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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Which Side is Really Losing in Politics?

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Many years ago I got an email from my brother urging me to register my opposition to some new forest service regulations that were about to take effect. My brother is an avid snowmobiler and he claimed that the new regulations would severely impact snowmobiling in a nearby national forest. As I recall he sent me to a webpage where the injustice of the new regulations were laid out in minute detail, and with much ranting.

Obviously my first inclination was to help out my brother, but from reading the webpage it was apparent that the regulations were just the latest battle in an ongoing war between the snowmobilers and local environmentalists. And out of curiosity I went looking for the other side of that war. In particular I wanted to know what they thought about the new regulations. After a little bit of sleuthing I came up with the name of the group on the other side of the issue and went to their webpage. As I said this was many years ago, so I can’t remember the identities of either group but I do remember thinking that as much as the snowmobilers hate these new regulations that the environmentalists must love them.

Instead, I discovered that the environmentalists appeared to hate the new regulations just as much as the snowmobilers did, and there was a similar rant about how horrible and unjust the new regulations were on the environmentalist’s website. I honestly don’t recall any longer if they were also urging people register their opposition, but they very well might have been. Regardless, it was clear that they were also not happy. I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me. Bureaucracies constantly have to split the baby in such a way that no one is happy. But still, one can’t help but feeling that it would have been better to make at least one of the sides happy than to make both equally miserable.

I was reminded of this story recently as I was thinking about the current liberal-conservative dynamic, and especially the fact that these days, nearly everyone, regardless of their political persuasion, seems convinced that their side is losing. Immigrants are convinced they’re all about to be deported. Christians feel under attack by an increasingly secular society. Democrats and liberals are dismayed by the election of Trump and Republicans and Conservatives are alarmed by the increasing strident social justice activism.

Of course it’s one thing to lose a battle it’s another to be losing the war, and to me it seems obvious that on any time horizon longer than about a year, the left/liberal/progressive side has been winning the war. Though, while this seems obvious to me, it’s definitely not obvious to some of them. In particular I remember seeing a comment on Facebook from a high school acquaintance, wherein he confidently asserted that outside of same sex marriage and a couple of other items (unfortunately I can’t find the original comment) that the right has been dominating politics and getting their way for decades. I have a hard time imagining how even the most partisan individual would arrive at that conclusion, but given that I’m neither liberal, on the left, or especially progressive, perhaps I’m just another person who is convinced that their side is losing. But what does the evidence actually say?

Let’s start by looking at a battle the left definitely lost, though before I do, I should clarify that I know that by using “the left” as all purpose term to identify one side of things and “the right” as my all purpose term for the other side that I’m hand waving all manner of ideological differences and lumping people together who may not only disagree with what I’m about to say, but they may have significant disagreements with each other. With that caveat in place let’s move on.

The biggest loss the left has suffered recently is obviously the election of Trump. But, recall, and this is something I’ll be mentioning a lot, we need to distinguish between losing a battle and losing the war. The last election was a particularly hard fought, and acrimonious battle. And without a doubt the left lost that battle (though, when it’s all over we may decide that we all lost.) But did the left lose the war? Losing a decisive battle can mean you lost the war, but was the election of Trump decisive? It certainly doesn’t seem that way. First, Trump’s victory has so far not amounted to much. Every proposal he’s made has been fought tooth and nail. Second, and closely related, the opposition is anything but cowed. If you need proof of this compare the Russian and Chinese opposition to the current American opposition. Finally, in a democracy none of the “battles” should be decisive because you reset the board and have a new “battle” every four years (or two if you count control of the legislature.) With all this I don’t think there’s any reason to declare that the left has lost the war.

However, looking deeper you may recall an argument I made in a previous post that the Supreme Court, and the judiciary more broadly, are gradually becoming the de facto rulers of the country. If you buy into this argument, (and certainly many people called it the most important issue of the 2016 election) Then, depending on how many justices Trump gets to appoint and depending on how conservative they end up being you could certainly imagine a scenario where this particular battle ended up being rather decisive. However I would offer up a couple of reasons why this is unlikely.

  1. Trump is unlikely to get the opportunity to replace more than one of the court’s liberal judges. To do even that, one of them would have to die (Most likely Ginsburg, but maybe Breyer) since none of them would dare to retire while Trump is President. Slate has this great calculator based the CDC tables which tells you the odds of any given judge or combination of judges dying and it puts the chances of one of at least one liberal justice dying at 56%. If this is the case then it is conceivable that the conservatives could end up with a 6-3 majority on the bench, assuming that Kennedy and Roberts continue to be counted on the conservative side of things. Which brings me to the second point.
  1. Both Kennedy and Roberts have become increasingly liberal over time. (See this graph.) In fact it’s quite common for a justice nominated by a Republican president to end up on the liberal wing of the court. Recent examples of this are: Blackmun, Souter and Stevens. The opposite, Democratic Presidential nominees ending up on the conservative wing, is basically unheard of. Thus even if Trump does manage to flip a liberal seat to a conservative one, there’s a good chance that one of the judges currently considered to be conservative will end up mostly siding with the liberal wing of the court. Witness Roberts’ votes on Obamacare and Kennedy’s vote on Same Sex Marriage.

On the first point, we mostly just have to wait and see what happens. On the second, though, we should get a pretty good idea of whether Trump is “winning” when the Supreme Court gets around to ruling on his travel ban, which will probably happen sometime this fall.

The best case scenario for Trump is a 5-4 ruling upholding the travel ban and overturning the rulings of all the lower courts. Then if he can hold on to that basic split, and if a liberal justice dies, and if he can get a nominee through the Senate (which is by no means a certain thing) and if, by this time, Kennedy or Roberts hasn’t drifted over to the liberal side of the court then we might end up with a 6-3 conservative-liberal split on the Supreme Court. This would be pretty bad for the left. But I hardly think it would represent losing the war. In the mid 90’s seven of the nine justices had been appointed by Republican Presidents and despite this, to the best of my knowledge Roe v. Wade, for example, was never in any danger of being overturned.

This all assumes that the Supreme Court overrules the lower courts, which is by no means certain. Alan Dershowitz, a noted liberal attorney, thinks they will, but no one (including Dershowitz) would be surprised if they didn’t. And if they don’t, then at best the election of Trump is a temporary setback for the left, considering that he won’t have been able to get even his signature initiative past the courts.

That may have been a deeper dive than you wanted into the Supreme Court, but I spent so much time on them because, in the final analysis, particularly if you consider the US, that is where most of the recent battles have been decided, so if any side was going to lose permanently it would probably involve the court in one respect or another. Of course all of the foregoing assumes that Trump plays by the rules and many would argue this assumption is already invalid given that he’s been breaking rules left and right. Still I don’t see him breaking any of the big rules (suspending elections, declaring martial law, trying to stack the court, etc.) Also recall that we’re talking about who’s winning now, and while it’s appropriate to consider the near future in that assessment the farther away from the present we get the less value our assessment has.

I started off by looking at the area where you could make the strongest claim that the left is losing. Outside of Trump’s election the left’s case that they’re losing gets more tenuous. Though, another area where the argument could be made is with respect to the media, particularly if you start including social media. This point is closely related to the last one I made about the election, since many people have claimed that it was Trump’s mastery of social media (especially Facebook advertising) which lead to his upset victory. But unlike looking at the voting records of the Supreme Court Justices to detect a liberal-conservative split, trying to decide who’s winning the media battle is a lot more complicated, though if you want to argue that Trump’s election proves that the conservatives are at least doing well in this battle I would certainly grant that. But as far as winning goes, before you get too far into things you have to decide what winning even means outside of something like an election. Is the right winning because Fox News is the #1 cable news network? (Though with Trump as a target, Rachel Maddow has been doing pretty well recently.) Is the left winning because only 7% of reporters identify as Republican? Does the rise of, so called, fact-free journalism mean that the right is winning because they’re much better at propaganda or does it mean the left is winning because the facts are on their side? Or are we really just dividing into separate echo chambers where each side is winning the game because they made up the rules and didn’t invite the other side to play? I’m inclined to think it’s this last thing...

As he does so often Scott Alexander beat me to the punch and published an examination of this issue on SlateStarCodex at the beginning of May. His article was, in turn, responding to another article that had been posted on Vox.com (a website whose liberal leanings are pretty obvious) about tribal epistemology, which is a fancy way of describing the echo chamber problem. Alexander’s summation of the Vox article is so great I have to quote it:

...there used to be a relatively fair media in which both liberals and conservatives got their say. But Republicans didn’t like having to deal with facts, so they formed their own alternative media – FOX and Rush Limbaugh and everyone in that sphere – where only conservatives would have a say and their fake facts would never get challenged.

Or: everyone used to trust academia as a shared and impartial arbitrator of truth. But conservatives didn’t like the stuff it found – whether about global warming or trickle-down economics or whatever – so they seceded into their own world of alternative facts where some weird physicist presents his case that global warming is a lie, or a Breitbart journalist is considered an expert on how cultural Marxism explains everything about post-WWII American history.
As hilarious as I find this description, it’s also an accurate representation not only of the article, but of the viewpoint that many on the left have about where things stand at the moment. But there are several problems with this representation. First, though it’s beyond the scope of this post, I don’t think liberals have nearly the monopoly on truth that they claim. Second, and most germane to our subject, if conservatives have fled en masse from media and academia, isn’t retreating from the field a pretty good description of losing? Finally, it implies that this is a recent split, that everything was going along fine when suddenly, right around the election of Trump, the conservatives went crazy and unilaterally blew the whole system up because they hate the truth. Leading to a broken system where liberals continue to be on the side of facts and justice and conservatives have turned into rabid barbarians.

Alexander takes particular aim at this last point, and mentions that the original article (the one he’s commenting on):

...devotes four sentences in his six thousand word article to the possibility that conservatives might be motivated by something deeper than a simple hatred of facts.

Alexander points out, I believe correctly, that reducing the recent conservative split down to just a “hatred of facts” leaves out all manner of context. Which is to say it blatantly misrepresents what has happened. The four sentences Alexander call out, end with the statement:

But the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own.

Both Alexander and I remember the last several decades a lot differently, but Alexander says it better so I’ll use another quote from him:

This is a bizarre claim, given the existence of groups like Accuracy In Media, Media Research Center, Newsbusters, Heterodox Academy, et cetera which are all about the right seeking greater fairness in mainstream institutions, some of which are almost fifty years old. Really “it’s too bad conservatives never complained about liberal bias in academia or the mainstream media” seems kind of like the opposite of how I remember the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternately pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. Then they defected to create their own.

If you agree with this narrative (and it certainly matches my experience) then we can take three things from it. First it bolsters the idea that the conservatives are losing, second that they have been losing for a lot longer than just since November, in both media and academia, and finally that we have ended up with a media civil war that bears many similarities to the actual Civil War. Another situation where people attempted for decades to keep things together but finally, when it became apparent that was impossible, that’s when hostilities finally break out. Though, hostilities this time around are not anywhere near the level of the actual Civil War and it might be more appropriate to call this a “cold civil war.”

Of course, I am by no means, the first person to talk about an increasingly divided country, or of a national divorce or even the first person to compare it to a new civil war. But I think most of these people are looking at it from a very short time horizon, while I think the key insight in this whole thing, the insight which Alexander brings to the table is that this has been going on for decades, and what we’re seeing recently is people giving up on trying to solve the problem via compromise. Just as, with the election of Lincoln, it became apparent to the South that it would no longer be possible to maintain slavery via the federal government.

Taken all together what this means is that the chasm which is opening up in society is not some recent development, some short-lived mass hysteria brought on by the election of Trump, rather it’s something that has been going on for a very long time and rather than current events being a temporary detour, they more likely represent a metamorphosis into a new and frightening reality, which may bear more resemblance to 1860 than to 1968.
Looking at all of this you may dismiss my conclusions. Perhaps you don’t think conservatives are losing, or you think the division is a temporary bump in the road, not some new and frightening change to the country's politics. If so I would urge you to stay tuned, because I definitely intend to return to this subject and cover areas beyond the Supreme Court and the media and perhaps delving into these other areas will change your mind. But that aside, for the moment, I would ask you to assume that I am correct, to assume that the conservatives are losing and that they’ve been losing for a long time. If this is the case, what are the potential outcomes?

The first possible outcome is that, just like the South during the Civil War, the conservatives could be routed, their institutions could be laid waste and the things they feel deeply about could be made illegal. (It should be pointed out here that the process of making things legal they deeply oppose has already begun.) And there would be many who would cheer this outcome, and if you believe that the signature conservative positions of today are as bad as slavery was then, you probably should cheer this outcome. (You also might be deluded.) But if you can imagine this outcome from the position of the victors, can you also imagine it from the position of the vanquished? And if so do you imagine that they’re going to surrender quietly? It could be argued (and this is one more thing which I intend to cover in more depth when I return to this subject) that conservatives have been surrendering for decades and it hasn’t gotten them anything. And that the rise of the alt-right and the election of Trump and all of the other associated phenomenon have come about because conservatives are tired of surrendering, particularly when it brings no benefit. In any event this outcome flows from the methodology of war, and as I have said in the past, it’s unlikely to be as quick and as painless as you imagine, even if you happen to be on the winning side and even if you keep the violence to a minimum, which is by no means certain.

That is, broadly, what happens if the trend continues. On the other side we have the outcome if the trend reverses itself, things peak, and while, yes, the conservatives are losing, and have been losing for a long time, it slows down, and in a manner similar to what happened in the late 60’s/early 70’s, activism and protests and social unrest reach a crescendo and then subside. Just like Nixon, Trump will leave office and everyone will calm down a little bit. Fox News will mellow and become more like CNN. The polarization in congress will subside and we’ll once again have a bunch of moderates, who reach across the aisle to pass intelligent bipartisan legislation. Obviously, something like this, is the outcome I prefer, but it’s an outcome that requires a lot of understanding and a lot of wisdom. And as I describe it, it honestly doesn’t sound very likely.




If you prefer to see the war fought out in this way with words rather than fists (or guns or worse) consider donating, in return I promise not to punch anyone. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Straddling Optimism and Pessimism; Religion and Rationality

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One of the regular readers of this blog, who also happens to be an old friend of mine, is constantly getting after me for being too pessimistic. He’s more of an optimist than I am, and this optimism largely derives from his religious faith. Which happens to be basically the same as mine (we’re both LDS and very active). Despite this similarity, he’s optimistic and hopeful, and I’m gloomy and pessimistic. Or at least that’s what it looks like to him, and I’m sure there’s a certain amount of truth to that. I do have a tendency to immediately gravitate to the worst-case scenario, and an even greater tendency to use my pessimism to fuel my writing, but I don’t think I’m as pessimistic as my friend imagines or as one might assume just from reading my posts. I already explored this idea at some length in a previous post, (a post he was quick to compliment) but I think it’s time to revisit it from a different angle.

The previous post was more about whether my outward displays of pessimism reflected an inward cynicism that needed to be fixed, i.e. was I being called to repentance. (I think the answer I arrived at was, “Maybe.”) This post is more about what the blog is designed to do, who the audience is, and how writing in service of those two things is a lot like serving two masters (wait… Is that bad?) And therefore may not give an accurate impression of my core beliefs, beliefs which I’ll also get into. Yes, I’m writing a post about the blog’s mission nearly a year into things. Make of that what you will. Though I think we can all agree that occasionally it’s useful for a person to step back and figure out what they’re really trying to accomplish.

I think the briefest way to describe the purpose of this blog is that it’s designed to encourage antifragility. Hopefully you’re already familiar with this concept, and the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb in general, but if not I wrote a post all about it. But if you don’t have the time to read it, in short, one way to think about antifragility is to view it as a methodology for benefitting from big positive rare events and protecting yourself against big negative rare events. In Taleb’s philosophy these are called black swans. And here we touch on the first area in which writing about a topic may give an incorrect view of my actual attitudes and opinions. In this instance, writing about black swans automatically makes them appear more likely than they actually are, or than I believe them to be. Black Swans are rare, and if I wrote about them only in proportion to their likelihood I would hardly ever mention them, but recall that a black swan, by definition, has gigantic consequences, which means they have an impact far out of proportion to their frequency. Thus, if you were to judge my topic choice and my pessimism just based on the rarity of these events, you would have to conclude that I spend too much time writing about them and that I’m excessively negative on top of that. But if I’m writing about black swans in proportion to their impact I think my frequency and negativity end up being a much better fit.

Of course writing about them, period, is only worthwhile if you can offer some ideas on how individuals can protect themselves from negative black swans. And this is another point where my writing diverges somewhat from my actual behavior, and where we get into the topic of religion. As a very religious person I truly believe that the best way to protect yourself from negative black swans is to have faith, keep the commandments, attend church, love your neighbor, and cleave to your wife/husband. But as long time readers of this blog know, while I don’t shy away from those topics, neither are they the focus of my writing either. Why is this? Because I think there are a lot of people already speaking on those topics and that they’re doing a far better job than I could ever do.

If there are already many people, from LDS General Authorities to C.S. Lewis who are doing a better job than I could ever do, in covering purely religious topics, I have to find some other way of communicating that plays to my strengths, without abandoning religion entirely. But just because I’m not going to try and compete with them directly doesn’t mean I can’t borrow some of their methodology, and one of the things that all of these individuals are great at is serving milk before meat. Or starting with stuff that’s easy to digest and then once someone can swallow that, moving on to the tougher, chewier, but ultimately tastier stuff. and in considering this it occurred to me that what’s milk to one person may be meat to another. As an example, if you have a son, as I do, who is nearly allergic to vegetables (or so he likes to claim). And you want him to eat more vegetables, you wouldn’t start out with brussel sprouts or spinach.  You’d start with corn on the cob soaked in butter and liberally seasoned with salt and pepper. On the opposite side of the equation if someone were to decide, after many years, that they are done being a vegetarian, you wouldn’t introduce them to meat by serving them chicken hearts or liver.

In a like fashion, there are, in this world, many people who already believe in God. And for those people starting with faith, repentance, and baptism is a natural milk, before moving to the meat of chastity, tithing and the Word of Wisdom. There are however other people who think that rationality, rather than faith, is the key to understanding the world. With these people, it is my hope, that survival is the milk. Because if you can’t survive, you can’t do anything else, however rational you are in all other respects. And then, once we agree on that, we can move on to the meat of black swans, technological fragility, and what religion has to say about singularities.

It should be mentioned that before we leave the topic of “milk before meat,” that it’s actually got something of a bad reputation in the rationalist community (to say nothing of the ex-mormon community). They view it as a Mormon variant of a bait and switch, where we get you into the Church with the promise of three hour meetings on Sunday, paying 10% of your income to the church, giving up all extramarital sex, along with booze, drugs and cigarettes (recall, that you have to agree to all of this before you can even be baptized.) And then I guess only after that do we hit you with the fact that you might have to one day be the Bishop or the Relief Society President? Actually I’m not clear what the switch is in this scenario. I think all of the hard things about Mormonism are revealed right at the beginning. Also I’m not quite sure why they take issue with the idea of starting with the easier stuff. We literally do give children milk before meat; we teach algebra before calculus; and don’t even get me started on sex ed. In other words this is one of those times when I think the lady doth protest too much.

Moving on... Choosing a different audience and a different approach does not mean that I am personally any less devoted to the faith and hope inherent in my religion. And that hope comes with a fair amount of optimism. Certainly there are people more optimistic than me, but I am optimistic enough that I have no doubt that things will work out eventually. The problem is the “eventually,” I don’t know when that will be, and until that time comes, we still have to deal with competing ideologies, with different ways for arriving at truth, and with the world as it exists, not as we would like it to be. Also if we’re only able to talk to other Christians (and often not even to them) then we’re excluding a large and growing segment of the population.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and much of the motivation for this blog came from seeing areas of surprising overlap between technology and religion, particularly at the more speculative edge of technology. As an example, look at the subject of immortality. In this area the religious have had a plan, and have been following it for centuries. They know what they need to do, and while everyone is not always as successful as they could be in doing what they should, the path forward is pretty clear. They have a very specific plan for their life which happens to include the possibility of living forever. Some may think this plan is silly, and that it won’t work, but the religious do have a plan. And, up until very recently, the religious plan was the only game in town. Which doesn’t mean that everyone bought into it, but, as I mentioned in a previous post, If you were really looking for an existence beyond this one that involved more than just memories, then it was the only option.

Obviously not everyone bought into the plan, people have been rejecting religion for almost as long as it’s been in existence. But it’s only recently that there has been any hope for an alternative, for immortality outside of divine intervention. Some people hope to achieve this through cryonic suspension, e.g.freezing their body after death in the hopes of revival later. Some people hope to achieve this by digitizing their brain, or recording all of their experiences so that the recordings can be used to reconstruct their consciousness once they’re dead. Other people just hope that we’ll figure out how to stop aging.

These different concepts of immortality represent an area of competition between technology and religion, but the fact that both sides are talking about immortality is, I would opine, a neglected area where we see the overlap I mentioned. Previously only the religious talked about immortality and now transhumanists, are talking about it as well. When presented with this fact, most people focus on the competition and use it as another excuse to abandon religion. But there are a few who recognize the overlap, and the surprising consequences that that might entail. Certainly the Mormon Transhumanist Association is in this category and that’s one of the things I admire about them.

To take it a little farther, if we imagine that there are some people who just want a chance at immortality, and they don’t care how they get it, then previously these people would have had no other option than religion. Whether religion is effective, given such a selfish motivation, is beyond the scope of this post though I did touch on it in a previous post. But in any event it doesn’t matter because, here, we’re not concerned with whether it’s a good idea, we’re concerned with whether such a group of people exists and whether, given the promise of technological immortality, how many have, so to speak, switched sides.

I’m not sure how many people this group represents. Also I’m sure the motivations of most religious individuals are far more complicated than just a single minded quest for immortality. But you can certainly imagine that the promise of immortality through technology might be enough to take someone who would have been religious in an earlier age and convince them to seek immortality through technology instead. If there are people in this category, it’s unlikely that much is being written specifically with them in mind. All of this is not to say that my blog is targeted at “people who yearn for immortality, but think technology is currently a better bet than religion.” A group that has to be pretty small regardless of the initial assumptions, but this is certainly an example, albeit an extreme one, of the ways in which technology overlaps not only the practice of religion, but also the ideology, morals and even philosophy.

It’s easy to view technology as completely separate from religion, and maybe at one point it was, but as we get closer to developing the technology to genetically alter ourselves and our descendents, eliminate the need for work, or create artificial Gods (and recall we already have the technology to destroy the world) then suddenly technology is very much encroaching on areas which have previously been the sole domain of religion. And taking a moment to examine whether religion might have some insights into these issues before we discard it, is, I believe, a worthwhile endeavor. This is where, by straddling the two, I hope to cover some ground the General Authorities and people like C.S. Lewis have missed.

Interestingly, this is where religion ends up providing both the source of my pessimism as well as the source of my optimism. I have already mentioned how faith in God is a source of limitless hope, but on the other hand it also provides a framework for understanding how prideful technology has made us, and how quick we have been to discard the lessons of both history and religion. We are faced with a situation where people are not merely ignoring the morality of religion, they are in many cases charting a course in the opposite direction. In this case, what other response is there than pessimism?

Of course, and I should have mentioned this earlier (both in this post and in the blog as a whole.) You have probably guessed that my name is not actually Jeremiah, that it’s a pseudonym I adopted for the purposes of this blog. Not only because I took the theme from the book of Jeremiah but also because I think there are some parallels between the doom he could see coming and many potential dooms we face. I assume that Jeremiah had faith, I assume that he figured it would all eventually work out for him, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t pessimistic about the world around him, enough so that a we still use the word jeremiad to mean a long, mournful complaint. And I think he was onto something. I know it’s common these days to declare that we just need to be optimistic and love people regardless of what they’re doing. But I’m inclined to think a pessimistic approach which is closer to Jeremiah’s might actually produce better results. And this is where we return to antifragility, which is another area of overlap between religion and technology, though probably less clear than the immortality overlap we talked about (which is why I started with it.)

The great thing about striving to be antifragile is that it’s a fantastic plan regardless of whether you’re religious or not. As I mentioned earlier my hope is that survival may provide a useful entry point, the milk so to speak, even for people who aren’t religious. In particular I think self-identified rationalists place too much weight on being right in the short term and not enough weight on surviving in the long term. Which are strengths of both antifragility specifically and religion generally. Obviously we don’t have the time to get into a complete dissection of how rationalists neglect the long-term, and I have definitely seen some articles from that side of things that did an admirable job of tacking the potential of future catastrophe. Perhaps, it’s more accurate to state that whatever their consideration for the long term that religion does not factor in at all.

But religion is important here for at least three reasons. First as I said in a previous post, even if there is no God, the taboos and commandments of religion are the accumulated knowledge about how to be antifragile. Second religion is one of the best ways we have for creating resilient social structures going forward. Which is to say, who’s better at recovering from disaster? The rationalists in San Francisco or the Mormons in Utah? Finally, if there is a God, being religious gives you access to the ultimate antifragility, eternal life. Obviously this final point is the most controversial of all, and you’re free to dismiss it, (though you might want to read my Pascal’s Wager post before you do.) But, with all of this, are you really sure that religion has no value in our modern, technological world? To return to the main theme of this post, I think people underestimate the value that comes from straddling the two worlds.

The problem with all of this is that in trying to speak on these subjects the minute you bring in religion and God many people are going to tune out entirely. Thus, despite this being an emphatically LDS blog, I don’t spend as much time speaking about religion as perhaps you might expect. In part this is because I honestly think you can get to most of the places I want to go without relying on deus ex machina. Believing in God does make everything easier to a certain extent (across all facets of life) but what if you don’t believe in God? Does that mean that you can throw out religion in it’s entirety, root and branch? I know people want to dismiss religion as a useless or even harmful relic of the past, but is that really a rational point of view? Is it really rational to take the position that countless hours, untold resources, and millions of lives were wasted on something that brought no benefit to our ancestors? Or worse caused harm? If this is your position then I think it’s obvious that the burden of proof rests with you.

There is a God in Heaven. And so I have all the optimism in the world. But, when so called rationalists, mock thousands of years of wisdom, then I’m also a huge pessimist. To use another quote from Shakespeare, remember “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.





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Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Derbyshire Standard and the Stability of Nations

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If I were to make a list of my favorite political pundits, John Derbyshire would be very near the top, perhaps even number one. For those whose knowledge of punditry stops at Stephen Colbert or Rush Limbaugh (or even for those whose knowledge extends to encompass George Will and Paul Krugman) that name is probably unfamiliar to you. And if you have heard the name it was most likely in connection with his 15 minutes of fame after he was defenestrated from the National Review for thoughtcrime back in April of 2012. As someone who aspires to be a thought criminal, I immediately sent him some money when that happened and have continued to religiously read his stuff ever since. Including his 1068 page novel, Fire From The Sun, which was excellent, and Prime Obsession, his book on the Riemann Hypothesis. Which must make him some kind of triple-threat.

This long introduction is necessary because I’m going to base most of this blog on an observation The Derb had back in 2006, and in properly giving him credit the question would inevitably emerge as to what side of the fence I was on vis-à-vis the aforementioned defenestration, and I wanted to make it clear right up front that I’m on Derb’s side of the fence. As last caution, I would urge you to make neither too much nor too little of that.

With that out of the way we can turn our attention towards Derbyshire’s observation. As I said, he made it all the way back in 2006, which means that it was interesting enough and surprising enough and most of all counterintuitive enough that it has stayed with me during the intervening decade and made a significant contribution towards informing my worldview and skepticism since then. He begins things by pointing out that his 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica lists 152 countries, he then asks:

How many of those countries made it from 1911 to today, nearly a century later, with their systems of government and law intact (allowing for minor constitutional adjustments like expansion of the franchise), without having suffered revolution, civil war, major dismemberment, or foreign occupation?

Before we get to the answer let’s examine what is meant by these four categories, or perhaps more properly these four calamities along with some examples:

  1. Fundamental change to the system of law or government – As Derb mentioned, he’s not talking about giving women the vote, or merely passing a Constitutional Amendment. This would be more something like a military coup, or if some president decided to skip an election (as the far-left fears of Trump and as the far-right feared of Obama). Of course sometimes this sort of thing is not that obvious. Did Russia change from a democracy to a dictatorship in 2008 when Putin went through the charade of having Medvedev assume the Russian presidency for four years? Putin obeyed the letter of the law by not serving more than two consecutive terms, but no one had any doubts that he was and still is in charge.

  1. Civil war or revolution – This is one of the items on the list the US has definitely experienced, though it was before 1911. When people offer up the worst case scenario of our current political climate this is it. More recently, if you’re looking for an actual civil war there is of course the Syrian Civil War, which if nothing else shows both how bad civil wars are, and also that it is not something which only happened in the past.

  1. Significant loss of territory –  This category is at least as fuzzy as the change of government category, and perhaps moreso. Obviously if one of the states successfully seceded I think that would count, but looking farther back in history would it have applied to Russia when they sold us Alaska and to France when they sold us Louisiana?  What about Ukraine’s recent loss of Crimea? (Particularly given the fact that Crimea’s status has always been all over the place.) Do we count the UK losing most of Ireland in 1922? I’m inclined to say no, yes, and yes, respectively, but that could depend on the day you ask me. But if Texas or California seceded I think that would fit the definition of a calamity for the US.

  1. Foreign occupation – This is one area in which the US has been exceptionally lucky. There are only a few instances where there has even been a foreign attack on US soil. And there’s never been an occupation. If you want to find modern examples of this happening then you just have to flip things from the US being occupied to the US being the occupier. In this case there’s been quite a lot of it recently. As I’ve pointed out it’s worthwhile to occasionally view things from the other side. It’s difficult to imagine the US being occupied, but it would obviously be humiliating if it happened, just ask the Iraqis and the Afghanis.

It should be clear that if any of these things happened to the United States that it would be a big deal, or a catastrophe, if you prefer. And here we finally turn back to the original question. How many of the 152 countries listed in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica avoided all four of these catastrophes over the last 100+ years? I think, based on what I’ve already said, that we can feel fairly confident in saying that the United States did, but who else?

Mexico? Nope, the Mexican Revolution lasted until 1920, with the main coup d’etat in 1913.

Turkey? The Ottoman Empire didn’t fall until 1922, after the Turkish War of Independence.


France? Oh yeah, the Nazis. And, of course, it wasn’t just France. World War II eliminates a lot of countries from contention. Basically everyone in continental Europe, and all of southeast asia.

Obviously I’m not going to cover every country. The point is after all is said and done, by The Derb’s calculations (and mine as well) only six countries escaped all four of these catastrophes: The United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland.

Part of the inspiration for this post was an email I got from one of my readers who took issue with an assertion I made in a previous post that all civilizations eventually collapse. Specifically he mentioned China, and argued that it had never collapsed. And while it’s true that there is still a nation called China, just as there has been for four thousand years (depending on how mythical you want to get), the current nation of China has very little in common with the Chinese nation of a thousand or two thousand years ago, other than the name. Thus saying that China has never collapsed is true only if your definition of collapse is very narrow, but I will grant that by using generic words like “collapse” and “catastrophe” I open myself up to criticism from people whose definition of the word is less (or more) strict than my own. As I reflected on this criticism it reminded me of the 2006 article by Derbyshire, and his standard of whether a nation has survived intact.

For my purposes this is a better standard anyway. What any given person is interested in, is not whether in 500 years the country calling itself the United States is the same country that exists today, or whether it collapsed in 2256 when the Quebecois sacked Washington DC and made everyone start speaking French. No, what people are, or should be worried about are the calamities which might occur in their lifetime, or to put it another way what negative black swans should we be worried about? Any of the four calamities I mentioned above would be large negative black swans, the kind of thing that would make everyone nostalgic for the peace and harmony which reigned during the early days of the Trump administration. Which means that yes, there might be some very narrow standard under which you could say that China has existed continuously for 4,087 years since the reign of Yu the Great, but under the Derbyshire standard, the current nation of China has only been intact since 1949 when the nationalists retreated to Taiwan, which actually makes China younger than the NBA.

Before we go too much further with the Derbyshire standard it should be noted that it is also open to interpretation. Even one which was very narrow would have to include the Communist Revolution, but a broader interpretation might go so far as to count the restructuring undertaken by Deng Xiaoping after the death of Mao as a change in systems from communism to capitalism (albeit a limited and very Chinese version) as something which violated the Derbyshire standard (i.e. after Deng the Communist China of Mao was no longer intact.) And of course I already pointed out how the various large land purchases undertaken by the US in the 1900’s are in a grey area. The point being that there’s always going to be some wiggle room with something like this, the real question is whether it’s a black swan, especially a negative black swan. I would say the Deng’s reforms were definitely a black swan but a positive one.

All of this is to say that whether or not a civilization will “collapse” under some arbitrary definition of the word, is less useful than knowing whether a major political upheaval is likely and what form it might take. And if we’re using the Derbyshire standard for that, we can say, at least in the past, it’s been exceptionally rare for a country to go 100 years without some sort of upheaval.

We might, at this point, try and do a survey of the 152 countries which existed in 1911, or of the 190 countries with undisputed sovereignty which exist today, and attempt to come up with a figure for the average time a nation remains intact. And from there arrive at some estimate of how overdue the US is for something like this. But of course lumping all 152 or 190 countries into a single data set only works if you assume that Sudan and Syria, which both suffered disruptive events in 2011, are just as stable as the US. Such a calculation would also assume that 2017 is as chaotic and disruptive as 1917 or 1945. And at first glance both assumptions seem pretty ridiculous, and for that reason the exercise is probably pointless. But even if it’s not worth doing, I still think it’s worth examining those two assumptions I just mentioned because they may not be as ridiculous as they first appear.

Starting with the first assumption, even if we agree that some countries are more stable than others that doesn’t get us anywhere unless we understand why that is. If stability is based on sunspot activity or astrology than the US might be stable only as long as Jupiter is retrograde in Virgo, and Syria might only be unstable only for as long as we’re in Sunspot Cycle 24. This would make predicting things a lot easier, but unfortunately it’s obviously not either of those things. However, this does illustrate the point that whatever it is, it could change, and unless we know what it is we don’t know how likely it is to change.

I touched on this briefly in a previous post, but for the purposes of this discussion all we need to determine is whether the cause of the instability is something people take with them when they emigrate from unstable countries to stable ones. If they do, if stability is not 100% a function of the location of the unstable country, then immigrants are going to bring the remaining percentage with them. And remember that on top that instability there’s the additional instability created in the interaction between immigrants and the population which is already in place.

You may argue that just not having to worry about food and death diminishes the instability carried over from the initial country. I’m sure that’s true, and it falls under the general topic of how well immigrants are at assimilating the stability of their destination country. But if any of that instability remains unassimilated then we have a situation where assuming that France and Syria have the same levels of stability becomes less ridiculous as France becomes more Syrian. We have in fact seen a fair amount of instability in France, but I assume that only a tiny amount is due to France becoming more Syrian, but when you combine all of the instability generated by immigration in general and the imported instability of dozens of countries, not just Syria, it becomes reasonable to ask if France’s stability might be changing. We can only hope that the answer is no.

The second assumption I mentioned and one which is often used to dismiss overdue political upheaval in the US, is the assumption that 2017 is less chaotic than 1917 or 1945 (or even 1848 for that matter.) But in making this assumption people have a hard time restricting themselves to 2017, which, to be fair, is reasonably calm, by historical standards and, also, half over. No, instead they want to extend the calm which exists in 2017, and which has existed for the last few decades, forward into 2018 and 2020 and even 2030. It is certainly possible that those years will be as calm if not calmer than 2017, but there is of course no way to know, and given how rare it is for a country to go 100 years, as we have, without any of the four calamities, (remember just 6 out of 152!) Are we really that sure this time it’s different?

Long time readers of this blog will recognize that as the question I refer to over and over again. Are we different in some ongoing and fundamental way from the past? Do people, particularly in the US, no longer have to worry about revolutions or foreign occupation, or sessession or dictatorship? I would say no, and I suspect that more people worry about it now than worried about it two years ago, or twenty years ago. Also I hope that this time around as I ask these questions, that by keeping in mind the tiny number of countries which have avoided upheavals, that we might approach the subject more soberly. I think it’s also helpful to take the discussion out of the somewhat ambiguous realm of collapses and catastrophes into the more concrete realm of the Derbyshire standard.

As I already mentioned, I think the election of Trump, and specifically the political infighting and instability which attended the election has definitely increased the worry for most people. And in closing I’d like to examine each of the four calamities (as I’ve been calling them) from both sides: first why it won’t happen, and second how it might happen and how likely that is. Though as a general note I think all of them are more likely than they were in 2006 when the original article was written.

1- Fundamental change in our the system of government

In modern times the most common tactic for turning democracies into dictatorships, or at least oligarchies, is to mess with the elections. You can prevent certain parties and individuals from running, or you can rig the election, or you can put up puppet candidates like the aforementioned example of Putin and Medvedev. But in the end what you want to create is the illusion of choice while maintaining the same power structure which existed before the election. You can say many things about Trump, but no one is going to claim that he represents business as usual in Washington and you’d have to be insane to think that he’s a continuation of the Obama or even the Bush presidency.

On the other hand, these days, systems of government change gradually, and it may be that we have been imperceptibly migrating to a new one in the same way that the frog is boiled, slow enough not to be noticed. If I had to pick a candidate for this change I would say that we are gradually transitioning to a system where we’re ruled by the judiciary. Certainly they’ve already stopped Trump from doing many of the things he wanted to do, and just yesterday there was an article in Slate pointing out that as the swing vote, the success of Trump’s travel ban basically comes down to a single individual, Justice Kennedy. Just in case it’s unclear, when a single, unelected individual has the final say on everything that’s not a democracy…

2- Civil war or revolution  

For most people this seems more likely than the last item. Though once again it’s hard to see how things come to violence, which is the defining characteristic separating this calamity from calamity number three. In evaluating this possibility it’s helpful to review past civil wars and revolutions. Fortunately, I’ve been a regular listener of the Revolutions Podcast since it’s inception and he recently covered the July Revolution (one of the many French Revolutions) and what’s interesting about earlier revolutions is the relative parity in weapons between the revolutionaries and the military, a parity which definitely wouldn’t exist now, no matter how many NRA members you have. Of course this doesn’t stop irregular organizations like ISIS from putting up a pretty good fight, but it’s hard to see anyone in the US adopting the tactics of Assad, but maybe I’m just not imaginative enough.

However, when we turn to the other side, perhaps the examples of the various revolutions (French or otherwise) are closer to our own situation than we want to admit. One thing we see over and over again are students in the forefront of past uprisings and revolutions. When one looks at current campus climate it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine that something similar might happen again.

3- Significant loss of territory

There’s been a lot of noise about secession, and not just in the US. Many people think that Scotland might secede from the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote. Or that Catalan may break away from Spain. Inside the US there are of course worries about Texas or California seceding. In assessing the likelihood of a state seceding it’s important to acknowledge the differences between the positions of, for example, Scotland and Texas. Scotland had hundreds of years as an independent nation, Texas was independent for only 16 years, and that’s if you count the Civil War. The UK has already gone a long way towards making Scotland into a separate entity by devolving power. Nothing of the sort has happened with Texas. Scotland’s biggest political party is a specifically Scottish party whose primary goal is independence. Texas is still mostly Republican. Despite all of this, the last time Scotland held a vote they voted against independence. All of this would seem to indicate that Texas still has a long way to go before it’s truly in danger of seceding.

Still, it’s hard to deny the spirit of secession and fragmentation which appear to be in the air. And unlike the UK, which has bent over backwards to devolve power and keep Scotland in the Union, the US federal government has done very little to accommodate the individual states and federalism appears to be dead. It may be just as Princess Leia foretold, that the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

4- Foreign occupation

I would hazard to say that despite my normal habit of hedging my bets and searching for calamities that others might overlook that on this final count we probably don’t have to worry about foreign occupation (Red Dawn notwithstanding). In this one case I will admit that the world is different, I think our enemies wouldn’t bother to invade, they would just nuke us.

And so, whether or not you agree with my assessment on how likely any of these scenarios are, I hope that I’ve at least given you a better idea of the kind of calamities I’m worried about and the nearly unique position the US occupies in having avoided all of these calamities for the last 100 years when most countries have not. A position I hope that we continue to enjoy, but one which I think is more precarious than people suspect.




Of course I didn’t cover the greatest calamity of all, if this blog went away. You can help make sure that calamity doesn’t come to pass by donating.