Fuzzy little things that I find interesting.

Political musings from someone who thinks the S-D curve is more important to politics than politicians.

Month: September, 2017

The most regrettable XKCD Cartoon.

From Free Speech


This is one of the most regrettable XKCD cartoons, and the reason why is even more applicable today than it was three years ago when it was first drawn.

More than the Minimum

I hate this comic. It views “the right to free speech” as a legal requirement to be regrettably complied with. It places no value on free speech as a matter of principle.

Just because the first amendment to free speech speaks only of the government does not mean that the rest of us should feel free to shout down (youtube) those we don’t agree with. Yes, I know you think your opponents are assholes and that you are simply using your own free speech to prevent them from speaking, but that actually makes you at least as much of an asshole as them. Retract those claws.

I think part of the reason Randall drew this comic was a sense of his side winning in the marketplace of ideas. The most recent boycotts seem to be of bigots and other unsympathetic characters. Munroe isn’t thinking about the McCarthy-era blacklists that were simply private boycotts of workers holding legally protected but worse-than-assholish political beliefs. Are these the norms of private behavior we wish to emulate and carry into the future?

(Emphasis mine.)

Well, here we are in 2017, and Mr. Monroe’s side is no longer winning. It has become louder and more violent, more willing to ignore history to find new villains, more willing to erase history by tearing down statues that are supposedly racist, forgetting why those statues were erected in the first place.

And worse, the conclusion of Vikram Bath seems less a warning and more a prophecy:

Do not think these arguments won’t be resurrected again one day to silence you.

Today? We have a President who is willing to employ the tactics of the Left against itself, and who does so with unwavering core support and who seems to actually enjoy himself as he does it.

(In fact, this is the only reason why we have President Trump: because he was the only one willing to fight back in a bellicose and vulgar way at the bellicose and vulgar on the Left. Which, by the way, tells me in no uncertain terms if the Left continues to violently attack those they oppose, a Trump Administration has become a best case scenario.)

What surprises me, by the way, is how willing the Left is to resurrect the McCarthy era blacklists, especially in academia, an environment which is supposedly the last bastion of free thinking.

But, as Mr. Monroe puts it, the new McCarthy style blacklist–where teachers are fired for their politics or for refusing to play the game–are no worry. “It’s just that the people listening think you’re an asshole, and they’re showing you the door.”

You know, like they did to Charlie Chaplin.


The desire to change human nature.

In my last blog post I noted my fascination with sex: specifically, how sex expresses an element of human nature which disproves the supremacy of economic theory.

And I also note that Utopians (such as Marxists and Socialists) fundamentally want to change human nature–either by changing the culture, or the conditions on which we interact with others, in order to create their Utopian vision of the world.

Now an obvious consequence of this idea is that any economic theory which runs headlong against human nature must yield to human nature. Meaning if an economic theory requires changing human nature to implement properly, that theory is broken. And any economic theory which requires limits to human nature will ultimately yield–as the qualities of human nature run very deep.

But this doesn’t stop people from trying to change human nature anyway. And, interestingly enough, when Marxists and Socialists and Utopian Idealists attempt to tackle human nature in order to create a better world–well, some of them don’t stop with economics.

For example, Friedrich Engels believed that prior to the invention of “capitalism”, humans existed in a state of “original promiscuity”:

During the state of “original promiscuity”, to use Engels’ phrase, where within the tribe every women belonged to every man, and every man to every woman, some kind of “mother right” inevitably existed. As all certainty of paternity was excluded in this situation, descent or lineage could only be reckoned through the female line. This must have been universal. Given that mothers were the only ascertainable parents of the children, women were treated with a high degree of respect, and even reverence.

His belief was that as capitalism was invented, women’s sexual promiscuity was limited to a form of property ownership–and eventually we arrive at the monogamous relationships we see today in the form of families and marriages.

This line of reasoning suggests strongly that the path to a Marxist/Socialist “Utopia” must naturally abolish the marital unit, and return us to this “original promiscuity”, where, in essence, more people will be having more sex with more partners.

(This will naturally lead to those orgy rooms at the local airport where you can get your rocks off if you’ve got a few minutes to kill–courtesy of the State, of course.)

Note that the article I linked to defends this position, despite confessing:

While modern anthropological evidence does not bear out this sequence…

Of course “while”, related to the conjunction “but”, exists to negate the truthful observation, because of course today’s family structure must be negated if we wish to move towards a more perfect (*ahem*) union.

This is not just theory, by the way. Social and Sexual Revolution: from Marx to Reich and Back

The social revolution is only a prerequisite (and not a sufficient condition) for the sexual revolution, but [Wilhelm] Reich believed that recognition of their close relationship, particularly among the young, helped to develop consciousness of the need for both revolutions. With the exception of Character Analysis (1934), which psychoanalysts still regard as a classic in their field, and a few related articles, Reich’s early work was devoted almost entirely to the attainment of such a consciousness.

Not content to debate his ideas, in 1929 Reich organized the Socialist Society of Sexual Advice and Sexual Research. A half dozen clinics were set up in poor sections of Vienna, where working-class people were not only helped with their emotional problems but urged to draw the political lessons which come from recognizing the social roots of these problems.

We also have in the United States in the late 1800’s a phase of “utopian communities”, where groups of people would go off, buy cheap land, and set up shop to try out their Utopian ideals, based either on the Bible or on the Utopian ideals coming out of Europe–including those of the Communists and Socialists who thought capitalism was somehow “unnatural” or “imperfect.”

The Oneida Community started as a Christian Perfectionist movement, who believed that communalism (that is, the communal ownership of property and possessions) was a more “perfect” expression of humanity’s Godly state. (The difference between Communists and Perfectionists have to do with the belief if swimming towards perfection is an upstream swim, or a downstream swim. But the end-result is the same: an ideal state of Utopian Perfection which everyone cooperates in a state of supposed natural harmony.)

They were rather explicit about their desire to change human sexuality–and practiced “free love” (a term actually coined by the founder of the community), explicitly frowned upon possessiveness and exclusivity, and where women over 40 were expected to tutor adolescent boys on the mysteries of sex. The community ultimately fell apart because human nature runs very deep–and all that is left of the Oneida community is the silverware and flatware company the community started to pay its operating expenses.

Now of course Utopians of all stripes would deny that they are trying to reshape human nature–and seek very long and hard to find a logical reason why the current state of affairs (especially with respect to human sexuality) is in fact unnatural. But even as they fail to find evidence for their beliefs, they continue to push for this change.

Let’s be very clear.

I am a strong believer in self-expression. That’s because at the bottom of my ontological stack I believe in the primacy of the individual. I believe an inherent element of human nature is our desire to express ourself, and to create a zone of comfort around ourselves where we can have find some degree of safety and stability. I believe you can see this instinctual desire expressed in nature, in other animals: birds, for example, seem driven to build nests that are expressive but also secure and warm.

It’s why discussions of Marxist Feminist theory and Gender-Fluid expressions such as this give me such a blinding headache: because the amount of theoretical machinery folks like this need to build in order to arrive at the idea that we should be free to express ourselves is overwhelming and sometimes contradictory–just as contradictory as early histories of the Marxist movement towards LGBT rights in the early 1900’s, and the later repression of LGBT rights in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Instead, it seems far simpler to me to simply suggest that human nature being what it is, we all have the right to self-expression that isn’t an explicit call to credible violence–and we should all afford each other the room to express ourselves–be it through a genderqueer expression involving promiscuity and bisexual relationships, or through a traditional heterosexual monogamous marriage.

But my point is not about how we express ourselves or the wishes and desires we express.

It’s about the explicit denial of the depth of human nature that theoreticians of all bents engage in–from Marxist and the Oneida Perfectionists to people like Economist Alfred Marshall, who posited that “the need for private property reaches no deeper than the qualities of human nature.”

Human nature being what it is–and the inner turmoil many of us have between the desire to have more expressive sexual encounters and our desire for greater social stability–it is not a surprise to me that theoreticians who seek to change human nature in order to create an economic Utopia don’t stop with economics.

After all, who in their early 20’s haven’t looked at a more libertine expression of human sexuality without some sense of desire?

But human nature runs very deep indeed–and even in primitive societies and societies with deeply foreign cultures and ancient practices that strike us as utterly unfamiliar and completely foreign, aspects of human sexual nature–such as jealousy or longing or seeking a single partner and confidant, or creating stability and encouraging success for our children–remain strikingly familiar to us all.

The breakdown of economics and the depth of human nature.

The founders viewed private property as “the guardian of every other right.”* But, “by 1890 we find Alfred Marshall, the teacher of John Maynard Keynes making the astounding claim that the need for private property reaches no deeper than the qualities of human nature.”* A hundred years later came Milton Friedman’s laconic reply: ” ‘I would say that goes pretty deep.'”

“A Whiter Shade of Pale”: Sense and Nonsense — The Pursuit of Perfection in Law and Politics, Janice Rogers Brown, Associate Justice, California Supreme Court.

So I want to start with a question.

Why aren’t we having more sex?

Consider the definition of economic utility: “the total satisfaction received from consuming a good or service.” In any economic transaction, something is traded for something else–and if we are all “economic animals”, we will happily trade one thing for another if the thing we trade for has higher “utility.”

So, consider someone buying gas at a gas station, facing a bunch of candy bars at the check-out stand. If they can trade 89 cents for a Snickers bar, and if the “utility” (the total gratification) of consuming that 89 cent candy bar is higher than the “utility” of saving the 89 cents for something else–then they buy a candy bar and have a snack on the drive home.

They’ve made a trade, in other words, that resulted in a gain in “utility.”

So why aren’t we having more sex?

Consider the “utility” of sex: touching another, feeling of intimacy, relaxation, having an orgasm. There are numerous articles describing the benefits of sex: less stress, lowering pain, better sleep, and each of these can lead to a much longer and happier life.

I would argue that, in fact, the economic “utility” of sex is pretty high. Hell, if someone invented a pill which provided the same health benefits of having sex, that pill would become a multi-billion dollar industry overnight.

And consider the practical “cost” of sex (rather than the “emotional cost”): the time to actually do the deed, the time it takes to take off one’s clothes, the cost of protection (a condom).

If you consider the costs and benefits of sex, then honestly why aren’t we having more sex? And I don’t mean “why aren’t we having more sex with our partner”–I don’t know what your sex life looks like, and it could be that sex swing is getting a lot of use in your house. I don’t know.

But I mean why aren’t there “orgy rooms” at airports. (Hell, I’ve got 15 minutes to kill; may as well get my rocks off with some strangers before boarding the airplane.) Why aren’t there naked orgy rooms next to the exercise room at fancier hotels? Why aren’t people having sex in the streets?

“But most people are ugly.” So what? I mean, doesn’t that simply raise the cost of having sex and lower the benefits only a little? You may find him ugly but he can still get you off–and that is enough to get all the aforementioned health benefits that, if it came in a pill form, you’d be shelling out serious money for.

Why aren’t we having a lot more sex?

By the way, I’m not the first person to ask this question. Why don’t people have more sex?

We need not just reasons, but rather gains-from-trade-defying reasons.

By the way, notice my argument above. I’m not suggesting we should have more sex. I was asking why we aren’t already having more sex from an economics perspective. And if economics was perfectly descriptive, then things like airport orgy rooms should simply be fait accompli in the same way bathrooms and water fountains currently are.

What I am, in fact, suggesting, is that the field of economics is broken.

The reason why none of this is true–that orgy rooms currently don’t exist at airports despite being “predicted” (in some sense) by the behavior of satisfying utility gains–goes to human nature.

And as Milton Friedman quipped about human nature: “I would say that goes pretty deep.”

It’s not to suggest that economics is completely worthless. There is still value in understanding things like the supply/demand curve or Pareto efficiency. I believe we should be talking a lot more about Public Choice theory.

But notice that “costs” and “benefits” often are far more complex than “here’s my 89 cents; give me a candy bar.” (Such as the cost to engage in the transaction, or the cost of consuming candy.)

Beyond that, “costs” are often deeply emotional–tied deeply to human nature. It is human nature to want to be secure, fed, warm. To be loved, to be lovely. To help others that we know and to seek help ourselves. To be sympathetic to the weak and to the lovely. And “benefits” dive deeply again into human nature: “benefits” often are another way to say we satisfy these deep human urges.

Because all this dives so deeply into human nature–and because human nature is both deep and immutable–often the economic trade that leads to gains in utility aren’t considered as economic transactions. Instead, it could be as simple as “I’m hungry and I have 89 cents.”

And the idea of Homo economicus is just an illusion.

After all, wouldn’t “Homo Economicus” build orgy rooms at the local Hilton, in order to satisfy the unsatisfied marginal utility of all that anonymous sex we’re not currently having–in order to reduce the “frictions” that prevent us from satisfying the long-term marginal utility of sex?

It also suggests that if Humans were a different animal, the discussions we would be having about economics and property rights would be different.

For example, if humans were truly a herd animal like sheep or cows, would we have the same desire to satisfy the territorial instinct that private property provides for us? (And, truthfully, isn’t government registration of private property ownership simply a more sophisticated version of territorial marking?)

Or consider Marxism, which American entomologist E.O. Wilson once quipped “Wonderful theory. Wrong species.” (E.O. Wilson considered Marxism better suited to ants than humans.)

It’s also, by the way, why I find economic complaints from the Right about price gouging unpersuasive.

The idea being that if there is a limited supply, the price should be allowed to skyrocket so consumers can deal with shortages through market forces rather than through arbitrary and random shortages.

Now it could be price gouging would prevent runs on supplies that cause some customers to take more than they need, creating shortages (which are, by definition, customers who need more but who don’t have any).

But in practice rising prices help create a new economic equilibrium if pricing also encourages more supplies (by allowing new entrants to enter the market)–and in a natural disaster, new entrants generally cannot enter the market, and as the rebuilding process subsides, new entrants would create their own problems as suddenly a shortage becomes a surplus.

Further, it often ignores elements of human nature–including volunteerism and the mutual aid we give each other. The person who “hoards” gas may be the one who then provides gas for free to a neighbor in need; we don’t know.

So simply allowing prices to rise–I’m not certain the economic benefits are as advertised.

Because we are not Homo Economicus, and human nature runs very deep indeed.

For the same reasons I am completely unpersuaded by Socialists and Communists who believe if we were only to change human nature through education–or at least change the incentive structures of our culture–we would move towards the ideal Utopia that Socialists and Communists want.

Again, human nature runs very deep. Very, very deep.

In fact, I am convinced that you are more likely to build successful orgy rooms at a hotel than you are to convince everyone “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”

Don’t tell me that socialism and communism would allow me to keep my home. That’s because beneath the surface all land is theoretically productive, even if it only serves as a “home” to someone who is homeless.

Now I am not suggesting the homeless should be allowed to remain homeless; I believe we should provide homes to the homeless, as well as assistance and aid. I have no problems with that coming from both government and private sources.

But we must realize that homeless cannot be “solved”–again, because of human nature: there are always those who have problems and some who have mental illness that we cannot fix. More importantly, confiscating my home to give to a homeless family (because perhaps you think my house is too large for me) runs counter to human nature. Because without the reward of my hard labor, learned over half a century of effort, why should I practice my craft?

And when an entire nation of people realize they shouldn’t bother practicing their own crafts–you get Venezuela, where even the zoo animals are starving.

Because human nature runs far deeper than you or I can possibly conceive.

Want to change society–and you’re disappointed in human nature?

Try to set up orgy rooms first.

If you can do that–country wide, not just amongst your more libertine friends–then talk to me about your ideas for socialism making society better.

Piling on to my earlier post.

Three wild speculations from amateur quantitative macrohistory

“Everything was awful for a very long time, and then the industrial revolution happened.”

Interestingly, this is not the impression of history I got from the world history books I read in school.

Well, because it doesn’t fit in the romanticized past Progressives believe in, and wish we could return to.

The implications of this are pretty God-damned deep.

The Conservatism of Progressives

Most “progressives” (meaning those on the left to far left who prefer that term) would freak if they were called conservative, but what I mean by conservative in this context is not donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative.

OK, most of you are looking at this askance – aren’t progressives always trying to overthrow the government or something? Aren’t they out starting riots at G7 talks? The answer is yes, sure, but what motivates many of them, at least where it comes to capitalism, is a deep-seated conservatism.

However, when we move to fields such as commerce, progressives stop trusting individual decision-making. Progressives who support the right to a person making unfettered choices in sexual partners don’t trust people to make their own choice on seat belt use. Progressives who support the right of fifteen year old girls to make decisions about abortion without parental notification do not trust these same girls later in life to make their own investment choices with their Social Security funds. …

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism. Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being “dynamic”, the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them. Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms. Progressives want comfort and certainty. They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount. That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

As they say, read the whole thing. And by the way, here is the two item choice to determine if you’re an anti-capitalist progressive. Which would you pick?

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or…
  2. A “progressive” society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed. In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

However, I do want to add one thing, from an unrelated location:

Why Double Entry Bookkeeping Was Not Crucial, Nor Other Proffered Necessary Conditions

What made us rich, I argue at no doubt tedious and unreadable length in the Bourgeois Era trilogy, is imagination, ingenuity, radical ideas released.

That is, learning, ingenuity and new ideas, driven by the imagination of people inventing new processes, new devices or new business methods, is what has driven the growth of wealth.

And it is classical liberal capitalism, not “diligence” or “hard work”, which led to the explosion of wealth over the past 150 years which makes today’s world completely unfamiliar to an agrarian settler living a sustenance existence in the United States in the late 1800’s. Human creativity was “released from ancient trammels” by “liberalism, Smith’s ‘liberal plan of [social] equality, [economic] liberty, and legal [justice].'”

So when a progressive argues that the world would be measurably better if we were poorer (i.e., living a “more meaningful life” closer to nature, stripped of the unnecessary contrivances and plethora of choices that Bernie Sanders once railed against), but a more “evenly distributed” society (similar to the idealistic Ba’ku people in Star Trek: Insurrection)–what they really are speaking about is living in ignorance.

Because the moment a people are trapped in well established trammels for their own good by the Statists who believe they know better than us, all in the name of “progress”–that’s the moment the world is set for a major disruption if someone happens to come across a better method or a more efficient way.

So Progressivism, really, is a call to ignorance and stupidity. It is a rejection of the dynamic forces that happen when people sit down and figure out a better way. It is a call to an ancient ignorance that promises a “simpler” life–a swan song, a siren call pulling us to the rocky shoals and onward to our death.

Really? This needs to be said?

Have we become such fragile flowers a company like Twitter has to spell out something so painfully obvious?

Twitter tries to explain why Trump’s posts aren’t like others

If it’s ‘newsworthy’ then the tweet stays up, even if it’s a threat.

Well, and the post that people want censured–which shows just how fucking stupid this has all become–is the one mentioned in this article: ‘Declaration Of War’ Means North Korea Can Shoot Down U.S. Bombers, Minister Says

Look, I get it. If I were to post a tweet saying “John, you fucking asshole, I’m going to kick your ass!”–well, that tweet should be taken down. It’s a specific call to violence against a specific individual–and if the threat of violence is credible, it is, in point of fact, assault, which is against the law:

An assault is carried out by a threat of bodily harm coupled with an apparent, present ability to cause the harm. It is both a crime and a tort and, therefore, may result in either criminal or civil liability.

(Now most companies error on the side of taking down threats, even if they are not “coupled with an apparent, present ability to cause harm”, because third party companies like Twitter are unable to determine if a threat is credible, or if it is not.)

However, and the point most people nowadays trying to get shit taken off the Internet they don’t like utterly fail to comprehend, is that the post is taken down not because someone said a mean thing that may upset our fragile feelings. Nor is it cart blanche to take down posts we dislike from people we dislike because they sounded all mean and they didn’t even agree with us! (Whine, whine.)

No, it’s taken down because of the potential of representing a real and credible threat: a violation of the law.

It’s why other mean and hateful posts which may hurt our poor wittle feewings (cue worlds smallest violin) don’t get taken down. Because my saying “John, you fucking asshole, you’re such an idiot” is not a threat. Nor, by the way, are the tweets coming from various police agencies threatening arrest and prosecution of people committing certain crimes: the police are in fact legally allowed (and obligated) to make such arrests.

In both cases, there is no potential crime. Hurt feelings, sure–but suck it up, Sparky; life is full of hateful shit.

More importantly, while it would be nice if people were to act in more civil ways–the world is not a civil place. Personally I feel free to counter incivility with incivility–because when civility fails, some people only respond to a rhetorical back slap. (The worst, by the way, is passive-aggressive incivility. But I digress.)

That said, was President Trump’s tweet a potential violation of the law?

Of course not. President Trump is free to use any language he wants, as President of the United States, in order to accomplish the strategic goals of the office he has been elected to.

We may not agree with how he’s going about his job; that’s what elections are for. (And that’s why elections have consequences, as President Obama so famously put it.)

But to take President Trump’s tweet down on the theory that it represented a credible illegal act–a credible call to violence against a specific person in violation of statutes against assault–please.

It is a shame that Twitter’s HR department can’t figure this out, that they are unable to go back to basic principles to derive the reason why Trump saying we’re going pound North Korea into the ground is not the same as me saying I’m going to pound John into the ground.

Because it leaves idiot reporters for places like Engadget begging the question with stupid statements like this:

So if Twitter’s rules ban “violent threats,” then surely a tweet indicating that a country “won’t be around much longer” from a user with the ability to make that happen would be deletion-worthy, right?

And Twitter’s reliance on the “newsworthy” excuse doesn’t work, does it? Because what if John is famous and I in fact beat the living shit out of John? Isn’t that newsworthy?

We’re so down the rabbit hole nowadays because people can’t wind back to the foundational principles on which they’ve built their ontological stack. So they don’t know fundamentally why Trump’s threatening North Korea is philosophically (and, more importantly, legally) different from my threatening John.

It’s why so many companies like Twitter then get bit in the ass, when they do something they think “feels” right–but which has no actual philosophical or legal justification beyond “because I said so.”

I confess I completely missed this.

The Horrifying Easter Egg Everyone Missed In Indiana Jones

So in that third film, the protagonist finds himself in Hatay (now part of Turkey), in an ancient temple facing three booby traps (it’s well-known that while Jesus was a “carpenter,” what he built were primarily booby traps). The theme of the traps is that only true Christians will be able to get through safely without being dismembered, apparently a symbolic representation of how getting into Heaven works.

In one section of the cave, Indy is told “Only the penitent man will pass.” Knowing this is some sort of Biblical riddle (and that apparently faith makes you better at solving riddles), Indy struggles for an answer before, at the last possible second, he realizes he must literally kneel down “before God” and … do a kickass forward somersault? Yes, this is when our blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment occurs:

A blade whizzes past at neck height, forcing Indy to his knees. Any non-kneeling heretic would find themselves neatly decapitated. But the reason he has to then roll forward is that a second blade flies up from the floor.

That makes no sense whatsoever. Why would a penitent man also be a skilled tumbler with lightning-fast reflexes?

I honestly wondered this myself. And I do remember the scene and remember thinking “what the heck?” But the explanation offered makes perfect sense, in a rather horrifying way.

On Statues, Southern Pride and Marxist Smashers.

One of the smartest essays I’ve read on the topic of confederate statues:

Unlearning history

In some circles there’s lately a vogue for vandalizing or pulling down Confederate statues. The people doing it think (or say they think) that they’re striking a blow against racism. I think they’re, at best, engaged in a dangerous reopening of old wounds. At worst they’re threatening to inflict serious new ones.

Eric Raymond then goes on to discuss the post-war period, the reconciliation between the North and South which left the South one of the most patriotic and pro-American regions of the Union, and the damage caused by reopening old wounds by Marxist Red Guards whose real goal is to destroy American pride and replace it with Marxist cant.

Worth a read, even if you disagree.

In support of anti-elitism.

Periodically I see articles like this, and I’ve been meaning to respond.

To be clear, by the definitions of most articles like this, I would be considered part of the “elite”: I graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in Mathematics, having studied abstract topological spaces and computational geometry. I work as a software developer, a field which requires a relatively high level of logic and intellectualism. I also spend a lot of time studying human interfaces and the limits of human cognition; this comes as part of my job. Economically my wife and I are not quite 1%ers by income, but we certainly are ahead of most of the population. I have a few political connections (though politics is something I’d rather comment on than participate in), and I have a respectably high IQ, meaning I’m good at seeing patterns others don’t see right away.

So when I respond to an article like this, I am not responding as a “populist”: as someone who is suspicious of the “privileged elites” and believes power needs to be given to the “common man” regardless of what station those privileged elites hold.

To be clear, while I am highly supportive of right of everyone to live their lives as they will (different strokes and all that), I am highly suspicious that “common wisdom” exists, and I am highly suspicious of the idea that the “common man” has the ability to process the highly technical aspects we see in some corners of our society. (On the other hand, I do believe it is the responsibility of those who understand to simplify and explain: for those in the know to prepare a “freshman lecture”, both to recognize if they understand, and to explain to others who are less learned than they are.)

So when I respond here, I’m hardly the stereotypical knuckle-dragging moron that most so-called “experts” think of who respond to stuff like this.

In Defense of Elitism

Why is it, then, that in intellectual spheres elitism is criticized and shunned? A comparable amount of talent and training may be necessary to a respected professor or scientist, and yet many people think their opinions are just as valuable with respect to their specific ares of expertise.

Because intellectual elitism is also intellectually narrow.

Take Stephen Hawking, for example, one of the most intellectually gifted theoretical physicists in the modern world. His research in the fields of black holes, general relativity and the like are absolutely cutting edge, and his knowledge in the fields of theoretical physics (and the frameworks which carry you there, such as calculus) is top-notch.

To suggest some random hacker like myself is equal to Stephen Hawking’s knowledge in theoretical physics is beyond absurd. I could spend the rest of my life trying to understand what Professor Hawking knows–and never understand it all.

Stephen Hawking is, thanks to his knowledge of the Universe, a well known celebrity.

And this is where it all goes haywire. Because lately Professor Hawking has been wading into the debate about Artificial Intelligence, a field that Professor Hawking has not studied to the same depth as his prior work on black holes and space-time. It’s not to suggest that his arguments aren’t worth listening to–that’s a logical fallacy–but to amplify his words given his celebrity status, when (in all humility) I’ve probably spent more time in the field of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence–and at that point this whole “expertise” thing comes off the rails.

Why is it, then, that in intellectual spheres elitism is criticized and shunned?

Interestingly, Dr. Novella, the author of the article, answers his own question without realizing it:

Interestingly, the more physical and immediate the outcome, the more elitism is tolerated. Compare surgery to medicine. The skill and talent of the surgeon is unquestionably recognized, and no one sane would allow a self-trained and uncredentialed “surgeon” to perform major surgery on them. But I have news for you – many areas of medicine are just as hard and take as many years of training.

Though–having spent a lot of time in a medical setting recently (thanks to the passing of a couple of people I know), I wouldn’t use the word “tolerated” but “respected.”

And yet… notice that even in the medical setting, we don’t go to an ENT (Ear-Nose-Throat) specialist in order to do open heart surgery.

Expertise is narrow.

The cry of “elitism” has become a major component of anti-intellectualism, denying the value and legitimacy of intellectual pursuits. Everyone might be entitled to their own opinion, but that does not make all opinions are of equal value.

On this point I whole heartedly agree.

Where it goes wrong for me is how improperly this idea is applied in real life, ironically by so-called “experts.”

For example, take Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose Ph.D. is in astrophysics and cosmology. If we wanted to talk to an expert about astrophysics and cosmology, then clearly Dr. Tyson is your man. He’s also your man if you want to (say) talk about the wonders of astronomy.

He is, however, not an expert in Climatology or Philosophy. At best he is an intelligent celebrity–but then, would we also give the same credence to Queen rock guitarist Brian May? After all, Dr. May’s Ph.D. is also in astrophysics.

Where the rubber meets the road with the supposed “anti-intellectual” movement “decrying the value and legitimacy of intellectual pursuits” is when science and experts meets politics.

You can consider politics its own field of expertise–a sort of cross between the practical art of engineering solutions with the practical art of reaching compromises. In politics its all about framing problems and selling solutions, while considering the impact those solutions may have on people who are being affected.

And in this field of expertise, people like Dr. Tyson, Dr. Hawking, Dr. Novella or (to use more charged names here) Dr. Michael Mann or Dr. James Hansen, who supports a national carbon tax are all strangers in a strange land: non-expert intelligent celebrities like Dr. May (whose celebrity came by playing the guitar). To call them “elite” in this context does a massive disservice to the very sort of “expertise” Dr. Novella pretends to advocate for.

None of these people are “elite” in the field of politics. They are just well-connected, using a larger microphone than they deserve.

The problem is not that people are anti-intellectual–though undoubtedly you can find a lot of anti-intellectualism at the fringe of our society, or of any society for that matter. (There are always people who believe in the literal healing power of crystals or ancient alien astronauts building the pyramids.) By and large, as Dr. Novella noted, we do respect experts in their personal field of expertise.

But when so-called experts leverage their expertise to gain celebrity status, then use their celebrity status to opine on subjects not in their field of expertise–expect people to take their words with a grain of salt.

And rightfully so. Because a world where we cede political control to a small elite group of supposed “experts” operating outside of their narrow field of expertise is not “meritocracy”. It’s classical oligarchy, but where our high priests rulers proclaim the religion of scientism.

Perhaps a first step to improving the situation is to stop selectively demonizing intellectual elitism. We praise elite athletes, give our money and adulation to elite performers and artists, and trust in those with elite technical skills. We should also recognize the value of elite intellectual talent and skills.

I once had a doctor–an Ear-Nose-Throat expert I had gone to regarding my snoring–tell me to stop eating microwaved foods because (I shit you not) he told me “microwaves change the molecular structure of the food.” My wife (a Registered Dietitian) basically rolled her eyes when I told her that. Sure, microwaving “changes the molecular structure of the food”–but through a process called “cooking.”

So I suggest to Dr. Novella that perhaps as a first step to improving the situation, experts need to start recognizing the limits of their expertise.

Because the one thing Americans hate more than anything else is someone who clearly has no expertise in a particular topic (even if they have expertise elsewhere) talking down to us like we’re a bunch of fucking fools.

Now if I wanted an opinion in neurology and neuroscience–trust me Dr. Novella, you’re first on my list of people to call.

Anything else? Get in fucking line.

Because despite your apparent protestations to the contrary, outside of your narrow field of expertise–you’re not an elite. You just think you are.

Our dreams of Marxism are really our dreams of Heaven–forgetting that to go to Heaven, you must first die.

Why Trump’s UN Speech Was a Triumph

… “The problem in Venezuela,” Trump said, “is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”

It is important to see Trump’s speech in the the broader context of utopian ambition generally. In a memorable passage at the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant evokes a soaring dove that, “cleaving the air in her free flight,” feels the resistance of the wind and imagines that its flight “would be easier still in empty space.” It is a fond thought, of course, since absent that aeolian pressure that dove would simply plummet to the ground.

How regularly the friction of reality works that way: making possible our endeavors even as it circumscribes and limits their extent. And how often, like Kant’s dove, we are tempted to imagine that our freedoms would be grander and more extravagant absent the countervailing forces that make them possible.

Such fantasies are as perennial as they are vain. They insinuate themselves everywhere in the economy of human desire, not least in our political arrangements. Noticing the imperfection of our societies, we may be tempted into thinking that the problem is with the limiting structures we have inherited. If only we could dispense with them, we might imagine, beating our wings, how much better things might be.

What a cunning, devilish word is “might.” For here as elsewhere, possibility is cheap. Scrap our current political accommodations and things might be better. Then again, they might be a whole lot worse. Vide the host of tyrannies inspired by that disciple of airy possibility, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Man was born free,” he declaimed, “but is everywhere in chains”: two startling untruths in a single famous utterance.

Rousseau was keen on “forcing men to be free,” but we had to wait until his followers Robespierre and Saint-Just to discover that freedom in this sense is often indistinguishable from what Robespierre chillingly called “virtue and its emanation, terror.”