it that much easier to do away with free speech entirely when the time comes. Also it’s important to remember that whenever one “side” uses a tool they make it that much easier for the other “side” to use that tool when the end up in power.

To phrase it another way do we want to mangle free speech to prevent Trump from becoming President, and risk having him become president anyway? Only now in addition whatever harm he causes as President we’ve given him a precedent of free speech restrictions to use on top of that. Or do we want to keep the principle of free speech as strong as possible knowing that it’s our best defence against whatever shenanigans he might try to pull? Even if in the short term our defence of free speech makes it more likely for him to be elected?

This is an important point to emphasis. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the New York Times and any other newspaper you care to name could pull out all the stops and refuse to give Trump any positive coverage (they may already be doing that) and this could not only fail to stop him from becoming President, but make the situation worse if he does become President. In fact they may already be making the situation worse. Any accurate assessment of Trump’s popularity would have to take into account that a huge amount of his support comes from people who are angry at the censorship they already perceive. As an example, it’s entirely possible that things like shadowbanning Scott Adams help Trump more than they hurt him.

At the end it boils down the ancient trade-off between short-term and long term gains. It’s entirely possible that certain restrictions on speech would be beneficial, as this most crazy of all elections nears its end. (Okay 1860 was probably crazier, but who remembers that.) I certainly don’t claim to be wise enough to know what those restrictions would be or even which side to apply them to. But, I do know, that free speech occupies such an important defensive position that any long term weakening in service of short term goals is a potentially fatal mistake.

We’ve gone so long without any serious censorship (certainly nothing to rival Russia and China) that I think we no longer worry about it. For many people the idea of the United States descending into authoritarianism appears as probable as Elvis being found alive (he would be 81, nearly 82), but I assure you that it’s not. Free speech isn’t free, it’s costly, and yes, with things like child pornography (there’s that phrase again) there should be restrictions, but we should be very careful about those restrictions, even, if not particularly, when it comes to stuff we hate. As expressed so memorably by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.:

…if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.


Hillary Clinton and the Criteria of Embarrassment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election

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When I created this podcast I decided that I wouldn’t shy away from controversial topics. And when people talk about topics to avoid, the first topics they mention are politics and religion. Having already covered the latter I decided that maybe it’s time to tackle the former. I’m a big political junkie, though perhaps it’s more accurate to say I’m a big history junkie, and insofar as politics is a subcategory of history I love politics. Conventions and debates, other than a few phrases here and there, are not history, they’re political theater, and so, with some rare exceptions, I don’t bother watching them, so don’t ask me what I thought of Trump’s speech or Obama’s (or Scott Baio’s for that matter). In my defense, I don’t think either conventions or debates have much power to influence the actual election results. I know that some people will argue that the Nixon-Kennedy debate swung things to Kennedy. Perhaps it did, but I was 11 years away from being born so I couldn’t have watched it even if I had wanted to.

People might also mention the 2000 election, arguing, probably correctly, that even a slight push in one direction would have given the election to Gore, and of course a slight push in the other direction would have kept it from being decided by the Supreme Court. And this is where we start to see the difference between history and politics. I’m glad it was close, because the drama and uncertainty that came with that turned it from just another election into history. Election night in 2000 was one of the most exciting nights of my life, and it only got more exciting as it became clear how tight things actually were.

I bring all this up because I think differentiating politics from history is important. For one thing, politics is very short term. Perhaps a metaphor would help illustrate my point, an election is like watching a football game. If you’re political, you really want your team to win and you really want the other team to lose. Passions are high, and it doesn’t matter what your team does, you still want them to crush the other guys, and it really doesn’t matter what the other side does you still really want them to be crushed. As an example, the BYU-Utah rivalry is big in my area, and one of my neighbors is a huge Utah fan. At one point I was talking to him about a recent game and I said I wanted it to be close and exciting. He vehemently disagreed, he wants Utah to win in a blowout. That’s the difference between politics and history. If you’re strictly political it’s all about your team winning, regardless of how uninteresting it is. If your interests are more historical, then, to extend the metaphor, you’re more interested in watching a last minute come-from behind touchdown, regardless which team does it. In other words, something like the 2000 recount.

Another example, also involving football, involves a BYU fan this time. This was back in the early to mid 2000’s when the memory of the Lavell Edwards years were still fresh. As I was talking to this fan, he mentioned, in all seriousness, that BYU fans sometimes called BYU “The Lord’s Team”. I made the joke that it was dangerous to bring religion into things because if the Good Lord did care about college football (and, I added, I was pretty sure he didn’t) it was clear that he was Catholic, not Mormon, since historically Notre Dame was a better team than BYU. I was surprised by the vehemence of his reaction, though in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been. He claimed that BYU was the better program. I said, you can’t just look at the last few decades when Lavell Edwards was the coach. You have to look at the whole history of the program, unless you want to argue that the Good Lord didn’t start paying attention to things until 1972. Despite pointing this out he refused to budget. I sent him a link to a site that declared Notre Dame to be the all time best football program (In the intervening years Alabama has passed them, currently BYU is 66th behind Utah who’s 37th), and he wasn’t swayed. This was politics. BYU was the best program/team/university ever, and nothing was going to change his opinion.

This is where I think we are today. We’ve been on top for awhile. People are really invested in the Democratic-Republican rivalry. They have their team and all they care about is winning. They’re way more fixated on whether someone plagiarized a speech, or said the wrong thing in emails, or seems to be too friendly with Russia (or whether someone threw a punch or dumped beer on the quarterback’s family) than parallels between now and the last time there was a strong populist candidate, or what kind of agreements we made with Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed, or how the situation in the South China Sea may resemble the situation before World War I (or whether it took 20 years for BYU to win their first game against Utah.) Perhaps this is good, perhaps it’s a waste of time to worry about things that happened decades ago. Perhaps you consider examining previous black swans a waste of time when Trump just barely said something ridiculous (again). But whether you worry about black swans and catastrophes or not they’re going to happen. To paraphrase the old quote attributed to Trotsky, “You may not be interested in catastrophes, but catastrophes are interested in you.” And when they are, understanding things beyond just the “Lavell Edwards” era, is going to come in handy.

As an example of this, I have a theory of history which I call “Whatever you do, don’t let Baghdad get sacked.” You may think this is in reference to one of the recent gulf wars, but actually I’m referring the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 (Genghis had been dead for nearly 40 years at this point but the Mongols were still really scary.) This incident may have been one of the worst preventable disasters in history. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died. Anyone who loves books always shudders when you bring up the loss of the Library of Alexandria, but in the sack of Baghdad we have an equally great library being destroyed. Contemporary accounts said that “the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.” Even though it happened centuries ago people will say that Baghdad still hasn’t recovered. I don’t know what dominated the thinking of the Abbasid Caliphate in the years before Baghdad was sacked. Perhaps, like us, they argued about taxes, or fought amongst themselves, or worried about foreigners. Perhaps there was even someone who said that they should do whatever it takes to appease the Mongols. If they did I see no evidence of it.

The sack of Baghdad was a black swan, a big one. And the whole course of history is different because it happened. Of all the things that the Abbasid Caliphate did, (or perhaps in this case didn’t do) this is what’s remembered 1000 years later.  Perhaps judging them by that standard is harsh, but what other standard should we judge them by? If the point of government is not to prevent your capital from being sacked, your rulers from being killed, your treasure from being carried away and your women from being raped, then what is its point?

As I said, whatever the Abbasid Caliphate did, it was the wrong thing. Now obviously I’m operating with perfect hindsight, but this takes us back to antifragility. It’s true that you can’t predict the future, but there are things that you can do to limit your exposure to these gigantic catastrophes, these major black swans. And that’s what governments are for.

To put this into terms we can understand. If we end up in a nuclear war with Russia or China whatever else we were focused on, student loans, poverty, Black Lives Matter, etc. it was the WRONG THING. Forget 1000 years from now, all that people will remember in 4 years if the next president gets us into a nuclear war is that. As I said nothing else will matter.

It’s not just nuclear war, there are lots of other things which could end up being a preventable Black Swan that in retrospect makes the petty arguments we’re having about immigration and email seem laughable, if they’re remembered at all. But for the moment let’s focus our attention on nuclear war, because I think some useful ideas might come out that discussion.

At first glance you might think that there’s not much difference between the two candidates on this issue. In fact you might even give the edge to the democrats particularly since Obama, at least at the beginning of his term spent a lot of time working to eliminate nuclear weapons for which, (along with his ability to not be George Bush) he was given the Nobel Peace Prize. But of course the point is that no one wants nuclear war. No one is going to campaign on a platform of nuking Russia. Consequently if we want to examine the candidates on this issue you have to take a few steps back. Where should we look if we’re worried about nukes? There is of course the possibility of a terrorist nuke, or perhaps in it’s death throes North Korea might set off a nuke or two. Both of these would be pretty bad, but, one there’s not a lot we can do about them and two, while they would definitely be giant black swans I think they would only be really impactful in the short term. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be paying attention to this area, but there’s a limited amount we can do. No, if we’re really trying to prevent the sack of Baghdad we should be looking at China or Russia.

How, then, do the two major candidates (I’ll get to third party candidates later) compare on this issue? Well it’s not something that comes up a lot. At this point in the election there’s been a lot more focus on whether Trump is really as good of a businessman as he claims to be or whether Clinton was being stupid or corrupt when she ran all of her email through a private server, than any discussion of the dangers of a nuclear exchange with the Russians. Of course the Russians do come up. 20,000 DNC emails were released and various people have accused the Russians of being behind it, as part of that they have accused Trump of being too cozy with Putin. This is generally viewed as a negative, but from the perspective of avoiding the big war, this might actually be a good thing.

However, if you dig you can find some illuminating things. No real smoking guns, but it does appear that Clinton definitely leans one way and Trump obviously leans another. Let’s start with Clinton. Clinton appears to be an interventionist. She pushed for intervention in Libya. She appears to have wanted to intervene in Syria as well. On the bigger and scarier issues she is reportedly very hawkish with Russia. She apparently has compared Putin to Hitler. And by the way, on that point, she’s completely and totally wrong. Not because Putin is nicer or better than Hitler but because unlike Hitler, Putin. Has. Nukes. When it comes to China Clinton doesn’t appear to do any better.

Turning to Trump, if anything people feel that he’s too close to Putin, as I already mentioned, but then there are his comments about NATO. And here there is an interesting discussion to be had. A few months ago Trump gave an interview to the new york times and as part of the interview he said that he would be less willing to defend our NATO and East Asian allies at the current level without greater financial contributions from them. The interview rambles a bit, but these appear to be the key quotes:

If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich…

With massive wealth. Massive wealth. We’re talking about countries that are doing very well. Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”

In taking that position would Trump increase or decrease the chances of a nuclear war? In the immediate and unequivocal judgment of many this position dramatically increased the chances of war. The article in Vox was typical of the reactions:

Wednesday night, Donald Trump said something that made a nuclear war between the United States and Russia more likely. With a few thoughtless words, he made World War III — the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in nuclear holocaust — plausible.

I disagree with this assessment. Of course it’s hard to know what will set off a war, and I think World War III was already plausible. But let’s dissect the core idea of whether Trump increased the odds of war with that statement.

The first thing Trump is claiming is that the countries we’re protecting are wealthy countries who can probably pay more for their own protection if such protection is required. This is true. He’s also talking in more broad terms about the US being over-extended. Whether the US is currently overextended or not is up for debate, but what is not up for debate is that being overextended is a significant contributing factor in the falls of all previous great empires.

The second thing to consider is that when he tells NATO nations that they can defend themselves he’s talking about ignoring the collective defense clause (Article 5) of the original treaty. Now in general I’m in favor of following treaties and doing what we say we’re going to do, but NATO has extended well beyond its original purpose, and well beyond its original members, and maybe re-examining it isn’t such a bad idea. But of course the writer at Vox and many others think that questioning it is just the first step towards nuclear war. But is that actually the case, does Trump’s position make war more likely?

At the moment there are 28 members of NATO. If any of them go to war with Russia than the US goes to war with Russia. If we kicked some of the member nations out as Trump seems to be suggesting doesn’t this literally make a war between the US and Russia less likely? Now I’m not saying that it makes a war between, say, Russia and Estonia less likely (Though it wouldn’t be much of a war…) I’m just saying it makes the war we’re trying to prevent, the war the Vox article specifically mentions less likely. Honestly, and I’m sure the author feels like he’s fighting the good fight, it actually just sounds like he’s just looking for any excuse to demonize Trump.

Speaking of Estonia, I’m a big fan of Estonia. I actually applied for e-residency there, but I’m almost positive that if Russia wants it, it’s not worth using nukes to keep them from getting it. Also when you think about Estonia it leads naturally to a thought experiment. Imagine that in the next few years that Texas manages to secede. Now imagine that a few years after it seceded it joined the Russian version of NATO, a military alliance designed exclusively around containing the US. Further imagine that this alliance included nearly all of South and Central America. How would we feel? Well that’s probably a close comparison to how the Russians feel.

Instead of asking whether it would be a good idea to back off from guaranteeing Estonia’s independence with the threat of nuclear weapons, Clinton is instead of the opinion that NATO should continue to expand. Whether this expansion would include countries like the Ukraine and Georgia is unclear, but with her general bias towards expansion and her husband’s own expansion into Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. (All former Warsaw Pact countries.) It’s unlikely that the Russians would believe any assurances she made on the subject, and would rather expect the worst, were she to become President. And let us pause here for a moment to explain the Russian mindset. It’s not just a matter of feeling encircled, or being unable to deal with the loss of their empire. Whatever you believe about Russia and however you feel about Putin, the last example of war they experienced, World War II, was literally (if you look at deaths) 50 times worse for them than for us. When you consider something like the Siege of Leningrad it’s understandable if they’re a little paranoid.

Of course there are at least two arguments which are going to be raised at this point. One being that we are unlikely to use nukes if Russia just invaded the Estonia, or a similar NATO member. This is certainly true, but once you’re in a war escalation becomes natural (just look at World War I which also involved a large alliance.) Also given how few troops we have, using tactical nukes might seem like a natural option. In other words while we’re not likely to use nukes in a situation where Russia invaded Estonia, we’re certainly more likely to do it than if we had no treaty commitment to Estonia.

The second argument is that if Estonia (or a similar member) is not a NATO member than they are far more likely to get invaded by Russia. This is also certainly true, and yes, I know we have made war more likely, but it is not the kind of war we’re really worried about. It is not the Sack of Baghdad. And here we once again get into a discussion about the difference between volatility and fragility. By taking the vast majority of countries in Europe and putting them under the umbrella of NATO and the US nuclear deterrent we’ve made things a lot less volatile. Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace, but we have made things a lot more fragile. One of the points that Taleb makes is that when you have high volatility the graph moves a lot but not very far. When you have low volatility the graph is largely flat until suddenly you hit a cliff. In this case the cliff would be war between the US and Russia, and it might very well involve nukes.

I don’t think people have really absorbed how different nuclear weapons have made things. Previously it didn’t matter how desperate one of the belligerents became if the other side out fought them and out produced them there was nothing they could do. It didn’t matter how desperate Germany and Japan got, at some point they were going to lose and we were going to win. But imagine if they had had the same number of ICBMs that Russia currently possesses?

I am by no means suggesting that Russia is as desperate as Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany, but this does not mean that they might be feeling angry or backed into a corner. We’ve gone 70 years without another nuke being exploded in anger and after surviving the cold war I think we’re getting complacent and arrogant. These days people don’t take Russia seriously, and they should. Recall that during the Cold War we let the Soviet Union get away with a lot, they installed puppet governments across all of Eastern Europe and when the people of one of those countries, Hungary, had an uprising they crushed it. We let them invade Afghanistan (though this was something of an own goal, a mistake we ended up duplicating) and while we provided assistance to the rebels it wasn’t much, and it was only when they tried to put missiles in Cuba that we really pushed back, and that nearly resulted in catastrophe.

Having said all this you may be wondering what I’m actually advocating for, and you may even get the impression that the whole point of this episode is to declare my support for Trump. That’s actually not the case, and in fact while I was in the process of writing the initial blog post a story came out that Trump had repeatedly asked an advisor why he couldn’t use nukes. Which, if true, is scary. I haven’t had the time to really look into that, and as we saw above it is not unprecedented for people to latch onto things just because they make Trump look bad.

To go back to the very beginning of the post what I am mostly advocating is to take a historical view of elections rather than a political view. And honestly what that mostly means is getting away from the two major parties because that’s nothing but politics. I know it’s a little late in the game to be tossing in a discussion of third parties, but I have long been an advocate for greater third party participation in American politics. I think we need a whole marketplace of ideas with vigorous and informed discussion. In 1257 the citizens of Baghdad didn’t need to hear a discussion of tax rates, or the latest fashion or whether the laws were too harsh or too lax, they needed to hear from the lone general who advocated everything possible to placate the Mongols. Six months before the sack I’m sure there were all sorts of things which seemed very important which didn’t matter in the slightest six months and one day later.

Steering a nation is complicated, and I’m not saying I know who would do the better job, and even if I did the results are well beyond my ability to influence, but when you’re thinking about these things, spare at least some thought for preventing big negative black swans. Spare a thought for what you can do to prevent the Sack of Baghdad.