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Saturday, July 7, 2018

Divorce Is Better Than Murder

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Recently there was an article in the Wall Street Journal by Steven F. Hayward, titled, Climate Change Has Run Its Course. The article starts off by clarifying that:

No, I’m not saying the climate will not change in the future, or that human influence on the climate is negligible. I mean simply that climate change is no longer a pre-eminent policy issue. All that remains is boilerplate rhetoric from the political class, frivolous nuisance lawsuits, and bureaucratic mandates on behalf of special-interest renewable-energy rent seekers.

Okay, so it hasn’t run its course as a phenomenon, it’s run its course as something that politicians care about. The obvious next question is, why? I have seen no evidence that the underlying problem is getting any better. (At least not from any source a politician is likely to pay attention to.) Public attitudes seem all over the place, but not especially low. I found an article from 2016 which says that concern in the US is at an 8 year high, so it’s not like public worry has cratered. (Which is not to say the public isn’t fickle.) So why has it run its course? The article offers the following speculation:

A good indicator that climate change as an issue is over can be found early in the text of the Paris Agreement. The ‘non-binding’ pact declares that climate action must include concern for ‘gender equity, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity,’ as well as “the importance for some of the concept of climate justice.

This assertion immediately put me in mind of a quote from Scott Alexander of Slatestarcodex, discussing something very similar (h/t to Escapement over on Reddit for helping me track this quote down.)

I like the Jewish idea of the Noahide Laws, where the Jews say “We are not going to impose our values on anyone else…except these seven values which we think are incredibly important and breaking them is totally beyond the pale.” Sometimes I wish universal culture would just establish a couple of clear Noahide Laws – two of them could be “no slavery” and “no eye-gouging” – and then agree to bomb/sanction/drone any culture that breaks them while leaving other cultures alone. On the other hand, I also understand universal culture well enough to know that two minutes after the first set of Noahide Laws were established, somebody would propose amending them to include something about how every culture must protect transgender bathroom rights or else be cleansed from the face of the Earth by fire and sword. I’m not sure how to prevent this, or if preventing it is even desirable. This seems like the same question as the original question, only one meta-level up and without any clear intuition to help me solve it. I guess this is another reason I continue to be attracted to the idea of Archipelago.

I’ll be returning to his idea of the Archipelago later, but for now, let me just say I’m not nearly as conflicted about the benefits of preventing the sort of value creep Alexander and Hayward describe. Stripped of the emotion and contention people normally attach to these issues the diffusion of focus they describe is exactly the kind of thing that can undermine any effort, from creating change on a global scale to an individual working on a project for his boss. And if we add emotion and contention back in, losing focus is even more fatal, since the lack of focus is precisely the thing any opposition will seize on. (Which is almost certainly what Hayward is doing with his article.) And it is exactly this lack of focus that I want to talk about, not whether there’s any political will left in the fight against climate change. But insofar as we started with the subject of climate change it’s worth examining how a lack of focus could be undermining that effort.

It’s certainly possible that the very best way of reducing climate change, is also the way which does the most to “empower women” and also includes perfect “gender equity”. And it’s also possible the very best way of ensuring the elimination of slavery as a global value is to include the value of “transgender bathroom rights” as well. But it’s far more likely that including those principles involves some sacrifices in effectiveness elsewhere. That an initiative to reduce climate change while also paying attention to female empowerment is less effective than one which only has to worry about reducing climate change.

As part of the WSJ article Hayward ends up citing political scientist Anthony Downs' 1972 article for Public Interest, Up and Down With Ecology: The ‘Issue-Attention Cycle,’ Which describes five stages of a political movement:

  • Stage 1: Experts and activists call attention to a public problem.
  • Stage 2: The "alarmed media and political class discover the issue" and often stir up "euphoric enthusiasm ... as activists conceive the issue in terms of global peril and salvation."
  • Stage 3: The "hinge," characterized by "a gradually spreading realization that the cost of ‘solving’ the problem is very high indeed."
  • Stage 4: The "gradual decline in the intensity of public interest in the problem."
  • Stage 5: A "prolonged limbo—a twilight realm of lesser attention or spasmodic recurrences of interest," which often involves "painful trade-offs" that activists simply aren't willing to make.

I was particularly struck by that last bit, the painful trade-offs that activists aren’t willing to make. With climate change, we see this most clearly with the issue of nuclear power, which I’ve already discussed in this space, but I think Hayward is correct to include things like “gender equity” language in this category as well.

Now, it’s unfair to place all the blame on activists for their inability to make painful trade-offs. As Alexander points out, it’s more accurate to describe this as a near universal trend of our day and age; People in general and politicians in particular are less and less willing to make trade-offs, even trade-offs which aren’t particularly painful.

At this point I’m going to pivot to another, related news item. Last Wednesday Justice Anthony Kennedy announced that he would retire at the end of the current session, and of course things immediately got kind of crazy. The Republicans wasted no time in moving to replace him with someone who is even more reliably conservative, and the Democrats, even more quickly, declared that it was the literal apocalypse. In particular they seem worried by the possibility that Roe v Wade will be overturned.

To be honest I think this is unlikely, first there’s still a long road between where we are now and the nomination and they need Collins and Murkowski to get anyone on the bench and Collins is already making noises about voting against anyone who she thinks might overturn Roe v Wade. On top of that, my prediction is that Roberts gives too much deference to precedent for him to vote to overturn Roe v Wade (have you seen how narrow many of the recent rulings have been?) Thus my prediction, absent Ginsberg dying or being forced to retire, is that Roe v Wade will not be overturned. However much I might want it to be. (Also see my posts on the inevitable leftward drift of society.)

Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think it will happen, let’s imagine that it was overturned. It’s important to remember that if Roe v Wade is overturned that doesn’t mean that abortion is suddenly illegal everywhere. It means the legality goes back to being decided on a state by state basis. (Which is not to say that the Supreme Court couldn’t make it illegal everywhere and in all cases, but I would REALLY bet against that.) Now for people who support the right to abortion, this still seems pretty apocalyptic. In other words they would argue that overturning Roe v. Wade has no upside. Now as I said I don’t think it is going to get overturned, but I’m here to argue that if it was that might be a good thing, even for those people who support abortion rights.

My claim is that you have to prioritize things, and that some things are more important than others. Alexander talks about having seven immutable values/laws. Given the philosophical morass of morality that is abortion, if it is necessary to prioritize things, if it is really better to have five or seven or ten core values, is access to abortion really so important that it needs to be one of those core values?

To get more pragmatic, let’s replay the 2016 election, but imagine that this time we’re in an alternate reality where some of the things which are currently decided at the federal level are instead decided at the state level. Imagine if abortion rights had always resided with the states. Imagine that there was no Obamacare, that each state had come up with it’s own solution for out of control healthcare spending. (And out of 50 solutions surely there has to be one that works, right?) On the other side, imagine that, at the federal level, they had really focused on things that can only be done at the federal level, like borders and immigration. Also, with so many things decided at the state level, in this alternate reality, the Supreme Court doesn’t end up being the de facto rulers of the country.

Given all of this, does Trump still win? I don’t think he does. Not only are people who might vote for him less angry, and less energized, but he also loses all the people who held their nose and voted for him strictly on the basis of the Supreme Court. (Because, for these people, whatever else you may say about Trump, his Supreme Court nominees were going to be way better than Clinton’s. ) On net is this a better world? I would argue that it is.

Similarly to turn to the topic we began things with, does the Paris Accord get more support, is it more effective if they remove the “social justice” language? I certainly can’t see how it could have been made less effective by the removal of that language...

Now of course I could be wrong, and also it’s somewhat pointless to speculate like this. We live in a world where Trump did win and where the fight over who will replace Anthony Kennedy is going to be one of the defining moments of his presidency. But we also live in a world that is increasingly in the grip of a cold civil war between various competing ideologies, and the fact that the Federal Government generally and the Supreme Court more specifically is the ultimate battleground for this civil war makes the battles at that level, metaphorically, very bloody, and I worry ultimately it won’t be a metaphor.

Fortunately, for now, other than a few isolated incidents here and there, things have not gotten bloody, but they have started fracturing, we see examples of nascent fracturing all over on the internet, but you can also see it in things like Brexit, and Catalonia, and of course the ballot initiative to make California into three states. Obviously this last bit is the least likely to happen, but increased polarization and fracturing are everywhere you look these days. So what happens now?

There appears to be three ways for things to go at this point:

1- We can figure out how to get along
2- One side can utterly triumph
3- We can separate

Let’s take them in order:

It is entirely possible that, similar to the period just before the Civil war, and more promisingly the late 60s and early 70s, that what we’re in right now is a phase. Specifically it’s a phase that will eventually pass. Trump will lose in 2020. Roe v. Wade will not be overturned, or it will be and people will realize that most states have the abortion policy their citizens want. Dialogue will become more respectful. The internet will calm down. Economic growth will continue, and people will stop being enraged by politics because everything else is so great. Some kind of compromise will be reached on immigration which everyone can agree on. Both sides will pull back from their extreme positions, and peace and harmony will triumph over all the face of the land…

I don’t see anything on that list that doesn’t seem incredibly unlikely (except, perhaps Trump losing in 2020, but I wouldn’t even count on that). And if they’re individually unlikely when you add them all together, you start to enter the realm of the impossible. Meaning I’m not very hopeful that we’re going to figure out how to get along anytime soon.

Next is the possibility that one side will utterly triumph. I’ve already mentioned the rancor which was present before the Civil War, rancor far worse than what exists currently. And it did go away, but not because they figured out how to get along, but because one side utterly triumphed. Both sides took up arms, hundreds of thousands of people died, and one of the sides said, “Uncle!”

I don’t know that hundreds of thousands of people are going to have to die again in order for one side to utterly triumph in the current cultural war, but neither is it inconceivable. And even if one side or the other wins in a comparatively bloodless fashion, that doesn’t mean there won’t be significant pain. Finally, even if you’re on the side that wins, I’m positive it’s not going to be as awesome as you imagine, and if you’re not on the side that wins? Then it’s really not awesome.

Many people assume that if the right utterly triumphs it will look like the Handmaid’s Tale. (I am on record as doubting both that the right will ever utterly triumph or that if it does that it will be that bad.) But these same people assume that if the Left utterly triumphs it will be awesome. I doubt it. I think the rest of my blog entries identify why, but if you want one clear example of the potential awfulness, then I would direct you to look at any of the many stories of the left eating it’s own.

Finally there’s the possibility of separation, a subject I’ve already alluded to and what I’ll be spending the rest of the post discussing. There’s obviously many ways this could play out, but to start with we have the example I already used, the idea that we don’t try to decide all values and laws at the highest level possible. That it’s okay for abortion to be decided at the state level. That if Anthony Kennedy’s replacement is instrumental in overturning Roe v Wade that it’s not the end of the world. That it may in fact serve to calm things down a little bit. That people who are opposed to abortion will congregate in states where it’s illegal, and contrariwise people who are in favor of the right to an abortion will congregate in states where it’s legal. And people who don’t care will stay where they are. And people who want to change the law will petition their local representatives, rather than engage in a metaphorical fight to the death every time the balance of power on the Supreme Court looks like it’s going to change.

It’s entirely possible that I’m being hopeless naive about all of this, but option three seems far easier to pull off than option number one, and far less violent than option number two. Is there some reason why it’s relegated to obscure blogs, and crazy initiatives? I understand that breaking up California is unlikely to happen, but we already have 50 states in place. How hard would it be to devolve a little bit of power back to them? Particularly if our other options are unlikely (everyone suddenly getting along) or violent (one side utterly triumphing).

At this point it’s useful to recall that when the framers wrote the Constitution that separation was something they went out of their way to encourage. You can find it written into three of the initial ten amendments (four if you’re really hardcore about the second amendment).  Now, of course this doesn’t prove my point about the value of separation, but, at least, you can’t say I’m the only one who’s had the idea. In fact the most recent post from John Michael Greer on Ecosophia, who I’ve mentioned in this space before, makes a similar argument. And I already mentioned Alexander’s idea of a political Archipelago, which, as promised, I’m returning to.

For the full nitty gritty of his idea I suggest you read the post, but in short Alexander puts forth a plan of radical freedom of association. If the objectivists want an “island” of their own where they can practice pure Randian selfishness they can have one. If the communists want an island where the workers own the means of production they can have that to. And even the white separatists can have island free of minorities if that’s what they want. He includes some rules to prevent abuse in his system like one that requires children raised in the Archipelago to be informed that there are other “islands”, but beyond that if you want to live in a community with a certain culture, and with laws to enforce that culture, then you can.

Alexander’s proposal is the most radical example of the separation I’ve been talking about, and consequently, unlikely to be implemented, but even less radical proposals, like Greer’s or the one actually baked into founding document of the country have largely been cast aside. The trend towards less separation marches ever onward, in spite of things like Brexit (which in any case is more notable for what it hasn’t accomplished than what it has.) So where does that leave us?

I don’t know, but here at the end I’d like to offer a few observations, some more radical than others.

First, I do think that more separation is the only option that keeps things from ending badly. As I said in the title, divorce is better than murder, particularly since I’m reasonably certain the marriage is over. But I agree it’s going to be tough.

Second, there is value to high level coordination. There are things that can only be done at the level of a large nation or at the level of the entire world. But there are not many of these things. And much like Alexander I think they need to be narrowly defined, few in number, and mostly reserved for eliminating massive, clear injustices, or existential threats. Taleb talks about barbell investing, where 80-90% of your money is in super safe investments, and 10-20% is in high risk stuff. This is a similar idea and you might call this Barbell governing, where 80-90% of everything happens at the state and local level, and 10-20% of stuff happens between international bodies… With nothing in the middle.

Finally, and this is my really radical observation, and I toss it in here because it’s been on my mind for awhile, and it hasn’t really fit in to any of the other posts I’ve done.

As I’ve said there’s a trend towards less separation, but one place has bucked the trend, one place has remained separate, with it’s own culture and it’s own eccentric way of doing things despite enormous pressure. Of course, I’m talking about North Korea. How has it done this? The answer would appear to be, “It has nuclear weapons.” Will this end up being a model for other countries? Is this a way in which the trend is reversed? In the future are we going to have many little nations that can do what they want because they each possess a handful of nuclear weapons?

I think it’s conceivable, and we might call this separation the hard way. Which leads to the possibility that we may be choosing between a voluntary archipelago with a few, very important high level values or a horrible archipelago carved out with weapons of mass destruction, and with only one value, that of the mushroom cloud.

I’ll be taking next week off to go to the Utah Shakespeare Festival with my wife. and in honor of that:

To donate, or not to donate, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to contribute to
The posts and diatriabes of an outrageous talent,
Or to take arms against a sea of horrible writing
And by not donating, end it.


  1. "Given the philosophical morass of morality that is abortion, if it is necessary to prioritize things, if it is really better to have five or seven or ten core values, is access to abortion really so important that it needs to be one of those core values?"

    It would seem one of the five super core values of the right is protecting eccentric cake bakers who want to randomly invalidate discrimination laws based on whatever they say their religion happens to mean on Tuesdays.

    I think in your options it's going to be #2, one side will triumph. Why? Well there's a story in the late 70's it seemed like the USSR was rising and the west was failing. Daniel Patrick Moynihan started tellins us in 1975 it was going to break up. Why? Dissidents, people running the USSR we got our hands on started telling the same story. No one believed in communism, they were all out for themselves and their positions but actual belief in it had passed out a generation ago. A generation later the USSR was gone.

    If there's one characteristic of the right today it's a lack of belief in anything. You have a party of mediocre politicians who get their jobs by appealing to the fears of old white people nearing the nursing home with Fox News blaring 24-7. I imagine a loyal young Party man in the 1970's telling the old Comrade how excited he was for the coming worldwide please approve me for that position in the NYC embassy with the higher stipend that comes with that gig... While it seems at the moment Trump and the GOP is unstoppable, there's a sickly smell of desperation in all of it. The bigger the wins today for them, the harder the fall will be.

    1. Saying that protecting cake bakers is one of the core values of the right, just illustrates my point that everything has to be decided at the highest level. It's also an oversimplification of what the right is really going for, which is exactly the freedom of association I'm talking about, which is worth being one of the top values.

      I agree with you that it's most likely to be #2, I just thing that after #2 has happened we'll look back and think, man, if we knew then what we know now, we should have really gone with option #3.

      I'm not seeing your correlation between communists and republicans, as people just going through the motions at all. I think if anything that's more accurate of the politically correct left. For example this story from SSC:

      Here is a story I heard from a friend, which I will alter slightly to protect the innocent. A prestigious psychology professor signed an open letter in which psychologists condemned belief in innate sex differences. My friend knew that this professor believed such differences existed, and asked him why he signed the letter. He said that he expected everyone else in his department would sign it, so it would look really bad if he didn’t. My friend asked why he expected everyone else in his department to sign it, and he said “Probably for the same reason I did”.

      Now maybe this is happening on both sides I don't know, and maybe the whole cold civil war is about to collapse under it's own weight, and we'll both be wrong and we'll end up with #1, but I think people have too much of their identity invested in it now, even if they secretly have their doubts (once again speaking of both sides).

      And the fall of the USSR was still 15 years away in 1975, and it as bad as it was it could have been a lot worse.

    2. There's danger in thinking history repeats. Regardless, I see a different story. In it, the older generation on the left and right is still thinking in terms of the parties of yesteryear. The left sees what's happening in college campuses and thinks it's a passing fad that won't have any long-term impacts on the party. Meanwhile young leftists believe they're finally ready to implement ├╝ber-utopian ideas that are consistently unpopular, and likely infeasible. The older generation envisions the glorious return of the successful Johnson/Clinton years when Democratic initiatives were tangible and long-lived. But because they're fighting the youth, they see a party leadership that's not moving in a big tent direction and wonder where the party is going.

      Old-school Republicans can watch Fox and believe nothing has changed while their party struggles with a younger generation that's entirely willing to debate - and jettison - almost any combination of conservative founding values. So they're bringing people in, but under an uncertain, confused mix. Thus, you can have "conservatives" debating almost every conservative value. Perhaps this will eventually become a "big tent" that will survive long term. More likely it'll devolve into faction.

      If the left were smart it would go after those factions, but nobody's smart in political movements these days, and nobody seems to have a coherent vision for the future. If the Right were smart they would have captured the hard-working, religious, natural constituency that is Hispanic Americans; but they've done the opposite and sacrificed political majorities for many of their strongest values to fall on their swords for immigration. Why? Because nothing is really driven by long-term strategy or natural trends. Those are ex post stories we tell ourselves. I'd be cautious about predicting the future under such circumstances.

    3. Let me clarify the analogy a bit more. The USSR didn't fall because communism just doesn't work. It fell because the people running the USSR ceased being communists and became opportunists. Clearly in 1950 there was no question the USSR was communist. There's no doubt Cuba and North Korea today are communist (. A failing economic system is a handicap for a nation but nations could go for centuries with a failing system. ).

      What I mean is like it not the right doesn't have a coherent system. If you had an Archipelago what would you do with it? Ban cake makers who don't want to serve the President's Mouthpiece but allow ones that don't want to serve gays? Or as Matt Yglesias asked, "Who is going to cook the food at Republican-only restaurants?" (

      "He said that he expected everyone else in his department would sign it, so it would look really bad if he didn’t. " This would be interesting if the right was a nirvana of free thinkers and that independent mindset might have been a key feature of the right generations ago but it isn't today. Witness the fawning over Trump and other key leaders and positions that many must go through today.

      Whatever you can say about the dynamics of the department it is pretty clear that the peer pressure is coming from the fact that many people there honestly think this is how things really are. What is clear to anyone watching the leadership of this country is we've entered a type of 1984 world where contradictions are uttered almost every day and followers demonstrate their loyalty to leadership first and more or less only.

      So we come back to what exactly would you do with an Archipelago that you haven't done already?

  2. Or let me be even more blunt about it. What exactly are your 'core values' here that you want your Archipelago to have? My contention is you have it, you have Utah, Texas, and a dozen other states. You want abortion to be illegal? Well in Texas there's like one provider so you'd have to drive several hundred miles, on average, to get an abortion. In contrast prostitution is illegal in Texas yet I doubt there's any part of Texas...except maybe the most rural of areas...where you'd have to drive very far to find a prostitute (assuming you couldn't arrange service to come to your home). So clearly in all practicality you have your Archipelago in Texas unless you want North Korea levels of absolute perfection in your desired policies (in which case why don't you care about all the prostitution?).

    If not abortion then what? Gay cake bakers? That seems a pretty trivial cause to fight your civil war over, is that the hill you really think is worthy dying for?

    Of course your Archipelago has a bit of asymmetry to it. If you and your wife are expecting a baby, you're free to go to Texas an enjoy the visit. But you're also free to go to NYC. Despite abortion being so much more part of that Archipelago, supposedly, you can stay as long as you like and no one will force your wife to have an abortion. Nor will you be forced to bake gay wedding cakes or divorce your wife and marry a man. Yet your Archipelago seems to be set up with the opposite idea. While you're free to live by your views in other Archipelagos, those coming through yours will not be allowed to carry their freedom with them.

    Hence the reason I keep bringing up the cake baker thing, because the case is a contrived, strained, and contorted effort by the kettle to call the stainless steel (but used and imperfectly cleaned) pot black.

  3. Thinking more about the Archipelago concept, I noticed we actually have them here in the US. I can name two, there are 'Reservations' for Native Americans and the Amish community. For both you have a unique culture living apart from the larger culture. There are legal accommodations for both (the Amish are allowed to pull their kids out of school past the 8th grade....which I don't feel comfortable with) but neither are sovereign nations. Neither Native American Tribes nor the Amish can ban members from leaving the group and participating in the larger culture, for example. Their ability to punish groups members is restrained severely by the legal system (you can practice shunning but not burning people at the stake....or even putting people in jail for minor offenses against the tribe/faith).

    But when conservatives even think about Archipelago, I don't think they imagine Reservations nor do I think they are very eager to embrace that as a destination for their ideology. On a whole Reservations haven't turned out well for Native Americans but they will endure because tribes value preserving their culture against all odds.

    So my beef with this concept as it applies to the left-right divide is frankly the right's deeper desire is for an S&M type relationship. Pushing around liberals is something conservatives like and want to do. You can have a separate S&M culture/tribe but a 'just S' tribe doesn't really work. This isn't what anyone really wants and even if they do it is by definition unsustainable.