The Porcupine Fantasy

I was just reading a piece on The Reformed Broker titled “The Biden Fantasy” and took it into my head to record my own.

My fantasy more or less boils down to this: the Cold Civil War ends in a draw.

But eight words wouldn’t be much of a blog post, so if you’ll indulge me, I’ll detail it.  Biden wins, but not by so much that the Democrats can wallow in their own fantasy and self-indulgence.  (I admit that this is quite an ask.  They’re Democrats, after all.)

More importantly, the Republicans keep the Senate, so that Biden’s ability to work with his former colleagues forms a power base that allows Biden to ignore, or, better, slap down the Woke, whose ambitions are the true drivers of American misery right now.  If that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter that much to me what happens in the House.  If the Democrats take the Senate, though, my fantasy is that the Republicans take the House.  I admit that that’s not realistic, but viz. the last word in the title of this piece.  (Divided government gets a bad rap.)  In the light of this, Leftist plots to strike structurally by expanding the Supreme Court and waving in two more Democratic-dominated states fade away.  Biden, with bipartisan support, continues holding the hard line against Chinese foreign and economic policy aggressiveness that is Trump’s least controversial policy, while American supply chains diversify to other countries.  Two or three vaccines for COVID get approved, one is generally agreed to be best, and everyone cooperates to make it widespread.

College administrators and professors realize their role in the promotion of this atmosphere and that Progress has a hard limit in a wall of Liberty– in this case the freedom of Trump’s voters to think what they want and to vote– that can’t be taken away without terrible, un-American methods.  At some national convention that I just invented for reverie purposes they renew their ideals about justice, etc., but call for new methods based mainly on outreach and persuasion.  Hollywood tells the story of Trump supporters sympathetically.  Wall Street starts getting serious about offering real financial education, allowing the government to require a year of service as a financial educator in order to become licensed as a stockbroker, or something.  Executive officers in blue areas discover a spine and start arresting and prosecuting the likes of Antifa.  Both sides agree to slap down police unions and limit their power to shield terrible cops from firing and other results of prosecution.

There’s a fine line between the cross-section of an individual’s mind and values, expressed by an appropriately fleshed-out fantasy, and an inane and interminable narcissistic disquisition, full of grandiloquence and fifty-cent words but unballasted by realistic plans for getting any of this done (which, sadly, I lack).  I’ll end this here, then, and hope that you’ll agree I’ve mostly avoided the latter.

The Politics of Entropy

Megan McArdle writes, “I’ve watched so many disaffected conservatives and libertarians explain why they think the Republican Party can only be redeemed by its utter destruction in Tuesday’s elections.”

She adds, “the Republicans…deserve to lose after enabling this fame-addled mountebank”

This has me thinking about the factor these equations have in common: entropy.  I can only assume that by “Republicans” who “enabled” Trump she means the base that she admits the leaders had to submit to. What choice does she imagine the base had? They couldn’t get the GOP leadership to stop dry-humping the donor base and actually fight for them, so their choices were between playing blackjack in the elites’ casino, with the slow advantage to the house, dying by inches, or playing Three-card Monty with Trump. What other games were there? This is why that famous Mencken remark is inapposite. They were getting it good and hard either way. So, they deserve to lose for having declined to surrender to despair? You could reasonably say that Republican leaders deserve to lose for having failed to listen to them and provide other games, but not that the base deserved to lose for making what seemed to them to be an obvious choice.
 
I wish to hell that people would stop thinking of each political party almost as a person. Parties are coalitions of various groups, who are made of coalitions of various individuals, who are made of collections of interests and ideas in their own minds. Do the disaffected that she mentions truly imagine that you can simply excise individual segments and the party bowel will somehow magically resect itself?  And if Trump’s base stays home next time in bitterness while the Democrats have gone way further leftward…where does that end?
 
One reason for that is that, as Michael Brendan Dougherty said in National Review, the country’s social capital is depleting. Any move that foments disunity, even things like getting rid of Trump, has to be paid for somewhere along the line by something that binds us back together. Where is that happening? Individual moments like when Dan Crenshaw said on SNL that Americans can forgive one another stand out strongly mainly for their extreme rarity. Idiot elites have taken the approach to social capital that the Left takes to economic capital—that there’s an infinite supply of it—and so even people as thoughtful as Megan call people racists without seeming to think about what the collective effect is of huge percentages of the country becoming addicted to doing so to other huge percentages of it. It’s just like NINJA loans, with everybody taking the short-term, short-sighted pleasure, except that what we have here is a cheap-moralism bubble which instead of taking down the economy threatens to take down American unity itself. (Say what you wish about the fame-addled mountebank and his base, but he did give people unity and hope, at a time when the politics of entropy had created a strong buyer’s market for it.) Perfect time to attack nationalism, wouldn’t you say?
 
So, I’ll just come right out and say this. We need most of the various newer forms of idealism of our lifetimes to be at least somewhat discredited, because there’s nothing limiting the cheap rush of moral superiority, and “the dose makes the poison”. Either something needs to limit the disunifying temptation to call people racists (my strong preference), or something needs to emerge that pays for the disunity of labeling by reunifying us, which everyone calls for but nobody has Clue One short of Pearl Harbor 2.0 about how to accomplish, or the various -isms themselves as central concepts in American life need to die, because if none of those things happens, sooner or later, the country will.

The phoenix of idealism

I was recently asked on social media whether the redefinition of a term was a bad thing.  The questioner asked, in essence, why not?  Because there’s all this “soft racism” out there that we need to address.

Yes, the redefinition of a term is generally a bad thing.  Whenever there’s a term with social, moral and political juice, it becomes a horse that everyone tries to hitch their pet cause to, or stretch to cover what they want or don’t want.  People were persuaded to accept the term racism back in the 1960s, or whenever, under one definition, probably best described as being what prevented King’s children from being judged by the content of their character.  Those were the conditions under which people consented to make opposing racism a societal value.  And now it’s being used to persecute people for the most minor claimed examples of it, and as a cover-up for personal failure and bad behavior, by people for whom being judged on the content of their character is the last thing they want.

Things fall apart.   Idealism gets corrupted and co-opted by the greedy, whether for money or for power. History teaches that this happens over and over and over again.  Unions used to be about a fair shake and became bloated and greedy and corrupt. The Catholic Church began selling forgiveness in advance for committing sins.  Supporting the troops became the military-industrial complex.  The real democratic consent of the Constitution became SCOTUS reading whatever’s popular into the interstate commerce clause and the 14th Amendment.  Now it’s happening with racism, sexism and so on, and it’s tearing the country apart.

I said all this in reply.  I ended with this thought: if we need to fight “soft racism”, then come up with a new term and popularize it. In the end, all real social and political accomplishment boils down to persuading people in their private hearts. Anything short of that is burning the ship’s timber for fuel.

Identities

I’ve been reading the massive, but excellent, World War II novels by Herman Wouk, who recently died at the age of 104.  The Winds of War deals with the situation leading up to the war and the beginning of it.  War and Remembrance takes the story until the end of the war.  Wouk, who was Jewish and a veteran of the war, wrote quite a lot, amidst the battles and conferences and life on the Home Front, about facts and ideas relevant to anti-Semitism and why Hitler rose.

I mention all this because in my mind it dovetails a good deal with commentary on the terrible situation in America today.

Certainly the half-baked comparisons of Donald Trump to Hitler are part of it.  “Half-baked” is the right phrase.  He doesn’t hate anyone, from anything I can tell, except perhaps people who are critical of him, but even them he doesn’t do anything bad to except maybe fire them, if he can.  He hasn’t persecuted anyone or put them in camps.  He hasn’t sicced the IRS or FBI on his enemies.  He hasn’t even denigrated entire groups whose differences are based on something they can’t help.  You can call him a lot of bad things with complete accuracy, but not “Hitler”.

The reason the comparisons are not completely irrelevant are entirely to do with his supporters and the way he rose, and that’s what I want to talk about today.  In essence, the situations are alike, as overreach in a conflict of identities.

Out of many World War II conflicts of identities, two are most relevant.  Non-Jews versus Jews, and the winners in the First World War versus the losers.  Religion and nationality, basically, were the identities.  One could say that it was the uncultured versus the cultured, but that would be revisionist history.  Universities and newspapers went over to the Nazis aplenty.

Anti-Semitism was a centuries-old story, but this particular clash of nationalities was a somewhat new kind.  In response to a war begun and prosecuted in considerable part by German militarism, and whose destructive effect was magnified by technology to a degree with which no one had any experience, England and France in their horror and shock were easily able to rationalize to themselves being self-dealing and particularly contemptuous of and hard on their enemies.  The 1920s roared for them, while Germans were carrying baskets of millions of marks to the market just to buy bread.  But to England and France any analysis of the rightness of their demand that Germany pay the cost of the war in gold, began and ended with “but the War!”  Out of which Hitler rose.

The parallels to 2016 are clear, I think.  Successful, powerful identity-based groups being self-dealing, and contemptuous of and hard on their defeated enemies, both culturally and economically, and having an all-purpose rationalization (something along the lines of “but social justice!”) to deflect any criticism.  Relying, in fact, just as did England and France, on norms that made any escape by their enemies of the box they put them in seem impossible.  We’re just lucky that enough norms remain that we wound up with someone as relatively harmless as Trump.  The warning, however, should be heeded.

A huge percentage of problems crop up as a result of a mismatch between politics and pressures.  Peace and justice frequently depend on there being a norm among leaders to say, in essence, “Yes, we have the power, politically speaking, the self-justification, to go farther against our opponents, but we won’t.  There is a point of taking at which the long-term consequences begin to be poisonous.”  It’s a discounted-future-rewards problem, but also a Prisoner’s Dilemma.  You can’t get only one side to have that norm, because being on the losing side over and over swiftly gets old.  Identities, particularly identities like religions or Wokeism that are based in considerable part on moralizing and righteousness and not being “that other side that’s immoral and unrighteous”, tie our hands and make that kind of norm less likely.

Good fake news?

  There’s been a lot of repetition, aimed at the virtuous goal of promoting social distancing in today’s COVID-19 pandemic, of the facts that Philadelphia did not cancel a parade in late September of 1918 and had, ostensibly as a result, a very high mortality rate from Spanish flu, and that St. Louis did cancel one, and had a much lower rate.  There is probably some causation here—it did some good, I’m sure—but less than a casual glance would suggest.

First, Philadelphia was a city in a coastal state.  Looking at the various charts available, both contemporary (such as the one below) and modern, a reader can immediately see that cities in coastal states were much harder-hit than Midwestern cities.  Ports of arrival and nearby places received the illness first.  In an era before most airplane or automobile travel, it took more time to travel inland.  St. Louis’s mortality rate was low, it’s true, but that was true about most other midwestern cities as well.  According to a chart on p. 109 of American Pandemic:  The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, by Nancy Bristow, over about six months (September 8th, 1918 to March 1, 1919) Toledo, Ohio had an influenza mortality rate of 0.22%, St. Paul, Minnesota had one of 0.35%, and Louisville, Kentucky one of just over 0.06%.  St. Louis’s rate of 0.28% maps very well with distance from seaports.

It doesn’t seem to map well with official reaction, which was more stringent in most places than parade cancellation.  “In San Francisco, for instance, theatres and cinemas were hurriedly closed and the municipal authorities issued an ordinance mandating the wearing of gauze masks in public.”  That was much more stringent than a one-time cancellation of a parade, yet over those six months San Francisco’s mortality rate from influenza was higher (0.66%)1 than Philadelphia’s (0.50%) and much higher than that of St. Louis (0.28%).  “Boston had churchless Sundays”—0.60%.  In Washington, D.C. “it became an offense for the sick to leave their homes”—0.57%.  (Quotes from Living with Enza: The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 by M. Honigsbaum, p. 122.)

Now, I can see ways to poke holes in my own argument, the way I was taught in school and the way most repeaters of the parade-no-parade factoid don’t.  (On average, the shorter facts are, the faker they are.)  Older coastal cities were probably more likely to have a higher population density than midwestern cities and than more recently developed ones like Los Angeles, growing up around trolleys and cars instead of horse and foot.  And, too, exactly what other anti-flu measures did each of these cities enact, and when, and how long did their restrictions last?  What was the average age of their population?  Perhaps most important, as you can see, over the ten weeks when the flu was at its worst Philadelphia was by a small margin the worst city2, even when compared only to other major coastal cities, and the short term matters a lot today, because our primary goal is the slowing of the infection rate until science can catch up, and the prevention of the overwhelming of the health care system.  All of these are perfectly valid objections (albeit on the side of we-don’t-know-yet, which suggests to me that we shouldn’t say yet.) and the various social-distancing measures that the target of my critique supports are by and large good.

Still.  My point is this: it bears pointing out that despite the good intentions of the repeaters of the meme and despite the fact that social distancing does work, this is a prime example of how history can be distorted for social purposes.  History doesn’t work that way.  Fake news does, and so in the debate about it we ought to raise the question: what do we do about fake news when it’s proffered with good intentions and has good results?

The policy flab of a one-party jurisdiction

In the face of California’s posturing environmentalism, NIMBYism and civic rot, insurers have dropped fire insurance coverage for over 350,000 customers in the state.
There was a moment in the saving of GEICO back in the 1970s– under an aggressively expansionist management, it had taken on foolish risks and become badly under-reserved– when the new CEO met with the chief insurance regulator of New Jersey and explained that they had to have a rate increase. The regulator was a crusty, arrogant old man. He refused to allow it. The CEO took GEICO’s license to offer insurance in New Jersey out of his pocket and threw on the astonished regulator’s desk, and walked out. He immediately sent telegrams to every GEICO customer in NJ, canceling their insurance, before the regulator could go to court to stop him.  They got their increase.
 
High-handed behavior is one of those rare things that is both easy to criticize and easy to admire. Often, though, beyond analysis, it is as necessary as a fastball is to a change-up. It shows you weren’t bluffing. In this case, it shows they won’t engage in business under conditions that have become unprofitable, and won’t allow politicians the cover of a delay that allows them to obscure the connection between bad, if popular, policy and a lack of business.

Subclinical economics

Aaaand the Washington Post is trying to boost its credibility with the Left, after being guilty of such horrible openmindedness and thoughtfulness as to hire people like Megan McArdle, by calling for an increase in the minimum wage.

Since 2009, the last time the national minimum wage was raised, there have been various and sundry studies about it, including a “very credible” 2017 study in Seattle saying that Seattle’s 2014 high increase in the M. W. hurt workers, which was so significant in its contribution to that field of study that the acolytes of Paul Krugman have been trying to talk down and blunt it ever since.

Now, there are lots of strong arguments against minimum wages.  They’re price-fixing for labor, people say.  They’re discriminatory against the kinds of businesses that employ minimum-wage workers.  They spur automation, which kills that sort of job entirely.  They hurt the poor that don’t have those jobs because they can no longer afford the new, higher prices of the product.

All of those arguments have a lot going for them.  But today I’m criticizing a different aspect of minimum wages: the science being used to try to justify them.   (Minimum wages need justification because labor is claimed to be an exception to the economic tenet that with most goods, price and demand vary inversely.  Price the good higher and the market demands less.)

Put briefly and bluntly, the data suck.  It’s the usual problems of social and economic scientific studies, which are that the data are usually limited in quantity and accuracy, and it’s sometimes a problem that they were often collected for other purposes, from what may have been an unrepresentative group of people, using assumptions and definitions other than those of the study.  This being the case, there is also usually no way for there to be a reliable control group.  This is a really major flaw, because significant political pressure is on this study from both sides.  Not only does it mean that there are a myriad of opportunities for biased scientists to p-hack (that is, to set the study’s parameters according to which ones appear to validate the conclusion that the scientist wants) but it provides opportunities for people that want to justify mild increases in the minimum wage, which used to be the only politically possible move anyway.  Look, they used to say, mild increases in the minimum wage don’t hurt the economy!  (Although nowadays, they substitute ad hominem attacks upon Republicans in lieu of the adjective.)

What wasn’t possible politically to say is that the data we have are too crude to be able to discern the lower levels of economic damage.  But it’s telling that the places where high minimum wages are being offered are places like Seattle, San Francisco and New York that have strong economies for reasons unrelated to industries with minimum wages.  Hey, let’s test a medicine’s effectiveness without regard to the age and overall health of the patient!

Medicine is actually a good area for economic metaphor, because of the parallels of the human body with the human economy in complexity and in our difficulty collecting data deep enough to really tell us what’s going on.  Many times when people have diseases, their experience of the diseases are “subclinical”, meaning that their symptoms are so mild that the person with the disease doesn’t feel them.  The damage of slight increases to minimum wages to strong economies are, similarly, subclinical.  Not Quite Seen, in the Bastiatic sense.  The damage they do to those economies is very real, but the number of dollars flowing into those cities from Silicon Valley, or Wall Street, simply swamp the already-crude information we have about that damage.  Prosperity skews the null hypothesis wildly.

The inefficiency of politics

I’ve been thinking a good deal about how inefficient the events of the past few years have made politics seem.

Brexit was a major example.  To try, finally, to quell the political movement that argued for leaving the European Union, they allowed people to express themselves directly on the question, quite certain that they knew the answer already.  Certainly they were shocked to discover the inefficiency of their information-gathering on how people felt when Leave won by a four-point gap.  But I think the inefficiency-discovering hasn’t ended.  I think there are undiscovered effects of our societal wealth upon politics.  Let me illustrate.

Back in January Megan McArdle wrote that the best solution to Brexit would be “leave, good and hard”, a reference to H. L. Mencken’s famous quote that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard”.  “For the record,” McArdle wrote, “I think the outcome of Brexit is likely to be quite unhappy for Britain and for the ‘Leave’ voters who expect it to improve their lives.”

But Henry Louis Mencken coined that saying over a century ago (in 1916’s A Little Book in C Major), when, to take a few major examples, food was a much higher percentage of a household’s budget and most people had no car (as opposed to today’s ponderings about whether we’ve reached “peak car”) or electronic entertainment.  Society was much less wealthy.  As I’ve also argued, it’s societal wealth– the number of hours needed to work to acquire the basics to live– that pushes people further up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  How much increase in the cost of living, then, is needed to lower them down again to the point where they suffer?  It’s rather surprising that McArdle, who is one of the rare observers of today’s world who can usually be counted on to ask, “How much?” and “When?” rather than merely “What?” did not ask them here.  She did not question the assumption of elite policy-setters that tariffs will cause the cost of living to increase so much that ordinary dwellers in the United Kingdom will a.) notice and b.) decide that on average, it wasn’t worth trading it for regaining control over their own borders and affairs.

They certainly might do both, though elites underestimated the degree to which the latter is a retail issue for people, not a luxury issue.  Where I differ from the columnist is that I see no reason to assume it.  Overall, politicians still don’t know about the majority of things that people care about, much less how much they care about each.  We are wallowing so much in a sea of billions of people, tens of billions of their degrees of opinion, and trillions of dollars, that no one has a very good idea what’s going on.  People vote with their feet, they vote with their pocketbooks, and the tiny minority who answer polling calls vote with their answers to prephrased questions, leaving politicians looking like anthropologists trying to use the archaeological record to figure out mating rituals among the ancient Aztecs.  And in turn, people don’t know or care about the vast majority of the actions that government takes, and you can’t argue to voters that they’ll miss something you’ve done that they hadn’t even realized existed.

How cheap things are explains a lot of this.  There’s a sort of marginal utility to cheapness, a point of diminishing returns past which the increase in the value people put on cheapness is lower and lower in terms of political significance.  This works in both directions of wealth.  The tariffs involved in Brexit and the trade hardball that Donald Trump has been playing with Mexico and China will cause the price of goods to rise, but it is going to take a while before people feel it enough to alter their political behavior.  Trash cans and thrift stores are alike swamped with secondhand but still perfectly useable goods.  These goods are like a folk heuristic for the cost of living; they’re a measure of slack in the economic line.  How many fewer cargo containers of cheap goods will the U.K. be able to afford before its citizens notice?  Maybe not that many, but how many before they value cheap things more than sovereignty and democracy?  Hopefully, politicians will be paying close attention to the answer to that question.

I know Darth Vader’s really got you annoyed, but remember if you kill him then you’ll be unemployed.

So, here we go again with another musing about the moving parts of that weird alloy of capitalism and socialism that we live in, modern Western democracy.

The Relationship Between Politics and Idealism

One thing which is rarely even mentioned, let alone discussed, is the relationship between politics and idealism.

The value of social and moral activists to political parties is of course partially the value of their votes.  But part of the value is that they supply idealistic clothing to disguise the naked fights over power and money.  Political parties cling to their justifications too long and too hard.  The Democrats have been fighting racism, sexism, et cetera for a long, long time– long enough for the struggle to shift from a process to a pillar of their identity, their worldview.  This is what happens with ideas that have enough juice.  The Left appears never to have considered what they would do if they actually achieved what they ostensibly wanted, which appears to be the case:  racism and sexism have never been rarer than they are today in America and Europe.  They’re far more common in the rest of the world.  True, the activists of the Democrats have come up with some new stablemates for these tired old nags, in the form of homophobia, transphobia and so on, but given the arguments about the terms, the relative scarcity of the pitiable people in question, and (unlike race and gender) the concealability of the defining characteristic in many cases, it’s doubtful that they’ll ever be the workhorses that race and sex were.

So.  Faced with the unpleasant fact that you won, and might no longer have that sweet political and identity-narrative juice going forward, what do you do?

Give them up?

The Democratic Party won’t permit that.

Any political party or politician (Republicans included) needs idealism not only for the activist energy and votes, but to disguise the uglier aspects of their party.  Poor Democrats require a veil over the fact that much of their proffered pitiability is little more than the intellectualization of greed of foolish people who are in the lower half of the distribution when it comes to talent, brains or capitalist ability, and/or in the upper half when it comes to spending money on lifestyle.  The unaffordability by the government of poor people’s greed must likewise be concealed.  They have to have obfuscation and obscurantism over the fact that the expedience of voting yourself money is an addiction which often never ends (and which, like addiction, requires more and more over time as the system acclimates).  Find new idealism, or fix the old?  Nah.  They’re too addicted to the “quicker, easier, more seductive” path of clinging to the old idealism, poorly fitting though it now is.

So if they can’t give stale idealism up or reform it, just as Christianity could not for so long, what can they do?

Only one thing.

Move the goalposts.  Redefine them.   Do the new definitions fit the real world poorly?  Scream and rage at those pointing it out, since righteousness has its own energy, cheap and corrosive though it is.

Ralph Waldo Emerson saw this sort of rot of idealism.  In his most famous essay he wrote,

“Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression.”

Cultural Marxism

The Guardian has a worthless glop of an article about Siri and Alexa, which they sum up as, “Virtual assistants such as Google Home and Siri only encourage the attitude that women exist merely to aid men in getting on with more important things.”

I mention this because it appears to me to be the perfect illustration of the core idea that lies behind everything wrong with the Left today.   That core idea is essentially Marxist anthropology, the ideas about human beings that Karl Marx relied upon in his deeply failed ideology.  Its application here is a bone-deep belief that human beings are extremely conditionable, and therefore that everything can be chopped up into micro-factors that tend in one direction or the other.

A billion times, no.